Our day started with a cantankerous debit card that would continue to annoy us for the next 18 hours. All we wanted to do was buy a few gallons of gasoline, climb onto our motorcycles, and ride 1000 miles. In a day. Actually, all we wanted to do was get two accurately time-stamped fuel receipts that could document that we had been at this particular gas station at 4:20 AM on this particularly dreary, cold, wet, Sunday morning in Oakland, California. And the damn pump wouldn’t read one of the cards we were trying to use.
It took a few minutes and some rummaging around through multiple layers of ballistic-this and waterproof-that but eventually we found another card that the gas-pump gods liked and we were good to go. In a minute we were out of the neighborhood, onto the freeway, and we hoped, fully prepared for whatever challenges fickle weather, unfamiliar equipment, distracted drivers, and unknown roads would throw at us for the next 24 hours.
I was riding with my good pal Surj Gish. He’s the editor of CityBike, an old-school ink-on-newsprint publication that is distributed free at motorcycle shops around Northern California. It’s been around for more than 30 years and is known for its gritty attitude and frank opinions. Think Rolling Stone before it went MTV. We needed to return two bikes to the manufacturers’ demo fleets in Los Angeles the next day. Oakland to LA is less than 400 miles of mostly interstate highway and an easy, but boring, six-hour motorcycle ride. So we thought we’d mix it up and take a 600-mile detour to accomplish a SaddleSore 1000, the entry-level endurance ride of the Iron Butt Association. Riding a motorcycle 1000 miles in less than 24 hours and delivering acceptable documentation to the IBA earns you a certificate and the right to sport a cool license plate frame and a patch proclaiming you to be one of the “World’s Toughest Riders.”
There are a lot of those. The IBA has more than 50,000 members. And many more have ridden big-mile days without documenting anything or making any effort to get a certificate or earn a patch. But I hadn’t. Prior to this ride my biggest day ever on a motorcycle was 565 miles. And I was beat at the end of it. I wanted to continue another 40 miles, set up camp, cook some dinner, and have a beer, all of that in the dark. My riding partner that day wisely guided me toward checking into a motel, eating in a restaurant, and finishing the journey the next morning in the daylight, when I was much less likely to make a mistake and have a really bad day. And he managed to let me think the motel was my decision.
And now I planned to ride an unfamiliar bike nearly twice that distance on a late-winter day when at least six hours in the saddle would be in the dark. Surj and I had chosen a couple of potential routes that avoided crossing the Sierra in a snowstorm, skirted Las Vegas, and looped through Arizona on mostly secondary highways where we figured we wouldn’t find too much traffic. Checking the weather forecast the day before departure showed a nearly continuous line of thunderstorms from Phoenix to LA for the evening and early night of our ride. Deliberately riding west into the sunset with a strong chance of lightning, heavy rain, and possibly hail, after more than 12 hours on the bikes, had us rethinking our plans.
We had been talking about this big ride for more than a month and with less than a half-day before leaving we abandoned our route choices. Our main criteria suddenly narrowed down to figuring out where the weather wasn’t too bad and riding there. Instead of south and east into the desert we decided to head north and west into the redwoods.
Now we would ride mostly freeway up to Redding, turn west onto 140 miles of twisties toward the coast at Arcata, then loop back down through the Northern Coast Ranges on Highway 101 to the Bay Area, where we had started our day. From there we would ride mostly south on I-5 and largely after dark, turning east toward Bakersfield to avoid the snow expected on the Grapevine. After 1000 miles, plus a generous margin for error, we would find a place to spend whatever remained of the night somewhere outside of Los Angeles.
On the map our new route vaguely resembled a huge kinky lasso, looping up and pulling us toward LA. Or a 600-mile long sperm.
Good documentation for an Iron Butt ride means demonstrating that you didn’t just ride around in big circles for 1000 miles. The IBA strongly recommends fuel receipts showing locations and times, especially at the start and end of the ride and, on a looping route, anywhere that looks sort of like a major corner. We weren’t sure how the IBA folks would view our kinky lasso route with its 600-mile loop out and back around to the Bay Area, then the 400-mile sperm tail to LA. So we decided to collect a lot of gas receipts.
We bought gas 11 times, averaging less than 95 miles between fill ups—less than half the range the bikes were capable of. Our shortest leg between gas stops was just 21 miles, to document an oddball route to Bakersfield. Each fuel stop took at least 10 minutes and probably closer to 15. So we spent about two hours of the 24 available just getting gas receipts. And each time we wondered if the damn debit-card gods were going to fuck with us again. Sometimes we had to cancel a sale and re-enter a PIN. Other times we had to try a different gas pump. Somewhere during the ride I began to wonder if the sudden string of strange transactions would trigger a fraud alert and the bank would disable the card.
But it all worked out. At 10:20 PM we got our last time-stamped fuel receipts in Acton, California and pushed our crumpled witness forms underneath the bullet-proof glass so that a nice man named Miguel could sign them, verifying that we had indeed climbed off our motorcycles in the cold, wind, and rain at his gas station, 18 hours and 1052.8 miles after we started.