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Cannonballs Deep: In The Thick Of America

Wednesday, October 5, 2016 12:23
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(Before It's News)

Flying the flag!  Mike Wild and his belt-drive Triumph Model H, chuffing across America's expansive heartland. Buckskin township, Ohio.

After the debacle of Day 1, a reckoning was made by quite a few riders.  If their machine had failed so utterly, or burned to a crisp, was there a point in carrying on?   Normal humans have jobs and responsibilities, and blocking out 3 weeks of motorcycle time requires considerable planning.  If your motorcycle went bust, is the remainder of the event a ride of shame, a holiday spent watching your friends achieve glory, or an opportunity for an unexpected holiday?  Folks took each path, some trucking their broken bikes home, spending a week on a different vacation, and returning to meet us at the finish.  Some simply disappeared.  A few were already part of a team, and carried on as support for those still rolling.

Don't try this at home! John Pfeifer's 1916 Harley-Davidson, with the leaky fuel tank. Could he fix it as a patina ride?  No.

There's also the expense: the Cannonball has skewed prices for pre-1917 motorcycles, in total contrast to the automotive market.  A year ago, when this 'century ride' was announced, it was intended to be both a motorcycle AND automotive event, with a staggered start for the cars, the bikes following a day behind, and a shared day off in Dodge City, Kansas.  With almost no publicity, there were a dozen entries for the automotive class within a week, and both Lonnie Isam Jr and Jason Sims, the Cannonball organizers, purchased c.1916 Dodge sedans in excellent condition, each costing roughly $15,000.  For even the humblest of Cannonball motorcycle entries (say, the 1914 Shaw motor bicycle), you'd double that price, and for most, you'd need an extra zero.  That's because there are plenty of old American cars sitting idle, and zero demand for them.  There's hardly any events in which to use them.  In the end, it was decided the Cannonball would remain all-bike.  And the auction companies had a field day: Mecum auctions is now a major sponsor of the Cannonball, and Jason Sims mentioned they were pressing him to reveal the cutoff year for the 2018 Cannonball, so they could cultivate a new herd of eligible bikes for the big Las Vegas auctions.

The road as big as the sky

Day 2, September 11th, was my 54th birthday; it was my 3rd birthday on the road with the Cannonball, and the best so far.  York PA is not far from Gettysburg National Military Park, and I'd never been to a Civil War battlefield.  The town is charming, and when we discovered the best donut in the world (no joke), we asked which direction was the battlefield, to be told 'you're in it.'  True enough, war is messy, to be cleaned up later by historians and those with an agenda.   We were lucky to encounter a group of gents whose hobby was period correct camping, comprising a regiment of blue-coated regulars in a field with their tents.  They were delighted to work with us, posing for wet plate photographs – they'd done so previously, but never on the scale Susan and I attempted. The resulting wet plate images are real time-benders, in the very spot which stuck the wet plate photograph in the world's consciousness, via the work of Matthew Brady, who posed his corpses and cannonballs as keenly as we did our living subjects.

Posing our regiment in Gettysburg.  Thanks boys!

My birthday dinner was our 2nd excellent meal of our 21-day adventure, at Tin 202 in Morgantown, West Virginia.  Thus encouraged, we had high hopes for a trail of good meals, but the next 3-star dinner was 2400 miles away.

I asked for it as a birthday present, but this lovely '46 Indian Chief and sidecar needed to be ridden home that morning… Shiloh, Pennsylvania

Day 3 on the relentless schedule West found us at lunch in Williamstown, WV, at S&P Harley-Davidson.  All but 3 of our scheduled lunches were hosted at Harley dealerships, and our organizers must have sent out a memo for 'no pulled pork', as that was the ubiquitous fare in 2014.  Cannonball rules stipulate you MUST stay at a hosted lunch or dinner stop, as the quid pro quo for a meal – the venues advertise a display of our old bikes, and draw healthy crowds. Not so painful, unless you're a vegetarian, or prefer a different sort of lunch experience than foldup plastic tables in a charmless and makeshift storage room at a bike dealer.  We're thankful for the food, of course, but I much preferred when the local Elks clubs made us lunch in a city park – that seemed more an act of generosity and goodwill than the commercial opportunity afforded by our presence at a place of business.  Your mileage may vary.  Susan and I were busy jumping in and out of our wet plate van, taking photos at the lunch stops, and didn't explore the food until the riders had thundered off, and we were starving. 75% of the time we simply turned around to find a local, non-chain diner, which was work in itself. Susan's daily goal was a good grilled cheese sandwich, something not offered by Subway or MickeyD.

Does a Henderson handle? See for yourself – a looong wheelbase and decently rigid chassis equals a stable ride.  Near Clarksville, Ohio

And then there are the hotels, motels, Holiday Inns.  The quality of accommodation was way up over 2012, but the succession of Quality, Hampton, Comfort and Fairfield Inns became a blur.  We'd learned from 2012 that excellent coffee sets the tone for our day, so a French press, a few pounds of our favorite grand, and a teakettle are essential for our mood.  I pity other addicts who suffered through hotel coffee for 3 weeks.  Susan takes hers black (she's tough like that), but I carried cream in our cooler, preferring 'kitty coffee', as a balm for the assaults of the coming day.

