Road Trip USA 2009

Introduction

For many years I have been reading inspirational travelogues from authors such as Ted Simon, Dan Walsh, Nick Sanders, Tom Cunliffe, Sam Manicom, Grant & Susan Johnson, and Austin Vince about people who chucked it all in for a life on the road on a motorcycle adventure. I always dreamed that one day I too would also chuck it all in for a long trip across the Americas, but it always seemed to be five years away. I came close in 2008 when I was made redundant from Alcatel-Lucent spending considerable time planning a South America KLR650 adventure but my poor health, a broken arm, and my father's illness intervened.

In December 2008 when I left my employer after only six months I became determined to make my dreams a reality. There were a few reasons for this, first life is too short to spend it working for a big house and a flash car, second I did not have any commitments or responsibilities standing in my way and finally I have become increasingly concerned that my back condition may make such trips difficult in the future. More cynical friends may claim that it is simply a early mid life crisis!

The Plan

Some would plan such a trip to the day! My (limited) experience of motorcycle touring has shown me that planning has little value. Having a rough idea of where you want to go and what you want to see and then working around that works a lot better. On previous holidays to the America I have visited a number of big cities, Orlando, New Orleans, Philidelphia, Washington, New York and Boston so on this trip I decided I wanted to see 'small town' America and to see the natural wonders of the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Yellowstone so in a way this determined the route. I would have loved to do this off the beaten track on the Trans-America Trail, but I have no off road experience and have very fragile bones! I made extensive use of the Road Trip USA website in planning a route. I also used Google Earth to get a rough idea of distances for budgeting purposes.

The route begins in Fairhaven, follows the Appalachian Trail, crosses the southern states, heads north to the Canadian border and then up into Alaska on the Alaska Highway and finally heads south along the Pacific coast to San Francisco for a estimated distance of 10500 miles. The following map shows the (rough) planned route (if you are interested in how I added the map see embedded KML gadget).

My aim is to camp as much as possible for as cheaply as possible. I bought Don Wright's Guide to Free Campgrounds in order to find these camp sites.

The Bike and Equipment

Before discussing my choice of motorcycle and equipment I want to thank my Boston based brothers without whom none of the following would have been possible.

Choosing a motorcycle is highly personal, as the Johnson's, point out many people have ridden around the world on anything from Honda 50cc scooters to top of the range BMW 1200GS Adventures. Some would say that the only choice for a Trans-America road trip is a Harley however I based my choice on the following criteria:

  • Reliable - a proven adventure motorcycle
  • Cheap - I only have a budget of $7500 for the motorcycle
  • Dual Sport - capable of some offroad or poor surface riding but with a bias towards road riding
  • Small Capacity - around 600-800cc, economical on petrol and tires

This led to the following list of candidates:

  • BMW 650GS - good offroad and good range but expensive and poor reliability
  • Kawasaki KLR650 - good offroad, reliable, simple and cheap but poor on road performance
  • Suzuki DL650 V-Strom (nicknamed Wee-Strom as there is a 1000cc model) - good on road, reliable but poor offroad and relatively expensive

After reading extensive reviews and opinions of each bike and considering that I would mostly be riding on road I decided that the Suzuki DL650 was the best option with the Kawasaki KLR650 as a back up plan. I will admit that this decision was heavily influenced by the positive comments from former KLR650 owners on Stromtrooper, a forum of V-Strom and Wee-Strom owners.

In the months leading up to the trip I found a few candidate Wee-Stroms on Craigs List, but unfortunately these were sold very quickly. Fortunately my brother came to the rescue and found me a 2006 model with 8000 miles on the clock for $4995 at National PowerSports Distributors. After putting a $250 deposit on my card and paying the balance by cash transfer, which I advise against, the Wee-Strom was mine!

National Powersports Wee-Strom

My Wee-Strom as advertised

Once I had the bike I then had to choose the luggage and crash protection to put on the bike. There is a bewildering choice of luggage for the Wee-Strom. In the past I have only used soft luggage however I wanted luggage that was lockable so I limited my choices to hard luggage. I like the idea of aluminium luggage, however it is very expensive and frankly a bit ugly. I was particularly interested in Carribou Cases, this system looks better in terms of toughness, weight and cost when compared with aluminium luggage. I settled on Givi side cases and a top box from Sport Tour based on cost (Sport Tour post is free) and looks. Hopefully a bike fitted with Givi will be more easy to sell! I also bought Givi crashbars from Sport Tour and a skid plate from Adventure MotoStuff to protect the exposed radiator and oil cooler in the event of a spill.

