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Trans-Am Trail - From preparing to getting ready to start


Day Zero minus 1 - Thursday August 4th - Chasing the Dragon's Tail


With my jet-lag gradually fading I managed to get a half decent night's sleep, well, until 5am at least. With the bikes due to arrive at 8am I was keen to get up and ready, excited about being reunited with my bike and having my own means of transportation. As we hung around outside Dan's workshop we got news that the driver had been delayed due to the a problem on the interstate. The driver was taking an alternate route - over the "Dragon's Tail", which is a very famous road in the national park not far from Townsend which has 318 bends in just 11 miles... Unsurprisingly it's a mecca for the bikers from all over who come to ride the twisty road to the café at the top. We also got news of a fatality on the road yesterday, a sportsbike rider colliding with a trailer - the idea of the big articulated lorry with our container full of bikes trying to get down the road was surreal. It did arrive eventually, though, just after we'd finished eating our breakfast. The driver jumped from his cab and proceeded to regail us of his journey in the most animated fashion. Chris aptly described him as a "cartoon character".

Still, he could drive his truck, though, and backed it in to the narrow driveway to GSM Motorent.


There then followed a few minutes of anxious waiting while the guys used a hacksaw to remove the customs seal before the moment of truth. As the doors were opened, revealing... all the bikes almost exactly as they had been when we loaded them in Pershore. The relief on Chris' face was palpable. As it must have been on mine.

Now we had the not insignificant task of unloading them. With no suitable ramp we improvised, using Dan's flat-bed pickup truck, onto which the bikes where lowered out of the container. The pickup was then moved forwards and the ramp we did have used to unload the bike onto terra firma.

With temperatures soaring and the inside of the container resembling an oven it was very hot and hard work, but one by one we got them out until there was a line of lovely bikes all waiting for their owners to arrive. And mine in the middle just wanting to be ridden!

After the 2nd shower of the day I checked my messages and discovered that Aaron and Harold would be in the BMW dealership in Knoxville at 3pm to get knobbly tyres fitted to their bikes. It was now gone 1.30pm, but I would have just enough time to ride the Dragon's Tail and meet up with them before heading up to the motel in Jellico. I bid a quick farewell to Chris, Simon and Dan and loaded up my bike. It was at this point that I realised that bringing all my camping gear when riding a trail across America, on a route that stops every night at a motel, was probably not that bright. The gear weighs quite a lot and is rather bulky, not ideal when riding on dirt. But I still want to camp after the trail so decided to leave it on and get on with riding.

The Dragon's Tail is certainly an interesting road. It really does have a lot of bends, although I didn't count them to see if the official figure (which varies from 317 to 318) was accurate. It did have some surprises, though, but not caused by the road itself, which was no worse than many I've ridden in the Alps, and with a better surface than many too. First of the surprises was that I saw several professional photographers set up on some of the trickier bends, snapping away at the bikes and cars making their way up or down. Second was perhaps to be expected, and that was the relatively poor cornering skill of some of the rides I saw. Unlike in the UK, most riders lack sufficient training and this shows as they thruppeny-bit around the bends and frequently run wide into the oncoming lane on the exit as a result of turning in too early and not reading the road correctly. On the way down I got stuck for a while behind a young lad on a sportsbike who was shifting his weight right across the bike and hanging off like a racer. Would have looked cool had he been taking a good line round the corners and going a little quicker than the walking pace he was. Once I got past him I pulled away easily despite not trying simply through better positioning in the turns, something I was taught a long time ago.

But I digress. The top of the Dragon's Tail is where there is a café and fuels stop, and where they sell T-shirts proclaiming that the owner "survived the Dragon's Tail". I bought one, wondering if it was premature, as I still had to get back down...


