In the summer of 1998, I made a trip on a motorcycle that many people would consider a dream to be lived. Add to this the fact that I did this as an act of my employment with all expenses paid for almost seven weeks. Since I had 4 weeks vacation and found most vacation boring, I offered my employer my 4 weeks vacation if they would allow me to travel on my motorcycle to visit as many constituents as I could on their behalf. They accepted that trade.
My job was to visit as many donors and potential donors as I possibly could for Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia. For this feat, I enlisted a turquoise and white 1994 Harley-Davidson Wide Glide with thunderous pipes that always caused seniors and the middle-aged to recall all the curse words they could think of. I loaded up a giant T-bag that probably weighed 75 pounds with clothes for every occasion and perched it behind me on the passenger seat for a backrest. On the morning of June 22, 1998, I roared down my Holland, Michigan, driveway and raced for a dinner in York, Nebraska, that night, 753 miles down the pike. York is about 100 miles into the state, 50 miles beyond Lincoln, on I-80. US 81, a major highway that goes from Oklahoma to Canada, crossroads right through York. The town is almost 97% Caucasian and rural. There are lots of Germans out in this area. It sits at the front door of the Great Plains and is flat as a pancake. Head west out of York on a sunny day and the sky will open before you like a Cinema as you sit on a 2-lane concrete slab as straight as an arrow.
I had made this trip out to York scores of times to see a certain unmarried farmer who lit one cigarette off the previous one, ate Texas toast and t-bone steak every night of his life, and poured stiff black coffee down his throat like somebody who was having a heat stroke. Then he would go home with a belly full of caffein, meat, and smoke and sleep as if he were in a coma. The passenger seat floor in his car or truck was piled high with coffee cups and cigarette butts beneath a dashboard carpeted with brown dust. Driving to Chicago for him was like driving into a nest of cobras in Calcutta. He loathed every second of it. Sitting alone on a tractor or pounding down another steak and coffee in a fly-infested cafe with pickup trucks tied up in front in a joint called Sutton, Nebraska, was the same thing as Disneyland to him. He owned a a Blue Heeler that would sit next to him in the pickup and menacingly stare down every car that came down the highway. As the car approached, the dog’s head would lower and his eyes would bead in on it. When the vehicle passed, the dog’s head would whip to the left for the final challenge as if he were saying, “I thought so.” I visited several people in Des Moines, Iowa, on the way to him, and when I got there, I could barely hold my eyes open during the dinner while he nearly strangled himself on a 20 ounce t-bone, a chuck wagon of coffee, and enough cigarettes to finish off a cancer ward.
The next morning I rolled down that I-80 slab over the same terrain that 50,000 covered wagons a year used to travel in the 1850’s and entered the main gate of the Oregon Trail at Kearney, Nebraska, which was named after Stephen Kearny who is called “the father of the United States Cavalry.” Between 1843 and 1869, over half a million men, women, and children rode and walked the trails through here to the West Coast. All roads to Oregon converged here in Kearney, a natural highway through Nebraska and the easiest part of the journey to Oregon. There were no bridges, no stores or homes, no food except the buffaloes, no roads except those they made with their wagons, and few primitive and uncertain sign posts indicating a precarious way along the Oregon Trail. Just before reaching Kearney, straddling over I-80 is a huge arch and museum called The Great Platte River Road Archway. A stop there will orient the uninformed of what is beneath their feet. There were many places a hundred miles or so further back where the Oregon Trail emigrants first launched their journey from the eastern banks of the Missouri River within the states of Missouri and Iowa, but all these trail tributaries flowed into one at Fort Kearney, which is considered the official starting point of The Oregon Trail. I have traveled by motorcycle over some of these routes on the way to Kearney and have seen forgotten, weed-covered grave sites of people who died on their journey. In fact, the Oregon Trial has been called the world’s longest graveyard. They say that there is a grave site about every 229 feet on average of those who died on their way to Oregon, a 2,170 mile, 4-6 month journey that only covered about 20 miles a day. Most of them abandoned almost everything they owned and saved themselves by walking into Oregon with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. They drowned at river crossings, starved and died of thirst, were run over by their wagons or trampled by their livestock, fell to poisonous snake bites, and were victims by the thousands to disease, especially the dreaded cholera that stalked them along the length of the Trail and generally killed a person in just hours. There were years when large scale cholera epidemics broke out on the trail population and swept them away, some wagon trains losing two-thirds of their people. All of them were also loaded to the teeth with guns and ammunition and suffered self-inflicted wounds from dropping their firearms and similar accidents. Weather and violent thunderstorms with baseball sized hail took some. Just be out here when a summer storm strikes, and you will understand. In a few parts of the state of Nebraska where not every inch of the trail has been plowed under, you can still see swales in the land where hundreds of thousands of wagons had left their marks on the soil as their wheels rolled together in each other’s ruts. You have to get off the main roads and onto the tractor roads through the cornfields to see these places. There are books in libraries that list hundreds of these spots with exact location details along with cemetery markers.
