Journey to the West2016-06-25
10 min read | 2022 words
Clearly, the most reasonable way to move from NYC to SF is via Ninja 500
Exactly one year ago, I did just that.
As the landing gear touched earth in my home of three years, strange feelings bubbled up. This time I was only a visitor, in this place filled with magical experiences. Where I had the privilege of meeting so many incredible people. Where I transformed into a new person.
However, for now, heading west was the right thing to do.
So I trekked from JFK back to my sailboat, which surprisingly remained afloat in my absense the entire winter. (This year I opted for Thailand instead of freezing to death.)
Over the next few days, I renewed my motorcycle paperwork, intensely chatted up craigslist and ebay to sell the Catalina (and a couple marine engines), and gave piano performances on a beautiful giant riverboat.
Here’s a clip from under the Brooklyn bridge:
There was yet another nice surprise. I had left my motorcycle at Chelsea Piers all winter. Miraculously, it was still there, albeit dusty. Even more miraculously, the engine started up immediately.
Still, I promptly brought the bike into a shop for some checkups. Just the tire pressure and chain required a moment, so that was excellent.
Once again two-wheel-enabled, I adventured around NYC for the last time in what would be a long while, catching up and saying good-bye to folks, getting oil-painted, checking out the backstage equipment of a Broadway theatre, wandering Frieze, getting pulled into a last minute photoshoot, a decadent bone marrow birthday party, and onwards with certainly not enough sleep.
Affairs in NYC wrapped up, one chest and one suitcase prepped for shipping to my new home, I packed minimal gear into a couple saddlebags and embarked west.
Due to personal logistics required in the Windy City, the first 700 miles of this journey was a straight shot across I-80. It was quite exciting to skip through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana in about 16 hours (including a burrito and nap somewhere on the PA turnpike).
After Chicago, I was no longer in a rush. Now I could fit in arbitrarily distant meandering from the interstates to enjoy the art and other sights of middle America for the first (and probably only) time.
The Mississippi river was really pretty. Soon afterwards, I found myself at the Pappajohn Sculpture Park in Des Moines which was pretty worthwhile:
After sculptures, I obtained sushi. Being a tall lady motorcyclist with weird hair in the midwest generates a constant stream of comments from strangers (mostly positive). That evening, I pushed to Nebraska, but everything was growing dark and weary so I passed out at some hotel in Omaha.
The next morning, the forecast indicated a gargantuan thunderstorm immediately west. However, up north seemed clear, and I suspected South Dakota probably has some interesting things anyways, so I aimed slightly back East and North to Sioux Falls.
The vast, distant horizon is very visible out in the great plains. Sunlight burst through the clouds far ahead in divine columns as I zoomed forwards, while the western skies grew more angry, whipping up ever greater crosswinds and wetness rolling inwards from my left.
The Ex-500 was fast enough, so I escaped into a more sunny clime after only slight drizzling, unscathed.
I met a couple other motorcyclists while stopped at a gas station, and opted to ride and explore with these new friends during the sunset hours before procuring early sleep.
The next morning I wandered the Porter Sculpture Park, which was exceptional. It’s essentially a bunch of big art made by one person in the middle of nowhere.
Around noon, I rode west, as the day remained fairly bright and sunny. However, between this sunlet region and nearby storm systems, the temperature gradient began accelerating breezes into quite a never-ending gust.
In fact, the winds were so powerful that I had to lean my bike at a great angle just to keep my path straight. Furthermore, even when the road curved away from the wind, I still had to lean into the wind – effectively the “wrong way” – to make the curve. Not to mention when the road also curved into the wind, I had to lean at that much more of an angle. So that was fun.
This windy motorcycle experience was enhanced by giant semis, which are rather volatile wind barriers. When near, I’d have to rapidly adjust my lean angle or risk getting blown off the road or underneath a high-kinetic-energy 18-wheeled death machine. So, kind of like twisties, at highway speed, but with more “interesting”, sometimes quite unpredictable, obstacles.
This situation further improved when the previously sunny skies decided to introduce very dark clouds. At this point, yesterday’s neighboring thunderstorm just got promoted to more-than-neighboring. So the winds grew even stronger. This resulted in greater wind-chill. Also, shivering, numb fingers. Then, even more helpfully, it began pouring most heavily.
I was now a very fast wet person.
Arriving at the nearest station 50 kilometers later, I deposited a sandwich in my face, regained body heat, and consumed minimal wifi as nature howled and pelted at the windows. The internets granted me awareness of an alleged hotel with hot-tub in Chamberlain, which made the prospect of enduring some additional distance seem worthwhile.
So to Chamberlain I went. Alas, the hot-tub was out of service, but there was at least a bed.
I made very little distance on the mere three-hours of riding this day, but definitely enjoyed both plenty of art and plenty of weather. Also, I was no longer wet and miserable, so I declared victory and fell asleep early.
The next morning I woke to beautiful skies and the Missouri river.
The great plains really just keep extending forever.
But at some point, as I sped through endless flatness, the very first hill materialized. Then, hints of mountains crept into view, barely perceptible in the margin between horizon and sky, and finally stark fissures and cliffs opening up like great scars in the earth.
