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Concrete Cowboys

Nearly every year, in the final few days of June, I take off across the continent on the Harley with two of my dearest old childhood friends, Sweaty and Bullfrog.  We three amigos on American iron have made this an annual 4th-of-july-week tradition, which we generally refer to as the Freedom Run.  At the request of the others, I’ve elected to chronicle these long-distance trips on my website so that we may enjoy them for a liftetime.  I’ll also post the stories here.

Freedom Run I:  “Run For The Border”

After much anticipation, the day had finally come for the “Freedom Run”.  This, what would become an annual Harley trip for Sweaty, Bullfrog and me.  Sweaty and I had both taken the day off and we rode over to grab Bullfrog from his workplace in Minneapolis at about 3:00 pm.

“Sweaty”

“Bullfrog”

“Hollywood”

Things went quickly that evening.  If the rest of the trip would be anything like this, it would be a very relaxing one:  Bullfrog cracking us up with the David Allen Coe blaring on his stereo, Sweaty bouncing to hip-hop and rap and me out in front, peacefully meditating to the zen of my thundering engine and the hushed whispers of the universe hidden in the wind.

Through beautiful end-of-June weather and light traffic, we made our way rather quickly and easily from Minneapolis to Des Moines, then grabbed I-80 over to Omaha by about 1opm, grabbed a nice meal, hit a casino boat and packed it in early, as we knew that the next day would be a long one.  Little did we know just how long that would prove to be.

The next morning, as we pushed through a 200-mile long torrent of rain, westbound along I-80 in Nebraska, I wondered why, exactly, we do this Haulin-Ass-Across-The-Country-Come-Hell-Or-High-Water thing that we do.  This wasn’t just any rainstorm: it rained so damned hard for so damned long that I honestly wished I’d remembered to pack my snorkel in my saddlebags.  I mean, under normal circumstances, I’m extremely confident that my asshole is watertight, but this long run across the state of Nebraska made me question even that.  In addition, one can only pack so much gear on a bike before it begins to resemble a top-heavy gypsy wagon, and I already had so much gear with me that Sweaty and Bullfrog actually inquired as to whether or not they might find a kitchen sink or a garden hose if need be.   Funny fuckers, aren’t they?

Now, back to the weather.

How bad was it?  Not only were there no motorcycles, but 90% of the cars and most of the 18-wheelers had left the highway – the ditches were flooding, the rain was coming so hard that it couldn’t run off the road fast enough and it was impossible to see for more than 50-75  feet in any direction.  That visibility dropped to zero when approaching another vehicle in order to pass.  The boys, having 4-inch high “windshields”, were being pelted by rain to the point where they had to wear goggle, plus bandanas over both their heads and their faces, just to keep the sting to a tolerable level.  Add to this the fact that they could see absolutely nothing in front of them.  I had to turn on my hazards as we rode in order for them to have something to follow, so that’s how we went.  Just follow the blinking lights for hundreds of miles at 70-80mph past 18-wheelers that you can barely see, even when they’re running right next to you.

I can’t begin to describe for you the amount of trust it took for them to follow, or how nerve-wracking it was for any of us, especially for me to lead, but it did have to be done.  This would most definitely not be a relaxing cruise for any of us.

How to Ride “Ironbutt” in 4 Easy Steps:

Break time – every 200 miles:

  1. Fill The bike tank
  2. Empty the bladder
  3. Grab a smoke
  4. Get back on the road

After hundreds of miles of rain which fell so hard that all but the most courageous of drivers had abandoned the highway,  I pounded through the blinding spray past my umpteen-hundredth 18-wheeler with images of bar hopping with clean, shiny bikes on sunny weekend afternoons dancing in my head, and the rain just suddenly stopped.  The sun came out and everything was perfect.  It felt for all the world like we’d just gotten shot out of the ass-end of hell.  A lovely afternoon…. that was, for the next fifty miles or so, until we hit Colorado.

