M/C BOY part 3: 1984 TOUR’S END

(Continued from the previous post, visible if you scroll down)

Via Estes Park and up into Rocky Mountain National Park as far as Rainbow Curve, for a magnificent view. Then backtracked and headed east to I-25. Riding north into a rainstorm, I pulled off the highway beneath a bridge to shelter. Stepping off the bike, I was almost flattened by an eighteen-wheeler, hurtling by a foot away… But I was not. On to Cheyenne. This place seemed like a ghost town as I rode in, late in the day, a wind storm blowing up. Checked out a room at the Plains Hotel, high up on the fifth floor, with a great view. But I thought the price too much – $35.00 – and moved on. I paused to take a photo of the Union Station. Back in 1978 the San Francisco Zephyr stopped here, and I’d got off and walked around. Amtrak didn’t stop here now. There was no antique locomotive outside the abandoned station. It seemed sunny and sad.

Missile Drive, Cheyenne, WY

Then the clouds rolled in. I took a $22.00 room at the Frontier Motel and watched the Democratic Convention on TV. Went out and roamed about. Ate an awful salad at the flourescent Bonanza Cafe. Dropped into a bar called the Eagle’s Nest, where a sign said, “Leave Your Colors & Your Attitudes Outside.” There seemed to be two factions drinking within – the denim jackets and the black t-shirts. All wore beards, tattoos, and red-rimmed eyes. Had a beer and took in the drunken engine babble, slurring, farting. As I exited, two cop cars pulled up outside. (A mere 165 miles today.)

Tuesday July 17th Breakfast at the Luxury Diner, across the street. Clouds piling up to the north. “Looks like it’s gonna rain again,” said someone. But, for the first day in a week, it didn’t. North of Cheyenne I left the interstate and rode west, then north, via Torrington. Stopped and poured another quart of oil into the Beemer. She burned about a quart every four days: with just over two quarts in the oil tank total, this was not a good sign. But I kept topping her up, and on we went. In Lusk I pumped quarters into a pay phone and called the big boss at Orion, to report on my researches and my meeting with Jon. “When can I have the script?” the big boss wanted to know. I promised within a month.

Past Mule Creek Junction a Disneyesque billboard welcomed visitors to South Dakota, and there was a list of increasingly heavy speeding fines, some including Mandatory Court Appearance. I endured ten miles of unannounced gravel road, and reached the town of Hot Springs, where I entered Wind Cave National Park. Here I discovered that I had no tread at all on my rear tire. Such an attentive motorcyclist! It was a Metzler, I’d bought it new only 7,500 miles ago. Rear tires wore faster as they carried more weight, of course. I knew that. So what was I doing out here, mid-adventure with a previously-unnoticed, utterly-bald tire? Trepidatiously I loped for the nearest town, Rapid City – view of Mount Rushmore en route. Rapid City is some fifty miles from Sturgis, which means that it was, and is, Harley country. There was no BMW dealership. None of the bike shops I visited had a tire for my machine. Finally I reached Pig Performance, on St Patrick Street. Porky, the proprietor, had a Continental tire which would fit my bike, for a good price ($62.00) but there was a problem. They were a Harley shop. No motorcycle other than a Harley had ever entered the premises of Pig Performance. That was not about to change. “What if I take the wheel off and bring it to you?” I suggested. Porky thought about this, nodded, and told me bringing the wheel into the shop would be acceptable. By now it was six, and he said to come back the next day.

In the adjacent car wash, I washed the bike. I did the motel tour and found a basement room for $20.00 – my desire to save a few bucks by staying in the least attractive premises continued unabated. I bought three beers and watched the Democrats again. Jesse Jackson was running for the Presidential nomination, and it was his turn to speak. I can’t describe his speech. It was the first time I’d ever seen a network broadcast something Jesse said in its entirety. He was inspirational. He was right. Later I called Vito, the mechanic, and got his permission to install a wider tire on the BMW. I watched more of the Convention, and saw more black people than I had ever seen on TV. Unusual television.

(321 miles today.)

Porky and staff, Rapid City, SD,1984.

Wednesday July 18th At 0900 I rolled my rear wheel into Pig Performance Parts and they changed the tire. Porky told me he was the local coordinator of ABATE, the anti-helmet-laws organization. He and his staff had beards and pony tails and earrings and ink before these things were universal. He confessed he knew nothing about Beemers, and asked me if they had a center stand. I said yes, luckily for me, as this had permitted the easy removal of the rear wheel. I didn’t reveal that unbolting the rear wheel, changing the spark plugs, and topping up the oil were the only maintenance duties I knew how to do. The boys posed for a photograph, and I aimed for Deadwood.

