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Ride Report: South Padre Island Bikefest—October 10-14, 2001
Alternate Title: Yyyyyyeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhh!!!!
Alternate Emergency Backup Title: “Texas is a Bloody Big State!”
Title if News Headline: “Massive Oil Spill Covers South-Central Texas—Trail Leads to Local Man”
Well the time had finally arrived. The South Padre Island BikeFest was here. Time for my best friend James and I to saddle up our 20+ year old machines and leave for the 500-mile each way journey from Dallas to South Texas. With side trips, backroads, and sightseeing we fully expected to ride 1100-1200 miles on this trip. We underestimated that by nearly 50% (we always do), but more on that later.
Unfortunately due to an incompetent tugboat driver, the Queen Isabelle Causeway Bridge was knocked down in mid-September. This is the only route onto South Padre Island, and will not be repaired until the end of December, so the Bikefest was moved to Harlingen . . . a few miles inland. We briefly considered canceling the trip, but frankly with the accumulated stress of our jobs and life in general, they could have held the Bikefest on an oilrig in the middle of the gulf, and it would have been preferable to staying home. We’d have found a way to ride there too!
First the necessary disclaimers:
This is a long article . . . those that know me know that one commodity I am never short on is hot air. Here I live up to my reputation (yet again), but the article needed to be long to capture the ride. Holy cow! My word processor tells me it is over 13900 words. Jeez. Sorry. I share it so that folks can know me better, be entertained, and maybe . . . learn something (even if that something is that I am certifiable). Please comment.
First and foremost as far as disclaimers go, is that anything a law enforcement professional might construe as evidence of an illegal act (particularly traffic violations) on our parts is to be considered fiction . . . nay . . . a complete figment of their imagination. I do not even exist . . . so obviously I could not have gone say . . . 135 MPH at any time on this ride. Stealth bike personified. So to paraphrase the fiction writers (who often write more truth than fiction anyway)-- “Any similarities to any person living or dead (especially to those two living persons that took this ride) or to places or roads these events are set in is strictly unintentional”. So there.
You will find a bunch of unsolicited advice and some product endorsements contained herein. Take them with a grain of salt. Your mileage may vary. I am not selling anything however, and have no vested interest in anything I mention (but if you want to send me $19.95 I will send you . . . something . . . maybe out of my garage . . . possibly worth . . . something . . . ).
The “Great Pepsi Conspiracy” also becomes evident in the below paragraphs. Something has to be done . . . really . . . It may already be too late, and that would be a terrible thing, as if it is already too late, then we are all well and truly doomed.
There is also some of the US vs. THEM stuff in here. (that’s the “Rice Burners” vs. the Harley for you uninitiated). Before you fire off an angry letter to me about it, please note that I do believe . . . and have always believed that if you ride, you are a rider, no matter what you are astride. There is no animosity intended or felt about this issue, just the good-natured ribbing between riders. I can recognize the merits of a well-maintained machine . . . and appreciate and admire the work that has gone into one . . . even if it is not a machine that I would select for myself. The world would be pretty boring if we were all alike (we are getting very close guys and gals, be careful). And for the record . . . I do wave, and proudly ride a Rice Burner (that’s a Japanese make bike, for those that are even less initiated).
The bikes: I ride a 21-year old Yamaha XS-1100 “Midnight Special”. These are fairly rare machines, and during their era were the fastest production cruiser made. They earned a reputation for speed, reliability, and sheer “YEE-HA” factor that has yet to be surpassed by a cruiser. Some of the “Crotch Rocket” or sport type bike types can out run her (we also refer to those as “Zip-Splats”), but you would be permanently folded into pretzel shape if you attempted to ride a “zip-splat” more than 50 miles in a stretch.
All my complex constructions have names (and personalities), and this bike is no exception. She is “Well Oiled Machine” and she really did earn that name. See the story “Well Oiled” for an explanation of how she earned that name if you are interested. She confirmed that name in spades on this trip . . . but more about that later (again).
Well Oiled Machine (and rider)
I rescued “Well Oiled Machine” in August 2000 from a completely incompetent former owner. She was in a sad state of neglect (but ran like a demon) and I have spent the last year fixing and improving her. Still more to do . . . there always is . . . but she looks and rides like a champ. She recently got her faded and chipped gold chrome redone in real chrome, and new custom polyurethane gloss black tank paint. The wheels have also been redone in black. She is looking really sharp.