Zika eradication squad! Architect Ryan Allen smokes away on his 1916 Indian Powerplus in Williamstown, West Virginia

Which came mostly in the form of rain; after the muggy heat of our first 1200 miles, relief came in torrents from the sky, and we were pissed upon suddenly and relentlessly.  The timing was treacherous, as in a twisted bit of humor, we undertook a series of unmarked rural roads to cross the 'Cannonball Bridge' near Vincennes, Indiana.  Its construction was unique in my experience, being a converted railway bridge with the usual gapped sleepers, with a pair of tire paths made from lengthwise boards of various thickness, laid down lengthwise before the riders, which felt pretty damn wonky in my truck, but was hellishly slippery for the riders crossing in a downpour.  Cannonball bridge indeed.

A foggy morning in Dodge City.  We all ride alone.

As our caravan of 300 souls and all their support vehicles sped relentlessly Westward, we passed through Chillicothe Ohio, Bloomington Indiana, Cape Girardeau and Springfield Missouri, and Wichita Kansas.  Just outside Wichita, in the suburb of Augusta, fellow Cannonballer Kelly Modlin has recently opened the Twisted Oz Motorcycle Museum, with a terrific display of restored and original-paint motorcycles, most of which could have been on one or more Cannonballs.  It's a terrific display, and Kelly's family put on a welcome meal under the framework of the museum's next expansion, which will double its size already, within a year of its opening.   We all got too many bikes, and not enough willing asses for their saddles!

Rick Salisbury on his 1915 Excelsior

Saturday September 17th we arrived in Dodge City, Kansas, grateful for our day off on Sunday, where riders could wash clothes and catch up on maintenance and rest.  For Susan and I, that meant double the work, as riders were available all day for portrait sessions, and we set to, taking a record 24 tintypes on Sunday in a variety of spots, including at the site of old Dodge City board track, where H-D museum archivist Bill Rodencal was determined to get a tintype of his machine.  His 1915 Harley-Davidson racer had won Dodge City a century before, and he wore period gear to be immortalized on the very spot, which we were honored to do.   The photos came out great, including one Bill caught of us!

Thanks Bill Rodencal for working the lens cap of our 4×5″ camera!  Bill's 1915 Harley-Davidson racer…
…which he rode over 2300 miles.  The bike has NO suspension at all, an uncompromising riding position, and a single speed!  'America is my Board Track'
Michael Norwood and his 1916 Harley-Davidson at the big train on Boot Hill, Dodge City, KS
The solitary Reading-Standard to attempt the Cannonball, a single-cylinder belt drive model, with Norm Nelson piloting.  1744 miles covered.
Niimi!  On his shared Team 80 1915 Indian, with Shinya Kimura.  Caught in the rain in Ohio.
Kelly Modlin with his grandson at his Twisted Oz Museum in Augusta, Kansas
Team 80 takes a gander at the Hillclimber selection at Twisted Oz
Dawn and Doc, and the 1916 Harley-Davidson with wicker sidecar with which they covered every single mile of the Cannonball – a truly impressive achievement.
A one-block town with one brick building, and a nice red frame for the 1916 Indian Powerplus of Kevin Naser.  Neodesha, Kansas…pronounced 'Nay oh du Shay', we were instructed
Halfway already?  Halfway drowned too; the second half of the day's ride, after a sponsored lunch stop, was cancelled, although a few riders did every mile anyway, to ensure they could claim they did.  Jasper, Kansas.
Storm's a brewin in Kansas…
Kevin Naser stopped in Grant, Missouri, for a change of gear.
Brent Hansen and his 1914 Shaw, popping along the plains of America's vast middle
Quonset huts are rare today, but tailor made for a retro cafe, as in Springfield Missouri
What becomes Europe's largest Harley-Davidson dealer best? Americana ink.
Miss Route 66, Sara Vega, poses with Alex Trepanier and his 1912 Indian single.  Alex covered nearly every mile of the United States, an epic achievement.
The future rolls out before you on the Missouri/Kansas border
The Powerplus team of the Rinker family, father Steve (here) and twin sons Justin and Jared
A small-town radio station in Cabool, Missouri
The heartland is full of great motorcycles; this is Powderkeg Harley-Davidson in Mason, Ohio
Powderkeg H-D was named for a nearby gunpowder factory, now being converted to condos.  Swords to plowshares?
South African Hans Coertse, on the only Matchless to compete in the Cannonball to date, a robust 1914 t-twin
With so many Centurions on the road, it was easy to overlook the everyday cool bikes which tagged along, including this neat BMW R60/2 that also crossed the country
As Team 80 is unlikely to attempt a 5th Cannonball in 2018, I regret not witnessing the nighttime poetry of their plein-air workshop, conducted in silence, with hand-held lights.

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