Trans-America Trail 2000: Off-road across the USA
Trans-America Trail 2000: Off-road across the USA
By Russell Fisher
Note from Sam:
Russell is a great guy from England who contacted me about riding the trail in the spring of 2000. I sent him the info, including maps and roll charts, and he planned his trip. He flew into Orlando, Florida, July 13, 2000, and went by bus to Jacksonville, Florida, where his bike had arrived a few days before via boat. I met him in Alabama and took him to Jackson for a few days of getting acclimated to this climate, and then we started the trail together. This is his account of his trip, written as he went across these great United States. ~Sam Correro
Despite the fact I came across Sam Correro’s website (TransAmTrail.com) roughly eight months ago, the decision to jump wasn’t really taken until a couple of months ago. So it’s taken… ummm, two months to prepare for this. No, you’re right – it’s not enough. It’s been a web-based research and prep job throughout which, of course, has cut down on time considerably, but I’m still running around like a decapitated duck now and will continue to do so for the next couple of weeks. Hey ho.
Me? Aaaah, pretty much par for the course really – just turned 40, long-term magazine journalist, recently divorced and – quel surprise – nurturing an embryonic little mid-life crisis.
The bike? Oooh, ‘93 Honda XR650L ill-advisedly purchased as a commuter hack, now replete with 23-litre Acerbistank, MT21s, Happy Trails racks, Ortlieb Drybags and more off-road potential than I’m really willing to exploit – I’ve ridden the odd trail weekend, a Weston Beach race and spent a couple of days with ex-UK Enduro Champion Geraint Jones and one with Paris-Dakar nice guy John Deacon. But all that was on featherlight little girly bikes. And this thing weighs a ton.
And it’s going to be 95 degrees in the shade throughout.
And I could be fitter.
And I’ve never changed a puncture.
Where, when, what? Ah, yes — I got into Orlando (God bless cheap charter flights!) on the 13th, flaked out in a nasty motel, jumped the Greyhound up to Jacksonville and was reunited with my ’93 XR650L after a mere five-minute tussle with US Customs.Actually, it was a breeze; sign here, sign there, flash the documentation and “have a nice day, y’all”. It’s here for 12 months max on its UK plates, no difficult questions asked. What a very nice man.
I met Sam at the highest point in Alabama, Mt. Cheaha, from where he trailer’d me down to Jackson. Phew… I’d already burned half a brand new rear Pirelli MT21 away, the same tyre that was meant to have got me all the way over to Colorado. Current plan is to complete the ride west to Colorado then head back east to finish the missed sections before shipping back home from Jacksonville – we’ll see how things shape up.
Press thing and pics done, we loaded the bikes up and picked up the trail on the border of Mississippi and Arkansas, riding west across the Mississippi river and across the cotton and soya-bean belt with Sam on his XR600 and Ernie Phillips from Chattanooga on his ’95 R100GS-PD, complete with nine-year-old son Christopher loaded up on the rear for good measure.
Whereas the eastern portion of Arkansas is flat as a board, in the west it rises up gradually into the lush green folds of the Ozarks, the Trans-Am Trail sticking to the beautifully sweeping, crown-cambered and graded gravel tracks which form the network of public highways running through these hills– amazing riding if, like me, you’re buzzed by the idea of getting into the swing and rhythm of riding a rear-drive roller-coaster on a bed of pea-sized marbles. After 400 miles of this your inside foot’s less inclined to twitch nervously out and you right hand more inclined to twist back; so much for sightseeing.
The last day in the state before crossing into Oklahoma was wetter than a weekend in Wales – and if anyone from the Hein Gericke shop in Bristol is reading this, no your Tuareg lightweight jackets are NOT waterproof, thanks very much. Fortunately the Ortlieb soft luggage definitely is, and what’s more the Happy Trails racks they’re secured to are showing absolutely no signs of weakening under the constant off-road hammering; the further west we got, the rockier the tracks became, until by just north of Alma we were into sections of 18-inch high rocks steps followed by stretches of 18-inch deep glop – when it rains here it doesn’t piss around. And if anyone tries to tell you that a BMW R100GS isn’t an off-road bike, tell them to look up Ernie Phillips — I thought I was doing pretty well, but every time I looked around there he was a couple of hundred yards behind chucking “Chunky” around like it was a YZ250. Complete with a pillion passenger… respect.