Maybe this statement will explain how well this bike rides, and how much I like her-- Although I may buy a new bike someday (I am really eyeing those Valkeries), that would be an additional bike. I would not trade “Well Oiled Machine” for a new bike . . . even if it were an even swap.
The other rider on this trip was James. James is my best friend, and one of the few people I would trust with my life. James rides a 1981 GL-1100 Gold Wing. This bike was purchased for a ridiculously low sum after having been stored for 15 years. “Bunnie” (don’t ask) has only 10,000 original miles and is in immaculate shape after he took care of a few minor mechanical issues caused by the long-term storage.
James has been my best friend for longer than either of us care to remember (something over 21 years at last count). We have been riding together much of that time and are extremely compatible in our riding styles. On a long trip it is important that team riders prefer the same speeds, distances between breaks, and riding styles. We have been doing it for so long, and are so similar in styles that we are almost psychic as a pair. James usually leads.
We’re Outta Here . . .:
On Tuesday October 9th we were ready. The bikes were loaded, clean, packed, and as mechanically sound as we could make them. Every thing was ready. We departed Dallas about 10:30am into threatening weather and headed for Kerrville. By the direct route, Kerrville splits the difference between Dallas and Brownsville, and James’s grandfather lives there. Looked like a great place to layover, splitting the 500-mile ride roughly in half and placing our arrival for Wednesday just after the rally check–in opens. Of course we were not taking the direct route, we rarely do . . . where is the fun in that? Interstate 35 out of Dallas is the direct route, and is a terrible way to go. Packed with trucks, truck tire carcasses (road gators), horribly inept car-drivers, and construction . . . and decidedly lacking in scenery . . . Interstate 35 is both absolutely boring and marginally unsafe for the touring motorcyclist.
We were on vacation, and the schedule was not critical. A few miles out of the way for the scenic back roads can’t hurt. We both work under constant and very difficult deadlines. Why transfer that to our time off? Time for the vacation attitude to kick in.
Riding is the point . . . yes?
We hooked a right out of Dallas on US 67 and zoomed toward Stephenville. We were headed for a cut-off about 20 miles short of Stephenville that would take us onto US 281, which headed more or less in the direction we wanted to go. Actually, US 281 goes exactly where we wanted to go . . . if you stay on it forever it ends in Brownsville . . . but it jams through San Antonio and then joins with Interstate 37 for a while, so it just did not quite take the route we wanted. Our first fuel stop was to be Hico, which sits on the junction of the cut-off and US 281. This was just at a 100-mile leg of the trip. I was leading out of Dallas, though our usual configuration is for James to lead.
The sky was very threatening, and getting worse, which actually made for a beautiful ride. As we got further away from Dallas the landscape opened up and revealed an interesting vista when combined with the blues and blacks and occasional startlingly golden sunbeams penetrating the mountainous sky. The fantastic lightning displays in the distance promised an interesting day to come, but were nonetheless beautiful. As the traffic eased and the speeds climbed I could feel the tensions of the past few weeks melting away. If everybody rode motorcycles on occasion, the therapists would be out of business. Every five minutes or so I found myself wanting to yell out in sheer exuberation. That is that “YEE-HA” factor I was referring to earlier.
If you like music, I have the secret weapon for long distance motorcycle riding. I love and must have music, and having good music while riding is an additional “YEE-HA” factor. It makes the miles roll by, but also makes every new minute a sheer pleasure. The secret weapon is MP3’s. They make a variety of portable ways to play MP3 files. I have a Walkman-like portable CD player that will accept CD’s that have MP3 files burned onto them. I took all my CD’s (200 or so) and ripped the songs I love to MP3’s on my computer. I then burned these files onto a couple of new CDs. One CD will hold about 10 hours of music! My player has what I refer to as “descending random order” where it will play songs randomly, but will not play the same song twice. Start it up and you will be surprised how fast the miles go by. You catch yourself saying (right after you yell out in sheer exuberation), “Damn good music they’re playing . . . here comes another one . . . man, I love that song!” MUST watch your speed under these conditions . . . it climbs all by itself.