Which I did, and then rode up the interstate into Knoxville following my sat-nav to the BMW dealership. There was no sign of the 2 BMW F800GS' I was hoping to see, so I went inside to check if Aaron and Harold and been through and there they were! So now our little group is formed and ready to ride the trail, a full day earlier than planned. While we waited for their tyres to be fitted we chatted and I mentioned my camping gear dilemma. Aaron, owning a BMW dealership himself, had a plan. Ship the bag with their part-worn tyres to Portland and pick it up at the end of the trail. Perfect! So I transferred everything I needed into the smaller bag and sent the larger one on its way ahead of me. Hope I see it again!



We then rode the 70 or so miles to the motel at Jellico from where the trail starts. We passed through Maryville, where I was struck by the number of churches. There were more of them than shops or houses, at least on the route we took. A pizza for dinner was washed down with Sprite as there is a really odd thing going on in this part of the States. Due to liqour licencing laws (which are prohibitively difficult for most eating establishment), it is impossible to get an alcoholic drink with your meal. To buy booze you have to go to... the gas station! Yes, you can by booze whilst driving but not whilst eating...

So that's what we did, and enjoyed a couple of cold beers whilst studying the maps to work out a detour around Catooga Wildlife Park. It seems that a recent change of legislation has upset the locals. Recently, they changed the law classification for wild hogs (the animal kind, not the group of Harley riders in the film with John Travolta). They have been classed as a nuisance and are to be subject of a cull. This has angered the local wild hog hunters, who have sabotaged the trail through the park with nails and spikes and various other objects designed to puncture tyres of passing vehicles. So the trail has been closed, and we'll need to deviate on the highways round it. But that's for tomorrow...

Day Zero minus 2 - Wednesday August 3rd - Welcome to America!

Well, I didn't get attacked by the crackheads, although a weird Hispanic guy knocked on my window twice and said he was looking for his buddy. The 2nd time I told him that his buddy wasn't here and I was trying to sleep. He apologised again and stumbled off. Coupled with the fact that the curtain didn't quite cover the window, casing a streak of light onto the wall through which various shadows passed, I expected a poor night's sleep. As it was I quickly fell into a deep slumber, even the constant death rattle from the air-con and the roar of planes taking off from the nearby airport didn't stop me. Until 4am, when I woke up. The funny thing about jet-lag is that no matter how tired you might feel, you still feel wide awake. This was one of those occasions. I laid there for ages trying to get back to sleep before giving up and picking up my kindle once more. At this rate I'll run out of books before I even collect my bike.
I did manage to get another hours sleep after a brief Skype call to Tracy, but by 7am I was up and raring to go. I decided that trying to cross the highway to the Waffle Bar was a bad idea on 2 counts. First, the traffic was horrendous. Second, I didn't fancy another surreal conversation this early in the morning, even with the jet-lag. So I walked up the road to another food place where I had a half decent breakfast – after the usual endless questions about how I would like my eggs cooked, whether I wanted sausages or bacon, potatoes or grits, toast or biscuits (and what type of bread), and how I wanted my coffee. Judging by the size of my fellow diners the portions were going to be huge, but mine wasn't, which was a relief.
After whiling away a few hours reading back at the motel, I caught the shuttle bus back to the airport to wait for Chris to arrive. He's the guy that's organised a trip on the TAT for a group and who was kind enough to let me stow my bike in his container. Once he arrived we tried to hire a car so we could drive the 20 miles or so to Townsend and so that he could then ferry his riders from the airport as they arrived. Only it would seem that all the hire cars in Knoxville have been hired by insurance companies settling claims from a very bad hailstorm earlier in the year. At least that was the reason given by the reps behind all of the many hire companies when they explained they had no cars for hire. On did have a car but it was large and very expensive, so we resorted to a taxi instead.
Where we're staying in Townsend, the Riverside Lodge motel is a huge improvement over last night, nestled in a quiet part of this small town in amongst the trees right by the river. It's also next door to GSM Motorent motorcycle hire, where we will be unloading the bikes in the morning. Once we'd checked in I went and bought some cold beers and we sat chatting in the intense heat supping a cold beer. Simon, one of Chris' group arrived on his KTM 690, having spent 5 days riding the interstate all the way from Las Vegas. He's been in the US since early June, riding around and is joining the group to ride the TAT, taking my bike's place in the container for the return leg. He looked very hot indeed and regaled us with tales of riding through Texas and 150degree F temperatures. I gave him a cold beer as I thought he deserved it.
After a quick dip in the pool we went to the restaurant next door, where our request for a table was met by the young waitress proclaiming that my accent was simply gorgeous. I think I should have come here 30 years ago.
For dinner I had a delicious Southern Fried steak, which is a local delicacy of thin steak coated in spicy batter and fried, served with “white gravy” (an onion gravy) and mash. Sadly there was no beer or wine to wash it down with as the restaurants here don't seem to have liquor licences. A massive piece of carrot cake followed, which was clearly a mistake, as I could neither finish it nor move after I'd eaten what I could.
Before retiring to bed we grabbed the remaining cans of cold beer from our fridge and wandered over to Dan's workshop next door, where he was sat listening to music and enjoying a cold one himself. An evening spent supping cold beer, getting eaten by the bugs and discussing bikes, trails and riding followed, but not for too long as Chris' jet-lag was kicking in and mine wasn't far behind. And so off to bed with the sound of the crickets making a welcome change from last night's air-con and airplane symphony...


