Saturday, November 7, 2020

A Long Overdue New Portal to Adventure

Let's go back to the Summer of 2008....

I had just completed my first year of graduate school at Penn State, and was about to take part in my first stint of actual lab work at the National Ice Core Lab (NICL) outside of Denver. While I was prepping for this field work, it occurred to me that I could potentially stay a bit longer than planned in Colorado after my work was completed, and go after a thru-hike of the ~485-mile Colorado Trail. I had wanted to get a taste of true alpine hiking ever since finishing my AT hike the previous summer, and figured this would be a chance to make it a reality. I calculated that if I hiked at a similar pace to my AT hike, I could finish the entire trail in about 3 weeks.

...And so the planning began. I bought the requisite maps, went through scores of online thru-hiking journal entries, and picked up the necessary cold-weather/alpine hiking gear. I was genuinely excited for a true alpine adventure. What I wasn't expecting though was the ridiculous amounts of snow I'd encounter in late-June in Colorado that year.

Pulling out an ice core at NICL

After my 3 weeks of preparing ice-core samples at NICL, I gathered my things together, stored my non-hiking supplies at a friends house, and got a ride to the Waterton Canyon (Northern) CT terminus.

All of my new CT gear laid out and ready for a hike

Day 1 of the CT in 2008

The hike was absolutely incredible. I experienced true snow field traverses, crazy afternoon thunderstorms, insane amounts of elevation gain, and of course, alpine vistas that brought me to tears. To this day, hiking the CT back in 2008 is still one of the most profound and poignant experiences of my life.

Along the Continental Divide just outside of Silverton CO.

CT Thru-Hike Slideshow Video

As I was making my way through the rugged terrain of Colorado, something interesting happened just a few days from the end of my journey. Something that has stuck with me for over 12 years now.

About 3 days and 75 miles from the end of my hike, I came to the last trail-town of Silverton. As usual, once in town, I made my way to a local motel, took a long shower, washed my stinky hiking clothes, and eventually made my way to a local restaurant to fill up on as large a meal as possible. By that point, my hiker appetite was ravenous.

I eventually found my way to the restaurant in the Grand Imperial Hotel, where I enjoyed the entire dining area to myself (it was early on a Sunday night). I spent about a half-hour rummaging through my trail guides and maps to see what sort of terrain and trail conditions I might expect during my last three days, when I noticed a very large group of individuals coming in. I had no idea what their group was, but at first glance they all appeared to be a part of some kind of "off-roading" group. Silverton is a known hub for groups looking to explore the famous "Alpine Loop" by ATV or 4x4 Jeeps. These guys were all decked out in padded gear and some had helmets, so I just assumed they came off the loop for some dinner. they sat down and started talking, I couldn't help but listen in to their conversations. I started hearing really interesting comments like,
  • "Remember that time we broke down going across Kazakhstan?" 

  • "I can still recall getting mugged while making my way through Colombia."

  • "How about that flat tire you got while moving across the North Slope of Alaska!"
I was sitting there thinking to myself, whatever these guys are doing, or whatever group this sounds pretty awesome. Here I was thinking that I was rather "adventurous" for having just hiked over 400 miles along a rugged mountain trail in Colorado....but after hearing some of these guys' stories, I couldn't help but be a bit envious. 

Eventually I scooted my chair over and asked one of the group, "So what's your story? What group are you with?"

He went on to tell me that he was part of a worldwide adventure motorcycle touring group called "Horizons Unlimited" and they basically deck out their Adventure motorcycles with full gear (including camping gear, spare parts and equipment, and repair tools), and spend months out of the year traveling. It sounded amazing and I was baffled that I didn't even know that was really a thing.

Sure, I had heard of people taking long trips or touring on motorcycles across the country...heck one of my favorite books in High Schools was "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance"....but I guess I just didn't realize there was a sub-group (and sub-culture) of "Adventure Motorcycling".  I had heard the term "dual-sport motorcycle" before, but not really "adventure motorcycle".

After eating, I went outside to look at some of their setups...and was astounded at some of the bikes and gear they had mounted to them. It was truly a combination of ridiculous and captivating. I reflected on this experience for a moment thinking about how I was there, carrying my entire life on my back, and traveling by foot. And here were these guys, basically following a similar path, but through the use of a very-capable two-wheeled machine, and covering a lot more ground.