Stage coaches on their way back and forth to California carried Mark Twain and Horace Greeley over this very same road where I-80 now lies. The Pony Express raced over this exact same path for a year and a half in 1860-61, and the transcontinental railroad came right behind them in the late1860‘s. Most people go into Nebraska and see absolutely nothing. If they are heading West on I-80, they cross the bridge into Nebraska and are greeted by mile marker 454, and their hearts sink, thinking they are about to endure the most boring ride in America. But all you have to do is read The Great Platte River Road by Merrill J. Mattes that the state of Nebraska published a few years ago or Nothing Like It in the World by Stephen Ambrose, or Roughing It by Mark Twain. You will never see Nebraska the same way again. Like me, you will just stop and sit on a lonely road off the Interstate on a warm day and imagine the ghosts of history passing before you. Many journalists of those Oregon Trail days recorded that by the end of the route in Nebraska, they would pass huge piles of household goods in the form of dressers, sewing machines, stoves, tables, chairs, books, and hope chests stacked high on the Great Plains that the emigrants threw off to lighten their loads and save their lives. Nobody picked them up.
Further out and down the road in Ogallala, the Oregon Trail branches off to the northwest along US 26 and heads up to Scotts Bluff, right next to the eastern wall of Wyoming. Out in this remote section, you will feel as if you are as deep in the West and as desolate as you can get as you approach Ash Hollow, Courthouse Rock, Chimney Rock, and Scotts Bluff, four of the most famous stops on the Oregon Trail. Nebraska is one of my favorite states.
The green of Iowa and Nebraska morphed into the brown desert of western Nebraska and eastern Colorado when I forked onto I-76 toward Denver. Soon the tops of the Rockies began to peak over the horizon. I took US 34 off of I-76 and was soon greeted by the fragrant stock yards, dairy farms, and hog farms that preceded Greeley-Loveland where I spent a couple of days eating and laughing with dairy men, friends, contractors, and others related to agriculture. Greeley is midway between Denver and Cheyenne, Wyoming, and is about 50 miles NNE of the Mile High City. Greeley was named in honor of the legendary reformer Horace Greeley who was the founder and “the greatest editor of his day” of the most influential newspaper in the United States from the 1840’s to the 1870’s, The New York Tribune. The Tribune had high moral standards, good taste, and intellectual appeal. It also barred scandals from its pages. Greeley was an odd character with many extreme views both socially and politically. For example, he was fascinated with utopia, socialism, and vegetarianism. But he was alsoone of the most influential Americans of the 1800’s. He promoted the Whig political party and was a founder of the newly formed Republican party in 1856. He opposed slavery but initially resisted the election of Abraham Lincoln in 1860. He became the Liberal Republican party candidate in the 1872 Presidential election. But his friends turned on him. He was ridiculed and mocked in a bitter campaign, his wife died just six days before the general election on November 5, and he lost in a landslide to Ulysses S. Grant, the conquering Union General during the Civil War. All this took a terrible toll on him being in poor health. He was committed to a mental institution and died November 29, 1872 at age 61. He remains the only presidential candidate to have died before the electoral votes were counted. Greeley is depicted in the film Gangs of New York.
In 1859 at the height of the California Gold Rush, Greeley took a trip West to California via the Overland Stage. He was so taken by what he saw that he became a prominent advocate of settlement of the American West. It is he to whom is attributed the famous phrase, “Go west, young man, go west.” In 1869, Greeley began to seek out and finance a location for a utopian colony – “based on temperance, religion, agriculture, education, and family values” – to promote western agricultural settlement in particular. A location was found in Eastern Colorado, and an advertisement went out in The Tribune calling for volunteers of high moral standards. 3,000 responded, but only 700 were selected. The colony was originally called The Union Colony (sometimes The Union Temperance Colony) and was later changed to Greeley. Today Greeley is all but temperate. The crime rate in Greeley is average to a little above average, and the city is infested with Hispanic gangs. But the city did remain dry until 1972 because of the provisions of the colony’s original charter in which the settlers prohibited the sale or consumption of alcohol.
One man I met in Greeley had been a school teacher up in Montana before he came there and got himself into a business filing down cow’s hooves. This was a very dangerous livelihood. He had a contraption on his truck into which the cow was reluctantly driven. When the nervous bovine was in, it would be hydraulically lifted and laid on its side on the bed of the truck. Each hoof had to be secured by a chain lest the 1500 pounds of a cow’s weight be channeled into the end of one of its rock-hard feet and delivered into the chest of the manicurist, which is exactly what happened to this man just trying to get the hooves locked. The traumatic blow to his upper torso immediately initiated a heart attack that nearly killed him.
I scooted on over to Loveland, directly west of Greeley, across I-25 and down US 34 into the heart of Loveland. Loveland is part of the Loveland-Ft. Collins metropolitan area. It has received numerous awards as a great place to live by Money Magazine, USA Today, AARP Magazine, and others. It is conservative in its politics and has a large and active population of Evangelical Christians, which is the reason why I was there. If you are a motorcycle rider, this is a great location from which to assault Estes Park and Rocky Mountain National Park. Loveland sits just west of I-25, which comes off I-10 at Las Cruces, New Mexico and dead ends at and merges with I-90 in Buffalo, Wyoming.
When my time ended there, I mounted up the T-bag and set my eyes toward Manhattan, Montana, where a community of dedicated Christians who loved theological education lived quiet lives. But first I had to climb diagonally through the state of Wyoming and pass through Yellowstone National Park. Rather than the Interstate, I took the lovely U.S. 287 up the mountains into Southeastern Wyoming. Little did I know what was waiting for me as I crested the pass into Wyoming and headed for Laramie and Rawlins. I have traveled many thousands of miles on a motorcycle, but I have never experienced winds like I did that day. For 500 miles, gale winds slammed into the bike and me from the west southwest. The T-bag probably acted like a piece of plywood. The only way I could keep the bike up was to lean it over at a sharp angle into the steady wind wall. When a truck came at me, I had to move the bike as far to the right side of the road as possible and at just the moment when I expected the additional blast of air from the truck that could have literally blown me off the road to arrive in full-force, I shoved the handlebar to the left and drove the bike toward the left lane at a 45 degree angle to keep it up. This continued for an entire day – 460 miles up the two lanes into the freezing cold of Jackson, Hole, Wyoming.