I looked out to the western sky, which wasn’t too damn difficult – I was riding in that direction to begin with and it’s damned near impossible to ride a motorcycle facing backwards (if you don’t believe me, ask Bullfrog.  He tried it once or twice.) – and there was a HUGE black front heading our way.  I mean, blacker than the ace of spades and miles high, like the Armageddon scenes in the movies.  If that first storm required a snorkel, this one appeared that it might make me wish I’d brought a scuba tank.  Honestly, there was a pretty good possibility of hit by lightning or end up somewhere east of Oz.

Personally, I’m crazy enough to do damn near anything – I’ll run into burning building, ski off 80-foot cliffs, run a 30-foot boat through 20-foot swells and actually enjoy the experiences – but we’re not all built that way and since this crew is an absolute democracy, I needed to take a vote.  I motioned Sweaty up alongside me and got a nod, then looked over my shoulder at Bullfrog, who already knew what I was going to ask him.  He pointed his big fat finger at the horizon and, being Bullfrog and all, I could actually hear him over the screaming wind and three roaring Harleys as he hollered  “Git ‘er done!!”

We kept ’em pointed straight toward the ugly, looming mass of blackness  hunkered down into our saddles, throttled back up above 80mph and zoomed headlong into the unknown. Then the wind came.

Boy, did it ever come.  Sustained winds coming from our right at over 45mph (gusts over 70, we later learned) with handful of tornadoes in the mix.  There we were, clipping along at a rather severe angle / just to keep from being blown over (that’s a starboard tack, for you sailors), when something HUGE flew past my head.  I couldn’t quite make it out at highway speed, but I saw the next one…. and the one after that… and the two or three thousand after that.

Tumbleweeds.  Big suckers, too.  We were under attack!!  I must admit, as I sat there trying to calculate the potential ramifications of a head-on impact with Salsola Tragus, keeping in mind the acute angle of the bike, the hellacious crosswind from the north and the two rather intimidating 1,000-pound Harley Electra-Glides barking at my heels like a pail of angry Rottweilers, that I was a bit on edge (then again, it could’ve just been the coal-tar coffee I had at breakfast).  Suddenly, I hit one full-on.  That sumbitch EXPLODED into smithereens or toothpicks, I’m not sure which, but surprisingly, it didn’t hurt me a bit, much to my relief.

“They don’t hurt!”, I hollered back to Sweaty and Bullfrog, who was already laughin’ his ass off at my startled reaction to the collision.  Well, then the game was on.  H~D meets Pac-Man on the old frontier.  We racked up more damn points than Michael Jordan hopped up on Red Bull.  I can’t brag too much, though, as they were a helluva lot easer to hit than to avoid.   They were everywhere.

Things finally cleared up just outside Denver and we shot up the eastern slope of the Rockies and slept like babies once we hit Frisco, CO and got some warm food and cold beer in our bellies.  Of course, some better than others, due to snoring.  Now, you probably know some people who snore.  You may even know a fella or two who can really shake the timbers.  Well, Bullfrog… he’s the fucking Luciano Pavoratti of the snoring world.  That guy doesn’t shake timbers, he cracks foundations.  Sweaty can get an impressive growl going, too on occasion and the duet they put out some nights would rival mating season in a Grizzly den.

The next day we grabbed some coffee and skinned out of there.  After a pit stop in Vail, The Rockies spit us out sometime around one o’clock onto the sun-scorched Utah desert.  It was about then that I realized how very much I was gonna miss that cool Nebraska rain.

Now, I’ve been hot before.  I’ve been Houston hot, Florida hot, Phoenix hot and even Minnesota hot; one of the worst kinds; humidity sucks.  You can sit and make your case for dry heat all you like, but 120-something in the desert atop a hammering 300-degree V-twin engine in the middle of July has GOT to be right up there with sunbathing nude on Mercury.  I coulda sworn I was gonna come out of there looking like that overcooked Thanksgiving turkey my ex’s mom used to make.