How happy I was! Riding in the warm sun through the Black Hills, rear tire connecting impeccably with the road. But where was I going now? And what had it to do with the script I was supposed to write? I had no idea.

Just outside the town of Custer, I encountered the Flintstones Campground, where large replicas of Fred, Wilma, Barney and co. presided over the RVs and campsites. Then there was Scenic, at the junction of 44 and 589: a town of a thousand dead cars, decaying buildings, two abandoned churches, and the Longhorn Saloon, also dead, decorated with thirty steer skulls and the words “Lakota Iyuskinya Upo – No Indians Allowed.” I bought a ticket for the Jewel Cave tour, but the lift broke down, so I turned back towards the Badlands. South of Rapid City was the Motion Unlimited bike shop and museum, featuring exotica such as a Vickers tricycle, and other antique four-cylinder machines in the style of the K100 and the GoldWing. The inline four was obviously a respectable engine option for motorcycles since the dawn of time… Indians, Aces, and other famous, long-lost marques had all built air-cooled, inline four. In 1984, the form factor was back, but the flying bricks had radiators, adding to their weight and bulk. Whereas the Beemer (insert idyll of the Boxer twin) …

Took the freeway east to Wall, home of Wall Drug, and checked into the Welsh Motel. Dumped my tank bag and headed out to see those Badlands. Pretty marvelous, they were. Cruising around, I turned a corner and discovered, against a backdrop of red and ochre ragged peaks, a Beemer rider named Bill, standing beside his machine, lighting his pipe. I shared a bowl with him and his wife Becky, and enjoyed the view. They told me I should join the BMW Owners Club (in due course I did).

Beemer and Badlands.

It stayed light till late, and I drank in the views for a long time before going back to Wall. Got in just after ten, in time for the Democratic Convention and the vote to nominate a candidate. Mondale, the hopeless toad, who had offered my printer a hundred bucks to run for governor, won the nomination (and went on to lose the election to Reagan, by a landslide). Jackson spoke briefly, but the energy was nothing like last night. Then Action News 7 began reporting a new, horrible massacre: twenty people murdered by a gunman at a McDonalds in San Ysidro, California. “Uphill” I wrote in my notebook. 295 miles.

Thursday, July 19th After breakfast at the Cactus Cafe and another quart of oil, I headed back out for those Badlands. Cruised around the North Unit, found it crowded with tourists. Took a dirt road to the South Unit, and up a winding track to Sheep Mountain Mesa. I was full of ideas of how the Beemer was a great bike in these semi-off-road conditions, how its long suspension made it particularly blah blah blah… Then, dismounting to take a picture, the side-stand slipped and I dropped the bike.

Dropping the bike is something you should never do. Only neophytes and bozos drop their bikes. In fact, everyone who rides a bike has dropped it – just as everyone who rides for long enough can point to various broken bones. Luckily, in this case, the saddlebags and cylinder guards (metal rails to protect those protruding pistons) had prevented a total, 90-degree collapse. The 90/6 was leaning on its bags and guards at a 40-degree angle, and was not hard to right. (Whereas a 100 RT, with a full fairing and bags, was impossible for a lone, skinny individual to pick up if it fell down. When we discovered my 100RT lying on its side in London, I had to ask the executive producer of another film, Margaret Matheson, to help me get it upright. Most embarrassing.)

Out of the Badlands, I rode south to Wounded Knee. In a shallow valley was a metal sign recalling the “Massacre of Wounded Knee,” The word massacre was on a plate which had been bolted over a different word. I wondered what the original word had been. Battle? Picnic? Beyond the sign was a cemetery, where the majority of the 150 Sioux victims – warriors, old men, women and children – had been thrown into mass graves. Some of the dead were named. One was called Scatters Them.

South into Nebraska. Fair weather; pretty rolling hills and trees, farmland. 385 took me to Alliance where, seeking lunch, I entered the “Cafe/Restaurant.” This turned out to be a bar, whose secret name was Lost Roads. Had two beers with the barman, Scott. He told me about his time abroad. “I was in Europe for three years, in Germany. Technician on the P2. Man, that sucker hit its target in 90 seconds. 4000 miles in 90 seconds. Up in orbit and down, like a rainbow. Makes a fireball 320 miles wide.” I was familiar with the Pershing missiles, together with their siblings the Cruise missiles, twin nuclear weapons to be employed by NATO against Russia and Eastern Europe, and his description of their speed and range was far greater than I had read. Indeed, it seemed incredible. Still, he had been there, and Thatcher was enthusiastically installing them in Old Blighty, prepping a massacre which would make Wounded Knee look like the work of amateurs. I asked Scott what he thought about nuclear war. “You can call me a wimp, but in the end I said, no way. They offered me a commission: $5000 just to sign up for eight more years. Eight years, dude. I got to thinking about it and quit. Two days later I was in civvies on the plane back home.”