But in the middle of that afternoon as I shoved my way up US 287, I once again came into contact with the Oregon Trail. US 287 is the longest three-digit highway in the US, 1791 miles from Port Arthur, Texas, to Choteau, Montana. In its path is the perceived midway point on the way to Oregon and the beginning of the incline up South Pass, the highest point on the Oregon Trail at the summit of an almost imperceptible approach to the Continental Divide and the lowest point on the Continental Divide between the Central Rocky Mountains and the Southern Rocky Mountains. It was a natural crossing of the Rockies, and the Indians knew about it. But it was discovered accidentally by white trappers in 1812. It was lost shortly thereafter, causing trappers to use a more northern and more difficult route with an extra mountain range. It was rediscovered again in 1824. The first wagons went over the Pass in 1832, and the first women crossed it in 1836. But between 1848 and and 1868, almost 500,000 people flowed over South Pass. Every emigrant wagon train and handcart company that went westward rolled through this Pass. There was no other way to go. No other path offered a dependable supply of grass and water plus an easy grade to and through the mountains. On crossing the Pass one pioneer woman noted that, “…we have forever taken leave of the waters running toward the home of our childhood and youth….” Two-and-a-half miles farther west the emigrants encountered Pacific Springs, the first water flowing westward. It wasn’t until 1869 when the Transcontinental railroad broke through that an easier way West was opened. I only had time to visualize thousands making their way through this wilderness with no knowledge or care of Yellowstone off to their northwest.
When I pulled into Jackson Hole, it was frigid. I collapsed, exhausted, into bed.
The next day was mild. The spectacular, jagged points of the Tetons draped with snow on my left reflected off of Grand Teton Lake like a mirror and renewed my resolve. I passed the ranger station at the south entrance of Yellowstone. Some motorcyclists I had met along the way gave me their pass for free entrance into the park. They told me it was good for another two days. When it passed the ranger’s inspection, I throttled the Harley up into the dropping temperatures of America’s first national park back in 1872 where snow showers now flew about me. Yellowstone is a powerful place. Its ambiance grips you in so many ways. 97 % of its pristine 3400 square miles and 2.2 million acres are undeveloped. If you think it is formidable during the day, be there at night.
In the summer of 2009, my wife and I worked in Yellowstone for three months. On our days off, we often traveled outside the park to distant towns and always stayed out till way after the park was closed and would then make the incredible trip back in when there was not a soul on the road. I say incredible because one night just after passing the vacant ranger station at the north entrance, I pulled over and turned the car and lights off and stepped out into the night. This is something one has to experience to get the full effect. But as I looked up into the park while coming in to the mountainous north entrance, it was pitch black. I knew there was a black mountain looking down on those who approached it, but I saw nothing. Nothing. No hint of light or friendliness of any kind. It was like Frodo Baggins approaching Mordor in Lord of the Rings. I was standing on the road next to the Yellowstone River on my left, and I could hear it roaring ominously through the unseen canyon. I looked up into the black sky briefly because I didn’t want to take my eyes off the side of the road where a foreboding shadow could mean a bear or a wolf, as they stalk prey at night. The sky was covered with a blanket of stars of various lumens with that familiar but faint milky wave of millions of them clustered together many light years away in the background. It was total blackness in every direction around me. Chills ran up my back to think what may be watching me. So like lightning I tore the car door open, fired up the motor, and roared up the road for another 50 miles into the black, boiling belly of Yellowstone over roads with faint painted lines through woods and past granite outcroppings and wisps of steam and faint sulfurous odors. There was no relief of a sense of dread till I reached Canyon Village where we worked. I had been here for six weeks and had not been all that appreciative of this place, but all it took was a ride into this dark, remote world at midnight to start to get a feel for the haunting allure of its magic. As I lay in bed in total darkness that night at 8,000 feet, I heard the mournful baying of wolves in the distance, like echoes in a Dracula movie. Yellowstone is mysterious in the morning, beautiful during the day, serene in the evening, but grippingly, terrifyingly awesome at night.
On this trip, however, I pushed through Yellowstone and dropped into Gardiner, Montana, and shot 54 miles up US 89 to Livingston and I-90, finally turning left and climbing the Bridger Mountains up to the 5712 foot Bozeman Pass towards Bozeman and dropping down into Bozeman at 4712 feet on to the plain leading to Churchill 37 miles up the slab. I was now threading the same gauntlet and hills into the Bozeman valley as Lewis and Clark and Sacagawea did in 1806 when they camped at the mouth of Kelly Canyon just three miles east of Bozeman, a beautiful college and western town surrounded by mountains. Chet Huntley of the 1950‘s NBC news cast team of The Huntley-Brinkley Report went to college here in Bozeman. Just south of here by an hour lay his biggest vision, Big Sky Ski Resort. Huntley had been born and raised in Montana and when he retired in 1970, he moved back to his home state where he conceived of, lived in, and built Big Sky. Three days before the opening ceremonies for Big Sky, Huntley died of lung cancer at age 62. After Huntley’s death, his second wife married William Conrad, the over-weight, mustached star of CBS’s Cannon detective series.
