All Rights Reserved © 2016 Thomas W. Day
"Minimum Maintenance Roads," the spice of life.
This summer I took a trip out to Colorado, via northern Nebraska. It was my first trip using my new (to me) Garmin Nüvi 500 GPS and while I had pretty much figured out Garmin's trip planning software, BaseCamp, there were a few features on the actual GPS that threw me a curve or three. I had planned most of my route through Minnesota, Iowa, and Nebraska pretty tightly. I didn't have much of a schedule, but I had a few old stompin' grounds that I wanted to visit plus a couple of new favorite stops to make on the way to the mountains.
Back when I was a young man and my kids were kids, I spent a lot of my life either driving a Ford E150 Econoline Van all over Nebraska, Iowa, and eastern Colorado or riding a motorcycle on what used to be called "limited access roads" and are, apparently, now called "minimum maintenance roads." For the first year, my bike of choice was a Kawasaki 350 Big Horn, one of the worst "dual purpose" motorcycles ever cooked up. Not long after settling into our new home and my insanely risky job, I bought the first new motorcycle I'd ever owned, a 1974 Rickman 125 ISDT. That motorcycle introduced me to the early stage of my life's adventure touring.
In the 70's, limited access roads were once farm-to-market roads that had lost their traffic. Nebraska kept the paths open in case some of that traffic returned for fifteen or so years, then the fences came together and the roads became part of the farm or grazing land on either side. I was lucky enough to have been there when there were still some really cool places to go by those unmaintained paths. On my most recent trip, I planned on putting in three to four thousand fairly hard miles so I didn't intend to start off by beating up my tires, chain, and body parts on unpaved Nebraska backroads. I was taking US20 out of nostalgia, but I wasn't so homesick as to want to end up in the middle of nowhere with a busted bike and 3,000 miles to go. My GPS, however, had different plans. Somewhere deep in the system settings, on a second page of options, there is a checkbox for "unpaved roads." I missed that option, so my GPS route was allowed to take me pretty much anywhere a piece of farm equipment might be able to travel. About 50 miles west of Souix City, my GPS did it's recalculating thing when a construction detour pulled me off of my original plan and sent me down about 70 miles of gravel roads in the general direction of Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park; my next destination. By the time I got back to fairly reliable asphalt, I was done for the day. I'd managed about 450 miles that day, including a fairly long stop at the National Music Instrument Museum in Vermillion, SD.
When I'd stopped in Vermillion, I covered the bike and tossed my gear under the cover. When I came out the museum, there were a handfull of guys on the sidewalk looking at my bike, wondering about all of the fluid on the ground under the bike. As usual, my Camelback had leaked, but I went through the usual maintenance checks before I took off for Nebraska. When I left Vermillion, my Dunlop Trailmaster tires looked pretty much like you'd expect for tires with about 1,000 miles of wear. 100 miles later, after 70 miles of gravel, the rear tire was close to shot. The next morning, I headed back to Sioux City for a new rear tire and hit the road west about noon. This time, making up for lost ground, I let the GPS have it's head and take me to Ashfall by the shortest possible route. This time I was on gravel for about 100 miles and most of it was done pretty much WFO. There was even a stream crossing, when an irrigation system flooded a ditch and overflowed across the road. The time I spent getting reacquainted with deep sand in New Mexico paid off repeatedly.
After a quick hike around the park (Well worth your time if you are into fossils and natural disasters.), I hit the road for Valentine, NE. About midway to Valentine, I hit a section of US20 that had been recently "resurfaced," Nebraska-style. The construction folks had dumped some asphalt on the road, then coated it with a thick bed of gravel. Turning that into an actual paved road would be up to whatever traffic was available to pound the gravel into the asphalt. Considering where I'd been earlier that day, US20 looked pretty good. There was no other traffic on the road and the HPD don't like to get their cars dirty, so I owned the road for at least 100 miles.
I got to Valentine fairly late and lucked into a decent motel with a great bar and good food. As I was unpacking, two old guys (like me) pulled into the lot next to me; one on a CanAm Spyder and the other on a Goldwing. When they saw the crud on my bike, one of the said, "Did you come down 20?" When I confirmed their suspicions, they told me they had freaked out when they saw the gravel-coated asphalt and went 100 miles out of their way, well into South Dakota, to avoid it. The layer of dust and caked on mud from the "stream crossing" convinced them they had made the right decision. They'd left Fremont, Nebraska that morning and were pretty much done in for the day. I ate a steak, drank a couple of beers, listened to a decent guitar player do fairly awful country songs on the restaurant's patio, and did some basic bike maintenance before I called it a night.
I've thought about that brief conversation and the anxiety a bit of gravel caused those two riders more that a few times over the last 3,000 miles of that trip and the rest of the summer. I can't think of a good reason to own a motorcycle that is too precious or awkward to ride where ordinary cars and trucks travel. In places like Minnesota, Nebraska, Colorado, and the Dakotas, lots of the most interesting places are only accessible by gravel road and every road short of the Interstates are likely to receive the surfacing we saw on US20. If your definition of a good road is one that is smoothly paved, you are going to miss out of some of the best things about being a motorcyclist.
First published in Minnesota Motorcycle Monthly's website: May 2018