I spent the last three days of my thru-hike between Silverton and the Southern Terminus in Durango thinking about these guys and the adventures that they've been on. I imagined the  things that they must have seen, and experiences they must have had along the way. I told myself at the end of my hike that one day....I wanted to experience a similar kind of adventuring.

Typical "Adventure Motorcycle" Setup

But life went back to graduate school, and the thoughts of adventure motorcycling were shoved back into the deep recesses of my mind...being replaced by thoughts of ice-core climate modeling and glaciology. Days became weeks...weeks became years.

Every once in a while I'd see a really nice adventure bike parked somewhere and I smile to myself remembering my Silverton encounter. Occasionally, I'd even spend a few minutes surfing the web for different makes/models of bikes to see what was out there, and the respective price ranges. But nothing ever came of it.


Let me rewind once again, but this time even further back to 1993. It was the Spring of my Junior year of high school and my dad agreed to let me learn how to ride a motorcycle (after an unhealthy amount of pestering). He himself rode a 1992 Kawasaki Vulcan 750...and was admittedly excited at the prospect teaching me how to ride as well. I remembered taking many trips down to the lake or the ice cream shop in the summers as a kid with my dad...on the back of his motorcycle. So naturally, as a now-spry 16-year old about to start my senior year, I of course was excited about the thought of learning how to ride and get my motorcycle endorsement myself. 

My dad was very clear however. He told me he would only allow me to learn to ride a motorcycle if:
  1. I bought the bike myself,
  2. It was under 250cc in size. 
So I spent the next few months busting my ass bagging groceries and picking up extra hours at the local supermarket in order to save the several hundred dollars I would need to buy my first beater bike. Once I had a decent amount saved up, we started looking around the classifieds (remember when that was a thing?) to find the perfect "starter bike". My dad warned was not going to be pretty. Functional? Yes. Sexy...hell no.

After a few weeks of searching, we finally stumbled across the absolute gem that was a 185cc, 1978 Honda Twinstar. Let me be clear, this motorcycle was an absolute dinosaur and clunker, and had zero charm or appeal....but I was at peace with that. My dad and I drove out to the next county over and he 'test rode' the bike. I still recall my 6'2" father putting around on what was basically a glorified moped. It was as ridiculous as you could imagine. I ended up buying it and I think my dad rode it home while I drove the car home (I had my drivers license for a few months by then). The very next day started the lessons in the local elementary school parking lot. I distinctly remember the first few lessons....where he didn't even allow me to turn on the motorcycle:

Lesson 1....ATGATT (All The Gear, All The Time). We spent over an hour talking about how no matter how far you are going, or the conditions you are in, ALWAYS wear All the protective gear, All the time. Is it 98 degrees out? Want to wear shorts and a t-shirt? Too bad, wear all the gear.

Lesson 2....Assume all other vehicles can't or don't see you. I specifically remember him saying "I know they taught you defensive driving in Drivers Ed. Well on a motorcycle, you can be the most defensive driver in the world, and about the best that will do is make for a nice epitaph on your gravestone. You have to be more vigilant than you can imagine...ALWAYS scanning, all the time, and assuming all other vehicles are going to cut you off or pull out in front of you".  I remember him asking me after this lesson, " you still want to learn to ride?"

Lessons 3-10 included things like how the transmission works (where each gear is and how to get to neutral), how to properly balance the bike while stopped (what feet to put down etc), how to brake properly, how to pick up a tipped over bike properly (without straining your back), how to switch to the reserve gas tank, how to troubleshoot common problems, how to change the spark plug and perform basic maintenance and oil changes, how to practice good habits like turning the engine kill switch to "off" every time you get off the bike, always turning off turn signals after completing turns, performing proper visual scans, etc.  It was all a LOT to keep in mind. I recall thinking as a 16-year old, that this is supposed to be "fun" and "cool".... and it's actually a lot of work, and would require an enormous amount of responsibility. The most I ever got to do those first few lessons was sit on the motorcycle while it was turned off. I remember my dad quizzing me and throwing scenarios at me while I sat there to see how I'd respond. At the time, it was frustrating as I just wanted to ride.....but looking back now, I realize now how valuable this type of training and education all was. 