Later that morning I arrived in Rapid. Given that I was already halfway across the continent, I obtained a bike checkup over lunch. Turned out my chain was problematically loose, and other issues started to sprout up, so good timing.
Then Northwards I went to Belle Fourche to check out the “Geographic center of the USA”. Just a bunch of flags, really.
But the path there was gorgeous, and grew more gorgeous as I turned south through the Black Hills.
After being wet and cold, it was truly a delight to encounter actual twisties through wondrous canyons and waterfalls, and it was lovely to share this beautiful day with many other motorcyclists.
However, I took a wrong turn at some point, and found myself riding for hours on extremely sketchy gravel roads. The Ninja is not a dirtbike. Helpfully, cell signal was too poor to generate a map with sufficient resolution for all the tiny backroads on my pocket rectangle, which meant lots of guessing.
Thankfully, I escaped the land of eternal low-sides before dark.
Soon after, I found old white dudes patriotically carved into a mountain.
Rushmore was quite pretty in person. Afterwards, I figured I’d check out Crazy Horse just a bit South.
I grabbed some highly mediocre dinner at the Crazy Horse memorial, and then hung around until 2100 in order to check out the light show. It was pretty, but I was less impressed by how it white-washed over Native American narratives in the “God Bless America” kind of way. Probably shouldn’t have bothered.
My reservation that night was for a hotel in Hot Springs, but that was another couple hours south. So off I went into the darkness, carving through the mountains, alone for miles, no cell-signal or civilization in sight, visibility only from a sliver of moonlight and my headlights powered by a single lead-acid battery alternated via very limited fuel tank.
It was interesting to know that if I had any sort of incident out here, it would probably not be The Best.
But, I arrived at the motel close to midnight, and proceeded to pass out.
In the morning, I left at 6AM again, passing South through Nebraska. Carhenge was unavailable, so instead I powered through Wyoming as fast as possible, though I did stop at the Greater Green River Intergalactic Spaceport.
In the middle of nowhere upon a plateau, it had an exceptionally gorgeous view. Unfortunately, I did not encounter any Jovians.
I continued onwards, obtained ice cream, and made it to Salt Lake City before both daylight and my posterior gave out. So far, this was my longest contiguous day of riding, involving four states: SD, NE, WY, UT. I resolved to find a hot tub to simmer in that evening.
Most refreshed, early next morning I pushed north around the Great Salt Lake.
Golden spike was cool. After that, I endured some gravel roads and reached Spiral Jetty.
I ventured onto the spiral and frollicked upon the rocks, though it was very windy. As you can see in the distance, storms were beginning to brew. As I turned back, rain started pelting down, and the winds picked up.
According to forecasts in many directions, the correct choice was North to Snowville, despite the name. I got soaked, but eventually broke through to sunny pastures again on the 30.
There were certainly stretches on that road where the distance to the next gas station was just barely under the maximum range of my bike.
Listening to Random Access Memories while rolling endlessly towards the horizon, the music crescendoed along with my RPMs, and I was compelled to determine the maximum velocity of my EX-500.
After many hours of this, my vision also was temporarily modified, in which the road would continue “zooming” even while stopped.
I also ran into a roadblock of cows.
Now this was a truly symphonic mooing, dozens of bovine voices arrhythmically contrapunting with the percussive splattering of feces and urine streaming fantastically upon the road.
The cowgirls and I cleared a path using our respective mounts, allowing a couple other seemingly frustrated cars to proceed, and off I went as well.
Soon, the fonts on the signs shifted, and I was in Oasis, NV.
I considered chilling at a hotel, but then this day would’ve contained far too little distance compared to previous days. Besides, Reno was in the same state, right?
So I proceeded through Nevada in a meditation, time-dilated – hours of riding collapsing into a single moment.
By evening, I found myself teleported to Reno.
But… Reno isn’t that far from San Francisco, right?
So I proceeded towards the Sierras, climbing far up the mountains as the sun completely disappeared.
Exhaustion caught up at 2AM at one of the rest stops, so I opted for a nap, despite how this spot was far chillier than any other point on my journey. Helmet on, along with every other layer, I horizontalized upon a grassy spot behind the rest structure.
20 minutes later, I woke not exactly refreshed, but refreshingly chilled to the bone.
Only trucks made the rounds this time of night, and most were stopped for brake check. No other vehicles were out and about. So I recklessly flew all the way down the empty mountain freeways.
The biomechanics of sitting had fully acclimated at this point, so no issues there despite the contiguous 15 hours from Salt Lake City. The roads began to fill up again as I sped past Sacramento. Bursting with excitement, I crossed the Bay Bridge at sunrise.
However, my entire body was so frigid I could not feel anything except immense emotion as I rolled up the garage door to my crazy new home in San Francisco.
Then I wedged this filthy EX500, somehow still in one piece, behind housemate bikes, dropped bags, then surprise-crawled into bed. I managed to pass out immediately. Nicole woke up and had a day because I was essentially a giant icecube rendering the bed defunct.
San Francisco, June 2016