In another life I was very much into astronomy. Not that one needs an excuse to go see an eclipse, but I felt I almost had to. You know, for research. Plus, it would be our first trip on street bikes since the 2013 outing to Newfoundland. This was going to be a little different.
We carved out a week to go see the 2017 eclipse, figuring there should be enough roads and sites to occupy us before and after. We were planning to leave on Thursday and the weekend prior it had come to my attention that there was Speed Week taking place on the Bonneville Salt Flats, with the last day being the Friday after our departure. So the first target for our trip became to make it to Wendover, which is the town right by the salt flats on Thursday, and then go see the sunrise over the salt, and see what happens next.
To make the day a bit more entertaining we took the route over Tioga Pass in Yosemite, and then across Nevada along highway 6. The fact that Yosemite was gorgeous did not surprise me.
Made a pit stop in Lee Vining, which included not just lunch, but also riding near Mono Lake, although we didn’t go very far when the dirt track we were following got interrupted by a rather powerful stream.
What really surprised me was that Nevada was not a barren flat repetitive landscape, but actually rather pretty. What it lacked in terms of horizontal curves was made up with vertical dips. For several miles the road went up and down in quick succession. Go fast enough and you can catch some serious air.
We passed a town called Tonopah, where I refused to stop and take a photo of a super creepy Clown Motel, which promised to be biker friendly and featured a terrifying display of a dummy clown on a dummy motorcycle. It’s the stuff of nightmares.
About 10 miles after we left Tonopah, a sign appeared, next gas in 163 miles. Will we make it? According to my fancy pants mileage estimator – fat chance. It claimed about 150 miles remaining. Thankfully, that thing is dynamic and we managed to make it on the remaining fuel by reducing our speed to about 60-65 mph. That gave us about 30-40 miles of remaining range by the time we limped to the gas station in the next town, Ely. From there, it was a race to get to Wendover, as the sun was setting fast, and the road ahead was empty, dark, with the occasional pronghorn on the side.
The alarm rang at 5:30 am, and I was really hoping to ignore it, telling myself that it’s a whole hour earlier in my old time zone.
By the time we got to the salt, it was already fairly light, although the sun did not rise over the mountains yet. We rode around, noting the bizarre whiteness of the salt, almost like snow, but grippy rather than slippery. There were some trucks and tents around, and we chatted with some guys who came to speed test their electric vehicle, Venturi, the fastest in existence, apparently, over 330 mph. They could not reach a speed as high as they wanted due to the body work starting to come off at that high speed.
Prior to coming here I was wondering what it would be like to try and see just how fast my Versys would go, but seeing how the salt ended up everywhere and how lumpy the surface was, I kept to about 20-30 mph and enjoyed the casual view instead.
After taking sunrise photos and chatting with a few people, we went to check out a group that had a Ukrainian flag flying over their outpost.
Turns out they were there to set a speed record with their Dnepr – a Ukrainian motorcycle. They already got a record earlier in the week, but wanted to improve it. As one might expect, they were quite a curious bunch of folks, and we eagerly agreed to their invitation to come with them to the starting line and help/cheer/whatever from there.
The sun was getting higher, the salt whiter. Their 650 cc Dnepr was joined by another bike from an affiliated team, a 350 cc Izh. Alex helped them push start the bikes, I was taking photos, everything was going fast and slow at the same time. We met a certain Doug, whom I barely recognized from a Horizons Unlimited documentary. His claim to fame is travelling around the world, notably through Russia a few times, on a vintage Harley Davidson. I am really amazed they keep approving his visas. We chatted and turned out he’s been here all week helping his buddies set speed records and was planning to see the eclipse in Idaho after this. What a great coincidence! We agreed to meet up there and see how that eclipse thing works.