Day Zero minus 3 - Tuesday August 2nd - Welcome to America!

This morning I woke from another of the really weird but incredibly vivid dreams I've been having of late. The sound of an old car horn honking in the middle distance eventually reached the conscious part of my brain and dragged me from my slumber - it was 6.15am and time to get up. Dizzy from leaping out of bed too quickly I stumbled blindly into the shower and let the warm water bring me round. Today was D-Day. Departure Day. The start of another adventure.
Breakfast was a muted affair, as Tracy paced around massaging her aching neck, the pain of last week's operation at least distracting her a little from my imminent departure. But there was steel in her eyes when I once again said that perhaps I should have cancelled my trip. Some wives support their husbands, Tracy goes one step further and positively re-enforces my ambitions. It certainly makes leaving her easier, though I wouldn't go so far as to say it was easy...
The drive to the airport was uneventful, even the ridiculous 40mph speed limit imposed on the M60 due to roadworks (why 40, why not 50 like all other roadworks? What's so bad about these?) didn't delay the moment of our separation. I hate saying goodbye, so I put on my best manly face and gave her a quick kiss, and then waddled across the road carrying my bags whilst she got in the drivers seat, all the time hiding her face from my view. A final wave and a churn of my stomach as I instantly regretted not grabbing the chance for one last big hug.
Check in provided the first moment of minor panic, when the machine refused to read my passport. I'd tried online check-in several times yesterday to no avail, and the self-service check-in had also failed to work, so when the security reader failed to read my passport all sorts of thoughts started bouncing round my head. Had my passport been cloned while I was in Columbia? (though why I thought of Columbia when I'd ridden through Ecuador, Peru, Chile and Argentina since then I don't know!). When had I last used it? The guy called over the supervisor who tried and failed. Was I going to fail before I'd even got my boarding card? Then she swiped it backwards and it worked. Big sigh of relief...
Then I discovered the flight was delayed by nearly 2 hours. But all that meant was less time hanging around Chicago airport (and more time hanging around Manchester).
I then discovered why the American Airlines flight had been so much cheaper than the others. It was crap. The in-flight entertainment, in the form of the films "Rio" and "Star Trek" (hardly the latest box-office hits) were shown on tiny screens hanging down the centre of the fuselage, looking more like one of those weird mirror tricks you get at fairgrounds. But not being able to see the screens was only half the problem, as to listen to the audio you needed headphones which you had to purchase. From the stewardesses who were too busy serving up luke warm coffee. Still, at least I had my Kindle and a good book to read. I'd just started reading "An Idiot Abroad, the Diary" by Karl Pilkington. This is his diary from the hilarious Sky 1 series and it had me laughing out loud, which caused the American couple sat next to me to try and shrink into the outer wall of the plane away from me. Still, more room to stretch my shoulders...
I finished the book before we landed in Chicago, as sleeping was impossible due to the crying baby sat 2 rows in front. Luckily I'd downloaded a couple of other books so had something else to start reading, this time "Riding Man" written by a Canadian motorcycle racer's experience of riding the Isle of Man TT. It's good so far.