For navigation I was going to rely on maps and guesswork as it is simpler and more fun! My brother told me that road signs in America are abismal and that I need a GPS. He found me a cheap MIO C230 GPS which necessitated the purchase of a mount and a Powerlet charging socket.

The following table summarises the cost of the bike and fittings:

Item Vendor Cost ($)
Suzuki DL650 V-Strom National PowerSports 4995.00
Givi Monokey E36N Side Cases (pair) Sport Tour 328.00
Givi Monokey E45NJ Top Box Sport Tour 140.00
Givi E528 Givi PL532 Fitment Kits Sport Tour 235.00
Givi TN532 Engine Guards Sport Tour 153.00
Aluminum Engine Protector Adventure MotoStuff 246.22
RAM Motorcycle Mount for Mio C220 C230 C520 MOOV 500 GPS The Mount Guys 47.90
Powerlet Suzuki V-Strom Front Panel Kit Adventure MotoStuff 38.93
Powerlet Cigar Adapter - 10" Adventure MotoStuff 20.92
Crampbuster Throttle Cruise Control Adventure MotoStuff 12.83
MIO C230 GPS - 80.00
Motorcycle Insurance Arbella Insurance 244.00
Registration Massachusetts DMV 323.91
Inspection JM Engineering 15.00
Total - 6880.71

On the camping front, I already have some camping gear from previous trips so it's just a case of suplementing it. As for tools and spares it is difficult to know what to carry, some carry masses of spares and tools around however I will carry enough to fix basic problems. I am quite dangerous with a spanner in my hand anyway! Unfortunately there are no Haynes guides to the Wee-Strom, so I will have to rely on a PDF version of the service manual on my netbook.

The following table summarises equipment I am carrying, items marked as $0.00 were already owned:

Item Category Vendor Cost ($)
Gelert Fossa One Man Tent Camping - 0.00
Thermarest Sleeping Mat Camping - 0.00
Sleeping Bag Camping EMS 79.00
Eurohike Mess Kit Camping Millets 14.27
Eurohike Cutlery Set Camping Millets 6.41
Eurohike Quickdry Compact Towel Camping Millets 28.55
First Aid Only Outdoor First Aid Kit, Soft Case, 205-Piece Kit Camping Amazon 16.99
Smith & Wesson Galaxy 9 LED Flashlight Camping Amazon 19.99
Coleman Exponent Multi-Fuel Stove Camping Amazon 59.99
Don Wright's Guide to Free Campgrounds Camping Amazon 32.00
Slime Smart Spair Power Sport Sealant and Inflator Kit Spares / Tools Adventure MotoStuff 44.33
BelRay Super-Clean Chain Lubel-13.5 oz Spares / Tools Adventure MotoStuff 16.92
Slime 22038 Deluxe Reamer Plugger Kit and Spare Plugs Spares / Tools Amazon 21.63
Torque Wrench Spares / Tools Halfords 0.00
Mini socket set Spares / Tools Sears 25.16
Total - - 365.74


Bike Preparation

Fortunately I was blessed with the use of my brother's garage for preparing my bike for the road trip, unfortunately my brother has inherited my father's workshop organisation skills. Finding a tool in his workshop is definitely hit and miss. He is very good with the tools we could find though, he helped me mount the crash bars and luggage. Well to be honest, he pretty much did the crash bars and most of the luggage! The Givi crash bars mounted very easily, the finish is also quite good except the powder coating is quite thin and scratches through easily. We decided to leave the skid plate off until I have had an oil change on the bike as it obscures the sump and oil filter

Phil installing Givi crash bars

Phil installing Givi crash bars

The luggage went on very easily. The only mistake we made was to mount the side cases before the top case but we managed to get it on without having to remove all the side luggage as the instructions suggested.

Troll installing Givi luggage

Troll installing Givi luggage

Phil working while Troll drinks beer

Phil working while the Troll drinks beer!

The almost finished bike, we still need to mount the skid plate, powlet socket and GPS mount. My brother said it looks more balanced with the luggage as the back looks similar in size to the front.

