Winter Cross Country Bike Trip
Having biked across the US a few times, all of them being summer trips, it was time for to see how winter feels on the road. Had been in Canada for the past year, I had taken the bike from San Diego to London (ON) in the summer with Amber. There were two main considerations, the route and the dates of travel. The three possible routes were taking I-94, I-90 or I-80. It had to be an interstate as local routes would probably not be cleared of snow in a timely manner. As far as the timing went, the idea was to find a week of clear skies in December, this could not be done more than a couple of weeks in advance as weather forecasts for longer times are highly unreliable.
Riding in zero and subzero weather, with wind-chills probably around 20 below, I needed good windproof and cold weather gear. After a bit of research I settled on the “First gear thermo suit”, winter gloves by ‘moto boy’ and thinsulate boots from Walmart. More on their performance later. Suffice it to say I would definitely recommend the suit without reservation.
My 2005 Yamaha V-Star 650 has proved to be a very reliable ride. I have put 40K+ miles on it, and done several cross country road trips. The only possible drawback is since it has a small engine for long distance riding, on 80 mph highways I have had to keep in the slow lane. But other than that old ‘Bucephalus’ has proved very reliable on the road.
Finally narrowed it down to taking either I-90 or I-80 depending on the weather conditions on either of the two roads. I was more inclined towards the 90 as I had not gone cross country on 90 yet. This would also take me through the badlands in South Dakota, and also give me the opportunity to see Mount Rushmore. 90 meets up with 94 at Billings, which is exactly where one can expect bad weather, but more on that later.
London ON to Bloomingdale IL:
I decided to start off on the 29th of November. The forecast promised a week of snow free weather, the catch being that I 90 was no longer possible as snow was in the forecast for the prairie during the week. Thought of taking the 401 to the Windsor border, but the GPS took me to a lesser used crossing at the St Clair-Algonac ferry. It’s a small ferry that shuttles across the St. Claire River and takes around 10 minutes to get from one side to the other. The border control took around 5 minutes and I was on the US side of the border. A good cup of coffee and some food was needed, and I saw a Dairy Queen, alas they had closed down for the winter, welcome to Minnesota!!. Had some coffee at a local gas station and continued on to I 94 on route to Chicago. Another couple of hours on the road and the hunger pangs started. Stopped in Kalamazoo for lunch. Since I has started out late I knew I would not be able to make it to Bloomindale before dark. By sundown I had reached Michigan City and had a 100 more miles to go. I fortified myself with a coffee from a McDonalds and headed out. Of course traffic is always bad around Chicago, which delayed me further. Got to Z’s house in Bloomingdale around 8 pm. The neighborhood had nice Christmas decorations. Z and I headed out for a good meal at Porto’s peri peri. Finally called it a night around 10, wanted to hit the road early the next day.
Bloomingdale IL to Adair IA:
After a quick bite at Z’s I hit the road around 8:30. It was in the low 40’s outside, the gear kept me warm and comfy. Going through rural IL was loads of fun, by 10:30 I was ready for a big breakfast. I decided to stop in Peru, the other Peru in IA. Saw this eatery “Big Apple Restaurant”, had a huge omelette and a jug of coffee and it was time to hit the road again. The plan was to make it to Lincoln NE, but fatigue started to set in around Des Moines, so decided to find a pit stop earlier in Adair. The Budget Inn there was basic but clean would recommend it. Had picked up a subway on the way, fell asleep watching startrek next generation.
Adair IA to Ogallala NE:
Started off bright and early, after having a quick breakfast in the room, coffee and oatmeal. By the time I got to Lincoln I was peckish, decided to have a bite, stopped by a diner and had a proper meal. Also planned on how far to ride during the day, decided to make it to Ogallala NE which would make 400 miles for the day. The temperature was in the high 30’s and my gloves came undone at one of the seams in the fingers. I could not imagine the level of discomfort this would cause, as the cold air went through the glove and up my arm, finally had to stop at a truckstop get some gorilla tape and ‘seal’ the leak. Nearly ran out of gas on the road as well, had the bike running on ‘reserve’ for a bit till I finally came to a pump. Later that day I had a cup of coffee at Mormon Island State Park. It’s a quaint picturesque place, would definitely recommend a visit. Decided to stay at the Travelodge in Ogallala, this turned out to be a really good choice. It’s a very well maintained motel with a super friendly staff, definitely recommended. Had a quick dinner and went to bed early.
Ogallala NE to Rock Springs WY
After a good night’s rest I was ready to hit the road. The forecast for the next couple of days was rather ominous, with possible snow showers during the day. Had a quick bite and coffee and was on my way. It was a bit colder on the road, perhaps on the low 30’s, the firstgear suit and the boots worked fine and kept me comfy, the gloves on the other hand were inadequate for the job. Even after wearing glove liners my fingers would go numb after a while and I had to stop periodically to get the blood flowing. Other than this the ride itself was beautiful. The landscape goes form the flat scenery of the plains to rock formations and then mountains as one travels west from NE into WY. Going past Laramie I am always reminded of Matthew Shepard and how much work still needs to be done for equal rights. Ran into some crosswinds past Laramie and also saw some accumulated snow for the first time during the trip. Had a quick supper on the road and stopped at a Motel 6 for the night in Rock Springs. He forecast predicted wintery weather for the next day headed into Utah and then into Idaho.