Currently I’m hole’d up in Tulsa (where I had a new rear tyre fitted courtesy of Laree Peters at Honda of Tulsa) at Ernie’s brother Wendell’s sumptuous pad, lazing in the hot-tub contemplating the dubious pleasures of 750 miles across Oklahoma before I get anywhere near the delights of Colorado and the Rockies – the bike’s fine, I’m fine (sore backside, but it’s hardening up slowly) and the weather’s getting back to fine. By the time I get into New Mexico it’ll be back to 104 degrees in the shade according to the happy man on the weather channel.
P.S. Next computer stop may be a while coming – yes, they have internet cafes in the cities, but I’m pretty far off the the beaten track most of the time, so bear with me.
Oklahoma started pretty well — in the eastern extremes it was still a case of the Ozarks, but fairly soon they petered out into the mind-boggling flat agricultural plains. And – boy – how those plains go on, and on, and on, and on. The trails (mainly what they call ‘mile-marker’ grid roads) are surfaced either in gravel (if you’re lucky) or a sandy-loam type of stuff (if you’re not). If you’ve done something dreadful like squash a bug or something in a previous life, it’ll probably rain on you once you get into the sandy loam stuff, and quite obviously I’ve squished a few bugs in my time — it tossed it down. Sandy-loamy-whatever turned into a clay-like slush, making the going sheer hell for hundreds of miles at a time.
That’s more or less my abiding memory of Oklahoma. Sorry. Numerous over-full creek crossings, minor detours to find less slushy surfaces, and flat, flat, flaaaaaaat nothingness. For virtually my entire run through the state I was little more than a mile or two south of the Kansas state line, and childhood memories of Dorothy’s bleak lil’ homestead and newsreel of tornadoes stuck with me throughout. The company of Laree Peters from Tulsa (he’s service manager at Honda Of Tulsa, who sorted me out superbly with a new rear tyre and a few odds & ends) was welcome in the first day, especially as it coincided with a minor brush with the Dangerous Brothers — a dodgier pair of Hillbillies of Evil Intent than you’re ever likely to see — if, like me, you live in Somerset, UK. We don’t make ’em like that at home…
Come New Mexico I was gagging for a change — and virtually as soon as I crossed the state line, it was like throwing a topographical switch. Scrubby prairie, black sage, deer and full-on western movie-style escarpments aplenty. Pity it only lasted 65 miles…
But then came Colorado — and if anywhere represents a change from Oklahoma/Kansas, it’s Colorado, the ‘Mile High State’. I climbed what I thought was a minor pass to get into the state, but as soon as I reached the top the bike began wheezing and sputtering — a quick check of the map told me I was at 6,500ft, and the fuel mixture was, of course, running overly rich — from the overnight in Trinidad, things just got worse elevation-wise.
By the time I’d scraped into Salida, I’d already notched up two 11,000ft passes, and the going was getting rockier by the minute. I was joined in Salida by Howard Schultz from Colorado Springs, and Bob (whose surname I’ve forgotten — sorry!) Both were present (thankfully, because it meant I could dump my bags in their pickup which was being ferried to the next town) for a run up a section of the Rainbow Trail – an amazing 100+ miles of fantastic single-track through deep woods. But singletrack in this case really did mean single — with the panniers I would have been in deep trouble; and the drop-offs and massive rock steps didn’t make matters easier. Our route took us up 15 miles or so of this.
But the biggest challenges were yet to come…
North of Salida next day we (just Howard and me, Bob having scarpered) climbed the Hancock Pass (12,200ft approx) and then headed south for the Tomichi Pass — within 100 yards of the summit the bike (mine) died. It would idle, but as soon as I opened the throttle, it would die — fuel starvation, obviously, but my attempts to drop the float chamber off the bottom of the carb simply resulted in a stripped screw and frayed temper.