Via backroads through Sidney and Lorenzo to Sterling, then the freeway to Boulder. I rode 481 miles that day. And my antics were not done. I changed clothes, ate with my generous hostess and her b/f, and hastened to the departure shed beside the Union Station in Denver. Fortunately for me, the Chicago Train was twenty minutes late.

(I spent three days on the train and visited Detroit. That had been the point of all of this, once: a bike ride all the way to where my film was to begin, acquiring screenplay inspiration. Now Detroit seemed like a sideshow, something to be attended to, before I could reunite with my machine.)

Tuesday July 24th Arrived back in Denver. In Boulder I washed clothes, and processed snaps – i.e. took my 35mm film negatives to the pharmacy for developing and a set of prints. For these were analog days. Departed mid-afternoon, up Canyon, into the mountains. Immediately the rain came down. Pulled over to don my raincoat and wrap plastic bags around my legs (fool! Never hear of rain gear?) and an R90S stopped alongside me, whose rider invited me to the local bar. This proved to be Marvin’s, in the charming former mining town of Nederland, where I played pool with Kevin and John, the Beemer boys. “Colorado is the best state!” everyone in the bar agreed. We smoked a joint at John’s – a little house two feet above a roaring torrent: his R100RT – dollar-green, like Michael Nesmith’s – was parked out back.

Then on! Into what seems to me now like a full day’s ride: first, down the winding backroad from Nederland via Blackhawk to the interstate, where the rain began again. Then, west – thousands of feet upward, through the Eisenhower Tunnel – it got very cold past 11,000 feet. Dressed more warmly in the bathroom of the Tastee Freeze in Vail. Then, as was my wont in those days (why was I in such a hurry?), I pressed on into darkness, missing the dramatic canyons east of my destination, Glenwood Springs. 189 miles.

Almost stayed at the ultra-seedy Western Hotel (only $10.00 a night) but something persuaded me to cross the river and check out the Colorado Hotel: a grand edifice like the Copper Queen in Bisbee, where Teddy Roosevelt had stayed during his famous bear hunt of 1905, and which was later patronized by Legs Diamond and Al Capone. “Corporate” room rate, $38.00. A block away, the world’s largest outdoor hotsprings pool and Indian vapor caves awaited. I learned this was the town where Doc Holliday died, in 1887, at the age of 35.

Route 128, Utah.

Wednesday, July 25th Up and into the hot pool. Swam, soaked, breakfasted, wrote many postcards. Then west on I-70, through red sandstone canyons. Entering Utah, I left the freeway and rode through Cisco, an old, decrepit town, on an unmaintained road, Route 128. This turned out to be the best road them of all: two lanes of alternating tarmac, dirt and gravel, following the Colorado River, crossing it via a grand, old suspension bridge. It felt like riding through the Canyon de Chelly, with a monster river coursing down the ravine. Another storm approaching. I ploughed through little flash-flood streams. An RV driver pulled over to warn me, “Y’better not shilly shalley.” North of Moab, I rode into Arches Park. Boots off, hiking shoes on, and off I went for a hearty hike. The rain did not fall. I walked past Landscape Arch as far as Double O Arch. Saw two deer up close. Came back through Fells Canyon. Five and a half miles. It was seven in the evening now. The storm had passed. I had been very wound-up, racing into the Park. The hike was the best thing in the world.

Stayed at the Prospector Hotel, and watched To Have and Have Not on the electronic hearth.

252 miles today – the best day of the ride to date, I noted.

Thursday, July 26th Up and out by eight. Breakfast in Monticello. South to Bluff. Then eastward, on what in 1977 had been a narrow, red dirt road. Now it was a wide gravel one, with big’n’chunky gravel pieces. Not good for two wheels. I turned back and made, inevitably, for Monument Valley. En route, still in Utah, paused to visit the remains of the arch Mr. Leone had built, back in 1968, for Once Upon A Time In The West. The wooden arch itself had collapsed, but the supports, set into the concrete dolly track, were still there. I took out my E-flat harmonica and played Charles Bronson’s mournful theme. The only thing I’d learned to do with my E-flat harmonica was to make doleful wailing sounds, but it did that very well. Then on, into Arizona, and the Valley overlook.

