The Misadventures of Ian Heller

Make No Little Plans.



2017 Tour Day 4: From the Prairie to the Mountains to the Ocean (White With Foam)

Variety is the spice of riding and it was a day full of variety — a great way to cross 3,000 miles on this trip.

We left Truckee, CA early this morning and crossed Donner Pass, legendary for its beauty and famous cannbalism episode of 1846. The Donner Party, traveling by wagons, became stranded in a blizzard and wound up spending the winter on the mountain. 45 of the 81 settlers survived by eating the other 36.  In contrast to our trip today, the Donner Party had no variety (same food day after day) and no spice (what’s a good seasoning for bicep?)

The view was spectacular — you’ll have to take my word for it because I didn’t want to stop in case a blizzard stranded us and my riding partners decided I should become the first entree on the survival menu.

Next came a long, long trip across the state of California. Granted, making your way east to west is a fraction of the challenge vs. riding north to south but it took us awhile to get to Fort Bragg — which I envisioned as a hardcore military community and was surprised to find a coastal paradise. But getting there took us across vast valleys and plains, with the temperature hovering in the high 90’s for hours.

The last 35 miles on highway 20 were spectacular — endless numbers of sweeping curves, the road undulating up and down valleys and mountains, much of it through dense forests that canopied the road for miles. This is one of the most incredible motorcycle roads I’ve ever enjoyed. Adding to the pleasure were reasonable speed limits (i.e., not too slow) and dozens of “turn outs” for slower vehicles — which the motorists used frequently and freely to let us swift but sane bikers pass them safely and easily.

On this trek up and over the mountains to get to the coast, the temperature plummeted into the mid 60’s; it was breathtaking to feel cool air rushing by after the long, hot heat of the afternoon.

Exhilarated by this experience and given that we’d finally reached the Pacific Ocean, we decided it was time to stop and memorialize our arrival:

We then picked up Highway 1 and took it along the coast for several miles. In this part of California, there are relatively few cars and bikes to contend with and the coastline is nearly completely undeveloped. It’s rugged, beautiful and rocky, with the road often cut into large cliffs overlooking the ocean.

Then Highway 1 turns inland and we rode the curviest road any of us ever rode. By comparison, there’s a “bucket list” route in the southeast called, “The Tail of the Dragon, which is famous for its 318 turns in 11 miles. We didn’t count the turns as we rode Highway 1 for 22 miles from Hardy to Leggett, but I think several dragons contributed to building this road because it was incredibly tight, twisty and intoxicating — almost hypnotic. This map gives you the general idea but there are curves within curves all along the route.

Tonight, we are in a Best Western in Fortuna, CA. (I texted that information to Penny earlier and she replied, “How FORTUNAte!” That girl knows how to get to me 🙂 As a side note, Best Westerns are noted for being motorcycle-friendly. They usually have great places to park and often have security cameras to keep an electronic eye on your steed as you slumber.

We are still in the “no planning” part of our vacation — we don’t have to do any serious map-plotting until we are within a few days of Denver — I fly back the afternoon of June 27th and my brother Clive will help me ship my bike back to Atlanta. I don’t mind the long ride back across the country but if you have limited days on the road, it’s better to spend them in the mountains.

I do know that tomorrow we will continue north and ride along the Oregon coast. I haven’t visited there since I was 9 years old and even in that long-ago memory, it’s rocky and gorgeous. I can’t wait to see witness it again and will report on the experience tomorrow night. Watch this space.

2017 Tour Day 3: A Doctor and Two Aliens Ride the Extraterrestrial Highway

We rode today from Caliente, NV to South Lake Tahoe, CA.

Along the way, we covered the entire 98 mile stretch of Nevada State Highway 375, which is officially called “The Extraterrestrial Highway” by the state. This highway and others we covered in Nevada today are incredibly barren — the little gathering of buildings you see in the picture above (courtesy of Wikimedia Commons) counts as a major population center in this part of the country. We went more than 140 miles between gas stations at one point and saw wild ranging cattle, hundreds of munitions bunkers, several rabbits and two snakes. But alas, no aliens. Well, except for this one where the road starts on the east end:

Area 51 is close to this road and experts debate the origins of the many strange objects witnessed in the sky by travelers. We rode many miles without seeing other cars and we saw only one Nevada State Trooper along the way — and he just stopped to check on us when we pulled over to take this picture.