I hit the Holiday Inn Express in Belgrade, just outside of Manhattan and Amsterdam- Churchill, and set up camp here for a few days to visit and chase after the car and farm implement and motorcycle dealers, truckers, potato farmers, and many a man who drove his combine across fields choked with dust just so I could spend a few minutes with him on these parched slopes that overlooked the Gallatin Valley and driveled back into dusty valleys. This is a religious community of primarily Reformed and Christian Reformed people who sacrifice for Christian education in their community and who give a great deal of their income for that purpose and many other related causes throughout the United States. I know that some of them give anywhere from 70-90% of their income to charity. In this little community I also found one of the daughters of Evel Knievel that I used to visit briefly when I was in town. She never liked to talk much about her father, and she was deathly afraid that her small son might one day want to emulate his famous uncle, Robbie Knievel, who was also jumping over buses at the time. The man who invented the cruise control throttle clamp that many motorcyclists use to give their right wrists relief also lived in this little town in a modest house. I was also introduced to water rights and their long history in these families that have farmed seed potatoes in this land for many generations. Those water rights sustain the network of water ditches that flow like veins to give life to the crops that sustain the economy of the Manhattan-Amsterdam-Churchill community and the spread of Reformed theology throughout the world.
In a few days, I was off to my next stop, Yakima, Washington, another 591 miles. I spent the night somewhere on that route. But when I came out in the morning, there was a young fellow on a BMW who told me he was headed for Billings, Montana. I had just come from that way and knew it was a haul he was about to face. He said he would be there by dinner time. I knew he had no idea what he was talking about because the Harley I had commandeered to this spot could never have done that. It labored up mountains and was even passed by 18 wheelers as I kept shifting down. Years later I owned a BMW KRS 1200 and knew he was probably in Iowa by lunch time. That KRS 1200 would go up a mountain at 100 mph as if it was going downhill. I learned later my snail progress up a mountain on this Harley was because my bike had carburetors (not useful in these altitudes) and had one half of the horsepower of the BMW.
On I sped past Lake Cord ‘Alene, Spokane, and into the dusty and barren eastern Washington, down I-90 and into the Columbia River basin past the wild horses sculptures high on the eastern slopes. I carved south just before Ellensburg down US 97/I-82 and up and down three camel-hump mountains and wound down into Yakima. Yakima is about 85 miles from Mount St. Helens by car, but it is only 50 miles as the crow flies. In 1980 when Mount St. Helen’s erupted, it piled 4 to 5 inches of ash on Yakima. A friend of mine in Yakima gave me a jar of the gritty brown ash (more like sand) that she shoveled off her roof, off her yard, and out of her driveway that day. I still have it.
This is apple orchard country (one of the best areas in the world) because of the elevations, the cool mountain water, the irrigation systems developed by the pioneers, the lava-ash soil, the arid climate, and plenty of sunshine on the eastern slopes, unlike the western Cascades. It is also Bing and Ranier cherry country. More than 50% of the sweet cherries in the United States come from this area. I took a tour of a cherry processing plant and learned that one of my favorite cherries, the maraschino cherry found in bars and Dairy Queens, is dyed red and almond-flavored. It is also the equivalent of pepperoni, the last processed pork meat. When hogs are slaughtered, absolutely every molecule is processed and used for some kind of food. The part that no one will use for anything else becomes pepperoni on your pizza. That is what a maraschino cherry is. The cherries that cannot be used for anything else get dyed red or green and rest in a bed of whipped cream on your Sundae or are impregnated with sugar and wait for your teeth in fruitcakes.
I had many orchardists, insurance men, dairy farmers, auctioneers, and CPA’s to talk to. Just like in Churchill, Montana, water rights here are precious intangibles. Depending on how long these farms have been in existence determines who gets the water for the crop and who doesn’t in those years when the snow fall in the Cascades is short. There is a vibrant Christian community in Yakima and the surrounding valley down through Toppenish, an Indian community painted with beautiful murals on business walls 20 miles south, to Sunnyside. If it is a good year, these are a generous people to charitable causes.
After a couple of days, I was done here. Just before lunch I started out of Yakima and back over the three humps toward Seattle. But I thought I would pull over at a factory farm stand on the north edge of town and devour a bag of Yakima’s famous Ranier cherries before assaulting the mountain. It was a hot day in the Yakima Valley. I sat up in a loading dock leaning back against a door and popping those succulent, yellow Raniers at their optimum sweetness and spitting pits out into the sandy gravel, wondering what the poor people were doing right then and thinking I had the best job on the planet. An open, lazy ride to the cool temperatures of Puget Sound over the spectacular Snoqualmie Pass lay before me. I still had a few weeks to go on this trip. I was thinking of all this while noticing that the skies were growing ominous. It was 40 miles over those camel humps. I didn’t want to get stuck up there in a storm, and I didn’t think I would if I got on the horse and flew like a madman out of there.
