September 24, 2010 — Growing up in the south, my social sphere consisted almost exclusively of people I knew from church. Even through high school and college, most of the people I hung out with were related one way or another to that social context. Since moving to the Twin Cities as an adult, my circle of friends has been drawn entirely from work cohorts and especially fellow scooter people. This year, The Mrs and I expanded our horizons to motorcycles, but we weren’t alone. Several of our good scooter friends also made the bigger bike jump as well. Mid July a plan was hatched for an overnight autumn moto trip over into Wisconsin featuring Joe, his wife Rochelle, Santiago, his wife Lynn, me and The Mrs.
The trip details got worked out over the following months with a nice crisp weekend presenting itself in late September. I’d spent the summer getting to know my own bike and working on The Mrs’ CM400. For four months I’d been chasing a fuel leak in the carburetors of that obstinate little bike. I had those carbs on and off at least a half dozen times trying to fix a float needle seat that wasn’t actually broken. All along, the issue had been dry, rotten o-rings in the fuel pipes that connect the two carbs. Four months of struggle had actually been over $0.75 worth of old rubber. I got the carbs back together (only to then have to re-assemble them yet another time because I’d not linked the butterflies correctly), got them roughly sync’d and finally, the bike was running good and no gas was leaking. The Wisconsin trip was the next day. Out of a sense of adventure, yet against my better judgement, we opted to go ahead and have her ride it rather than taking my Vespa GT. I wasn’t too worried about it though, because we would be with four other people and we were only going about 80 miles to Alma, WI.
The plan was to leave Friday evening after work. I’d taken off early from work and had each of our bikes fitted with soft saddle bags for the trip. With just enough clothes to keep us clean and warm, a handful of tools and a couple spare spark plugs, we set off to the meeting point just a few blocks from our apartment in Eagan. Lynn and Santiago were already there on their pair of Kymco touring scooters with their fitted tail bags and bright safety vests. Everything about their setup said “we’ve done this before” and I knew we were in good company. The closest thing I’d done to a real moto trip was, ironically, an almost identical jaunt into Wisconsin on my birthday back in June. That was just a day trip, though, so I didn’t have any gear with me. Joe and Rochelle arrived just a moment later on Joe’s Royal Enfield Bullet. All of their gear was stowed in a little bag and a pair of leather Enfield saddlebags made just for their bike. Classic. It was just on the chilly side, so everybody was bundled up under layers of leather and space-age underclothes and ready for autumn riding adventure.
We set off south down Pilot Knob road to find 160th St. and head east toward Hastings. The scooters set the pace, with Joe/Rochelle coming next, then The Mrs, and I brought up the rear. I love how midwestern cities get so rural so quickly. Step outside the city limits of that last suburb and you might as well be 1,000 miles from Minneapolis from the look of things. As we made our way east towards Hastings, the last bit of afternoon sun on our backs, we passed these rather foreboding concrete structures. They looked like the footings for some kind of truly massive structure — the kind of things you’d anchor a space port on. I still have no idea what they are, but they’re ripe for somebody’s movie set. We all looked at each other, shrugged our collective shoulders and motored on.
We were making great progress in our motley little caravan and those first 30 miles to Hastings passed quickly. As we approached the big turn back north to catch the start of the River Road, I noticed a little bit of smoke coming from The Mrs’ bike. At first I thought it was just a bit off-throttle oil burn. It’s an old bike after all. It wasn’t much smoke, but as I started paying attention to it, it got thicker and more constant. As we closed on the intersection, I zipped forward next to her to get a better look. To my horror there was thick, white smoke (oil smoke) absolutely pouring out of the front of her engine. My heart just sank. That much hot oil pouring out of the front of an air-cooled motor only meant one thing: a blown head-gasket. Of all the things I’d been working on with that bike, and any one of them that could have gone wrong on that trip, the thing that did go wrong was something completely unrelated and impossible to predict. Just another piece of time-bomb old rubber on a 30 year-old motorcycle.
I waived her off the road and honked at the group to pull over. We turned off into the parking lot of a body shop that happened to be right there at the intersection. We surrounded the patient, the men with flashlights and fingertips, trying to find the source of the leak. The ladies looked on, noting that “it can’t be gasoline because it’s not evaporating.” After a few minutes of inspection, Santiago confirmed my assessment. The head gasket was completely wasted. The trip was over for this little bike.
Now what? We looked at each other and started discussing our options. We had oil with us. Maybe we could limp the bike back home and get the Vespa. Santiago pointed out that even if we could keep a steady supply of oil in it, we’d foul the spark plugs in no time. I had two spares, but it still wasn’t a great option. Joe, fearless leader of our journey, finally stepped up and made a proclamation. “Look, we can either turn back now and fuss with this bike, or we can look at this as part of the adventure. I say we redistribute your stuff, stow this bike behind the building here, you hop on with him and we’ll come get it tomorrow. It’s on the way, after all.” Santiago volunteered his truck in retrieval service and The Mrs agreed. We couldn’t stop here. We had to push on. There was adventure to be had, dammit!