Rock Springs WY to Burley Idaho:
Wanted to make it as close to Boise ID as possible. The weather was looking ominous and snow was in the forecast starting at 11 am. Wanted to hit the road at 7, but it was in the 20’s at that time and the roads would be very slick (another problem one faces on the motorcycle in winter). Finally the temperature got into the 30’s and it was time to take off. Road hard for a couple of hours trying to stay in front of the storm moving in from the north east. Took a pit stop in Evanston WY just west of the Utah border. Went to the local McDonald’s, the interior was rather quaint with saddle seats and was quite busy at 10 am. Chatted with a couple of guys who told me that I might run into inclement weather thought it would get a little warmer as I rode into Utah. My goal was to ride non-stop to Ogden and have lunch there, hopefully avoid any winter weather. Crossing into Utah I ran into really strong crosswinds, which on a bike is a bit disconcerting, but thankfully no snow. Made it to Ogden where I had lunch. It was still cold out on the road in the mid 30’s and with 55mph+ wind gusts. The revised plan was to get to Idaho Falls by the end of the day. I 84 lived up to its repute of high winds and bad weather. But at least so far had not run into any snow on the road, this was about to change. Took a coffee break at Bliss ID at a quaint little place Ziggy’s express, ran into a couple of guys who were wondering what kind of guy would be on the road in this weather. But my luck had run out it seems, as soon as I stepped out I felt a few snowflakes fall on my face. Time to make a beeline for Idaho Falls, but the weather just kept getting worse, finally hit a fully developed snowstorm around Jerome ID, had to pull into the rest area there to re plan. The road surface had become very slick, there was heavy snow falling down and high crosswinds, all in all just the kind of weather you don’t want to be out in, more so on a motorbike. The next town was another 35 miles away, I decided to tough it out as there was no other option. Back on the road I probably rode the toughest 35 miles of my life, the slippery surface and high crosswinds turned it into a nightmare, the semis passing by turned in into near zero visibility at time. Finally I saw an exit come up with signs for accommodation and food. Took the Burley ID exit, and rode to the first motel I saw, the Tops Motel. To be honest the motel looked a little shady form the outside, but I had little choice so decided to crash there. It turned out to be a very pleasant surprise, the rooms had been redone recently and very clean and quite comfy. There was a nice restaurant at a walking distance, the Wayside Café, great food, definitely recommend to anyone passing through. Called it a night around 9:30 and virtually passed out as soon as I hit the bed.
Burley ID to La Grande OR:
The forecast was that the high winds would die out during the night, making an early morning ride possible. However after waking up at 6am I saw that the temperature out was in the teens and would not warm up much during the day. But I still wanted it to get into the high 20’s before heading out. The other issue was cold starting a bike with carburetors in these temperatures is a hit and a miss, you always run the risk of draining the battery before the bike starts. My work around was to soak a couple of towels with boiling hot water and wrapping them around the engine, this in theory would warm up the oil enough for the bike to start. Surprisingly it worked, and I was on the road by 7:30. The surface was pretty bad with serious ice still on the road. It was bitterly cold as well so made a stop at Twin Falls about 20 min out, for a coffee and some gas, nearly skidded off some ice at the gas station there. By this time the sun had come out, my experience has been that in a winter ride, one can take the cold temperatures as long as the sun is out, next stop would be around Boise. The wind gusts were still strong and causing some trouble but the wind dropped around Boise. The mountains around Boise were covered in snow from the previous day’s storm. Stopped in Boise for lunch and back on the road it was. The ride by this time had actually become pleasant. I love travelling on the I-84, going through a series of valleys and mountain passes, especially in Oregon. I had been on this route earlier during the summer, but the feel now was quite different. M was flying in from San Diego to Seattle the next day and I wanted to reach Seattle myself around lunch time then. This meant covering as much ground as possible today. It was around 3 when I pulled into a truck stop to grab something to eat, and fortify myself with caffeine. It was back on the road by 3:30, went past Baker City where I had stayed over in the summer (nice town btw), through North Powder till I finally saw the exit for La Grande, which is a quaint university town. The sun had set by now and the temperature had dropped into the mid 20’s, so it was a relief to finally pull of the highway. Checked into the Royal Motor Inn, grabbed a sub from a nearby subway, polished off some good brandy I had left and fell asleep.
La Grande OR to Seattle WA :
The early morning temperatures were again the low 20’s with little promise of a warm up till much later in the day, so I had no choice but to take off after some strong coffee and oatmeal in my room. Was filling up in La Grande when I started chatting with this dude, who it turns out was form Afghanistan and had been landed in La Grande around 10 years ago, small world!! I hit the road, it was pretty cold and the ride to Pendleton was not too pleasant, once again the gloves were not up to the task and my fingers kept getting numb. Pulled off at the rest area near deadman’s pass, not a good idea, although they roads had been plowed the rest area was still covered in snow, I nearly skidded trying to navigate back to the road, add that to the bitter cold and numb fingers, this was a rather unpleasant experience. Further west around the junction of 84 and 82 I ran into freezing fog, this was a rather disconcerting experience, the visibility dropped to near zero at points, I was thinking of pulling over and evaluating the situation, when I saw the exit for 82 which I took, about 5 minutes on the highway and the fog began to dissipate, I later found out that one gets a lot of freezing fog around Columbia River. Pulled off the highway in Umatilla and had a big hearty breakfast at Java Junkies, the food was nice and R provided great service, wanted to know all about the ride. I planned to stop in Yakima next, which is about 2 hours from Umatilla. Has a quick fix of caffine there, gassed up and was back on the road. It was already 4 by the time I made it to Cle Elum, this wasn’t looking too good as I wanted to get through Snoqualmie Pass before sundown. Has some good coffee at Pioneer Coffee Roasters, a guy there told me that he just came through the pass 30 min ago and the surface looked good, but according to him roads around the pass get slippery soon after sunset. I headed out and made it over the pass around sundown, the roads had become a little wet, but all in all wasn’t too bad. Made it to Seattle with the rest of the ride being rather uneventful save the horrible rush hour traffic on I 5 in Seattle