Since it was so warm, I didn’t think I needed anything other than what I had on, a red checkered, long-sleeve shirt I had bought from Structure. At 80 mph, I raced against the clouds coming from the east. The wind picked up and the temperature dropped as I dived into the backside of the second hump. The heavens were growing black. Creeping up that last hump with the throttle full out, splatters of rain started slamming into me. I remember looking over to my left at one woman peering unconcerned out of her car window at me while I was being thrashed with a blanket of water. By the time I reached the top of the mountain, the heavens had opened up and I was soaked through. The torrent had stopped the traffic at the top, and gullies of water and rock were rolling across the road. If that was not enough, hail began to rain down on all of us up there. I could hear it pinging off of the cars that surrounded me and my gas tank. I was stuck behind a bus and just sat there with water and hail running down over me like water from a fountain. I might as well have been sitting beneath a falls. I had to get out of there. My boots were filled with water, and I was shaking violently as the temperatures, the wind, and the water took heat from my body. I finagled the bike around some cars and between large rocks on the road as the stream flowed over the rims of my wheels. I looked for cover of any kind, but there was nothing but barren rock here at the crest of the mountain. My only option was to get down the mountain as quickly as possible and out of these winds and water and seek shelter. I was so cold that my body was taut with chills. I gripped the bars rigidly. While trying to see through the helmet, I had the presence of mind to realize I had a photo op, and I was going to take it no matter what. Somehow I got the bike to the shoulder. I climbed off. I could hear my feet sloshing in my cowboy boots. I got the straps off of the leather bags and found the camera. As traffic whizzed by, I took a shot of the bike on the dark mountain with the spray of cars washing over me. I threw my leg over the bike and felt both cold and warm water squish from under my pants. This was the only one of two times on the trip that I really wished I wasn’t there. My mistake had been that I did not have on that leather jacket. It would have weighed 70 pounds by now, but it would have spared me my hypothermic condition right then. By the time I reached the bottom, it was still pouring, and my teeth were clacking like a skeleton. I took the first exit and pulled beneath the dark freeway out in the middle of nowhere. I ripped my flannel shirt off and stood there with the hair on my body standing straight up and covered with goosebumps. The T-bag was not water-proof. I had to dig down a foot to find a dry shirt, which felt so good. Everything in the leather bags was black. Those things were useless against rain like this and the dye leaked out of them like water. I looked up and down the highway. I wanted to take my pants off in the middle of Washington to get that warm shirt feeling on my legs. But I didn’t want to get taken in by the State Police for indecent exposure while on a trip for a seminary either. However, the boots came off and I poured out glasses of water from them and stood bare-footed on the asphalt road.
After an hour or so and with my leather jacket back on – and my pants still wet – I fired up the Harley in the late afternoon chilly overcast. I had to get to Seattle before the 3000 foot Snoqualmie – the lowest and most heavily traveled east-west highway crossing the state of Washington – was enveloped with its frigid night air. I was 110 miles from Seattle, so I had to hurry. One biker wrapped in an oil-cloth duster strapped around his cowboy boots shot past me. That is not usual biker attire, but it looked good right then because it was waterproof. The air on my soaked pants made the evaporation raw on my skin. But the further I rode, the quicker it began to dry out. I rolled over Snoqualmie and came down into Issaquah miserable, freezing, and looking for a bed. I really had doubts right then about this trip. But I was 2200 miles from home by the most direct route. I landed in a Holiday Inn in Lynwood where I always stayed and slept like Rip Van Winkle.
The week was cold for July, and the next day the last thing on earth I really wanted to do was mount that motorcycle again. But I had people to see from Auburn to Camano Island to the Skagit Valley to Bellingham to Abbotsford, British Columbia. So I had to head up to Canada, cross the border, and visit a prospect. The customs officials in Canada are an austere, suspicious, and unpredictable lot. You never know what to expect from them. A few years ago I was headed to Ontario to preach the morning service in a church there when I ran into one of these border agents at the Port Huron crossing. When she asked me why I was coming into Canada, I told her the truth, which I thought was an easy ticket into Ontario. Who was going to get hyper for preaching a sermon in a church? She was. It was as if I had said that I was there to blow up Niagara Falls. She ordered me back to Michigan. I called the church to tell them I wasn’t coming, and the pastor got on the horn with her. They went around and around for awhile. Finally she relented and told me that if she sent the Ontario Provincial Police to the church while I was there, and they saw me doing ANYTHING other than preaching, I would be arrested and escorted by them back to the border. So Canadian border agents are very touchy bunch.
When I came to the border, my appearance probably triggered some misgivings. They questioned me about where I was going and why I was out there with Michigan plates. They don’t like people taking money out of Canada or bringing in free gifts that can’t be taxed. So I always had to be careful about what I said. My usual answer was that I was going to visit friends. I passed through the gate, made my call, and appeared back at the crossing within two hours. That set off alarms because coming all these miles for a two hour visit indicated a possible drug delivery. After a thorough inspection and interrogation by them, I finally headed south. In a few days, I was off again down the commuter lane one morning on I-405 for Portland, Salem, and Eugene, Oregon. I turned west on Oregon 42 south of Roseburg and wound through the mountains, falling steadily for Myrtle Point and the coast to stay a night with my wife’s sister and husband. The next day I went to Bandon – which was called one of the “Coolest Small Towns In America” by Budget Travel – and turned south again down the Oregon coast for Santa Cruz, California.
This is one of my favorite rides, 559 miles of gorgeous California coast, redwoods, mountains, quaint towns, forests, ocean views, the Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco, and Highway 17 over the Santa Cruz mountains past Mount Hermon Christian Conference Center and down to the northern edge of the Monterey Bay and into the retro, liberal town of Santa Cruz. My wife was from Santa Cruz and was there waiting for me. I took a vacation for a few days and made some local visits too.