We re-arranged The Mrs’ things and she put my backpack on so that she could ride pillion. This was more than a little intimidating because though I’ve been riding since 2007, I’ve never actually carried a passenger before. But in the spirit of adventure, we were going to push on. The sun was just setting as we set off again, leaving our fallen soldier behind, hidden between the body shop and an out building. Thankfully, riding with a passenger isn’t that big a deal. I only really felt the extra weight when we were going really, really slow. But even then, my CB650 was more than up to the task. The only downside was that neither of us were very comfortable on that midsize bike. Her arse was killing her after half an hour or so I was oscillating between arse pain of my own and numbness in my gentlemen’s region. It wasn’t torture, but we were definitely both much more comfortable on our own machines.
We sped off into the oncoming night, a streak of four bikes following the Mississippi river down its eastern shore and catching glimpses of the orange sunset painted across the ever widening water. It was absolutely gorgeous. With my lady holding on to me and the windy, ever fluctuating Hwy 35 River Road below us, I felt that wonderful feeling of adventure that you can only get on a motorcycle. Anything could happen and we were going to meet it head on in the autumn night.
About an hour later, we arrived in Alma, WI, our stop for the night. We pulled up to the most adorable little bed & breakfast. It wasn’t one of those pretentious, over-themed monstrosities that’s more theme park than boarding house. No, this place was just all-around quaint. It was clean, but old. It’d been used. It’d been lived in. Now it was a place of simple, inexpensive shelter that could have felt like a movie set for a bad horror film had it not had such a homey vibe. With our rooms established and our gear deposited, we headed back into the main blocks of town for some supper. We found a very nice little italian place that’d been built into an old bank. It was nearly empty though. I felt bad for the proprietor and hoped this place wasn’t short for this world. It was a genuinely nice little restaurant in an otherwise nondescript block of biker bars and pizza dives. We ate. We laughed. We told stories over drinks and pasta as the calm of small town america settled in around us like a layer of snow.
It was the better part of 11:00 by the time we returned to the B&B, but our evening wasn’t over. Joe had brought some very finely aged agave beverage. I’d never had a proper, high-quality tequila before, and this stuff was amazing. I’m sold on the whole concept now. Keep your José and your $3 margarita. I’ll take three fingers of single barrel Casa Noblé and a drop of water. We sipped from coffee mugs in the sitting room of the B&B talking and laughing as quietly as we could until the better part of 2:00 am. I fell asleep warm, a tad sweaty, but thoroughly pleased with our little adventure so far.
The next morning, it was a lesson in bathroom logistics. I’d managed to wake before anybody else, so I got to shower and get refreshed for the coming day. Apparently we had an epic breakfast coming our way on “the fish float.” I had no idea why Joe was so set on going to this place. Apparently it was a place you could only reach by boat and the breakfast was actually worth writing home about. Or at least the Food Network thought so. The plan was breakfast on the float, then some back roads touring before heading back to the Twin Cities that afternoon. I layered up in Under Amor, thermals, jeans and a tshirt. My Triumph leather jacket would go on over that, so my only weak spots were my hands. My leather gloves don’t have any insulation, but thankfully it turned out not to be that cold. I could steal a little heat off the sides of the motor easy enough. Nothing like a giant 200º F aluminum hand warmer between your legs.
We left our night’s rent on the dresser and re-loaded our bikes. Heading back into Alma, we parked, then lined up on a dock where supposedly you signal the fish float ferry. Thanks to the intervention of a helpful local, we learned that we were on the wrong dock. After an appropriate amount of giving Joe’s a hard time about his leadership, we made our way to the proper dock and deployed their advanced signaling system: a hinged piece of plywood painted hunter orange on the underside. We could see the float tethered to the far side of the Mississippi. A couple minutes went by and we saw the hulking gray shape of the aluminum ferry headed our way. The whole world seemed gray that morning. Autumn colors were starting to fade, the sky was overcast and foreboding, and the river crawled by slowly this side of a small lock and dam. We boarded the boat, which had exactly zero life jackets aboard that I could see, and puttered our way back across the river. Worry wort that I am sometimes, I was eyeballing the exits and trying to figure out how I might keep my iPhone dry in the case of capsizing.
I have to say, I was skeptical of this entire enterprise. Nothing about this place said “must-see food destination.” In fact, everything about The Great Alma Fishing Float had Jeff Foxworthy written all over it. That’s all fine, I was simply incredulous that this place could really be a worthy destination for such an otherwise fantastic trip. This was an adventure though, so I just went with it. Joe hadn’t let us down yet (well, except for that whole wrong dock thing). We disembarked the boat onto the float — what looked like a series of barely connected sheds masquerading as oversized ice fishing shanties. We rounded the corner to the “front door” and were greeted by the sign above the window reading “Home of the mess.” I believed them.