The Ukrainian team was about as nuts as I imagined people at the speed week would be – nuts in the most positive sense of the word. They got the idea to do the speed record only 2 months ago, and in that time they had to get some funds, get the bike, mod the hell out of it (suspension, turbo, etc), get visas and now finally on the salt the bike made its first runs. The rider of the bike does other fun things in his spare time, like rides all around Ukraine and runs a charity for children affected by the war in Eastern Ukraine – a war that apparently is still ongoing, despite the fact that Western media stopped paying attention.
They did reach a higher speed than before, but setting a new record required making two runs, and they had a technical problem with the second run.
Close to noon we decided it was enough of the scorching sun and headed out to take care of boring stuff like breakfast, washing bikes, shopping for the right chain lube and making the incredibly flat journey to Salt Lake City, our stop for the next night.
After a short snooze in the hotel we went in search of dinner on foot. The sun had already set and it was no longer unbearably hot. The pizzas we ordered turned out to be larger than we could handle. We took the leftovers in a to-go box and not 5 minutes later a hungry soul on the street asked us for some change to get food. The leftover pizza was claimed in record time.
The next day we confirmed with Doug that he found a campsite within the path of totality – in Sun Valley – and was still open to sharing it with us. On the sight seeing menu for the day was Craters of the Moon National Monument. It did not look like a whole lot based on the photos but two different people suggested it and we figured it’s worth trying.
In the photos Craters of the Moon looks like a lot of black rocks. In reality it is indeed a lot of black rocks, but the sheer scale of it makes it very impressive. There was a beautiful contrast between the smooth lava flows, large chunks of volcanic rock and piles of small lava fragments making up the cinder cones. It adds a depth to the landscape that’s hard to capture in a flat photograph.
A couple of hours before sunset we arrived in Sun Valley, where Doug was already getting ready for a campfire. The area is on high fire alert, but this particular campground has cement floors around the fire pits, so it’s safe for real fires. We stayed up quite late chatting about all sorts of things motorcycle and travel related, and some things unrelated, and by the time we were ready to go to sleep the temperatures away from the toasty fire dropped to about 11 ºC – from the daytime high of a little below 30 ºC. Kind of wished I had my winter sleeping bag right about then.
There never was a horse that couldn’t be rode, there never was a rider that couldn’t be throwed, is what someone would later say to me regarding the events of this day.
With a full day to go before the eclipse, we decided to explore the mountains and roads around of the area. I think of my Versys as a street bike, but I suppose it’s not necessarily asking too much to have it go on some easy forest roads, too.
We picked out a forest road on the map which was going to reconnect back to the main highway in less than 20 miles, just to get a taste of this part of Idaho. The trail was going up and down small hills and along some traverses. It opened up to wide views of the valleys and mountains around us. There was still some snow tucked in the shadows of these mountains. It was beautiful.
And then we somehow came upon a rather hairy descent – kind of steep and rocky. That’s when my horse decided to lie down the first time that day. It was just a gentle slide onto the side, since the tires had not much in terms of side grip on the dry dirt. No damage to me nor the bike. I have to admit I was a bit on the terrified side going down that slope, but it got better soon enough. We kept going and everything was quite fine until I managed to get a bit too wide in a turn after another exciting descent. This time I went a bit into the trees and again, not much damage except minor scuffs. Alex volunteered to get it back onto the road – he does have longer legs 😉 – and on we went again. There were fewer open vistas and more forested areas around – but the trail was still pretty wide. And then I made another crucial mistake navigating an objectively easy small rut and dumped my bike for the last time. This time a piece of plastic actually cracked in a fairing and I had to admit that my bike was no longer new and shiny. I told Alex it was all his fault, although I hope he did not take it personally. He managed to traverse the same route on essentially the same bike without a scratch, so clearly the problem was between the seat and the helmet.
We emerged from the forest in the town of Hailey, just in time for lunch. Burritos and ice cream, what more can one desire? Before heading back to camp we picked up aluminum foil, potatoes and a lemon in a grocery store in preparation for the pièce de résistance of the day – dinner cooked in the camp fire. Doug had a fishing rod, and the stream running through the camp had rainbow trout. He claimed to have never done this before – only watch others do it – but he cleaned up the fish, stuffed it with lemon slices, wrapped in foil and tossed on the hot coals like a pro.
