Sid's Vicious Dual-Sport Ride: Cross-country trails and tribulations
June 21, 2013
Sidney Dickson admits
to a “genetic predisposition to travel earthen trails.” He can relate harrowing
tales from numerous off-road motorcycling exploits, although he steadfastly
resists being called an adventurer.
protests, quoting naturalist Roy Chapman Andrews, “is the result of poor planning.”
Regardless of the
label you apply, there’s no doubt Dickson has taken the kind of motorcycle
journeys most riders only dream about. Beginning in 1958, when he toured Europe
on his first bike, he rode extensively around the globe, taking his inspiration
from the likes of Danny Liska, who traveled the length of South America in
1959, and John Penton, who made a record-setting coast-to-coast U.S. ride in
the early 1960s.
Dickson got out of
motorcycling in 1972, but it didn’t last. In 1987, at age 49, he started
putting together international riding adventures (sorry, Sid) again, heading to
remote spots like Iceland, Australia and Peru. And he came up with a unique
idea for a ride here in the States, too.
Always looking for
ways to stay on dirt instead of asphalt, Dickson decided to see how little paved
surface he could traverse in a ride from the West Coast to his home in
Maryland. Since then, Dickson has made a half-dozen dual-sport trips across the
U.S., finding more off-road alternatives each time. He now calculates that he
has ridden roughly 90 percent of the way across North America on unpaved
The following excerpts
are from Dickson’s diary of his 1990 “trail ride” from the Los Angeles area to
his home on Chesapeake Bay. In 23 days, he rode more than 4,500 miles on a
Honda XR600—and over 3,000 of those miles were on dirt roads and trails.
August 22: Any dirt rider knows that riding cross-country is fun,
but I’m convinced it’s more: If you’re patient, it’s also a viable form of
If we want to keep
off-road routes open, we have to use them. And my plan for this cross-country
trip is to use as many as possible.
As a warmup, I joined
several guys from the motorcycle industry on a dual-sport ride. Off-road racer
Bruce Ogilvie took one look at my five-year-old Honda and advised me to carry a
spare ignition box.
August 23: I set off for the San Bernardino Mountains, stopping by
Malcolm Smith’s shop in Riverside to stock up on some of Kathy’s famous
cookies. I noticed a nylon tow strap behind the counter, and added it to my
When I checked in with
the rangers at the San Bernardino National Forest, they advised caution along
the edge of trails, because if I dropped off I probably wouldn’t be found until
I started to smell.
After leaving the road,
104 glorious off-road miles took me through a vast panoply of scenery around
Big Bear Lake—one moment on a rocky trail, the next in a glen of Mediterranean
vegetation, the next among towering ponderosas. Then I dropped into Lucerne
Valley, and headed into the desert.
August 24: Ludlow, California, was originally a watering spot for
steam locomotives. Diesels now rumble by—trains on one side of town, trucks on
the other. During breakfast, the waitress warned me about getting lost in the desert.
So I called a buddy, left a garbled message with his secretary, and set off
about 20 percent secure that if I didn’t check in before midnight he’d know I
I spent the day in the
East Mojave, headed for Henderson, Nevada, about 190 miles as the tortoise
crawls. I stumbled upon a collection of tumble-down buildings called Cima,
where a sign at the post office/general store said to ring for service. I
didn’t need anything, but I rang anyway and I’m glad. Proprietor Bob Ausmus was
a storehouse of desert lore. I bought a couple of books before heading for Las
Vegas, where I mounted fresh tires.
August 25: I explored several trails to nowhere in the mountains
northeast of Vegas. In 150 miles of dirt riding, I never saw another soul.
I always try to stop
at night in civilization, preferring to spend the dark hours with hot tubs,
real meals and soft beds rather than dust, gooey trail food and snakes. But as
I set off to cross the northwest corner of Arizona, headed toward my night’s
destination of St. George, Utah, cactus thorns almost changed that plan.
Without warning, the
Honda’s front end started that wishy-washy swimming motion that signals a flat.
The tire was loaded with little curved thorns, looking like so many cat’s
claws. I picked out all I could find and replaced the tube, then returned my
attention to riding through the mountains.
It was a beautiful
day, but I was nagged by the prospect of unseen thorns still embedded in the
tire, waiting to wreak havoc as I rode. . .alone. . .in the mountains. . .on my
last spare tube.
I chickened out and
joined the tourist and tractor-trailer parade on Interstate 15.
Just as I reached the
St. George exit, the front end swam again. A few remaining thorns had found
their way to the tube. They reminded me of Paul Bunyan’s beard, which was said
to be so tough that instead of shaving he drove his whiskers in with a hammer,
then bit them off inside.
To celebrate my
victory over the thorns, I wolfed down two double-cheeses and a large fry, and
checked into the local econo-luxury motel.
