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Common Tread

Baxter Cycle revisited: The unexpected surprises of an ill-planned road trip

Sep 27, 2019

Baxter Cycle is hidden in plain sight 55 miles northeast of Omaha, Nebraska in the town of Marne, Iowa. If you didn’t know it was there, you’d never leave the interstate to look for it. But I knew it was there.

My first time at Baxter was a fortunate accident. I stumbled upon the small shop out of necessity. However, when I stopped again earlier this summer, 11 years after my initial visit, it was to share a small piece of my past (and a really cool piece of motorcycle history) with two of my closest friends.

This story starts in July of 2008 when I left Dorsey High School in center-city Los Angeles for the last time. My Triumph Bonneville was waiting in the parking lot, packed to the hilt. It was the end of my first year of teaching and, as the recession had taken its toll on available teaching positions in L.A., I wouldn’t be returning in the fall. Despite an uncertain future, I left that day with the carefree whimsy that only a naive 25-year-old could possess. I thumbed the starter and rode out of Los Angeles without a return trip scheduled.

Spurgeon Dunbar Mapping the Lincoln Highway
Mapping out my route at the kitchen table. Photo by Old Girlfriend.

While I didn’t know when I was coming back, I knew exactly where I was going. For the three weeks prior to my departure, I spent every night at the dining room table poring over archived maps from the late 1910s and early 1920s that documented the original route of the Lincoln Highway. What was once the most famous road in America, connecting New York City to San Francisco, had all but been erased from modern maps. I used these historical documents to plan my route on the modern roads and highways where the original Lincoln Highway once was.

My goal was to ride as much of the original route as I could, across the country and back. I packed light. A sleeping bag and a tent, a camera and tripod, a few changes of underwear, and a pile of white Hanes T-shirts. Every day I wore the same outfit, a white T-shirt under my two-piece Rev’It! leathers, my original HJC helmet, and a brand-new pair of Alpinestars boots, the only gear I had bought for the trip. I packed no rain gear, an oversight that would eventually catch up with me.

Bixby Bridge in California
The Bixby Bridge on Route One in California. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The first few days were incredible. The bike was running great and the weather was perfect. I had never ridden Highway 1 in California north of Santa Barbara before and couldn’t seem to take enough pictures. I remember being extremely excited to cross the Bixby Bridge, which I remembered from watching reruns of “Then Came Bronson” with my dad.

Crossing into Nevada I opted for Route 50, known in this area as “The Loneliest Road in America.” A truly barren stretch of highway made even more desolate when traveling alone on a motorcycle. It was here I found my first Lincoln Highway marker.

Spurgeon Dunbar Lincoln Highway marker
Finding the first Lincoln Highway marker of the trip. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

In 1925, the American Association of State Highway Officials (AASHO) announced it was going to start planning a federal highway system. During this planning period, named roads were ignored as they began developing a numbered system of byways. In 1928, the Boy Scouts of America set out to mark the Lincoln Highway for posterity with 3,000 concrete markers set roughly one mile apart. Only a handful of these original markers remain and when I found this one there was an overwhelming sense that I was on the right track.

Spurgeon Dunbar Bonneville Salt Flats
Getting to ride on the Bonneville Salt Flats was one of my favorite memories of this trip. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Later that night I unknowingly rolled into the Bonneville Salt Flats at the start of Speed Week. The organizers got a kick out of my planned trip and let me take a quick ride across the salt before continuing on. I remember how slick the salt was and how it stuck to every little nook on the bike. It was an incredible experience in its own right.

After three great days on the road, I reached Nebraska. Now, I am not sure if I misjudged the amount of tread on my rear tire or if the combination of the summer heat with the additional weight of my gear caused premature wear, but one thing was certain: I wouldn’t make it much further than Omaha if I couldn’t find a replacement.

Today, this would barely be a talking point in an article, let alone the foundation for the entire thing. In 2019 I can order a tire online via my smartphone and have it shipped anywhere in the country in two days. But in 2008, internet retailers like RevZilla were in their infancy, tires didn’t ship in two days, and most dealers only stocked popular tire sizes. My Bonneville’s tire sizes were anything but popular.

Spurgeon Dunbar Baxter Cycle
My rear tire had a lot more meat on it at the beginning of the trip before the heat of the summer and the weight of my luggage took its toll. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

While I had a primitive cell phone, it possessed no internet capabilities and as I had no idea where the closest Triumph dealership was even located, I called Uncle Bob. My mom’s youngest brother was responsible for giving me my first ride on a motorcycle when I was 12 and he was the only one who knew I was on this adventure. (My eventual goal was to swing home and surprise my parents.)

It took a few phone calls on Bob’s part to find a dealer willing to help me. While the closest dealer was in Omaha, they insisted they were far too busy to fit me in for a new tire and refused to let me change it myself on their property citing insurance liabilities. Bob called back a few minutes later to report that there was a shop in a small town in the “middle of nowhere” Iowa, that said they’d be happy to help.