Soon I was back on my way down US 101. US 101 is called The El Camino Real, or The Royal Road or The King’s Highway or the California Mission Trail. This road started to be paved in 1912 in San Mateo County near San Francisco as a two-lane road that was rarely used. In the late 1920’s, construction and widening picked up. It became known as US 101. But long before that, it was part of the Calle Real, a 600 mile road that connected 21 Spanish Missions from San Diego to San Francisco that was developed by the Spanish missionaries in the 17th and 18th centuries. Each of these missions was about 30 miles apart, or a day’s ride by horseback. Just south of Mission San Miguel, I reached Paso Robles and turned left onto California 46.
Up to this point, it had pretty much been cool for the previous weeks. But within just miles the temperature soared to 104 degrees as I cruised to Kern County’s Shafter and Bakersfield where I had more contacts. One of them was a man I had met a few years before, Bob Grimm, a Missouri Synod Lutheran. Bob was about 48 at the time, and his brother, Rod, had died of cancer at age 51 a few years before. They had come from Anaheim, California and had built one of the largest businesses in the world here in the San Joaquin Valley. Few people have probably heard of them, but Bob once told me that he and his brother produced – now get this – 55% of all the carrots sold in the United States. He said that he shipped 240 train car loads of carrots every single day of the year. These are the people who developed the baby carrots we all know and buy. If you go to your local grocer, you are very likely to pick up the brand Grimmway Farms if you buy carrots. Grimmway Farms is the largest grower, producer, and shipper of carrots in the world. His competitor was Bill Bolthouse who owned Bolthouse Farms in Bakersfield. These two men produced 90% of California’s carrots and were generous contributors to many causes. I talked with Bob about Westminster many times, but he died of a heart attack in 2006. He became a major contributor to Concordia University in Irvine.
As I rolled around Kern County, one day I had my first mishap. I was in a remote rural area making a turn in the sand, and the bike went down with that huge T-bag strapped on. I could not lift any of it. Out of nowhere, a lithe, sun-burned-to-leather-skin man in his 50’s drove up, got out of his truck, and lifted that Harley as if his arms were cables on a crane. Then he nonchalantly drove off leaving me standing there stupefied in amazement.
When I had done all the damage I could do in Bakersfield, I ripped down California 99 and cut over to Santa Barbara and US 101 once again to see a friend, bypassing the historic Grapevine that the stage coaches used to travel from northern to southern California back in the 1800’s as they rolled down into the LA basin. I had another round of visits to make in Southern California, mostly in the Orange County area. This was the summer of 1998. It was one of the most memorable summers on record of a heat wave that gripped the South and Southwest. When I finished my work in Los Angeles, I set my eyes toward Dallas, Texas, 1500 miles away where my next group of prospects awaited. I had been listening to the weather reports as I came south, and many had warned me about the tremendous heat into which I was about to enter. With little regard for these warnings, I shot up I-5 in a short sleeve shirt and then made my right turn east on the 91 Freeway toward Palm Springs and the front door to the 1500 mile furnace that blazed up before me. It was 500 miles through Blythe, California, to Phoenix. I don’t think that words could have described the conditions I faced that day. The temperatures were 120 degrees all the way across. The breeze on that motorcycle was like breathing fire. Try to imagine the feeling of being in a sauna and inhaling burning air up your nostrils. My arms broiled like meat on a car hood. One does not realize how moisture is being drained from his body at 70 mph in those temperatures. There were times I began to get very concerned whether I could even make it to the next stop. There is no place to hide in that barren desert. There are no shelters for relief and few stops for gas. Deep into Arizona, I saw a lone rest area where I laid against a small out-building and poured what water was available over me. I was facing heat exhaustion, a very dangerous and insidious threat that can only be relieved by cooling the body down immediately and withdrawing from the sun. The closer I moved to Phoenix, I stopped more and more frequently to soak my head and consume gallons of water. It was dark when I pulled into Phoenix. Why MILLIONS of people lived in this desert was beyond me.
The next day I pushed on through incredible heat past Tuscon. As I approached New Mexico, I ran into desperately needed relief when monsoon rains tempered the awful heat. I found a lone road side cafe and took a break. But I suffered my next near miss when I accelerated on one of those cow guard grates that often lie in the road in areas where cattle roam. The pipes were wet from the rain, and the tires slipped. The bike started to slide and take me down with it. I quickly turned the bars and somehow saved myself by staying upright, but by doing so, I did some kind of chiropractic twist in my back that I knew was not good. When I got to the next gas station, I could not get off the bike. I was locked in the seated position I was in. My back would not bend. I contorted myself off the horse and remained bent over parallel to the ground as I moved toward the gas pump and lifted the handle. I don’t even know how I got the credit card into the pump or how I got back on the bike. I remained in this position for several more days.
In pain, I headed toward New Mexico in the late afternoon where dusk would soon greet me as it lifted its dark eyes over the eastern horizon and stared down on the western portion of the Land of Enchantment. In short time, I was rolling up on the town of Lordsburg, New Mexico. Lordsburg was founded on the Southern Pacific Railroad route. Although Lordsburg didn’t even exist until 1880, the famous Butterfield Stage stagecoach route that delivered mail from St. Louis to California from 1857-1861 ran right over the town on a southern route that was 600 miles longer than routes through Denver and Salt Lake. But this route was snow free. Charles Lindbergh descended upon Lordsburg in 1927 on his transcontinental air tour in the “Spirit of Saint Louis.” Just a few years later the U.S. Government held as many as 1500 Japanese Americans here in an internment camp during WWII. Very few live there today. Even captured German and Italian soldiers were held here. Lordsburg also had open arms for African Americans in the mid 20th century. It had one of the few motels in the Southwest where they were allowed to stay during the days of legal segregation.