In retrospect, I should have asked him if he’d had any strange encounters since he no doubt drives this road more than just about anyone. I was frankly preoccupied thinking that if we hadn’t stopped for the fake metal alien photo op, we’d have crossed paths with this officer several miles down the road when the only mystery would have been whether or not he caught us speeding before we saw him coming.

For yet another day, the topography was indescribable. The vastness of this country overwhelms you when you spend hours and hours traveling through empty lands where you can see nothing manmade but the road in every direction. Further, where you’re traveling is, by definition, the most-developed part of the land that’s visible towards every horizon.

No surprise: it was hot today. Traveling hundreds of miles at a steady speed, on long, long straights of highway, immersed in simmering heat, makes it difficult to stay focused on your riding. Every motorcyclist knows you must maintain “tactical awareness” at all times but no one can do this perfectly. Inevitably, your thoughts wander or you get distracted on the song or radio show in the bluetooh system in your helmet.

At times like this, riding just above the speed limit actually helps you stay alert for the simple reason that you’re scanning the environment for cops. Our law enforcement professionals provide a great assist here because they show up randomly, with little warning and they typically drive vehicles much like the other cars on the road, meaning you regularly get a little shot of adrenaline when a Tahoe suddenly approaches from the horizon. It’s a game and assuming you don’t drive at a dangerous pace, it probably makes you safer, all things considered.

We reached Minden, Nevada around 2PM and rode up Daggett Pass, crossing into California at the end. In just a handful of miles, we ascended from 4,700 feet of elevation to more than 7,300. It was as though we were rising above the oppressive heat of the desert and punching through to a cooler layer of air blanketing the mountains. We emerged in South Lake Tahoe and took the western route around the lake, stopping just once for a few pictures — unlike yesterday’s post, today’s photo offering is meager. We also took zero selfies today since I kind of overshot with those yesterday.

Tonight, we are in Truckee, CA, a gorgeous, western-themed town, which is appropriate since we are staying at a Best Western. We walked to a microbrewery for dinner where none of us ordered beer despite this sign:

Tomorrow, we’ll take highway 20 to the coast of California — Fort Bragg. Then we’ll work our way up Highway 1 towards Oregon. Maybe. We have left our planned routes behind us — it’s an 11 day ride and we only planned the route for the first day.

In case the title of this post interests you, allow me to clarify in my closing remarks. My brother and I are the aliens (he was born in the UK; I was born in Canada) and our friend Dale Berkbigler is the doctor. And even though the Extraterrestrial Highway was only 20% of the miles we covered today, it’s an interesting hook for a blog post, don’t you think?

Goodnight from Truckee, California.

2017 Tour Day 2: From the State of Saints to the State of Sinners — One Group Selfie at a Time

We woke up in Utah this morning, the most religious of states in America. Utah is relatively dry in more ways than one — my co-travelers insisted we stop at a liquor store in Colorado prior to entering the Beehive State.

We took off from our hotel and rode into the town of Capitol Reef — which I slighted in last night’s post. It’s actually a fascinating little village in southern Utah and it’s blessed with a fantastic little restaurant, The Capitol Reef Inn & Cafe, which doesn’t look like much on the outside but boasts an appealing interior and even more appealing food.

After breakfast, we remounted our iron steeds and I learned as we entered it that Capitol Reef is also the name of a national park. In addition to some mysterious pictographs (for example, why did Indians thousands of years ago draw four-fingered characters wearing helmets?) we also found a great place to park the bikes, climb a little hill and take a couple of snaps, including our first group selfie of the day. This time, I perched the camera on a little pile of rocks I built; I predict that in 1,000 years, some future archaeologists will wonder at the religious significance of this tiny shrine built by the foolish and superstitious people of our era.

After departing Capitol Reef, we drove up a pass and pulled over again to a vastly different landscape. We met a couple of elderly brothers from Detroit and offered to take pictures of them in exchange for their services in snapping shots of us.