Riding into Marne, I would have been surprised to find a gas station, let alone a Triumph dealership (John Bloor’s Triumphs were still relatively new for America at that point). But sure enough, about five miles off of the interstate, I found a small sign announcing “Baxter Cycle” hanging on the front of an unassuming drab-brown, barn-like structure.

Spurgeon Dunbar Baxter Cycle
Hanging out with the mechanics at Baxter Cycle in 2008. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Pulling up to one of the garage doors, I was greeted by a man covered in a lifetime of grease and tattoos. I was invited to ride directly into the garage and unpack my motorcycle on the shop floor (insurance liabilities be damned). Shutting off the bike, I politely asked how a Triumph-only dealership managed to stay in business in such a location. He just smiled at me and said, “I’m assuming you don’t know about us. Why don’t you take a look around while I get you set up with a new rear tire.”

I found myself walking down a dimly lit corridor lined from the floor to the ceiling with vintage motorcycle parts in neatly labeled cardboard boxes. At the end of the hallway was a door labeled, “Vintage Motorcycles.”

Baxter Cycle Triumph Hurricane
Walking across the threshold, I was met with rows upon rows of vintage British motorcycles including a matching pair of Triumph Hurricane triples. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Behind the door were rows of vintage Triumphs, Nortons, Ariels, BSAs, Velocettes, original Royal Enfields, and even one Vincent. Turns out Baxter Cycle is one of the largest restorers of vintage British motorcycles in the world.

Randy Baxter’s motorcycle repair shop became a Triumph dealer in 1982, just before the manufacturer went out of business. But instead of giving up the brand, as other British motorcycle dealers across America closed their doors, Baxter would buy out their inventory. Bikes, parts, gas tanks, exhausts, engines, frames… pretty much anything they had. Over the years he amassed barns full of parts and bikes. And you’re free to browse, uninterrupted, tripping over Norton engine cases and BSA gas tanks until you’re in full sensory overload. And that’s exactly how I spent the afternoon back in the summer of 2008 while my Bonneville got a new tire.

Baxter Cycle
There are multiple buildings holding bikes in varying states of restoration. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Fast forward to July of 2019, almost 11 years to the day of my original trip. I was piloting a Ford F-350 quad cab across the country in the opposite direction of my original journey. With me were Jeff Kiniery and Carlos Barrios, two close friends and riding buddies. Jeff works with me at RevZilla and Carlos is an electrical engineering professor at RIT who I met at a dual-sport event years earlier.

We each own matching KTM 350 EXC-Fs in various states of modification, all of which were stowed in a trailer behind the truck. We were on our way out west to spend a week riding in Moab, Utah before moving on to Gunnison, Colorado. As we crossed into Iowa, Carlos was riding shotgun scrolling through music on the radio as Jeff dozed in the back.

“We’re going to make a stop,” I said to Carlos. “I promise it’ll be worth it.”

Baxter Cycle in Marne Iowa
The Marne, Iowa sign that greets visitors on the way into town. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

I didn’t explain too much as I signaled, exiting the highway, and drove past the same little Marne, Iowa sign that welcomed me to town over a decade earlier.

Pulling up to Baxter Cycle, there is now a modern sign and a new building which houses rows of new Triumphs. The new facility sits adjacent to their original structure. I directed the guys to the older building.

Baxter Cycle
The current parts counter at Baxter Cycle. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Once inside, we walked down the same dusty hallway, to the same door, and the only thing that was different was a sign inviting people to tag Baxter Cycle in their photos on Instagram. Opening the door, we walked into a large open space filled wall to wall with vintage British motorcycles ranging from fully restored examples to solid day-to-day runners.

Carlos Barrios at Baxter Cycle
Carlos overwhelmed by the rows of original parts. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The three of us walked around, took photos of the bikes, rooted through the parts bins, and continuously called out to one another to look at each other’s finds. We walked around for almost an hour before heading back to the truck and continuing on our way. After all, we had dirt bikes to ride.

While it was just an interesting detour on a road trip for the other two, it really took me down memory lane to my original trip. I spent a total of five weeks on the road until I eventually ran out of money and I was forced to head back to Los Angeles in search of work.

The best part of a motorcycle trip, for me, is the unexpected surprises. I didn’t expect to need a tire, but it caused me to discover Baxter Cycle. And I didn’t expect to stop there again this summer but I was excited I got to share the experience with my friends. The way I see it, those unexpected surprises usually make the best memories.

Spurgeon Dunbar Triumph Bonneville T-100
Regardless of how you choose to travel, or what you choose to ride, just get off the couch and do it. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

Whether it’s a solo cross-country trip on a Bonneville or a dirt bike adventure with friends, almost all of my favorite memories are on the back of a motorcycle. I encourage you to get out and do the same. Pack a tent and a change of clothes and hit the road. Just make sure to check that rear tire before you go.