I was 600 miles from Los Angeles. Exiting the Interstate at the far western end of town, I coasted into a Love’s Truck Stop, very tired and trying to decide if I should continue on to Las Cruces, 148 miles further through the black desert. I happened to pull up next to a young fellow in his 30’s who was riding an older looking sport bike. He had come from Alaska on that thing. He was headed to San Antonio, Texas, and expected to be there the next morning. That was 713 miles from Lordsburg, a 12 hour ride. He wanted to know if I would like to ride with him. I thought that would probably keep me awake because I was beginning to feel the fatigue of this trip and was getting anxious to get back to Michigan. Together we cruised at 80 mph through the pitch black canyon of New Mexico’s darkness. The Interstate made turns at the right time as it led us through the sheets of Monsoon rains that surrounded us and occasionally just touched us. But when the lighting would turn the desert into daytime, we could see menacing thunderheads dark and towering in our path. We exited at Deming in the nick of time before a soaking deluge intercepted us. On the western edge of town about 10 pm, we rolled toward the lonely lights of an empty convenience store for coffee to wait out the storm. Not a soul was in sight. We drank coffee, and he smoked while sitting on his haunches and leaning back against the brick wall of the store in the pale light while a falls of water cascaded off the roof that covered our steeds. He was a friendly, likable soul. He told me he was rushing to San Antonio because his father was on his deathbed. He hoped he could make it in time to see him once more. The setting made him reflective. He told me that he had seven children by three different women, and he was married to none of them. I’ll never forget what he said after that. “I know God is going to get me some day.” That was the ticket he handed me that allowed me to ask him, “Have you ever heard of justification?” This is the best word in the Bible. I talked to him about that until the rain stopped.
We continued on through the lightning all about us until we came to Las Cruces. I waved off as I took an exit for a motel. He signaled me farewell as he faded into the darkness. Many times I have wondered about that encounter. Did he make it to San Antonio by morning? Did he see his father before he died? Did our discussion about his eternal destiny have any effect on his life?
Las Cruces is the second largest city in New Mexico and is Apache country. It sits at the beginning of an urban stretch of I-10 that dips south into West Texas and El Paso before passing out of sight of all civilization and following the lonely, narrow path of I-10 across the eastern portion of the southern desert leading into the plains of Texas. Las Cruces is about half-way to Dallas, which is where I was headed. I had another 800 miles to go through a burning hell. I was out of there after breakfast and descending into El Paso.
El Paso is in the middle of absolutely nowhere, but it is the 22nd largest city in the United States. It sits directly across the Rio Grande River from one of the most dangerous places on the face of the earth, Juarez, Mexico, a city that is even larger than El Paso. These two cities have a population of about 2 million people. Juarez accounts for 2/3 of that. It is at night time when this becomes apparent. If one stands on the Texas side of the two cities from almost any position in El Paso, he will see the lights of Juarez stretch endlessly into the Mexican horizon. The lights of El Paso-Juarez are one of the most beautiful and impressive sights that one can see at night in any American city I can think of.
El Paso has a long history originating with Spanish settlement in about 1600. It was once known as the “Six Shooter Capital” because of its lawlessness with gunfighters, prostitution, and gambling. At the beginning of WWI, the authorities cracked down on vice, and then it all moved across the river to Juarez. It is a hot, light brown, bone-dry place sitting at 3800 feet above sea level in a mountainous region. It rests in what is called the Basin and Range Region of the US and is surrounded by the Chihuahuan Desert. There is only one major road through it, I-10. I-10 seems to go on forever through this town that is built mostly on both sides of its east-west freeway route. If you are alert, you will notice on the south side of I-10 a Harley-Davidson dealership known as Barnett’s, billed as the Harley-Davidson dealership with the world’s largest selection of Harley’s for sale. Go in there and you will see a cavernous place with hundreds of Harleys. I plowed down I-10 that day with one goal, get to Dallas. Little did I know that in two years, I would be flying back to this place with my wife to buy a 1998 BMW K1200RS, sight-unseen, from the Internet to begin a trip that would take us from El Paso to Padre Island, Jacksonville, Key West, Chattanooga, Philadelphia, and back to Michigan, a 5,000 plus mile trip. But that is for another time.
The heat of the desert from El Paso to Dallas was record-breaking. It had been broadcast on the news during my whole journey. But I had no alternative. I branched off of I-10 onto I-20 and just stayed with the tremendous heat as I moved into the plains nearing Odessa-Midland on to Big Spring and Abilene. There were times when I was not sure that I could keep going. There are long stretches of desert and plains with barely a town in between. Once I left I-10 and merged on to I-20, I saw very few cars on the way to Abilene. There isn’t much out that way unless one is going to El Paso, and during that time in the summer of 1998, no one in his right mind was going there unless he was in a tractor-trailer. I fell short of Fort Worth that night somewhere approaching the brink of civilization once again after nearly 1500 miles. Without much enthusiasm, I mounted that Harley the next morning and forced myself to continue on to Dallas where it seemed the temperatures had elevated all the more. All of Texas was in serious drought, and the 110+ degrees that had endlessly blazed Dallas that summer in a record-setting number of continuous days surrounded everything. It emanated from the road, pressed down from above, enveloped a person all around him, and burned up into his nose when he breathed. It was even more oppressive than anything I can remember from the many years I lived in Florida. To give you an idea of what it was like, on that 1500 mile trip from Irvine, California, to Dallas, I saw a grand total of just three motorcycles other than myself on the roads.