There was nothing else for it but a ten mile coast all the way down to the ex-mining town of Pitkin (and the term ‘town’ is being generous), where — without my camping gear which was in Howard’s pickup down in Lake City, some 100 miles south west, I got a $60 dollar room and more time to fiddle with the carb. By wrenching it sideways I had no more success in removing the float bowl, but in doing so I obviously disturbed the rubbish inside and once again it ran — to late to save the day, however.
The Kawasaki dealer in Gunnison stripped the carb next day and fished out what turned out to be in the remains of a grasshopper / cricket type thing, thousands of which I’d remembered running through and over in New Mexico. And so much for me thinking I’d manage without an inline filter…
The rest of Colorado was just the same (minus the mechanical hassle) — absolutely jaw-dropping but, if I’m honest, a bit on the gnarly side for a bike which, loaded and fueled, probably tips the scales at 400+lb. In fact, given the choice I’d probably say the Trans America Trail was absolutely perfect for an XR400 and a backpack, because now it’s hit the high country it’s become decidedly technical in places, and ‘technical’ on a packed mule like mine means ‘whooooaaaaa shhiiiiiiiiiit’……..
And now I’m out of the mountains and holed up for a day or so with the wonderful Fred Hink of Arrowhead Motorsports in Moab we’ve fitted a new x-ring chain, new sprockets (14-48 now instead of 14-46) and a new rear Pirelli MT21; that’ll be my third rear tyre so far. This morning we took a 90-mile loop through Canyonlands National Park — up the Schafer Trail among others. And while it may be some 6,000ft lower than the Rockies here, it’s none-the-less spectacular — I’m getting bored scraping my jaw off the dirt.
Pity it’s 108 degrees in the shade…
Now. Where were we? Ah yes… Utah I believe – absolutely enormous place chock full of dirt, dust, expansive canyons, precipitous drops, frightfully nice scenery and awfully accommodating locals. Couldn’t recommend the place more, dear friends. Moab especially. Do drop by if you have the chance…
Moab, in fact, was the mid-term shot in the arm (or other fatty extremity) I quite badly needed. My confidence in the bike had been rattled by the carb shenanigans in lofty Colorado (yes, I know it was a straightforward case of foreign objects in inappropriate carburetor places, but — hey! — things can always get worse…). Meeting up with the stoical Fred Hink, he of Arrowhead Motorsports fame, cured many of my ills. And a few of the bike’s too, particularly that of being too damn tall for any normal human being — I’d persevered with its 37.5″ seat height through some trying times, but there’s only so many times you can dab fresh air, dangle uncertainly for a split second then keel over sideways like an aging cow struck rudely with a hefty mallet before you get… well, a tad pissed off with picking the bike up again and again and again. A lowering link dropped the back end by a little over an inch and – hey presto – my size eleven’s connected again when they needed to. And brand new MT21 was welcome too. Hello, brand new MT21; sooooo nice to see you…
The day I was meant to leave Moab headed north to Green River to resume the trail, we just popped out for a swift ride (Fred, myself and Gene, Fred’s trusty sidekick and East Coast refugee) — “swift” in this case meaning a 100-mile loop around the la Sal mountains to the south-east (12,000ft stuff, no pimples here) concluding at Castle Valley and the famed Slickrock Trail, a 12-mile weave over, through and across bare, smooth fields of gorgeous red sandstone. Lovely. Thanks, Fred. It’s been great. But, er… must get off n’all that.
By midway through the following day I was wishing I’d stuck around. The day’s run took me west from Green River to Richfield, via a desolate area peppered with long-abandoned uranium mines (and tin signs peppered with bullet holes warning you not to touch the mines or, indeed, shoot the animals – stick with the signs, bud), Black Dragon Wash, Eagle Canyon, across a stretch of nasty desert and up into the contrastingly green and wooded hills to the immediate east of Salina.