Good riding. Good music. Good friend. Sheer Heaven.
US 67 runs more west than south, and the winds were quite fierce out of the south, so we were dealing with substantial crosswinds. During one particularly strong episode an 18-wheeler passed going the opposite direction. The “whoosh” was so intense it sucked open the 1 gallon ziplock bag that is kept Velcro-ed to my instrument panel (tucked into the nook the sport-fairing creates). The contents (a map, extra CD, and miscellaneous instructions) came loose inside the fairing. I actually managed to corral them all and stuff them back into the bag, all the while managing to keep the bike on an even track. Some crosswinds. Behind me James was playing with his Gold Wing. He was apparently seeing how far he could lean (into the crosswind) and stay in a straight line. The results were impressive!
Soon the rain began to spatter down, and the sky grew even more ominous. The forecast (if you put any stock at all in those things) was calling for “a chance” of “scattered widespread rain” over the entire state. Huh? Scattered, widespread rain. Humph. Seems like a safe forecast to make, as it makes no sense at all and cannot possibly give anybody any meaningful information. Weather guys would make good politicians.
As the sky in front of us got even worse and the rain began to come down heavier we pulled over to don our rain-gear. Looked like we would spend the majority of this trip in the water and fighting headwinds. Oh well. Beats working. We had about 50 miles to go to Hico, and as we took off again James took the lead.
I will digress a bit and talk about team riding. When a pair of motorcyclists is headed some place, they must agree on who is leading at any given time. Generally the leader will ride the left side of the lane, and the follower (or chase) will ride the right side of the lane, a couple of bike lengths back. There are several variations of this, some of which are hotly debated, but in general this makes you more visible to cars. This protects your lane and road-space from the unsafe or in-courteous auto driver that for some reason has decided you do not need or do not deserve your entire lane, while providing room for both motorcycles to maneuver should something happen. The leader sets the pace, initiates lane changes, passing, stops, and navigation. The chase’s job is to stay with the leader, anticipate his movements and help reserve traffic space, and most importantly . . . to not run into the leader (seems obvious doesn’t it?). If you do not have two-way radios, the chase will pass the leader and pull off or take the lead if information needs to be exchanged.
A long-distance team or group ride needs to consist of riders with similar skill levels, endurance, and riding styles, or the trip can become hell to everyone involved. As mentioned above, James and I have been riding together for years, and we are as good as a team as we are individually. We are so matched in riding skills and styles that we are almost psychic concerning what the other is up to. For instance, when I am chase and really need a break, about the time that I consider passing James and pulling off, he will pull off somewhere of his own accord. Also, when chase, if I spot a traffic situation ahead of James, I know exactly what he is going to do and when he is going to do it, and I can act/react accordingly. The same goes if you are the lead. You need to know what the person behind you will do, so you are free to maneuver as needed. It takes time, practice, mistakes, trust, and many, many miles to develop this ability. James and I are at its pinnacle and find as much pleasure riding together as a team as we do cooking down an empty highway individually.
Back to the road, and the rain. Very shortly our decision to don the rain gear (motorcyclists generally avoid this if possible as the gear is somewhat hot/stuffy/clammy) was confirmed when we truly got into a heavy downpour. 70 MPH and twenty –foot rooster tails demonstrated that motorcycles are indeed stable in the rain (James and I have had a lot of adverse weather experience) and our 20+ year old ignition systems were thankfully still impervious to water. Yuck. Puddles, spray, and road film. So much for the bikes being clean.
At the risk of starting a tire argument (motorcyclists are sometimes irrationally loyal to a tire brand) I am extremely happy with the wet weather handling of the Maxxis Kevlar V-rated touring tires I installed this summer. Very stable, with excellent wet-traction. James also reports that he is happy with the Dunlops he installed on “Bunnie” just before our trip. More about tires later.
After we got moving, a softball sized clump of clay-like substance (or maybe it was a horse-apple) flew off an oncoming 18-wheeler and thumped me in the meat of my left leg just below the knee. The impact was staggering. Let’s see, 70 MPH (my velocity) + 70 MPH (the trucks velocity) plus a couple pounds of flying object adds up to um . . . well . . . pain. Ouch. I still sport the bruise.