Entering the cafe building, I wasn’t sure what to make of it. There were four folks already seated at the bar just inside the door. I looked around, thinking that perhaps there was more seating beyond the bar. Tables, or booths perhaps. Nope. This was it. This little U of a bar in a room that couldn’t have been more than ten feet across and only about eight feet deep. I was ready for anything at this point. Three gracious gentlemen who had already finished their breakfast and were playing checkers gave us their seats and we set about ordering. The kitchen was all but built into the back end of that bar and our cooks were also our waiters and our entertainment. This cafe was such a bizarre, otherworldly place that the sum of its rustic setting, its sardine-size dimensions and the smell of home-cooked breakfast food steaming from only about six feet away combined into some sort of magical wonderland. Joe was right after all. This place was perfect.
Breakfast was delicious, immense and happily packed away. I didn’t know if I wanted to ride or nap, but that decision got made for me. It was time to go explore some side roads. The Mrs climbed aboard Starship Honda once again and we followed Joe and company up the hill to a lookout point where we’d be able to see the whole of Alma and much of the River in both directions. As we made our way up ever steeper roads, The Mrs and I had our one and only real “oh shit!” moment of our time riding together. There was a stop sign at the top of a very steep piece of road where we were going to have to not only stop, but them make an immediate right turn once navigating the steep hill onto the flat road above. It took all my focused jedi clutch powers to make that maneuver, all the while leaned as far forward as I could, scared that we’d topple over backwards if I didn’t. Whew.
The overlook was followed by about a 30 mile jaunt further south on Hwy 35 along the river before catching an amazing winding highway that looped back north, only to intersect Hwy 35 again above Alma. It was two hours of twisty, back country roads, elevation changes and amazing scenery. We traversed the road without incident, but I definitely had The Mrs on my mind the whole time. It’s just such a different equation when you’re responsible not just for your own hide, but for someone you deeply care about. It’d be one thing to do something stupid and get myself hurt, but getting her hurt is another thing entirely. A wholly unacceptable thing that I would have none of. So, fair to say, I was rather focused and not at all aggressive on that windy road. That said, we still had a blast. Santiago would shoot out ahead, Joe and Rochelle right behind him on the Enfield, us trailing behind a bit, and then Lynn took her time navigating the road at a speed much more comfortable for her and her Kymco. We’d stop every few miles when there was a turn to be made and regroup.
All too soon it was time to head back for real. Joe had an appointment back in Hastings he couldn’t be late for, so he and Rochelle parted ways from the rest of us a few miles up the road. We were wiped out and a bit chilled from our morning’s ride, so the remaining four of us made a pit stop in fine Wisconsin fashion: at a roadside place that sells cheese, sausage and ice cream. It was bittersweet for Joe and Rochelle to leave us for sure. It’d been such a rich, full 18 hours and I was sad to see members of our party disband. Some snacking, warm coffee and conversation later, we remaining four struck out for the Twin Cities once again. Santiago and Lynn had generously offered to help us haul our injured motorcycle back to Eagan. Plan was that we’d head back to our place, then they’d split off, head home, get the truck, we’d retrieve the bike, and then The Mrs and I would treat them to supper for their generosity in time and equipment.
The trip back was quick, and the sun even came out to greet us. We passed by the body shop in Hastings and sure enough, the bike was still there, unmolested. Shooting back to the Twin Cities, our dogs were waiting for us when we got back to our apartment, dropped off from boarding by a friend of ours. Lynn and Santiago rode home and in what seemed like no time at all, they were back in their truck, complete with ramp and tie downs. “I’ve done this before” Santiago assured us. I had no doubt.
Half an hour there, the conversations that’d made the whole trip so much fun continued. Once we arrived, we mobilized to our task and sure enough, Santiago knew just what he was doing. We got 400+ lbs of moto into the back of the truck no problem. Half an hour on and some unload wrangling, the broken bike was safely home in its hangar. Dinner ensued and you’d think we’d get sick of these people, or they’d get sick of us, but we just kept having a great time. They told us the story of how they got together (over some serious roller skating) and evening came.
It’d been a long, pleasantly exhausting day. It’d been a great trip. Even with the break down. Even with the near constant discomfort of riding two-up. It didn’t matter. We still had a really good time. I’ve definitely got the itch for motorcycle travel now. I want to keep trekking into Wisconsin on overnight or over-weekend trips. I want to keep exploring those amazing back roads. I want to fly down those roads on a newer motorcycle. I’m going to have to go back. But one thing is for sure, I don’t want to go back alone.