I had gone to seminary in Dallas-Fort Worth area in the late 60’s. Dallas was a cowpoke of a town in those days. By 1998, it was a first-class city with a completely renovated freeway system linking and surrounding the two cities, towering skyscrapers in the downtown Dallas metropolis with buildings outlined in lights, and a magnificent international airport. It was now being called a Metroplex, a word I never heard used in the 60’s. I posted myself up in a Marriott Courtyard and set up a plan to visit a whole new group of people I had never met before. One of them was Bunker Hunt. Back in the early 80‘s, Bunker and his brother, Lamar, were world famous for having cornered the silver market. Bunker was a fine man who loved Texas and was a committed Christian. Everybody who had ever heard of him came to see him for charitable purposes. His brother went on to own the Kansas City Chiefs. Westminster Seminary had started a satellite campus in Dallas in collaboration with Park Cities Presbyterian Church where one of our alumni was the pastor. My job was to begin to cultivate a list of new potential donors from that church and other like-minded congregations in Dallas. That little seminary start in the early 90’s eventually became a full-fledged seminary in its own right on February 17, 2009, when it broke away from the mother institution in Philadelphia and became officially known as Redeemer Seminary.
After a few days there fighting the heat and rolling around Dallas on that motorcycle in that loathsome heat, I was counting the hours when I would point the front wheel north and head for home without visiting one more person. I had visited well over 100 people on this trip so far. At last I reached the last person I could visit after about a week and a half and determined that I would head for Michigan the next morning.
On August 6, I saddled up the Harley with that 75 pound T-bag once again, ate breakfast, and barreled out of Dallas north to northeast up US 75 at 9 am CST. It was one of those glorious motorcycle days every biker knows about. It was warm, but I was going home. So it made no difference. I just felt good, and there were no more stops and no more people to see. All I had to do was flop in a motel somewhere north that night and finish it all up tomorrow to my eternal relief. Any trip on a motorcycle is always good when you are GOING. But it is something else again when you are COMING back. This is compounded even further if you are going to CALIFORNIA because it is a long way and you have to come back a long way. This day, however, all my fatigue, general weariness with the trip, and longing for an end to it all dissipated because I felt free from the work I was burdened to accomplish, and the weather was glorious. The scenery had also changed. I was in the green part of Texas now and heading up into Oklahoma where there were more hills, rivers, and ridges. Flat plains had turned into prairie. I was on US highways all the way up through McAlester and Muskogee and by mid-afternoon I intercepted I-44 and turned right toward St. Louis, nearly 400 miles further. I was sailing over the Interstate up and down the hills of Missouri and feeling absolutely wonderful. It was one of those rare days when everything was working like it should on a motorcycle. Many times during the day I had become so sleepy that I closed my eyes and nearly fell asleep on that Harley. But this wasn’t one of those days. I was fully charged from the first blast of that engine and had felt the same every hour of the day as I had leaned back on that T-bag like it was a sofa and just taken in the beautiful prairie as if it was the first time I had ever ridden in my life. I will never forget that day.
By the time dusk was hinting at the horizon, I did not feel one iota more fatigued or less exhilarated than I had at 9 am in Dallas. It was then – somewhere in the middle of Missouri – that I began to toy with the incredible possibility that I may not have to stay in another motel one more night. I had been on the road for so long that even one more night in a motel became a despicable thought. I arrived in St. Louis when it was dark, around 8 pm. I was still wide awake. The thought that I was only 426 miles from home was like adrenaline. By this time, I was committed to going the distance. But I knew that I had better hustle because it was getting cooler and would be cooler still up the east side of Lake Michigan in the wee morning hours. Not only that, but I knew this motorcycle high I had experienced all day long would soon begin to withdraw as the thundering hum of the engine combined with cooler temperatures. It was 300 miles to Chicago up I-55. The glare of lights in the darkness was having noticeable effects on my eyes and making them very tired when I turned right on I-80 at Joliet. I forked off of I-80 and up I-94 about 1 am. Just 140 miles to go. 2 hours. I had driven this stretch hundreds of times up to Holland. It was always cold on I-196 when it left I-94 and arrowed straight up Lake Michigan. Deer stalked this stretch of highway, and it was pitch black as Michigan’s trees hemmed in the four lanes to and from Holland. I was fighting sleep, and my muscles were stiff from the cold air off the Lake. It was all I could do to scream out loud and try to stay awake and keep telling myself to do a little more. Alas, I forked for the last time off of I-196 and onto US 31 and exited at Washington Street. I lazily strolled through the little sleeping Dutch town bathed in soft lights beneath rows of trees. There wasn’t a car or a soul in sight. I looked at the streets and familiar places as if I had returned from the back side of the moon. It had been almost seven weeks since I had left this place. I loped down the final five miles leading out to the shore of Lake Michigan and turned north on my street and into the dark driveway that snaked through the woods and into my garage at 3:35 am on August 7. I had just driven one-third of the circumference of the earth at the equator. When I turned off the key, I never rode that bike again. I sold it weeks later. I dropped into bed next to Linda at 4 am, 19 hours and 1100 miles from Dallas. On a motorcycle, mind you. That is over one-eighth of the entire 8,355 miles I traveled on this trip – all in ONE day. I can drive a car for a long ways. But even to this moment, I have never driven a car 1100 miles in a single day. When I shut my eyes, all I saw was road with white lines painted on it. My ears didn’t stop ringing for three days. I have not been able to hear as well since. It took me a long time to even sit on another motorcycle again. But it is not possible to ever quit.