Getting your kicks ain’t always easy

There’s a little bit of the story I missed from yesterday’s post, so I thought I’d just add it today, before writing about the journey after Tulsa.

Trying to keep to the Historic Route 66 isn’t so easy. Several times I’d gone off course in Illinois and Missouri, and it happened again in Oklahoma, only this time I ended up on the kind of American road I dread – a gravel road.

The signposts for the historic Route 66 don’t seem to be official road signs, so they are often not placed directly on junctions, but often some distance before, after or not at all. As I tried to follow the original Route 66 into Oklahoma, I either missed the sign indicating the route took a right hand turn or more probably it wasn’t there.

At this point, I still thought I was on the right route. But soon the road turned from an old, but paved/tarmac road into the dreaded gravel. I took the photo below on a bend that a bit of concrete or something in the middle. It was only here that I felt confident enough to stop the bike and balance it while I whipped out the camera. Believe me, the rest of the road was considerably worse with the whole road being like the edges in the photo.

Is this Route 66?                                                 From Oklahoma, July 2013

On 4 wheels, a gravel road may not be a particularly big deal. You might be more inclined to skid if you break too shapely, but it’s generally OK as long as you don’t go too fast into the bends. Even if you do skid, you’ll still usually be OK, provided you don’t come off the road entirely, as a car is very unlikely to tip over. But on 2 wheels it is a much bigger deal. If you skid on a bike, there’s always the risk that the wheels will slide out from under you, especially when taking corners, and there’s also the risk of hitting a boulder or a pot-hole and that throwing you off balance or into a skid.

Now I have a confession to make. Since crossing the border into the USA I have spent nearly the entire time riding without a jacket. To the average American biker, this may be no big deal and is in fact what is most commonly seen, along with no helmet where state law permits it. However, it is very uncommon to see a British biker without a protective jacket, and helmets are mandatory by law. I think one of the main reasons for this is climate. In Britain the temperature rarely exceeds 30C or 86F, and when it does it is usually not that much higher. Under those conditions a jacket is tolerable, especially when moving at pace. From my experience of American summers, the day-time temperature rarely gets lower than 30C/86F, and is frequently a lot, lot hotter. Since I have arrived the day time temperature hasn’t been under 86F or 30C, and its been up to 104F or 40C.

On my 2011 trip to the US, I spent the first two weeks being adamant that I would always wear my leather jacket for riding, and I was quite frankly amazed to see so many Americans riding at speed in just shorts and t-shirts, and no helmet. I thought they were mad to take such a risk. And there are risks. A recent article I read, Sweat or Bleed, illustrates this with some fairly graphic pictures of skin injuries at just 35 mph, and the article goes on to extol the virtues of wearing protective gear at all times. I know these risks, and I would probably never ride in Britain’s cooler climate without protective gear. So why don’t I wear my jacket in the US and what changed my mind?

Adamant as I was about wearing my jacket, I was still suffering. I wrote last time of feeling like a boil in a bag meal, and yet I kept the jacket on, saying I’d invested too much money in ink to have them scraped off by the road. At least, I kept it on until I rode into Grand Island, NE in late July 2011. That day had been a particularly hot day, I later heard on the TV weather that the temperature had been 115F or 46C. With my leather jacket, kevlar jeans, helmet and gloves, I felt I was at the point of passing out. Passing out on a motorbike would not be a good thing. I thought long and hard about it whilst riding the next morning and I came to a decision. I’d rather take the risk of not falling off whilst fully in control of myself, than to take the risk of passing out through from the heat, so the next afternoon, when the temperatures rose to similar levels, I took my jacket off and strapped it to the back of the Trooper.

Now a funny thing happens when you start riding without a jacket, it becomes easier to do it the next time, and the next. And that’s not to mention how great it feels riding without it. On a hot summers day with temperatures while over 30C/86F, life doesn’t get much better than feeling the sun and cooling wind on your arms as you cruise along on a motorbike. It is a wonderful feeling of freedom. This time around I didn’t give it a second thought, and my jacket came off as soon as the sun came out when I crossed the border from Canada, and oh how good it felt. Riding without a jacket still makes me pause for thought and makes me more careful, but I have accepted the risk. If I was completely risk averse, I wouldn’t ride a motorcycle in the first place, or blow big chunks of savings coming to America.