Motorcycle and Mittens, Arizona.

I didn’t take the Beemer down into the Valley proper. It’s a steep slope and I wanted no further embarrassments. Took pictures, and headed south to Kayenta, clipping the edge of another storm.

Northwest up 98 through Page and across Glen Canyon Dam (much hated by Ed Abbey, but the lake looked pretty in the late light), and on up 89 to the Paria dirt road, another of Mr Abbey’s points of reference, in search of the Paria Ghost Town movie set. This didn’t amount to more than four or five tumbledown gray buildings and I couldn’t think of a use for them in the screenplay – though Paria Canyon itself was a multicolored thing of beauty. I jammed back to Page and if I had been sane I would have called it a night there. Instead I loaded up on some dreadful mcfish, overlooking the Dam, and got back on 89 again as it got dark.

Rode down off the mesa through a steep pass. The plain below, laden with thicker air, looked like the ocean, and I had the feeling, hurtling down that two-lane road with darkness on both sides, that I was tearing along a narrow peninsula, surrounded by the sea… a waking dream. Arrived at Flagstaff a bit more than an hour after I left Page. The Beemer sat outside my room at the Carousel Motel, filthy dirty with red, brown and white mud from different portions of the trail. It looked good. I loved my motorcycle. 517 miles today. Unnecessarily many. Why was I in such a rush?

Friday July 27th I wake up to the “700 Club” – anti-Sandinista propaganda for TV Christians: support the contras for freedom! Alt 89 took me through pine forests into scenic Oak Creek Valley. Sedona seemed horrible, realty-land; Jerome was old and reminded me of Bisbee, but more decayed. Ate breakfast there and wrote the last of my postcards. Further south through Salome (which seemed a good location… remember the script!), taking the blacktop route. “Have you ever been to California?” an old feller with a camper and a dog asked me. “What do they inspect? Do they make you unload?” I enquired where he was going. “I don’t know. Ain’t made up my mind…” There was a strong scent of sage on the wind from the desert ahead.

Made such good time that when I got to Parker around three, I stopped and got a haircut, from a barber in a trailer. Ate a rancid salad (the last of my salad bar experiences – almost universally bad, staffed by teenagers throwing ice cubes and food) and shilly-shalleyed for an hour. Entered California at Earp, the tiny town named after Wyatt. My trip was almost over, I thought. I should be back in Venice, CA, around eight. Ha ha. First came the dust storm, filling the sky with reddish-brown dirt, tumbleweeds flying across the road. I slowed down and hunkered on through it. A pause in the weather came.

More, darker clouds loomed up ahead. I pulled over and got into my raincoat and plastic bags. Downpour. The blacktop was flash-flooded. Swelling rivers of water, mud and rocks rolled across the road. Thunder and lightning, almost simultaneous. I paddled forward at 15mph.

Another view of rain clouds, on Rte.128.

Joined the interstate at Desert Center. More rain, harder and heavier than before. Finally I gave up, pulled off the road, turned on my flashers, and took shelter in a culvert under the highway. I watched a scummy trickle of water spread down the channel, followed by a raging torrent. In a minute it was three feet deep. I climbed out of the culvert. Finally the rain lessened, and when I got back aboard the bike, it wouldn’t start. I hitched a ride to Chiriaco Summit and found a gentlemen with a pickup who, for $59.00, transported the cycle back to the garage there. Tried to get a room, but failed: “We can’t let you have a room. They’re too dirty.” In the shelter of the gas pumps, I waited for the machine to dry out. Various well-wishers shared their thoughts about my Beemer: “I used to work on airplanes and lawnmowers. The rule is, never buy anything unless you know how to work on it.” Finally, at 11.45pm, it occurred to me to remove the filthy sparkplugs and clean them.

The Beemer started right up. The rain had stopped. I burned back to LA, landing around 2:45. At that late hour the freeway was still full of cars. On the exit ramp, I saw a white TransAm go into a smoking tail-spin. The LA Olympics began the next day.

(524 miles on the last leg.)

I wrote that script, and called it War Baby. There were scenes in Detroit and Tijuana, of course, but also in Monument Valley, and the Flintstones Campground. Jon Davison was ready to produce. But the big boss didn’t like it, and the film was never made. So what did I get from all of this? I got paid, of course. I can’t remember how much, now. And I found an excuse to take that trip: 4,977 miles through the American West, at the age of 29, on a fine machine. The value of that was inestimable.