Later, we spotted a fascinating landscape by the side of the road and pulled over to see a gorgeous desert below us with a river running through it. If you look closely, you’ll see the greenery thriving thanks to what is really a small amount of water in what is paradoxically a gorgeous wasteland.

It then occurred to us that only one thing could possibly improve the beauty and grandeur of this scene, so we took another picture — with us in front of it.

We then toured Bryce Canyon National Park — a favor to me as both Clive and Dale had seen it just last year.
The pictures will give you a sense of what the landscape is like but (you know what’s coming), you have to see it for real to “get” the breathtaking scope and scale of this unbelievable topography. It’s just stunning. I added a series of photographs below; in the last one, I zoomed in so you can see the people hiking on a trail to the bottom of this canyon. This is an 18x zoom and yet the people are still tiny little figures in the frame.

In the heat of the mid-afternoon, we left Utah and entered the land of sin — Nevada. We rode for a few hours across vast deserts, over a mountain pass and across an enormous plain ringed by mountains on three sides that reminded all of us of the San Luis Valley in Colorado, where we began our journey.
We ended today’s travels in Caliente (Spanish for “hot”), Nevada, where it was — thanks to a permanent municipal ordinance, I believe — exactly 100 degrees when we arrived. According to the menu in the “restaurant” (not recommended) where we ate our dinner, Caliente thrived during the steam locomotive era as a place for trains to stop to take on water. These days, the train station is the town hall; as you can see below, two Union Pacific logos still flank the edifice.

Caliente is part actual village, part misdirection and part ghost town. The Exxon sign here is an illusion — this establishment does not sell fuel. The J&J Mini Mart is part of Caliente’s ghost town persona; the faded sign offers long-ago travelers a list of staples and indulgences to sustain them in their treks across this vast desert.

We’re staying at what is likely the nicest establishment in Caliente — The Shady Motel.

When we checked in, the desk clerk told me the wifi password is, “shadyguest.” I replied, “What a coincidence — that’s what I am!”
She looked at me seriously and said, “Everything in Nevada has two meanings.”

This is a complex and diverse state. Mountains and deserts, ghost towns doubling as working villages, huge cities and glamour along with illusory riches and, I’m sure, despair for people who came to “make it big” but now just try to make ends meet.

The desk clerk is right. Everything in Nevada has two meanings.

2017 Tour Day 1: Mountain Air, Desert Heat and a Mesa on Fire

I wrote this blog entry on Saturday night but couldn’t post it until Sunday. That’s because I have no wifi or cell access here at the Rodeway Inn in Capitol Reef, UT. Interesting name, since there is no water anywhere and thus no “reef” — and it doesn’t appear to be the capitol of anything except, perhaps, desolate but beautiful desert.
We left Dale Berkbigler’s mountain home this morning bound for Del Norte airport, where Dale stores his planes and, for one night only, my motorcycle (his was there too). After just a few miles driving down Pinos Creek road, we came across an honest-to-god Colorado cattle drive. This was a bona fide, genuine movement of beef cattle on the hoof — not dude ranch fakery.

After a brief delay, we completed the drive to the airport where I started packing up my bike while Dale washed the cattle drive mementoes off of his car. Finally, the four of us — Clive, Dale, Laurie Anne and me — climbed on our motorcycles and hit the road. We headed west over Wolf Creek Pass (subject of a “semi”- famous trucker-themed song from the 1970’s; I still know the words), through Durango, past Mesa Verde National Monument and into Utah.

We took turns leading because my riding partners have not yet learned that if you give me that kind of control, I’m going to stop the group so I can take pictures. Our first group picture was by the side of the road in the middle of Utah — it was spectacular and nearly barren of traffic. To get this shot, I perched my camera on my helmet across the road, set the timer and ran back into the frame. I also took many other shots and during this elapsed time period of perhaps 15 minutes; not one car passed from either direction.

We then rode on to an overlook where you can see a little bit of Lake Powell. It was obviously time for another group shot, so I used the trusty camera-on-a-rock-straightened-by-twigs method and snapped a decent photo. The scenery there was amazing.

