He climbed cathedral mountains, he saw silver clouds below
He saw everything as far as you can see
I know he'd be a poorer man if he never saw an eagle fly
Rocky Mountain high
— John Denver
"Dumb and Dumber" was released in 1994 and for an entire generation it became one of the most quotable and rewatchable movies of all time. The movie came out when I was 10 years old, and every time I’ve watched it since it has made me feel about that age, for better or worse. If you were born after 1975 and you don’t think it’s funny, you were either born without a sense of humor or you’re just very mature. In either case, this story might not be for you.
As motorcyclists, the CTXP team and most Zillans hold one scene from "Dumb and Dumber" in particularly high esteem: The three minutes it takes Lloyd Christmas and Harry Dunn to ride their “hog” from the plains of Nebraska to Aspen, Colorado, on a pull-start mini bike. It’s dumb, sure, that’s the point. Then again, anyone who rides likely has a grudging respect for the absurdity and ambition of setting off across the western United States with no plan and no suspension. Urinating on another person takes a lot of emotion. Doing it to a friend, well, that’s got to be love.
More to the point, the looming question we have always had is simple: What would it actually be like to make that journey, on that bike, with two grown men on board? All it took was three adults with adolescent minds and higher ups with enough, ahh, “vision” to say yes to the project. With a green light from our benevolent bosses, I helped Ari fabricate as exact a replica as we could of the machine used in the movie (that article is coming next week) and our CTXP producer, Spenser, dove into researching the roads that Lloyd and Harry would have taken. Soon we had a running, street-legal replica (thank you, Arizona) and a route to follow.
The next big logistics challenge was what time of year to take on the dumbest of all road trips. Fans of the film will remember that the temperature when the ride began was ostensibly pleasant — a sunny day, with both characters comfortable in T-shirts and windbreakers. By the time they arrive in Aspen, it’s freezing cold and the ski mountain is open. Also, as you will recall, when we met Mary Swanson’s stepmother, Helen, at the Icelandic Snow Owl Benefit, she suggested that the snow would be “gone in a couple of weeks.” She was tipsy, but it seemed like Helen knew Aspen. We figured spring made the most sense, and aimed to arrive in Nebraska in mid-April.
We’re really doing it, aren’t we, buddy?!
Evidently we hit a cold snap on the plains, and on the morning of the departure temperatures were in the high 20s, accompanied by a stiff wind. We had sourced a few pieces of battery powered heated garments in case it got dangerously cold in the mountains, but at 8 a.m. on the first morning we had all of our clothing on and at full blast before we had even started riding. There also hadn’t been a single pull of the starter cord when the police arrived. This would turn into something of a theme for our trip, and not one that should surprise anyone trying to ride a mini bike on public roads. The prospect of shoving off into a sub-freezing headwind had Ari and me secretly hoping the cop would shut us down. Sadly, the officer was more friendly than concerned, and simply wished us good luck.
Eventually we squeezed onto the weensy machine and set off. The rider triangle is more accommodating than it looks, thanks to Ari stretching the frame to match the movie bike. The seat, on the other hand, is worse than it looks and the paint-shaker vibration rattled our joints to numbness. Ari had predicted that the novelty of the bike and the journey would wear off after about 15 minutes on the road, but I’m not sure it even lasted that long. It was overcast and frigid, with no scenery in any direction. We rode along miles of barbed-wire fence, punctuated occasionally by a gate or a sign warning us not to trespass. On some motorcycles, the thought of open pasture might be appealing, but aboard our hog it was exciting enough just staying on the straight and narrow.
The whole chassis shuddered every time the five-inch wheels hit a ripple in the road, the wind pushed us around, and even more so than usual we learned that the passenger can have a huge effect on the bike’s stability. It was probably good that the roads were dead straight during the first day of riding, for the sake of adaptation. We burned two gallons of gas in 50 miles before we broke down and installed the “Rocky Mountain jet” that we had intended to use above 8,000 feet, leaning out the carburetion significantly. I was still holding the throttle wide open constantly, but our top speed increased from 29 to almost 35 mph and efficiency more than doubled. What the jetting didn’t solve was Ari’s lower back itching like he had laid in poison ivy, we assumed from the vibration and not from noxious gases, but there was no way to tell.
Another issue we identified during the first day, while not taking any turns, was that the hog’s lawn-mower tires employed approximately the same compound as a pencil eraser. Four hundred pounds of CTXP host at 30 mph was obviously way above the load rating, and as we entered Fort Collins the rear bun was just about smoked, with about 100 miles on the clock. Tractor Supply to the rescue — we found an identical tire for less than $20 and bought two more, knowing we were less than a third of the way to the promised land.
Climbing into the Rockies is always a little surreal, especially heading west. It’s hard to not to get lost in the notion of humans coexisting with the mountains for so long, and eventually people crossing them with primitive means, just to see what was on the other side. Maybe it’s going too far to say we shared the pioneer spirit, but I’ll be damned if we weren’t setting out to make history of our own. The slow, mountain roads were much more scenic and inspiring, but also more dangerous on account of the traffic behind not having obvious places to pass. People’s emotions ranged from turning around with a huge grin to get a photo of us to glowering and baring a middle finger. Sometimes two.
Here and there, a hill would stunt the bike’s progress and we would slow to 15 or 20 mph, chugging willingly along. About 70 miles west of Fort Collins the hog clattered through Cameron Pass Summit, more than 10,000 feet above sea level and 5,000 higher than we had started the day. The mountaintops were jagged and tall snow banks rose up next to the road. Our faces had been just as cold the previous morning, but it felt more authentic in the shadow of gently thawing giants. There was a quick and fleeting feeling of accomplishment, trundling down the western slope of the pass, average speed up and our highest elevation behind us. Going downhill highlighted the nature of the tiny, stamped-steel, drum brake, which was horrendous to the point of barely being noticeable. Ari learned that if I started dragging my feet it meant we were at maximum braking and I needed help.