On arriving in Chicago I suddenly realised I was enjoying myself. I think it happened when I stepped off the plane into the non-air conditioned walkway and the heat struck me. I nearly fainted. But then I caught myself smiling. That doesn't happen too often, and I probably looked like a loony, but I was struck by the fact that I was off on another adventure, in a far away land, where it was hot and sunny and I'd be riding my bike. I was once again back to being my alter-ego. Strutting through a foreign airport carrying a motorcycle helmet and a BMW bike jacket, proclaiming to my fellow passengers that I was somehow different. I wasn't on a business trip, or on holiday. I was on an adventure. Even the process of clearing immigration was different for me. With my US visa (which I had to get for the Trans-AM as we didn't leave the US by air) I only had to have one hand scanned, not both, and was engaged in conversation that didn't start and end with a discussion about sightseeing. My customs guy asked why I had a visa, then asked about what I was doing "this time", and then asked whether I'd be riding "one of those noisy Harleys". To which I naturally replied "of course not, I'm riding something European!". His guess at a Moto Guzzi was somewhat wide of the mark, though...
The flight to Knoxville was thankfully on time, the aircraft a very small Embraer like the ones I used to catch up to Edinburgh when I worked for the Halifax and we merged with the Bank of Scotland. It was nice to be sat on one with the sun shining outside for a change. It was only a short flight, thankfully, and soon I was reunited with my luggage and outside looking for the shuttle bus to my motel up the road. Rather than wait, I splashed out $10 on a cab which turned out to be a very good idea as the driver told me that the motel I was staying in was where the local crackheads hang out. She made sure I got a room on the side near the front, as those round the back are a bit scary, she said. Welcome to America...
After a quick shower I wandered across the main road to the "Waffle House" where my friendly taxi driver had told me I could get something to eat, and not just waffles. She was right, I could get a burger with hash browns, and a Sprite to drink as they don't server beer. My English accent created a great deal of interest, the younger of the two waitresses even stopped mopping the floor to recount how her uncle goes to England quite often, to train the Queen's horses. Small world, eh?
When I was asked how I wanted my burger I naturally replied "on the rare side of medium rare" which was fine. Only due to a local law in Tennessee, I had to sign the waitress' order ticket to show that I was aware of the health risks... Welcome to America...
Then my Kindle caused something of a stir. The waitress asked what it was. "It's a book", I told her, showing her the page I was reading. She told me she couldn't read it as the text was too small, so I showed her how to enlarge it. And then how to turn pages. When I explained that I could carry hundreds of books around on it, she marvelled at the technology and proclaimed "Wow, it must be a British thing!". She seemed almost disappointed when I told her it was from Amazon. And American.
With all that excitement, and with the hunger now satiated I paid my bill and went back to the motel, before it got dark and all the crackheads appeared...

Monday August 1st - The Next Big Adventure - The Trans AM Trail

It's been 2 years now since I set off on what was the "Trip of a Lifetime", when I rode my motorcycle from Anchorage in Alaska to Buenos Aires in Argentina via the very top and very bottom of the American continent. It seems like a lifetime ago, so it's only appropriate that I set off on another "Trip of a Lifetime"...