Funny thing about the desert… the faster you go… the hotter it gets.  Zero relief.  Of course, there are ways to cope, a long-sleeved white t-shirt occasionally doused with water being the popular method, but surprisingly, all I had in my wardrobe was black Harley t-shirts.  (go figure).  Well, we just slathered on the sunscreen and stayed on the throttle.  About halfway across Utah, we decided drinking water wouldn’t be such a bad idea, either, and preferably before we were pissin’ dust.  So we stopped and loaded up our bikes with water bottles.  That’s when I noticed that Bullfrog’s nose looked about like a sun-dried tomato.  Not sure if it was his mirrored glasses or what, but his nose made W.C. Fields look like a Cosmo cover girl right about then, so we had him tie his bandanna around his face and put his goggles on over it.

Perhaps it was karma kicking me in the ass; perhaps it was the ridiculous pace at which we’d ripped across the entire Rocky Mountain range in one morning; perhaps I was just beat, or perhaps it was just bad luck, but as we got on a very odd cloverleaf on-ramp back onto I-70 in Grand Junction, I went down.  My bike was making a steady arc, but the cloverleaf got tighter and tighter and next thing I knew, I was up against the concrete barriers, the bike pulling me forward, centrifugal force keeping me locked against the concrete and two very surprised friends behind me, watching it happen and helpless to do anything about it.

At the bottom of the ramp, the concrete tapered to the ground and finally release the death-grip it had on my Road King.  I wondered to myself as I slid sideways onto the Interstate 70 whether or not traffic was generally heavy this time of day and exactly how bad the bumper of the 18-wheeler bearing down on me would hurt upon impact if I didn’t stop sliding soon.  Fortunately, I did.  There it lay tilted on its left side as I untangled my leg from beneath it.

Oddly enough, there was a Colorado State Trooper parked on the shoulder just 100 feet behind us, hiding from the noonday sun under the overpass and gunning for speeders.  He came flying up all freaked out, lights blazing, blocked the right lane and asked if I was ok.  Of course, we’re not particularly cozy in regard to police escorts, voluntary or otherwise, so we assured him that I was fine and he confirmed our directions to the Harley-Davidson dealer nearby.

We rode over there to assess the damage.  It was minimal, fortunately.  The highway bar/leg guard was bent back a bit, a scuffed left tailpipe and a bit of a dent the front fender.   As I recall, I sat on the bike and clamped down on the foot brake, Bullfrog grabbed the highway bar, Sweaty held the front brake and the handlebars steady and made sure we didn’t tip the damn thing over and I did my best leg-press on the bar.  We didn’t get it bent 100% back in place, but within an inch or so, and by adjusting the highway pegs a bit, I got back to an even footing position.  Then, we figured as long as we were there, we might as well buy another Harley t-shirt and be on our way, since we were now an hour behind schedule.

So there we were, rolling toward Vegas across the Utah desert.  Me, no shirt and working on my tan… Bullfrog wrapped up tighter that Tutankhamman… and Sweaty?  Well, Sweat was most definitely living up to his moniker.  I’m not sure what freakin’ moron scheduled the road construction in the damned desert in July, but I’d venture to guess he does NOT want his name revealed to the general biker population.  One lane.  bumper-to-bumper traffic as far as the eye could see and worst of all, no headwind.  And, of course, just to infuriate the crowd, not a damned construction worker in sight.

We pulled off for more water about 200 miles later and sure as shit, as I was backing down an incline out of the parking space in front of the gas station, I hit the transition to the flat at a funky angle and Black Betty flopped right over on me.  This time, I knew exactly why it happened.  I was exhausted from the heat and a little beat up and shaken from the wreck earlier.  Without a word, Bullfrog hopped of his bike and picked mine up for me, which was good, as I was in no condition to leg press 1000lbs.  We all knew that it just wasn’t my day and quite honestly, we couldn’t wait for the  day to be over.

Finally, the sun graciously started to sink and traffic opened up.  We could almost smell Vegas before we rolled over that last big hill sometime after dark and saw those beautiful, glistening lights.  A tiny voice in my head told me to stop and catch a photo of that, but it got it’s ass whooped by all the other tiny little voices screaming for a bunch of ice-cold longnecks and some dancing girls.

This much, I can promise you: after a 900+ mile day across the Rockies and desert, the view of Las Vegas sprawling across the valley floor as you exit the mountain pass has gotta be right up there with your first steps into heaven.

(Next: Liver, Las Vegas!)

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