The canyons were a sandy struggle, the desert was a trailer for things to come (oh, and home to the world’s one and only ghostly Lexus, the ‘affordably alternative’ luxury vehicle which, complete with requisite blacked-out windows, just appears out of a minefield of apparently impassable washes and fading trails, folks…) and the green wooded stuff was an almighty pain in the arse — mainly because I dropped the bike a few times on loose, rocky climbs. And unloading the bike then loading it up again three or four times in the space of a couple of hours makes me a little tetchy at the best of times. No, I doubt I’d ever get used to it. Why the hell should I? The only reason I managed to pick the bloody thing up so many times was because I was so bloody annoyed with it. Grrrrrrr, etc.
The last day in Utah involved another bout of loose climbs followed by loose riding and loose bouts of falling over (unload, pick bike up, swear, reload, wobble, fall over, weep like a child, unpack bike, pick up bike…) and – eventually – my first real encounter with a stretch of nothingness — an 80-mile run on the Black Rock road across an area of desert the name of which escapes me. But, by definition, should a desert have a name? Aren’t they a little like cats in the too-enigmatic-for-names stakes? When a cactus falls over in a nameless desert, does anyone hear it fa… (that’s enough of that crap, thanks very much – Ed.)
No, it wasn’t particularly scary — a note on the roll-chart said “Do NOT go alone!!!!” Er, ‘scuse me, very useful and thanks awfully, but what the hell choice did I have in the matter? Couldn’t exactly round up a volunteer, could I? Yes, there’s always the “what if I… (insert injury/ breakdown of choice here)” thought niggling away like an elusive nasal hair , but then that’s part of this silly bloody game, isn’t it? If I wanted all eventualities covered I’d take a fly-drive Disney package, OK? (note to self: next time take a Disney fly-drive package, OK?).
Do NOT go alone!!!!
Deserts just go on a bit, that’s all. In Utah they don’t go on for too long, unlike some, so I was getting off reasonably lightly, despite the uncomfortably warm mid-afternoon temperatures, but the bike once again behaved itself impeccably and, with the hills of Nevada looming across the last dried-up lake of the day, my spirits were once again up there somewhere. All it would have taken was one wrong turn, one patch of sand in the wrong place or one more bug to splat itself across my goggles rendering me blind for the best part of 50 yards, and I would have been an unhappy and lonely bunny once again. Yes, I’m that fickle. You can afford to be when you’re on your own. It’s one of life’s little luxuries afforded the lone motorcycle traveler. Enjoy it while you can; next month you’ll be back smiling and pleasing, smiling and pleasing…
My first overnight in Nevada was at a long-forgotten little place called Baker, famous for its campsite owners who think they’re undercover FBI/CIA operatives sent to this far-flung outpost of something or other for the purposes of ‘national security’. No, honestly, they do. Top entertainment; thanks, Gary, and keep those eyes peeled and those ears pinned back. You never know who might be lurking behind the next, er, bush.
From Baker the trail crossed three or four north-south folds of mountains before heading north into Eureka, sand being the main problem of the day, usually when the trail chose to dip in and out of dried-up streams which, of course, were as sandy as hell. A bike as heavy as the XRL, especially one carrying 65lbs of luggage and 185lbs of sand-hating scaredy-cat, doesn’t like that sort of thing, and yet again I was unloading/digging/loading/unloading (you get the picture). All this gets rather tiring. Sigh. Only another 1,200 miles or thereabouts to go. Almost home, really.
Eureka to Battle Mountain (still in Nevada, of course), saw a change of course to the north and a change in nature of my surroundings — the flat valleys got wider, the sage brush got thicker, the trees thinner on the ground (until they chose to disappear altogether) and the general feel of the place altogether more… ummm, bleak, big and… well, empty again; only we’d changed up a gear in terms of emptiness. If Utah (and, to a certain extent, New Mexico) had felt empty, this bit of Nevada had it truly whupped in the bugger-all-here-for miles-and-miles stakes.