I think it wasn't until day 3 or 4 that I actually turned the bike on. Even then, I didn't get to ride it. I simply practiced shifting, stalling, engaging the clutch, etc. Thankfully, I had just learned to also ride a manual transmission car, so at least understood how a manual transmission and clutch worked. I just had to transfer the mechanics of my left foot,  to my left hand; and my right hand, to my left foot...

My glorious first ride: 1978 Honda Twinstar 185cc

Eventually, I progressed on to actually doing circles around the parking lot, doing figure-8's, taking small trips around the neighborhood, and eventually taking a few longer trips alongside my dad. After a few months of practice, I took my road test and passed thanks to his good training. That winter, I learned how to properly store a bike, and the following Spring and Summer, I got to ride my motorcycle around town and to work every day...enjoying that freedom and enjoyment before going off to college. I sold the old beast before leaving town and never really looked back.

Fast forward to 1998-99. I had just finished college and moved into my first house in Cleveland. I started reminiscing about my old motorcycle and found myself surfing the internet (with my dial-up connection) for any local used bikes. I stumbled across a used 1993 Kawaski Vulcan 750 and was immediately excited at the prospect of riding the same bike that my dad had a few years prior. So in a wild fit of impulsiveness, I went down to the shop that day and bought it. Little did I know that it was WAY too big of a bike for my 5'9", 155lb frame. I rode it around town for a couple of summers, but never really got too excited about it. It was too big, had some electrical issues, and I just wasn't getting out on it enough. Ultimately, I sold it after two years and sort of gave up on motorcycles. 

It was almost 10 years later that I would have my experience in Silverton meeting the Adventure motorcycling group from Horizons Unlimited.

My 1993 Kawasaki Vulcan

After almost 8 full years in graduate school pursuing both a Masters and PhD, I had finally graduated and landed a new job at the Cold Regions Research Lab up on the border of NH and VT. In the Spring of 2016, I was driving around rural Vermont, when I came across a guy selling a 125cc scooter at the end of his driveway for 500 bucks. I thought...what the hell. Sure it may be dorky, but it will give me a way to get around town easy, get to work in the Summers, and simply see if I even still enjoy getting around on 2 wheels. Deep in my mind I still found myself thinking about those adventure motorcycles, but honestly wasn't even sure I would still like riding on 2 wheels (especially after my uninspiring time on the Kawasaki Vulcan).

So...for the next 4 years, I found myself touring around the winding backroads of Vermont on my 125cc scooter (affectionately named Scootie McScootface). What I learned from this experience was that I did still absolutely love the freedom of two wheels, and the experience of riding. I didn't care how dorky I looked, I absolutely loved scooting around. 

Scootie McScootface....replete with milk crate

Touring around some Vermont back roads.

Last summer (2019), when C and I moved out here to Flagstaff, I strapped Scootie into our moving truck and brought it all the way across the country where I've taken it out on more than 1000 more miles of trips around town. It is a surprisingly effective and efficient way to travel around Flagstaff (especially considering how many sunny days we get).

Something else that I came to appreciate about my time with Scootie, was that it allowed me the opportunity to really "tinker" on motorcycle that wasn't incredibly valuable. In the four years that I have owned Scootie I've learned to clean a carburetor, adjust valves, replace brake pads, change odometer cables, swap out electronics, change fuel filters, replace resistors on dash instruments, replace gear oil, and a whole mess of other maintenance. I think this sort of practice is necessary and invaluable if one ever expects to take long-distance trips by motorcycle. As weird as it sounds too, I also simply found a lot of peaceful enjoyment out of simply working on the bike. I suppose there is a "Zen" to motorcycle maintenance.

BUT THEN IT HAPPENED.... that we're essentially caught up, I can tell you what transpired starting around February of this year. As the COVID-19 pandemic began to reach its first peak, and the realization that we'd be quarantined at home for potentially long periods of time, I found myself finally looking up what types of "Adventure Bikes" were out there. I spent about a solid month really researching what I was hoping would be that Golden Unicorn perfect adventure bike for me. What I learned with the Vulcan, was that it was simply too big and not my style. So I started putting together my "Wish List" that included, preferably:

  • 300-500 cc (although I'd maybe consider a little bigger if the bike is not too heavy)
  • < 400 lbs
  • Under $6000-$7000 if possible
  • Dual-sport or adventure capable
  • Meant for on- AND off-road (and can handle single track and even some technical terrain)
  • Decent clearance
  • Can carry a lot and/or has panniers
  • More of a classic look (no crazy pointy fairings or futuristic plastic bits)
  • Nice suspension
  • Not too tall (I have a 31-32" inseam and wanted to be able to flat-foot while stopped)
  • Probably single cylinder
  • Simple machine that I can maintain and service myself (not crazy complicated)
  • Nice protection parts and guards
  • Good parts availability and aftermarket parts
  • Reliable with good reviews
  • Switchable ABS
  • Has a center stand
  • Nice console, dials and readouts (not all - crazy digital)
So the search was on....