August 26, 2 p.m.: The Honda quit running at 10:30, and three
other travelers—Doug, Bubba and Tightsy Bondy—found me reading my shop manual
about noon. The failure was with the spark, and of course I didn’t have a spare
In comparison to where
I’d been in the past four days of riding, the Honda chose a convenient spot to
quit. The Bondys delivered me to a crossroads where I was scheduled to meet
local denizens Jim and Joe Sloat if we didn’t first connect on the trail. It
was 80 degrees, clear and windy. A dilapidated schoolhouse offered shade and a
view of the dusty crossroads. I settled in to wait.
August 26, 4 p.m.: A trucker stopped and told me he’d seen an
abandoned motorcycle up the road. I surmised the Sloats were also having
problems and settled in to wait some more.
The trucker graciously
left me a plastic-wrapped Mountain House Dinner Number 8: freeze-dried beef,
rice with onions, crackers, banana chips, chocolate-nut snack, drink mix, coffee,
sugar, coffee whitener, matches, salt, pepper, napkin and a spoon. If I was
destined to starve, I decided to eat the coffee whitener last, after the spoon.
August 26, 8 p.m.: If you’ve never been towed down a rocky road on
a motorcycle behind a dirt bike ridden by a friendly maniac, perhaps you can
imagine the fun of it.
The Sloats found me
just as I began contemplating how many rattlers might be living under my
schoolhouse. We tied my tow strap to the rear of Jim’s Honda and set off for a
66-mile tow. Although I was dressed for the occasion, every now and then an efficient
projectile launched by Jim’s knobby would penetrate my armor and add to my welt
Just as I thought I
had the hang of this towing business, we hit a bunch of deep ruts and I was
pitched off. When I finished crashing, I had one hell of a headache, but was
We finally arrived at
the Sloats’ truck, loaded the bikes and made tracks for the Kanab, Utah, Pizza
Hut. After several medium supremes, we consulted Jim’s electric testing meters,
which confirmed an ignition failure. The closest repair shop was, you guessed
it, back in St. George.
August 27, 12:01 a.m.: I called a friend, Bill Broadbent, in St.
“Bill, this is
“Sidney, where are
“I’m in Kanab, at the
Sloats. . . and I’m broken down.”
“I’ll be there in two
“But Bill, it’s
“I know, but I’ve
gotta work tomorrow, so I’ll have to come get you tonight. I’m on my way.”
Bill rolled up at
about 2:15, and by 4:30 we were back in St. George. He never did get to work.
We located the parts I
needed on a used bike, which I bought on the spot. The bike also had a larger
gas tank that would fit my machine. We finished swapping pieces just in time
for dinner with Bill’s wife and daughter at the Peppermill Restaurant. We
devoured an all-we-could-eat feast for $26. Things were looking better.
August 28: I left St. George for the second time. It was a
glorious day—shirt-sleeve riding up cliffs and across open desert. I saw more
mule deer than motorists.
I ended up outside
Capitol Reef National Park in Torrey, Utah, had a delicious T-bone and spent
the night in an old-fashioned general store with three rooms upstairs to let.
August 29: I rode through the park on a beautiful 12-mile stretch
of pavement following a little stream. From there, I turned south on a graded
road smooth enough for your new Cadillac, then up a pot-holed trail into the
Henry Range. There’s gold in those hills, but I settled for lunch with two deer
I turned onto a tar
road and suddenly noticed the heat. The appropriate cliche would be “searing.”
The black tar absorbed the heat and seemed to multiply it until I feared my
air-cooled engine would overheat. I later found out it was 104 in the shade,
but the engine ran just fine to Lake Powell and the Hite Marina—the only gas,
food and water stop before my day’s destination of Blanding, Utah.
There’s a dirt route,
some 100 miles long, from the Hite Marina to Blanding. I was fueled up, but I
couldn’t decide whether to take it or the more direct paved road. I wanted to
ride the dirt, but it was getting late and I’d be cutting it close on fuel. The
road would be boring, but if I ran out of gas, someone would happen along to
help. On the dirt route, on the other hand, I’d probably be on my own.
I decided to play it
safe. Later, as I rolled into Blanding, the bike began sputtering. I congratulated
myself on a wise, if not very brave, choice.
August 30, 8 a.m.: Breakfast in Blanding. The sign at the
Prospector Motel showed a crusty old digger tugging on a burro. It reminded me
of a slogan I heard somewhere in the South: “Be kind to tourists; they’re worth
a bale of cotton and much easier to pick.” Certainly, tourists seem to provide
an easier living than digging gold.
After discovering that
the bike really hadn’t run out of gas the night before, I cleaned my air filter,
hoping it was the source of the sputtering. Then I hit the road.
August 30, 8:30 a.m.: It wasn’t the air filter.