This time I'll be riding another of my motorcycles (yes I know that sounds greedy but you can never have enough bikes in my opinion!) across America once more, but this time from East to West. From Knoxville Tennessee to Port Orford in Oregon, and then down to San Francisco. Not quite the 23,000 miles and 19 countries of my last "Trans-AM", but this one will take me through at least 10 States and over 5,000 miles. The bulk of which follows a route pioneered by an American chap called Sam Correro who spent years trying to find an alternative to crossing America by highway. Not content with just avoiding the Interstates, he went one further and defined a route that avoided tarmaced roads altogether. It spans roughly 4,500 miles and consists of "dirt roads, gravel roads, jeep roads, forest roads and farm roads". Which sounds a lot more interesting and challenging! Details of the route can be found on Sam's website at www.transamtrail.com

The trip was all Aaron's idea. He was one of the guys on the Trans-AM in 2009, who then went on to ride from London to Beijing with Globebusters in 2010 and obviously felt the need for something a little easier this year. For him at least. Naturally I jumped at the chance to join him, encouraged as always by Tracy.

My first challenge was working out how to get my bike over the pond and to the start. I struck lucky with this when I found a guy who organises trips from the UK to ride part of the TAT and who had a trip heading out around the time we wanted to go. With the help of Chris from Unchained Tours I hatched a cunning plan. I would ship my bike in the container he was sending out for his next tour, and then find a way to get it back from San Francisco using one of his many contacts. And so it was that a few weeks ago I rode my BMW F800GS down to Worcester and loaded it into a container with a motley  selection of serious-looking off-road bikes (mostly bright orange KTMs).



Now those of you who followed my last adventure may be wondering why I'm not riding "El Monstro", my faithful BMW R1150GS Adventure, especially after it had survived the trip and was now rebuilt and back on the road. Well, the reason is simple. I've broken the habit of a lifetime and finally listened to the advice of those who know better (namely Chris from Unchained Tours). He said I should take the 800GS because it's lighter and easier to handle. Only time will tell, as I much prefer riding the 1150, even off road...

But back to the story.

With the bikes loaded the container started its long journey on the back of a lorry to Southampton, from where it will be put on a ship across the Atlantic to the US-of-A, where it will be unloaded and once it has cleared customs be transported by road to Knoxville, hopefully arriving on 4th August.



With the bike gone there was some more preparation for me to do. The route is supplied by Sam Correro in the form of a number of marked maps with route instructions supplied on A4 sheets. Aaron bought the set and I volunteered to try and convert them to GPS routes to help us find our way. It was only when I got them did I realise the amount of work I'd let myself in for...



The first task was working out how to read the route instructions, which are supplied in 3 columns of hieroglyphs. These show the next junction and the direction we should take, together with the distance to the subsequent junction. Some even contain the GPS coordinates of the junctions, which enabled me to plot the route in Mapsource using a detailed electronic map of the US and then load the route into my Garmin sat-nav. We'll see how useful that is when we try and follow it...



These route notes are then cut into strips and sellotaped together to form a large roll (like a till roll), which is then inserted into a roll-chart holder attached to the handlebars of the bike. I bought a cheap roll-chart holder from Sweden, which I then had to modify as this roll-chart reads from bottom to top, not top-bottom as you might expect. You can see the holder in the picture of the bike in the container above, it's that ugly white box thing. The idea is that you read the instructions, check the distance against the bike's trip-meter, and then scroll the chart downwards to reveal the next set of instructions. All whilst trying to ride the bike across rugged terrain without falling off. We'll see how that goes when we start on the trail too...

So with all my preparations done, it's almost time for the trip to start. As usual things at home are chaotic, with Tracy just having come back out of hospital following an operation to insert a replacement disc in her neck (another legacy of the accident in 2007). Fortunately the operation has been a complete success and has not only reduced the pain she was experiencing but also increased the movement in her neck. Had the operation gone ahead when originally intended, her recuperation would have been completed too, but as it is she'll be relying on others for support as once again I'll be off enjoying myself and shirking my responsibilities. And before you ask, yes, I do feel guilty about doing so. Only every time I tried to convince her that I should perhaps cancel the trip I got a right b*ll*cking, so I'm going. And I'm under strict instructions to enjoy myself and come back in once piece, too...
Which as I return just 3 days before Laura's wedding, I think I'd better do so too!
My flight is at 10.40 in the morning. I'm getting rather excited... and who knows, with another trip underway, I may even start blogging again!

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