I found many bikes that fit many of these conditions....and many that even got somewhat excited about. 

Let's see. Probably the bike that found its way to the top of my list throughout my searching was the BMW G310-GS, although to be fair, I didn't love it. It was a bit more complicated than I wanted, and definitely more of a sport bike styling. Still, the reviews were excellent, and it was the size and fit I was looking for. I especially liked BMW's bigger bikes like the 800GS, but something that size was just too big, and way too expensive for me.



I also really liked the Suzuki DRZ400, but it was a bit too much dirt-bike for me, and really tall. It got great reviews, and performs amazingly, but it still wasn't really getting me as excited as I wanted.

Suzuki DRZ 400

I went on to research the Kawasaki Versys 300, the Honda CRF250L and Honda CB500X, all great machines, but again, not quite what I was looking for.

Kawaski Versys 300

Honda CB500X

Honda CRF250L Rally

KTM motorcycles are very popular here in I researched the KTM 390 Adventure, and it was definitely a top contender (very powerful), but it was quite expensive, and I really disliked the look. Heck from the front, it looks like a friggin' insect.

KTM 390 Adventure

Looks like an insect...

Lastly, I researched the newly released Yamaha Tenere 700...which was getting incredible reviews, but it was creeping up to the 700 range that I already knew was quite big for me (plus it was pricy at $10k)

Yamaha Tenere 700

After about a month of trying to convince myself that one of these motorcycles was going to be my dream adventure bike, I essentially gave up after not ever truly feeling inspired by any of them. There were also all so modern in design, with too many plastic fairings, and too sporty of a look.  So...that was it I thought.

But then something else happened. As I was reading a few last reviews online, I stumbled across a comparison between the G310GS and a bike I'd never heard of before: a Royal Enfield Himalayan. The reviewer actually argued that despite the Himalayan having less power, and being rather "utilitarian" in styling, he much preferred it.

2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan - Such a beautiful and classic design!

...And that's when the obsession began.

I spent the subsequent month researching nothing but the Himalayan, and every time I saw it, every article I read about it, it became painfully clear. I was finally, and truly, excited about an adventure motorcycle. I had found my golden unicorn.

On September 1st, Royal Enfield launched their a pre-order for the new 2021 model which would now include switchable ABS and better brakes (a complaint about previous models). I eagerly put down a deposit, and took a trip down to a local shop to test ride a 2020 model. I instantly knew it was a done deal. For the next month, I patiently waited for my preorder to come in. Two weeks ago I finally got the call that it was in, and I asked C to drop me off at the dealership about 60 miles away in Cottonwood. 

As soon as I saw it, I knew it was going to be the start of many amazing adventures.

2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan sitting at the dealership...waiting for me

After finalizing paperwork, I strapped on some new riding gear that I had just picked up, and rode over 100 miles of backroads back home. It was an absolute blast and I was practically giggling every second of the way. I stopped many times to let the bike cool off (as it was in the break-in period), and simply enjoyed the scenery. I also got so many questions/comments about it....i.e. make/model, styling, look, etc.

By the time I got home, I couldn't wait to ride it again. The very next weekend I drove it all the way back to the Phoenix area to get the first major service (300 mile) and have gone out several times since. 

Along the backroads of AZ

As the weather begins to turn here in AZ, I will sadly have to put the new machine up for winter storage, but I'm happy to have had a nice little taste of adventure on it. I will be spending my winter dreaming of the adventures to come next Summer in the San Juans of Colorado! 

Apparently it is also customary to name your Adventure Motorcycle. I thought about some of my past adventures and kept coming back to to my time in Iceland, and to Icelandic names. So everyone....I'm very happy to introduce you all to Freyja. May we have many amazing, and safe, all-terrain adventures together in the coming years!

Meet Freyja

Ready to explore!

But's time to winterize...but we'll be back!