I’m not going to dwell on how incredible the results were lest some readers get jealous, but let’s just say it was the freshest fish I ever had the pleasure of sampling and some of the tastiest, too.
The eclipse was scheduled to start just after 10 am local time, with the totality coming in around 11:30 am. It’s a great excuse to start the morning really slowly – enough time to sleep in, not enough time to really do anything of value before the main attraction starts.
We set up the camera on a tripod, did some test shots with the solar filter on, gazed on some new sun spots through the binoculars and in general enjoyed the warm weather while it lasted. With still about half an hour to the totality, the sunlight noticeably reduced in intensity and it got colder. Cold enough that I put on my sweater. We kept monitoring the progress through eclipse glasses and binoculars, and when it was finally really really close, we started taking photos on the DSLR hoping to catch the so called “diamond ring” flash before the totality.
I peeked around the glasses and there it was. You could see the dark disk of the moon, the corona around the sun and the beautiful last glimpse of sunlight all at once. The glimpse of sunlight got devoured right in front of my eyes and all that was left was a dark blue sky and the corona spanning over a huge chunk of it. There was a celebratory shout in the distance, but otherwise everyone was silent and in awe. It did not get as dark as in the middle of the night, more like twilight. The sky was a deep blue and there were a couple of stars – or maybe planets – visible. Doug noticed that the shadows on the ground were moving very quickly in a very unusual fashion. I’m not sure of the cause of that, maybe it was due to the rapid temperature change, maybe it was something else. The corona did not appear to move. It was so huge, and so marvellous. It seems to be about the same size as the diameter of the sun in photos, but in reality it extended 15-20x times further. It does not photograph well and impresses so much more in person.
And then it was over. The second “diamond ring” flash acts as an alarm to say “Look away!”. Until next time, perhaps.
In a few more minutes Doug declared the event being worth the detour, put his gear on and left, hoping to beat the traffic. We stuck around just a little while longer. I was thinking of staying until the moon completely cleared the sun, but it just didn’t seem as exciting any more. We packed up and left as well, going north towards the town of Stanley and then west to Boise, hoping to have some fun on what should be some very scenic roads through the national forests – Idaho highways 75 and 21.
For all the warnings about the anticipated traffic on the roads leading out of the path of totality, there wasn’t anything notable on the ones we took. Better yet, the roads were indeed very beautiful. It was hot, but otherwise nothing to complain about. The road twisted and turned and opened up to cliffs, rivers, valleys, lakes, dense woods and everything that in my mind now embodies Idaho.
We stopped for lunch in Idaho City, wondering why they bothered to give such a fancy name to a town of 440 people. Turns out it was founded during the gold rush in Boise Basin, and at its peak in 1860’s it had a population of 7000, although it declined very quickly once the gold ran out in the next decade.
Our stop for the night was just across the border with Oregon, in a town called Ontario. An older man on a trike parked beside our bikes and mentioned that he didn’t see any eclipse, did it really happen? I guess despite the media hype, some people just didn’t really care.
The following morning we got up early enough to see eastern Oregon lit up by the rising sun – which makes everything look better. What looked like an ok highway on a map turned out to be a beautiful road snaking between the hills. The plan was to check out Lava Beds National Monument in northern California and see how it compares to Idaho’s Craters of the Moon. We followed highways 20 and 395, the latter going along the shores of Lake Abert, which was simply mesmerizing.
Busy riding and enjoying the scenery, we were pushing the limits of our fuel range. As we rolled into a tiny settlement of Valley Falls, where we expected a gas station, the estimated range on our bikes was around 10 miles. The gas station was there as expected, but there was no gas. Next station? That’s another 20 miles. We exchanged worried looks, Alex declared there was no way we can make it, we’ll need to take turns towing each other by rope. I’ve tried that before, there are few things more awkward than that. I said, of course we can make it, we just need to take it easy. We took it at about 50 mph, letting everyone else pass us and hoping for the best. We did make it to the next gas station, and Alex managed to squeeze 5.4 gallons of fuel into a tank with nominal capacity of 5 gallons.