But it had a certain and, to date, uniquely welcoming feel to it, despite (or because of, who knows) the emptiness — it was harsher than anything I’d encountered to date, Colorado included, and one ranch every 60 or 70 miles hardly adds up to a buzzing hive of activity. But I was pleased to be there, pleased to feel myself getting further and further away from home and any touchstones of familiarity — the signs of human life began to get older and rustier, the vehicle tracks older and often non-existent and the trails themselves – yes – older and weaker as they struggled for survival against the onslaught of the inexplicably strident sage.
“Oerrrr…. what if I should (insert mechanical breakdown or personal injury of choice here, etc.)…”
Back in the UK I live bang next to a building that’s stood there for 850 years, but somehow that tiny piled of ordered rubble just pales into insignificance…
Nevada. Heading North from Battle Mountain to a one-pump stop in the called Denio Junction, then on westwards across more rolling and treeless high hills and plains where the antelope outnumber the people by a factor of…well, rather a lot. The wildlife, even this far into the journey, still amazed me – I’d come chugging over a rise and rudely disturb a group of 20 or more wild horses who’d freak and take off across the sage in a massive cloud of dust and generations-old mistrust, or groups of two or three antelope who, despite their popularity among the camo-wearing, gun-totin’, fauna-poppin’ fraternity out here, would display an amazing curiosity at my presence. The eagles were omnipresent, the prairie dogs prolific and…well, if that wasn’t a chunky example of a wolf I saw just before the California state line then someone somewhere had lost a particularly resourceful, large and muscular grey alsatian.
Nevada was fantastic – it nearly finished me off inasmuch as there were at least two occasions when, sick of digging the bike out of sandy washes, tired of the lashing I was taking from the undergrowth which threatened to enfold over the trail and worn down by the nagging concern about my isolation, I’d come close, VERY close to cutting and running to the nearest strip of paved highway I could find on the map and scuttling sharpish to the closest can of cold beer. But fortunately something kept me going – quite possibly the fact that I’d have to admit to it on this website.
Tsk. The wonders of the world wide web, eh? Can’t even crawl off and admit defeat when you want to 😉
After a brief foray into Northern California, Oregon awaited – my final state! And, yes, once again the big topographical switch was thrown and the landscape changed dramatically – strange; did they divide the states up by all getting together and saying stuff like “right, you take this bit with the hills and all those sage bushes, and right there, where the trees start and it gets all green again, that’ll be our bit, OK?” No, probably not.
The trouble with trees is they get in the way of the view; after days, weeks of being able to squint across the horizon and see roughly where I ought to be going, the thick timber cloak of Oregon closed down tight around me and disorientation set in – as did the cold. It wasn’t too bad (despite frozen feet during my first night outdoors in this westernmost state) initially, but as the trail worked directly north from Lakeview towards Gilchrist then west over the mountains to Canyonville, I’d dug out my near-forgotten jacket, pulled on every T-shirt I carried and taken to stopping every hour or so to wrap my numb fingers around the tailpipe, burning my gloves in the process. A country of contrasts, eh?
The route through Oregon was nearly 600 miles, but with the exception of a few sections of trail which clung tenaciously and spectacularly to high ridges where the treeline dropped away to either side, it was comparatively dull stuff with memories of Nevada, Utah and Colorado so fresh. And, of course, I was tired and – for the moment – down again; for no good reason I could think of apart from the journey was nearly over, I was approaching some big fat decisions and… well, it was a Tuesday or something.
Maybe that’s why I overlooked my usual daily bike-check routine on the morning of the last day of the Trans-America Trail, and thus forgot to pump up the front tyre which had been slowly losing pressure for the last week. Whatever, with less than 50 miles to the Pacific, I hit a drainage channel a little too heavily for a front tyre with less than 10lbs of air and picked up my first and only puncture in 5,000 miles. Bugger. The change took exactly 35 minutes which is geological-shift-speed for all those iron-fingered enduro types, but nevertheless I was pretty happy for a first-timer.