When I was moaning about sweltering in a jacket last time, my friend Ben recommended a mesh jacket. I did look in at these, but they wouldn’t have been suitable for all weathers, and I would have had to bring two jackets over with me, so I decided I’d carry on without on occasions.

During this trip, I talked to a group of American bikers from a state without a helmet law (at Knuckle Head Reds which will come later when I catch up on the blog), and we got to talking about helmets. Now, despite me looking out of place in a lot of states, I still wear my full face, flip-top helmet, and I have always done this over here. Their view was that I did that because that was what I was used to, I’d never known how great it was without a helmet, so I didn’t miss the freedom. I certainly understand the freedom of not wearing a jacket, so I can easily imagine the freedom and joy of feeling the sun on your face and the wind in your hair riding without a helmet. And if you’re going to expose one part of your body to an increased risk of injury by not wearing full protective clothing, then it doesn’t seem to me to be a big stretch to expose another. Having spent a lot more time riding over here, I think I understand American bikers far more than I did in those initial few weeks in 2011.

So am I going to ride without a helmet? Well no, not really, for a number of reasons. I need a helmet for those states that require it, and at present I don’t have anywhere to carry it on the bike if I’m not wearing it. I suppose I could buy a cargo net, and strap it on top of my already large pile of luggage. But there is another reason besides safety, it keeps those darn bugs out of my face. Every day, sometimes several times a day, I have to remove the bug guts from the visor of my helmet. I’m very happy to keep all those insect insides off my face, but what is even worse is the kamikaze grasshoppers. These wee beasties have a habit of jumping up in front of the bike, and just when you think they’ve made it over or around you, they change their minds and make a bee-line straight for you, usually your head. And these beasties aren’t really so wee. They make a good thwack when they hit your helmet, and I’ll had a few hit hands, arms and chest, and they hurt when you’re doing 80mph. I don’t fancy one hitting my cheeks or nose at that speed. So I’m quite happy to keep my lid on and look out of place.

Anyway, back to the story of the gravel road. My point was that I was, of course, in just a sleeveless t-shirt which increased my dread of the thing. I reduced my speed right down, to 2nd and 1st gear at times and never above 3rd, but even at slow speeds a spill on gravel without leather was always going to be a sore point. I endured that white knuckle ride for what seemed like ages, but in reality was probably only 2 or 3 miles. Until I’d gone a mile or two, I still thought I may be on Route 66, just a stretch in a very bad state of repair – I guess I was just in denial because I didn’t fancy doing a U-turn on that road surface, and by the time I had accepted it was the wrong road, I’d gone so far I thought just carrying on I would bring me out on a paved road, which it eventually did. But now I had no idea where I was, and I didn’t relish retracing my steps back up that road.

I parked up on the side of the road, and pulled out my iPhone to get a map up, but before I could work out an alternative route, a pick-up truck pulled up beside me and a guy in a baseball cap asked if I was OK. I explained I’d lost my route and had come down that gravel road. He said hold on a minute and pulled the truck over to the side of the road in front of me and got out.

His name was Rick, he must have been in his early 60s and he said he had lived in that same county in Oklahoma his whole life. He put me right on the route back and made me feel better by telling me that tourists were always doing what I had done. He seemed in no hurry to leave and was more than happy to stand around chatting. He had lots of questions about Scotland, wanting to know what sort of farming we had, and how life at home was different from America. One of the differences I mentioned was that guns are virtually prohibited unless you are a farmer. This was a subject close to his chest and he let me know just what he thought of Obama’s attempts at gun control. Needless to say he wasn’t in favour of it. He told me that if people around found someone had broken into their house, they didn’t call the police. They sorted it out themselves.



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