When we crossed back into California it seemed like a perfect time for lunch, so we stopped in a small town of Tulelake for some Mexican food. The huge servings of iced horchata were a welcome treat. Refreshed, we were ready to finally get to Lava Beds National Monument, which was only about 10 miles away. We were stopped just outside of the town by a guy on a truck who suggested we get off the road because a huge combine harvester is coming our way and it takes up the entire width of the road. We moved into the grassy shoulder and observed as the humongous machine made its slow way along the road. It was actually a bit wider than the road and needed all the space it could get.
Coming out onto the road again Alex noted that something felt off. Shortly after I realized his rear tire was completely flat. We stopped to investigate and although we had a tire plug kit and an electric pump, we decided not to use it, because the flat was caused not by a puncture but by the fact that the tire simply wore completely through past the metal belt. It was actually quite ridiculous, there was only 6500 miles on it. I guess no Lava Beds today.
We called around a few repair shops and the only one anywhere near us that was willing to help was Howard from Air Head in Klamath Falls. He did not have the exact sized tire we needed, but was smart enough to realize that all things considered, even a tire that’s a tad wider is still better than the alternative. The other shops would simply say, nope, we have nothing in your size, but we can have it in two days if you order now. Right…
The shop was 30 miles away. The way I saw it, we could request a tow truck, which would probably take at least an hour or more to arrive to our location, or we could ride it slowly and hope the tire doesn’t wear out to the rim. We settled on the latter, with the speed of about 30 mph, to reduce the stress on that tire. Making turns at junctions was the worst, because with a tire like that Alex could not accelerate at the typical rate and required lots of space to merge safely.
When we finally got to Air Heads, turns out the shop specializes in dirt bikes, and does not have stands for street bikes to be able to remove the wheel. While Alex and I were looking puzzled, Howard devised a plan to suspend the bike from the ceiling instead, which worked out quite well. From there, everything went smoothly and in about an hour we were on our way. Howard raved about the magnificent dirt riding to be done in the area, and we made a mental note to come back and verify those claims with our WR250Rs some time.
We planned to stay near Eureka for the night, which was on the coast and about 5 hours of riding away. We took the most direct route, one that allowed us to cross the Klamath Mountains with the most daylight, and spend the dark portion of the trip on the Pacific coast, where highway 1 is fairly straight and less treacherous. The ride on 199 across the mountains was gorgeous. Even before sunset the sun was a pretty peach colour due to the nearby forest fires. I suspect any road crossing those mountains is going to be enjoyable on a motorcycle. After getting some shade from Oregonian drivers about our casual filtering to the front of the line up at the red light, it was nice to be back. Viva California!
When we arrived at the house of our tentspace host James, we were quite tired, cold and a little cranky. Between the hot days in the sunny valleys and the cold evenings on the coast, your body just can’t keep up with the ever changing climate. We spent a little bit of time chatting, and then retired to sleep.
In the morning James suggested we have breakfast in a motorcycle themed cafe, which turned out to be an exceptional experience. The Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe was not busy on that moody morning and we had a leisurely discussion while chipping away at our food. The cafe owner knew James very well and mid way through our visit he introduced someone else to our table, Roman was on a road trip heading north, and the four of us proceeded to discuss all sorts of things for another hour or so. It’s great to be able to enjoy sharing ideas and not just food. I had a strange sensation that I rode for hours on the cold and dark Pacific shore last night just to have this breakfast. And it was worth it.
The rest of the ride back home was fairly uneventful, filled with typical Californian vistas of mountains, rivers, vineyards, and finally, cities and the industrialized East Bay. It felt like we’ve been away for much longer than a week, and mentally we were a bit exhausted from it. But that’s nothing a couple of days at work won’t fix, at which point you’re ready to go again!