The next mile brought another first. “That’s a bloody big dog,” I thought to myself as I swung around a long right-hander etched into a steep hillside and saw a large and shaggy rear end waddling up the trail no more than 30ft away. “One of those big black Newfoundlands or something by the looks of it… woaaaaa, shit, it’s a bear…” My first and only black bear was as keen to get away from me as I was to vacate his personal space, and with a couple of fat, loping bounds it was off up the steep bank and into the darkness of the forest. “Bear, shit, bear, shit, bear…” I repeated mantra-style and wound back the throttle.
The third obstacle stuck in my path to underline the sting-in-the-tail nature of this run was a “grassy” track which didn’t so much run through the trees as disappear into them altogether. There had been logging in the area in maybe the last 12 months and, by the looks of it, a wildfire maybe a year or so before that, the result of both being the extinction of the then-faint track that Sam (Correro) had mapped six years previously.
The map offered me no alternative but to beat my way through the woods – an exercise which proved time-consuming and painful inasmuch as a near-bald MT21 provides nearly zero traction when you’re struggling to get through and over logs littering a deep bed of dust and pine needles. Three hours and just three miles later I emerged and regained the trail, but by then I’d truly had enough.
The Pacific appeared as a hazy blue line on the horizon at first, then stopped me in my tracks at Port Orford, a tiny fishing community roughly 60 miles north of the California state line. I’d finished.
I’d crossed the USA in four weeks, five thousand miles and – occasionally – within a few inches of too much excitement for my own good. About 4,200 of those had been on dirt. I’d used three rear tyres and grown at least three more grey hairs. I’d, in turns, laughed out loud then wondered what the hell had possessed me to ever think about doing this. I’d taken risks that hadn’t bothered me until I’d sat down and taken the time to think about them afterwards.
I’d cooked in 106-degree desert heat and froze my feet in sub-zero Rocky Mountain nights. I’d spent hours, days, weeks on my own and, conversely, met a lot of people I know will occupy a spot on the Christmas Card List for many years to come (not that I send Christmas Cards – it’s a figure of speech). I’d had the time of my life.
And what now? Well, the trip didn’t (and doesn’t) finish there, although the dirt certainly did. Since then I’ve run down the coast to San Francisco, east across Yosemite and the Tioga Pass, north back into Nevada and east again past ‘Area 51’ and over the deserts which so fascinated me, and back into Utah. From there, who knows?
Maybe I’ll let you know.
But if you’re interested yourself, drop Sam Correro a line after visiting his website at TransAmTrail.com. If you’re a dual-sport rider don’t be put off by some of my tales of gnarly climbs and other semi-technical stuff, as Sam’s busy working on alternative routes which will give the rider two trails to chose from depending on either their bike or experience. You’ll miss the tough stuff, but you won’t miss the wide open spaces and the… the unique view of what most of us inaccurately see as the most over-developed country in the world. It isn’t. And the Trans-America Trail gives you the ultimate Back Stage Pass, the Access-All-Areas laminate to top them all.
To do this trip you will need…
1. A sense of the ridiculous.
2. Buns of steel.
3. The occasional desire to get away from people.
4. At least a month.
5. Not much else I can think of.
I need to thank these people…
Sam Correro for the route and enthusiasm and his family for their hospitality, Ernie & Christopher Phillips of Chatanooga for their wonderful company, Wendel Phillips and Family of Tulsa for the bed and warm welcome, Laree Peters of Tulsa for his company and historical insights, Howard Schultz and Elsa from Colorado Springs for their company and encouragement, Fred Hink of Arrowhead Motorsports in Moab for lots & lots, Marick Payton of Menlo Park, CA for his hospitality and front tyre…
My kids Leah, Lauren & Elliott for understanding why I wanted to do it and my partner Mary for telling me to go.
Thanks & love to all ;+)~
A note of thanks from Sam:
Russell, Thank you very much for your faith in me and for your confidence in my navigation system of odometer/roll chart. Please come back and visit our country soon. I enjoyed our few days of riding together.
~ Sam Correro
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