So was the heat. During the subsequent leg of the journey, we covered about 150 miles and the temperature was well over 100 the entire time, topping out at a toasty (but not steamy; no humidity here) 107 degrees.

We refueled at the Hollow Mountain convenience store, where an angry-looking man, accompanied by his embarrassed-looking wife and disinterest kids in a large pickup truck pulling a large boat on a trailer honked at me while I took this picture:

Which brings me to the Rodeway Inn in Capital Reef. It’s not fancy but it’s very clean, quite updated (except for the intermittent wifi) and the sunset is spectacular. The picture of the butte across from the hotel is straight out of the camera, with no retouching at all. This is the full glory of sunset in the desert, as though nature is giving you a small reward for tolerating the wicked heat of the daytime.

Tomorrow is supposed to be even hotter, but I genuinely don’t care. This is a fiery paradise but a paradise nonetheless. It’s a humbling thing to witness the vastness, the majesty and the unique beauty of this landscape and the heat is part of the experience — a character in the drama.

More tomorrow and thanks for reading.

Mission Accomplished But the Journey’s Just Started

Professional pictures forthcoming but this gives you the idea: Steve Buscher, a Safety Program Manager for HD Supply White Cap and our primary liaison to Folds of Honor, stands on the left. That’s me on the right. In the middle is Major Dan Rooney, the CEO and Founder of the organization. 

The day started out much less auspiciously: 

Lots and lots of rain. Which is fine — I ride in the rain. I pulled over at this gas station because of the plentiful supply of nearby lightning. As I fueled up, a driver heading east (I was going west), told me they’d just driven through hail — a particular problem on a motorcycle. So, I waited for 20 mins before heading out again. 

I had a chance to tour our branch in Tulsa, courtesy of Caleb Long, our manager there, and meet his great team. The place looks great and I bet that group provides great service to our customers in the Tulsa area. Then we headed off to the Folds of Honor party, which was held in a set of tents near the lake where their new offices will be built — courtesy of the Associated Builders and Contractors of Tulsa; this group is donating all of the labor and construction management for the project and coordinating many of the material donations as well. That’s an awesome contribution to a great cause! 

Here, Major Rooney stands next to a rendering of the upcoming building — which will sit on land that has been donated as well: 

Soon after I shot this picture, eight of the largest celebrities I’ve ever seen in my life showed up and it was majestic:

Note the Dalmatian, who travels with the team; his name is “Clyde.” Budweiser is a huge supporter of Folds of Honor — Major Rooney cold-called their corporate offices every six months for three years and now they’ve donated millions of dollars to the cause. 

As soon as the ceremony wrapped up, I hit the road again. I stayed in Enid, OK last night and am writing this as I prepare to head out to Colorado, where I’ll meet up with my brother Clive and another friend and head to California and then, who knows? We have about 12 days to wander the west and I can’t wait to continue the journey. 

Speaking of the “Journey Just Starting,” that’s not only literally true because my ride continues now. I’m also referring to supporting Folds of Honor. It was my honor to contribute to this cause. I will continue to use my position and resources to keep supporting this charity because it’s run by such terrific people and they do such important work. 

I’ll keep you posted on both journeys if you keep checking this space…

2017 Folds of Honor Ride – Day 1

Me — at Zero Miles

I’ve been planning this trip for months, so of course I was scrambling like mad the last two days to get ready to leave. Anticipating my long time away from home, my wife Penny headed to New Orleans with her sister. They left a couple of days ago — to avoid getting in my way, she said. I think this is code for, “You’re going to be distracted and slightly annoying while you pack, so I think I’ll leave town.” Probably a good call, although I’m always more lonesome at home by myself than I am in a lonely hotel by the highway, for some reason. 

They seem to be having a great time, which validates her decision — although we are at an age where the temptations of even legendarily fun destinations like New Orleans lose some of their appeal: Just as I checked into my hotel in Conway, AR, tonight, she texted me for my Netflix log-in credentials, so I think their evening is about as wild as mine, despite the party reputation gap between the two cities. 
After heading west from Atlanta to Birmingham, AL, I took I-22 northwest to Memphis. Unbeknownst to me, that road turns into US Highway 76 as you get close to Memphis and — after hours cruising at 70MPH — everything slows down and you come upon a long series of stoplights over the course of several miles. Worse, a fender-bender somewhere in the middle of this resulted in a very long, idle-speed delay, so I cooked in my helmet for a good 45 minutes, watching the temperature gauge hold at 98 degrees. I finally exited, navigated by “dead reckoning” (an old sailor’s term for “guessing”) and somehow wound up where I was supposed to be — on I-40 West, bound once more for Tulsa!