Twenty or so miles of heavy rain, and we made the cut-off for Hico. The rain suddenly left us, and the rest of the way to Hico was dry. We stopped at a convenience store to gas up. While gassing up I noted several heavy drops of something on my left boot. Since I was still smarting from the substantial whack I received on the leg, I stooped to wipe a couple of drops off, basically to see if it was blood. Turned out to be oil, which was probably worse. I checked the oil in the bike, and it was not low. There was a small amount of oil on the front center of the engine, just below the cam tensioner. Since a minor leak at this tensioner is a common “bug” on these bikes, and I could spot no other problem, I made a mental note to keep an eye on it, and we continued on. I did point it out to James, so he would be aware of the situation.
As we gassed up the bikes, we looked to the south. It looked like extremely heavy rain was rapidly moving into our route. Lightning, thunder, and high winds were obviously prominent features of this storm. James looked over and said, “Think we should try to run it?” He was suggesting that we could push on, hard and fast, to try to beat or get ahead of the storm.
I thought briefly about it. The hell with it. We are on vacation. “Nah. Let’s get some lunch.” I could tell that I gave the expected and agreeable answer. Like I said, almost psychic.
Hico is an interesting town. Typical small town Texas I think. No chain restaurants (except the ever-present McDonalds and Dairy Queen). They do have “Major Brand Gas”. Really . . . the station is actually called “Major Brand Gas”. In a town like this, if you want a good meal, ask somebody where to go. They will be happy to tell you.
I stepped inside the convenience store and asked the clerk, “Where is a good place to get some lunch?”
I could tell she was sizing me up. She said somewhat warily, “About all we’ve got around here is BBQ and a family style place, and you’re a-bit late for lunch at the family style place.” 300-pound guys in leather frequently have that effect. Wears off quickly though.
“Well that’s great, I am in the mood for some good BBQ anyway.” I was not lying, I am always on the lookout for good BBQ. I have been doing the Atkins thing since April, and BBQ, once a sin, was now allowed and encouraged. I have lost 68 pounds so far!
Her eyes immediately lit up. “Well then hon, just take a right, right there,” she chuckled as she waved vaguely toward the south side of the store, “and hang a left on the first street. He’s right there. Can’t miss him.”
I could tell that if that was not enough information for me to find it, then I surely did not deserve it.
I came out of the store and mounted up. James was just finishing his cigar. “BBQ or family style?” I asked, already knowing the answer.
We found the place with no trouble, a converted house in a residential neighborhood. No inside seating, just picnic tables set right next to the pits, outside under a tin roof. It was deserted.
We parked the bikes, removed our riding gear, and stepped inside. An older gentleman greeted us. “You boys hungry?”
“Yes sir” and “Absolutely” were our honest replies.
“Well, you are a bit late for lunch, but I’ll fix you up” he said as we stepped back outside. “I’ve got some sausage and some smoked pork patties left” he stated as he opened the nearest pit.
I’ve never had smoked pork patties, brisket done right is my idea of BBQ, but he seemed to be suggesting it and they looked good (they were huge and I was hungry), so that’s what I chose. James followed suite.
As he constructed our plates he made idle conversation, “I’d offer brisket, but it won’t be ready until dinner. The lunch crowd ate a bunch today.” Another characteristic of a small Texas town. Lunch in Dallas is anywhere between 9am and midnight, depending on what you are up to. Lunch in a small town is . . . well . . . lunch.
He presented us with plates full of potato salad, coleslaw, baked BBQ beans, and sides of pickle and onion (not for James, he cannot stand onions). Some bread and BBQ sauce finished filling the plates, and a couple of Diet Cokes topped off the meal (Diet Coke was notoriously hard to get on this trip due to the Great Pepsi Conspiracy—a fact we did not fully appreciate until later). The patties were excellent. They were at least a pound and were basically a smoked hamburger. Wow. A real ham, hamburger. How about that? Very different. Very tasty. Good place. I need to come back sometime during the lunch crowd. I have to try his brisket.
After a leisurely (and tasty) lunch we got ready to go again. As we pulled out of town we were really glad that we had chosen to stop for lunch, rather than attempt to beat the storm. For the next 100 or so miles everywhere we were, was where the storm had just been. We had to deal with large puddles and very wet roads, but there was no rain. Had we been about 30 minutes or an hour ahead of ourselves we would have been in the midst of the storm the entire way. You could tell by the water on and beside the road that it had been a serious storm. Wind –blown debris scattered about reinforced the impression. There are more benefits to the “vacation attitude” than advertised.