Almost finished bike

Almost finished bike!

Once the bike was prepared the next job was to insure, register and have the bike inspected. My brother took the day off to help me through the process and to drive me around all the offices. I am not sure how you can go through this process if you do not already have access to a car! I expected this to take a while, but in the end it took two hours to insure and register the bike. My brother's insurer insured me for $244 for a year, for basic third party insurance, uninsured party and for medical insurance which I thought was great. The insurer fills in a form for the DMV which you then have to take to the DMV in order to register the bike and get a number plate and a sticker. The sticker gives the year the registration expires. My brother thought the woman at the DMV was the ugliest snaggle tooth woman he had ever seen and she was very grumpy. When she noticed we had not filled in the 'Mass Driving Licence Number / Social Security Number' field I thought we might be in trouble but she just filled in my British driving licence number and seemed to be satisfied. The registration was quite expensive, $323.91 which broke down as $20 for registration, $50 for title and $253.31 for tax and we complain about the cost of road tax in the UK! I guess our tax is on the fuel!

The next day I rode my bike for the first time! Initially I was a bit scared as the bike is physically bigger than my SV1000 but it is very easy to ride and the roads around my brother's house are virtually empty. The Wee Strom is not exactly going to rip up the pavement with its power output but it feels like a good choice for the trip. The purpose of the first ride was to get an inspection sticker, which you have to get within five days of registering a vehicle in Massachusetts. The aim of this sticker is to prove your vehicle is road worthy, inspecting all bearings, brakes, lights etc. When I got to the inspection shop, I found out the guy who inspects bikes wasn't expected until 14h00 as he was still at school. I'm not sure he meant school or college but when I came back the guy looked very young, yes I'm getting old and yes everyone looks young. He did not even walk around the bike, he just took one look at the bike, said $15 and then gave me a inspection sticker with a certificate proving it had passed a number of tests. He must be one hell of a mechanic! It was not just me, a SUV also got passed just by waggling the front wheel while the SUV was on a jack! Oh well $15 for a nice red sticker, can't complain about that!

I got stickers

I got the plate, and stickers!

My brother put me to work in his yard, so I guess I'm an illegal. It is great getting stuck in to some physical 'manly' labour for a change, rather than sitting behind a computer for eight hours a day! The first job was to tidy up my brother's forest, cutting up and clearing a large oak tree that had been felled last year. My brother's chainsaw is, um how should we put this, rubbish and the lack of protective gear was a bit worrying but after two days of cutting, dragging, burning and swearing you can almost see the difference!

Cutting with a saw

Cutting with a chainsaw, look mum no protection!

Cutting with a saw

Cutting with a chainsaw, it worked and I still have all my arms and legs!

The next job my brother had for me was digging out a vegetable garden and helping shift dirt from the front of the house to the garden. The dirt I refer to is moss, mulch and peat moss apparently, it's all dirt to me! That was hard work and my back did not appreciate it very much, three days later I'm still feeling the effects. However it was satisfying seeing the garden come together. To be honest my brother and sister in law did most of the creative building work, such as building the fence, while I did a bit of the destructive work such as digging.

Phil working on the garden!

Phil working on the garden, while the union man (me) stands around with his hands in his pockets!

I bought another guidebook while in Rochester, National Geographic's 'Guide To Scenic Highways And Byways'. The guidebook lists 279 scenic routes countrywide. I have ridden two of the routes while in Rochester and it looks like a very useful book to have, I just hope I can find space for it on my bike. In order to get more used to the bike, I have done a few day trips. I rode the Route 6A to Cape Cod and the Route 77 to Horseneck Beach. So far I'm adjusting well to riding on the right hand side of the road and to the crazy speed limits in Massachusetts which seem to vary all the time in 5mph increments. You may see a 45mph sign, follwed by a 35mph, followed by a 20mph school zone, followed by a 25mph in the space of a few hundred meters and there are no reminders of what speed you should be doing! Following everyone elses speed doesn't help as most of them drive at twice the posted limit! The drivers in Massachusetts are also very considerate and will stop to let you out of an intersection. They do have a nasty habit of tail gaiting, although it doesn't seem to bother anyone when they are being tail gaited.

Horseneck beach, Massachusetts

Horseneck beach, Massachusetts!

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