I came across a quiet and pristine (ignoring the major interstate nearby, of course) rest area in Madison, AR, where I let the bike cool and enjoyed the air conditioning for a few minutes. 

During last year’s long, cross-country ride, I experienced no rain at all until the last couple of hours before I arrived home — in other words, it was dry weather for about 6,000 miles. This year, I experienced rain off and on for about an hour on my very first day. Just like last year, I kept right on going — I welcomed the cool relief and left my rain gear in the saddle bags. 

I tend to be very mission-focused (some might say obsessive-compulsive) when I ride, so meals are just fuel for me. In that spirit, I stopped at a McDonald’s in Lonoke, AR, for a “lo-carb” burger and a Diet Dr. Pepper. Outside, a minor drama played out as a family studied the engine of their minivan until a tow truck came to fetch the stricken vehicle to be looked at by a qualified professional. This close to Memphis, FedEx trucks are simply everywhere.

My iPhone is mounted on the handlebars of my bike and as I cruised along, it occurred to me that it was poised to take a photo of the setting sun. Daring myself to capture this shot without unmounting the phone (or crashing), I took several snaps, not sure what I’d find when I could finally look at my pictures. I got decidedly mixed results, as you can see. At least it’s artsy. 

I’m now at a Holiday Inn Express (“Express” being the retail term for, “less to offer than our better establishments”) and will depart in the morning for Owasso, OK, a suburb of Tulsa. As I parked the bike here, a man stopped by to chat (that happens constantly when you ride a motorcycle) and asked me where I was headed. When I told him about Folds of Honor, he proudly told me that he just retired from a “great, 22-year career” in the Arkansas National Guard and thanked me for raising money for such an important cause. I thanked him for his military service and we shook hands. It was a very nice, though brief, conversation. 

At 4PM tomorrow, I will participate in a groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of the Folds of Honor headquarters expansion. I will hand over a big fake check representing actual funds in the amount of $30,000 to Major Dan Rooney, the founder and CEO of the foundation. Once that ceremony is completed, I will hit the road again — I am heading to Colorado to meet up with my brother Clive and another friend, so we can ride to California and points beyond. It’s a long way from Owasso to Del Norte, CO, so I will need to ride into the night tomorrow. But that’s a good thing: Oklahoma is mighty warm in the summertime and a long, evening ride will be fun and cool. 

So far, the bike is running great and I’m great enjoying my latest adventure. I can’t wait to head out again tomorrow and see the fantastic team at Folds of Honor!

2017 Cross Country Tour for a Cause

It’s nearly time for my 2017 cross country motorcycle tour, but this time I’m doing it for a great cause — I’m supporting “Folds of Honor,” a fantastic, very high quality charitable foundation that funds educational scholarships for the spouses and children of military personnel who are killed or disabled in action. 

On June 15th, I’ll leave my home near Atlanta bound for Tulsa, OK. The “Freedom Rally,” made up of cars and motorcycles from around the country, will take place in Tulsa on June 17th. My goal is to raise $10,000 for  this great cause by getting donations from friends and colleagues. 

Once the rally is over, I’ll head west to meet up with my brother (Clive) and a few other friends for an extended tour. We’ll head to California, go up to Seattle, then over to Montana and wind up in Denver.

Last year’s ride to British Columbia was my first true cross-country road trip. At this point in the planning (about a month out), I nervous, excited and had gone through about 20 revisions of my packing list. This year, I feel much more calm and am probably too relaxed — I have much to do and I need to get going!

One thing I’ve learned how to do is to blog from the road. I’ll do a better job of it this year and hope to include more photographs as well. In the meantime, if the mood strikes you, please make a tax-deductible contribution to Folds of Honor by following this link: 


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