Before starting the Pan American, home was in Chiang Mai, but I hadn’t planned on returning. (Not to spoil the ending: I’m writing this from a Chiang Mai coffee shop.) We left Thailand with several gigantic suitcases; even knowing most things would be left in Loveland before we started the ride, we still thought we would have plenty of space on the bike. How little we knew.
For several months I’d been purchasing gear for our adventure. (I’ll post a full list of essential gear shortly.) A down quilt made in Seattle, a North Face tent, cooking sets, pelican boxes altered for a motorcycle from Caribou Cases – I was channeling my excitement into online shopping. Gear, check.
Because of Amp’s US visa (she’s Thai), she didn’t need a visa for most countries in Central and South America. Canada was another issue, but one that went surprisingly smoothly, in part due to a letter I wrote begging the Canadian consul to allow us to take this trip together. I was so excited about the trip, so optimistic, that nothing seemed like an obstacle. Visas, check.
We were lucky enough to fly through London on the way to the US. Technically Thais aren’t supposed to transit through the UK, but again, some excited begging to an official allowed us to roam free.
Riding the London “tube” to Paddington Station – that still makes me smile. Our 20-hour layover was as packed as could be: we grabbed a pint at a proper pub (cider, a breakthrough for us as I always wanted to have Amp drink with me, but she generally disliked alcohol – it was a shadow of many more breakthroughs large and small in our relationship over the trip), then got up early the next morning (yay, jet lag!) to walk downtown London, wandering past the London Tower Bridge, Globe Theater, and the Buckingham Palace before we had to return to the airport and continue our flights.
The next week was a crazy rush. Because of my expat tax status, I had to limit my days in the US and I was worried about pushing the Alaskan summer season too much. (As it turns out, I wasn’t worried enough, but more on that soon.) In addition to trying to wrap up a few work projects, we spent our days installing equipment on the motorcycle, shopping for all the items I hadn’t been able to order ahead of time, and packing and repacking and repacking and repacking our bags. That’s not a typo – we started with a huge pile each of “essential clothes and gear”, and had to keep subtracting from it repeatedly as the cases still wouldn’t fit everything.
Finally, the bike had the case mounts installed, I had a good tank bag and waterproof duffel bag. Our departure day was already half over, but we were leaving. I couldn’t have been happier when we said our goodbyes at the curb in Loveland (with echoes of my first motorcycle trip six years earlier) and we drove off to start our adventure.
We didn’t get very far. The bike was so heavy that when parked on flat ground, the main spring compressed, and the bike would fall. It nearly fell at the gas station of our first fill up, and Amp had to hang with all her weight on one side to keep it from falling over. I figured I could live with that for fillups; what I couldn’t live with was the way the bike bucked side to side in the slightest breeze, threating to throw us off the first overpass. (Part of this was due to some basic KLR650 problems, but a few modifications help immensely, and I’ll write those up, too – I wish I’d known that then, instead of figuring it out two years later.) Scared, I pulled over and looked up the nearest Kawasaki dealer to get a heavier rear spring installed. My dad drove out to pick us up from the dealer, and we went back to the living room to repack our boxes yet again.
I will say this – nothing is as motivating as the fear of dying and killing your closest human companion. We left with “only essentials”, but the bridge made us both feel like we could do without at least 20% of what we’d packed, and when we drove back to the bike, our boxes were much lighter.
We discussed giving up for the day at that point. At four o’clock in the afternoon, making an early start the next day was tempting, but would have also been too discouraging, so we started again.
Grooves along the road made some of the travel tricky, but otherwise that afternoon was spectacular. The weather was warm, but traveling along the highway with a breeze blowing past, everything was beautiful. The US is amazing on a motorcycle, even more especially the west, where we rode by pastures just starting to turn golden, ate dinner at a little no-name diner, and rode into the starry night, not stopping till almost midnight to spend the night at a hotel.
Notes from Day 1:
Weight of gear initially:
Tank bag – 6.7 kg
Amp’s backpack – 3 kg
Right side case (Christian’s) – 16.3 kg
Left side case (Amp’s) – 15 kg
Duffle bag with security cable – 15.2 kg
Top case – 17.2 kilos
Weight of gear after oh-my-god-we-almost-died repack:
Tankbag – 6 kg
Amp’s backpack – 2.6 kg
Christian’s case – 13.7 kg
Amp’s case – 15.2 kg
Duffle bag and security cable – 9.7 kg
Topcase – 14.7 kg
The first day of a ride is one of the happiest, while enthusiasm is still more important than a sore bum. Our next day on the highway began to be more difficult, but getting off into the small roads of rural Wyoming helped. From my notes that night:
Day 2: 415 miles
Today was long and hard. The first few hours we were buffeted by winds, having to go slowly through the hills of northern Wyoming. After a few hours of straight, stressful roads, I was questioning my choice of this as a lifestyle.
It wasn’t till the evening that some of the upside really came back. We got off the interstate and onto a country road, and wound our way through Montana. The winds died down, blocked by mountains and trees, and traffic thinned. The sun set with a fiery glow and golden crown, we saw hawks and spotted fawns, and rode through mini-climate pockets of warm, grass-scented air. There’s no way we’re making it to Canada tonight, and I’m stiff and sore from a 12-hour span of riding (breaks included), but that finish was what I needed to feel good about this trip.
Plus, we meet people when traveling like this. Everyone is curious about the bike and where we’re headed. At a gas station on the Native American reservation we met a man who had ridden a KLR650 around Bolivia. At dinner we met an older gentleman (along with his family) who’d had one of the original Goldwings, and had lived in the little Montana town for 95 years, though he didn’t look yet 75. His wife was beside him, wishing us a safe journey before they drove off (in a car driven by the 95 year old!) together. He said his secret was marrying a good woman, and having a good son; it makes me think perhaps the secret is appreciating the people you love.
More adventures tomorrow. And hopefully a new country for Nin’ta and I.
One more day brought us to the Canadian border, cold and tired, but thrilled to be visiting another new country together, having tasted our new lives. That night we spent in a hotel with a water slide, which had immeasurable appeal to my inner child – but wasn’t that the point? Isn’t all travel a chance to let our inner child out, to nourish the parts of us we normally pack away for practicality, to give ourselves a chance to explore all of who we are?
Notes from Day 3: 315 miles, Lewiston to Cardston
We need more winter gear. At least a second pair of mittens. We finally had a day of beautiful riding, but cold, caught between wind, rain or both. We veered through the Blackfeet Nation to get closer to the Glacier mountains, but went back to the plains because of the rain. I think on our next long ride I’ll be wearing wool.
At lunch we met a couple of guys walking the Continental Divide trail, almost done after more than 2000 miles. I’m putting a bookmark on that for the future.
Further north we saw the mountains, largely obscured by the smoke at first (fires in the PacNW), then clear — beautiful forests and lakes finally coming in to view.
After our second rain flurry we finally came in range of the border, and knew for sure we would make it. We stopped to have a cup of coffee; I was worried about Nin’ta getting hypothermic. The border agent was grumpy, but I would have been, too, sitting in a cold shack on the side of the road.
Canada! We’re in. At the first town we gave up on camping (just one more night!) and stopped off at a hotel with a hot tub and water slide. Well, well worth it.
We also decided to take a couple of days in Waterton instead of pushing on to Banff right away. Hopefully today we’ll get our blog up and running, too — so far all our notes are just on our phones. And hiking tomorrow? Or…? Who knows — we’re travelling!