Soon we were out onto another plain, this one set at 8,000 feet and surrounded by snow-capped peaks in every direction. We took in the Illinois River, snaking wildly across the flat valley of the Arapaho National Wildlife Refuge, accented with shimmering fields of amber grass and bursts of colorful shrubs breaking from hibernation in the spring sunshine. Long-legged birds stepped cautiously through marshes and watched us in the same way most of the people did — wary, and not afraid to stare.
Gearing up to hit the road the next day, on Main Street in Walden, our second run-in with the fuzz went down. This time, the officer ambled toward us with a smile and a shake of his head, like he might address a puppy with its head stuck in a railing. “You can’t ride this thing on Main Street,” he said. “It’s got plates,” Spenser said, almost asking to be believed. The cop took a step back and nodded, grabbing his radio and calling in the hog’s plate number before asking where we were going. When we answered it all seemed to click. “Aspen?” he asked rhetorically. “No shit,” he chuckled, “where the beer flows like wine, and the women flock like the salmon of Capistrano.” Harry and Lloyd’s reputation preceded us, and saved us.
By this point we were in a groove of riding, and the bike was putting a groove in our backsides. It is an uncomfortable seat for a short trip, and for hundreds of miles at a time with someone else sharing the perch, it was torture. Still, after two full days on the road we felt like we were either mastering the technique or learning to accept the punishment and it almost felt normal. The morning of day three was also when we discovered the sunscreen we’d been using had expired, and the “wind burn” on our faces was in fact good ol’ fashioned sunburn. Whether it was the costumes, breathing exhaust, or just sitting on the hog, we were staying in character.
Avoiding interstate highways (unlike Harry and Lloyd), we followed two-lane blacktop and various gravel roads south down the spine of the continent, stopping in towns we never knew we liked and trying to convince a few people that no, we were not shooting "Dumb and Dumber 3." Some of the dirt roads were exactly the kind of bumpy that every ADV bike loves. You know the ones, where you feel adventurous but not uncomfortable, the suspension of your machine working just enough to justify buying it instead of some pansy, street-oriented touring bike. It probably goes without saying that aboard the SS Hardtail, those seas were rough, and we might be a few tenths of an inch shorter than when we left Nebraska.
Happily, the dirt seemed easier on our Super Soft Qualifying rubber, and by the time we made it to Eagle, Colorado, we had more than 250 miles on the second rear tire. It felt incredibly thin in the middle, but that didn’t keep us from disagreeing on how far to push it. I figured it might make the last 70 miles to Aspen, and liked my chances of reining the beast in if it blew out. Spenser, (almost) always in favor of on-screen drama, agreed. Ari’s situation was more precarious, freshly free of a shoulder sling from a separated collarbone and having stared at Armco rushing by for nearly three days. He had visions of where exactly the homemade sissy bar would sever his spinal cord if it all went pear-shaped, and he was not as confident that it was a good idea. The voice of reason won the day, and we mounted up one last lawn-mower tire.
The home stretch
As we meandered through Cottonwood Pass and made our final descent into the valley that holds Aspen, the skies darkened and an icy, unattractive snow flurried. The roads were wet and the fenderless hog sprayed salty, cold road grime at Ari’s back and my front. If we weren’t exhausted and physically defeated enough to pee on each other, we were close. We also benefited from a last rush of adrenaline, in the form of one final brush with the law — a county sheriff who circled us like a shark for a few minutes and then glided off into the drizzle, letting us land in Aspen alongside the evening light.
"Dumb and Dumber" was actually shot in Breckenridge, Colorado, so none of the sights looked familiar as we entered Aspen city limits. The sign is disappointingly austere, which is exactly the opposite of the center of town, where we parked in front of the clean, brick storefronts of designer boutiques. Ralph Lauren, Louis Vuitton, Ari and Zack. Ironically, the lack of fenders made it look like I had peed myself, and of all the places we had been nobody was less impressed than the people of Aspen. Once we were in town, we barely got a second glance, either because Aspenites see this all the time or we weren’t dressed well enough. Probably not the former.
In the end, we logged 382 miles and burned seven gallons of gas; plus two and a half rear tires. In the major motion picture, Lloyd traded Harry’s van for the hog (straight up) and claimed to be able to get 70 mpg with the mini bike. We averaged 54, with what was likely a larger engine and some poor tuning to start. Our most efficient tank was 62 mpg, so if you figure the “kid back in town” had his jetting sorted for 5,000 feet of elevation, 70 mpg seems reasonable.
The national average for gasoline now is around $3.10, so we spent about $22 in fuel to get to Aspen. If we had been in, say, a van covered in fur we would have been lucky to get 12 mpg, meaning a gas bill of almost $100. In 1994, gas was around $1.10, meaning Harry and Lloyd could conceivably have made it to Aspen for less than $10 in gas. Not to put too much stock in the realism of the film, but even if the characters had bought two more mower tires they might have successfully saved money.
Let’s be clear in saying that none of this matters. It’s a fun rabbit hole to explore, being fans of the movie, but there’s no equation to calculate what we took away from this journey. We can only salute the characters Harry and Lloyd, having suffered as they did, and take solace in the closure that comes along with finally answering our question of what it would take to complete the trip. To paraphrase Mr. John Denver, we would be poorer men if we had never tried.