The “comfortable” fuel range on my bike is 100 miles. This is generally the maximum distance I plan between fuel stops. I generally hit reserve at just about 108 miles, and the reserve on my bike won’t take me much further (maybe 15 miles). I could go further if I drove very conservatively, but “Well Oiled Machine” just will not go 65 MPH. Must go faster. This is compatible with James’ bike, as although his cruiser holds more fuel, due to some remaining complications associated with the long-term storage, his reserve function is out of commission. He could go further than I can, but if he runs out, he has to push. Not fun, as one of the prime rules of the Universe is that if you have to push a bike, it is inevitably always uphill.
For me, an overriding factor to the fuel range comes into play, and that is the fact that after 100 miles, you are ready to get off the machine and take a break. Gas stops give you the needed excuse. Two more stops would be needed today, although one was only miles from our destination.
We spun off of US 281 on Texas 29 to Llano. At Llano we would catch Texas 16 to Kerrville. Llano is the beginnings of the hill country, and is an example of how diverse Texas really is. In Texas, you can drive through desert, pine forests, mountains, salt flats, beaches, and swamps. You can get a thousand miles away from home without leaving the state. Llano is wine country. Vineyards abound in the area, and the roads promised more scenery than the other possible routes to Kerrville. As we gassed up in Llano I silently showed James the rather large amount of oil all over my left boot. The bike was still not low on oil, so I did not have to worry about the engine, but it was obvious the problem was getting worse. We took off, and the rain was pretty much gone, so we had a pleasant ride into Kerrville.
We arrived at James’ grandfather’s (Si’s) place shortly before dusk. Si has a beautiful place, all built with his own hands, overlooking the Texas hill country. The house and several large workshops and such were hand constructed out of the native stone and hardwoods. The house is nothing short of spectacular with a huge stone and iron fireplace and beam supported vaulted ceiling being the central features of the living room. Si is a character, and I hope I am in his physical and mental condition when I reach those years. He is strong, and still works in stone and wood—hand-crafting furniture not just from cut lumber—but he starts with the trees and makes his own cut lumber!
Si arrived home from a grocery run shortly after we got there, and we piled into his Ford pickup and zipped into town to eat. James and I loaded up on delicious fried catfish with all the trimmings while Si teased the waitress. Guys, when you get to be an old man, one immediately noted benefit is that you can say things to the waitresses that a younger man would get arrested for. The unsuspecting younger men that are with you will also probably choke and snort iced tea out of their nostrils when they hear some of the things you are getting away with, and I am sure that holds high entertainment value. For the first time I am looking forward to one aspect of getting older.
After we arrived back at Si’s place we pulled my bike into the shop and examined it closer for the source of the oil leak. Due to the distribution of the oil on the front of the engine it was readily apparent that the leak was at the cam tensioner. Looking closely we found that the rubber plug in the end of it was missing, so we fabricated and installed a new plug (Si can construct anything in his shop, with supplies on hand). This should take care of the problem, as the oil leaking at the cam tensioner is not under pressure. It is just return oil and oil mist in the crankcase. Again, this is a known “bug” with these bikes, and is not a major issue. We ran the bike and gave it a once over. Everything seemed in order, and there was no new oil to be seen.
I looked in disgust at my machine. She had been sparklingly clean in Dallas, but now several hundred miles of road film and leaking oil had taken its toll. There was a baked on gook all along her left side exhaust pipe, completely obscuring the chrome with what looked like the stuff that accumulates in the bottom of an oven . . . when a guy is doing the cooking! Yuck. Oil was everywhere. As I gave “Well Oiled Machine” a final glance before turning in for the night, I noted the oil and gunk everywhere. I also noted my well oiled left-boot, and the oil that had soaked my jeans up my leg to the knee. I commented softly, “Glad we got this fixed, you're making me feel like I’m riding a Harley.”
Guys, listen carefully . . .
Never . . . never . . . never . . . . . . ever . . . insult a woman. Even if she deserves it.
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