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Common Tread

Crossing the country at 50 mph, part one

Feb 09, 2016

No matter what type of motorcycle you ride, tackling a cross-country trip is a serious challenge. Part one: North Carolina to Kansas.

Even if you are rolling on a factory-fresh Gold Wing festooned with every farkle known to man, you still have to contend with bad weather, discourteous drivers, long days in the saddle, etc. So when I tell you that I was a little anxious about making the trip on a motorcycle that’s more than 80 years old, cruises at 50 mph and has a total-loss oiling system, I think you can understand my concerns. Still, I had built this 1933 Harley-Davidson VL to go the distance and I wasn’t going to let a handful of “what ifs” deter me. I found one other rider crazy enough to join me on this 3,600-plus-mile vintage odyssey, and with me astride my VL and Tim on his 1934 VLD, we set out for the Pacific Ocean, laden with spare parts, tools and our combined wits to see us through.

Atlantic Ocean
With the Atlantic Ocean rumbling behind us, two intrepid adventurers prepare to ride across the country. Photo by Adam Helmer.

I’ve lived in North Carolina all my life, and while I’ve always enjoyed being a few hours away from the beach, never has it been more convenient than when I wanted to do a coast-to-coast ride. So on a sunny Saturday morning in September, we made our way to the Crystal Coast, stopping at the beach just long enough to take some parting photos before turning the bikes westward and riding 200 miles back to my house. I know it sounds lame, but it was the best place to stop for the night between Emerald Isle and California and I saw no reason to pass up sleeping in my bed one last time before the trip began in earnest.

leaving home
Rolling out of my driveway on day two of the trip. Last home-cooked meal for a while. Photo by Mrs. Panhead Jim.

Heading out from my house the next morning, we rode due north into Virginia before angling westward.  While this part of the country is often seen as a motorcycle Mecca, we both had ridden hundreds of miles in our “local mountains” and did not spend any more time than necessary crossing the Blue Ridge Mountains. It wasn’t until we reached the bluegrass of Kentucky that we slowed down to take in some of the local attractions.

Cumberland Gap
We made few stops during the familiar eastern part of our trip, but a photo at the Cumberland Gab was too tempting to pass up. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Paper maps and a bottle of bubbles, just your standard road trip supplies. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Our strategy for navigating our way across the country was simple. Each morning we got up and searched the map for the first campsite within 200 miles of our current location. So it was by sheer luck that we found ourselves riding through Bowling Green, Ky., which is home to the National Corvette Museum. Pulling into their parking lot around lunchtime, we headed over to their in-house diner before checking out the museum proper. The museum made international news a few years back when a large sinkhole opened under one of the exhibits, sucking down half a dozen rare Corvettes. Since then, the hole has been filled and the Vettes removed, but not all could be salvaged.  A few crushed and mangled Corvettes remain on display, probably just to remind the staff what a bad day at work really means.

Corvette Museum
Corvettes and sinkholes don't play well together. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Before leaving Kentucky behind, we camped one night on Lake Barkley at a massive KOA campground.  Being that it was the off season and we pretty much had the campground to ourselves, we took advantage of the solitude and spent some extra time performing general maintenance on the bikes before getting underway the next day. Unlike newer motorcycles, which can go thousands of miles between maintenance intervals, 1930s Harleys need daily adjustments, especially if you want to ensure a trouble-free cross-country ride.

maintenance on the road
Tuning up the VL in my mobile garage. Definitely the best piece of camping gear I've ever owned. Photo by Panhead Jim.

On a normal day, we would start by draining the crankcases of oil (they just hold five ounces or so), topping off the oil tank with a fresh quart of 50-weight oil and giving the bikes a good visual inspection.  This day, we also adjusted the valves, rear chains and checked the tire pressures. Then it was on to The Land Between The Lakes National Recreation Area. Unfortunately, we were turned away at the gates. Something about bison charging motorcycles…

Lambert's Cafe
Lambert's is famous for its hot rolls, which the waiters throw at the patrons from across the restaurant. This, of course, has spawned a few lawsuits. Photo by Panhead Jim.
After a brief foray through Cairo, Ill. (I wouldn’t recommend stopping there under any circumstances), we crossed the mighty Mississippi River and rode into Missouri. We set up camp for the night right outside of Sikeston, which is home to Lambert’s Café. Named “The Best Place to Pig Out in America,” Lambert’s did not disappoint when it came to laying out large quantities of food. I did my best to properly pig out, but was thoroughly stuffed after less than an hour of eating. The next day, while I was regretting my decisions of the night before, we came across Big Spring State Park just outside of Van Buren, Mo. As the name implies, Big Spring is just that, a really big freshwater spring. Pumping out 250 million gallons of water per day, it is the biggest spring in America and well worth a stop.

1933 VL
A fully loaded 1933 VL. One advantage of a hardtail is you can't bottom out the rear suspension with too much luggage! Photo by Panhead Jim.

With one week on the road under our belts, we cruised briefly on Route 66 before crossing into Kansas.  Tim and I both had previous experience riding through this part of the country, so our plan was to put the hammer down (that means high-speed cruising at 51 mph) and lay down as many miles as possible through the mundane plains that make up much of the Midwest. So when we started seeing signs for something called “Big Brutus,” we just had to stop if only to break the monotony. I guess everything in this part of the country is “Big,” and just like Big Springs, Big Brutus was the largest of its class, as well. This time though, it wasn’t a natural wonder, but a 16-story-tall electric shovel.

Big Brutus
We tried to talk the museum curator into letting us photograph the bikes inside Big Brutus' 90-cubic-yard bucket, but this was as close as she would let us get. Photo by Panhead Jim.

mountain oysters
Sliced bull testicles, deep fried and served with a side of cocktail sauce. That's what I call good eats! Photo by Panhead Jim.
Near the halfway point of our ride, we pulled into St John, Kans., and the home of our good friend George. Besides providing beds, hot showers and laundry services, George also had a fully stocked shop, which he put at our disposal, so we took the opportunity to completely go through the bikes. Tires were rotated, grease fittings were lubricated, ignition timings were adjusted, primary chains tightened, etc., etc.  Even with all that work, we still found time to hit a local restaurant to sample a local delicacy known as “mountain oysters.”

George and Tim set to work rotating the tires on his 1934 VLD. Interchangeable hubs makes it an easy job. Photo by Panhead Jim.

In eight days we had ridden just a little over 1,500 miles and everything had gone smoothly.  The bikes were running great and the weather had been nearly perfect, with only around 10 miles of riding in light rain. Can this keep up for two more weeks?

trip map
Almost halfway across the country with plenty of miles left to ride until San Francisco. Photo by Panhead Jim.