~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Friday, July 09, 2004

Mr. Cheap Tour

I took my first trip on a motorcycle back about 1971.  There were not huge number of people were touring in those days, at least not from my little town, so it seemed new and adventuresome to me. All the riders I knew were dirt bike guys and not one of them even owned a street bike although everyone, it seemed, had a relative who'd "ridden coast to coast back in the '50s on his Hog."

I'd been reading about bike travels for a few years in Cycle Magazine, Cycle World, and the rest. Eventually I discovered Road Rider Magazine which was completely geared to motorcycle touring. In an age where motorcycle magazines put as little as 75 miles on a bike "testing" it, Road Rider had a four or five thousand mile minimum for their tests. The magazine has since changed hands and is now known as Motorcycle Consumer News. I liked the old "Road Rider" much better than I like any of the modern magazines now; it had personality and character no longer found in any mainstream bike publications. To me, RR's slightly homespun style was plus; it seemed more real and more trustworthy. I have fifteen or twenty copies of the early 1970s Road Rider snagged off of eBay and they still make good reading.

Reading the stories of the Roger Hull, Bob and Patti Carpenter, Cliff Boswell, and Clement Salvadori in Road Rider inspired me to give touring a try. An article about how to tour on the cheap by a fellow referring to himself as "Mr. Cheap Tour" or something like that offered all kinds of useful advice on traveling and camping without a credit card in hand. I believed every word of it which was, of course, my first mistake. I was young and young people believe easily those who appear to be wise and sage. If you are young and reading this now, you can believe every word I say. Truly. Trust me.

Preparing to tour I outfitted my Suzuki 550 triple (2-stroke air-cooled three cylinder response to Kawasaki's 500cc triple) with a "universal" mount luggage rack and sissy bar which of course both fit like crap. Made-to-fit items were hard to find for slightly odd bikes like the Suzuki and I lacked the funds to buy what was available in application specific goodies. The universal fit rack and sissy bar were cheap and with a few different bolts and some tweaking of brackets via a pair of vise grips I got them on the bike. It was my first experience in learning that "universal fit" means it universally fits nothing.

I set about following Mr. Cheap Tour's advice for camping equipment: sleeping bag (Army surplus filled with chicken feathers), tent (tarp over a picnic table), air mattress (thin piece of foam on the ground), a stove (can of sterno), and portable food (surplus Army C-rations). Lord, but I was naive. It all packed up nicely on the bike; it just worked like crap.

My first trip was a simple overnighter from the town of Vista, CA where I lived up to camp on Palomar Mountain, home of what was once the world's largest telescope. The road up there is a nice and still extremely popular with San Diego area riders. I've ridden in many times over the years and in later times flew hang gliders from Palomar Mountain. It's a great road and someone told me it was recently repaved and just as much fun as ever.

Arriving at the campground I set about making my camp. I flung the tarp over the table and then pulled it off when I realized I had not yet cooked my dinner. I lit the can of Sterno and then began heating my can of Army surplus beef stew. Later on in the National Guard I would learn that beef stew "c-rats" were actually one of the better variations on pre-fabricated Army chow circa 1970. Sadly, Mr. Cheap Tour neglected to mention that one can of Sterno does a really poor job of heating a medium size can of anything but water. No matter, c-rations can safely be eaten cold so I did.

About the time I was savoring my cold beef stew a guy on a BMW rolled up and asked about sharing my campsite. The Beemer was beautiful in black with white pinstripes as all true BMWs should be. It was outfitted with a Wixom handlebar mount fairing and Wixom bags. Very nice. I was delighted to have some company and knew we could sit around telling motorcycle stories into the wee hours of the morning just like Cliff Boswell wrote about in Road Rider.

In minutes the BMW guy had gotten out his lightweight pop-up nylon tent, air mattress, mini-lantern, and a little gas stove. The stove was fired up and a little pan was produced into which he emptied some proper, consumer quality food. As the food cooked he set up the tent, lit the lantern, and read a book. I watched in awe. In minutes he was camping in comparative luxury. My own struggles to create a livable camp using a flashlight, a tarp, and a can of Sterno, paled in comparison. It also paled in comfort. As darkness fell he bid me goodnight and crawled in his tent. So much for the brotherhood of the road and motorcycle stories around the campfire.

I'm a night owl, always have been, so going to bed before 11:00 PM is something that is guaranteed to bring about lots of tossing and turning on my part. As I had no clever little mini-lantern and no book, the darkness quickly closed in quickly there amongst the pines and I sat there without a blessed thing to do. I finally tossed the tarp over the picnic table, rolled the foam mattress out, fluffed up the surplus sleeping bag as best as I could and crawled in.

It would have been so much better if Mr. Cheap Tour had mentioned to test things out BEFORE leaving home. As corny as it might sound if you've never toured by bike before, pack your bike, go for a long ride, and then spend one night camping in your backyard to test things out. You'll thank me. Really.

My own untried campsite set up left me in misery with cold, rocky ground of Palomar Mountain poking through the cheap-o foam pad, the chicken feather filled sleeping bag wadded around me but failed at keeping me warm, and the tarp-tent afforded little but a nice view of the stars and also the clouds as the weather moved in and the rain started. Thankfully, the surplus beef stew stayed put until morning.

The next morning I was up early and ready to head for home. I'd planned another day of riding and a night of camping but somehow had neglected to pack any fun along with the can of Sterno so home seemed more appealing than another day on the road.

As I wadded up my gear and bungeed it back on the Suzuki the BMW guy emerged from his tent, fired up his stove, made his breakfast and took down his nice little tent that had kept him dry. I gave him wave, fired up the Suzuki and headed out. A little while later as I made my way down the mountain the BMW whooshed by me with its rider rested and his gear neatly packed. I swore that I would NEVER go motorcycle camping ill equipped again and would also look with a jaundiced eye on all advice given in motorcycle magazines.

In time I bought better gear or at least more appropriate gear (you really don't have to spend a fortune to go touring) and made longer and more pleasant trips. A proper tent, air mattress, cookstove, and lantern can make a huge difference in actually enjoying the camping experience.

Replacing the Suzuki 550 with a new 1974 BMW R90S was a nice step up too. I rode and camped through most of the western US and up into Canada in subsequent years on a variety of bikes and with each trip refined my packing and camping techniques a bit.

My last camping trip on a bike was about 1994 (ten years ago now! Geez...where did the time go?). I road my 1992 BMW R100RT to the 49er Rally over in Northern California and had a grand time there. The rally took place at the Quincy, Calif. fairgrounds with about 1000 people camped out on acres and acres of lawn.

After I'd set up my camp a fellow BMW rider walked over and marveled at the great digs I'd set up off a modestly packed BMW. I explained it just took a little planning and a little practice. I lit my lantern, pulled out a book, and set about reading a chapter while dinner cooked on the little stove. The fellow stopped by after dinner and we sat late into the night swapping motorcycle stories just as Roger and Cliff and Clement had 30 years earlier.

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