What I like is a good
hard ride by day, followed by a warm bed and a hot bath at night. What I had
was a Honda single hitting on all but one cylinder, and it seemed intent on
learned to accept breakdowns with relative calm.
August 30, 8:45 a.m.: My optimism is based partly on how I’ve been
treated by people who have no reason to help other than their own good nature.
This time, it was
another motorcyclist who stopped. As I described my bike’s symptoms, he remarked,
“You picked a good spot to break down.”
“Didn’t you see that
red sign down the road on the left?”
I hadn’t seen a Honda
dealership in the past 900 miles, which made this one, on the outskirts of
Monticello, Utah, a particularly welcome sight. I spent the day with Hondaland
proprietor Jim Peterson, testing various remedies. We finally tried a new spark
plug cap and the bike ran smooth as a mashed potato sandwich on Wonder Bread,
August 31: I rode into Colorado to visit my old friend Imogene, a
13,100-foot mountain pass leading from Telluride to Ouray. Then I stopped for
lunch in Silverton, where the narrow-gauge train built to haul gold and silver
out of the mountains now hauls tourists to Durango.
Later, I learned my
ignition wasn’t fixed after all. I sputtered to a stop just as I came upon two
motorcyclists parked off the road, and inquired if they needed help.
“No, but it sounds
like you do.”
We discovered that the
plug wire was shorting out on the bottom on my new metal gas tank. Placing a
piece of hose around the plug lead did the trick.
I headed up Engineer
Pass, another route that climbs to nearly 13,000 feet. There are 500-foot drops
along the trail, but that didn’t make a hoot to me. I’m afraid of heights, so I
kept my eyes focused on the trail, well away from the edge!
September 1: Rapid ascents and descents sometimes give me a mild
headache, a sign of altitude sickness. I watched for symptoms throughout a
sunny, cool day, but I felt fine, and the Honda’s ignition stayed fixed.
By dark, I reached
Wally Dallenbach’s ranch on Frying Pan Road in Basalt. I signed up for the
Colorado 500 trail ride, scheduled to begin Monday. I was just one of 250
riders in the event, but as far as I could tell, I was the only one who arrived
and departed on a motorcycle.
September 10: A week passed quickly cavorting around the Great
Divide with the rest of the Colorado 500 riders. Then it was time to be getting
I descended the eastern
flank of the Rockies, leaving Mount Harvard, Mount Princeton and then Pikes
Peak behind. Abruptly, I was onto the Great Plains. I mourned the loss of the
cliffs, the rough stone tracks, the stream beds, and the footpegs banging off
boulders. That was the past. The present was a long, hard day’s ride.
At dusk, thunder
squalls appeared across the plain. Rain streamed down in slashing sheets, driven
by fierce winds. Commercial trucks thundering out of the gloom scared me into
the nearest motel. I got my hot shower in Cheyenne Wells, just a whistle blast
from the Kansas border
September 11: I’m lured to dust like a shark to a chum line.
Sometimes I only find a farmer plowing his field, but on this day I found a
road net that laces Kansas.
The state is divided
up into neat little mile squares, and you can zig-zag across the whole thing on
graded dirt roads. I found remains of the Butterfield Trail, an important
commercial link between Kansas City and Denver before the Civil War. From its
western terminus, it sags into southern Kansas, then up to Kansas City.
By noon, I’d crossed
only 10 percent of Kansas and was short on gas. A road-grading crew cheerfully
dumped a spare can of fuel in my tank and sent me on my way. Reluctantly, I
retired to the interstate. By midnight, I was 525 miles across Kansas, a state
that is only about 400 miles wide if you take the direct route.
September 13: Wednesday, I ran 601 tedious miles across Missouri,
Illinois, Indiana and half of Kentucky. This morning’s run brought me to Mt.
Storm, West Virginia. It’s appropriately named: A bleak rain began to fall as
soon as I crossed into West Virginia.
September 14, 7 a.m.: Today didn’t dawn; the black just turned to
a misty gray.
I would normally
welcome a ride on a winding stretch of U.S. 50, but my rear brake was sticking,
and the roadway was a slick mixture of oil and mist.
The traffic consisted
almost entirely of giant ore trucks. With low clouds, fog and visibility of
perhaps 100 feet, the first sign of their presence was often the acrid smell of
burning brakes as they came up on me, or the sudden sight of a huge tailgate as
I came up on them. You’re afraid to pass because you can’t see what’s ahead,
and afraid to stay put for fear there’s one behind you who’s lost his brakes.
It’s the one you don’t smell that’ll get you.
September 14, 4 p.m.: On a bike, wet is cold even at 70 degrees.
Raindrops whacked me like BB shot, and spray trickled down my neck. My soaked clothes
acted like a giant wick. I didn’t feel cold, I was cold. Seriously cold. But home was almost in sight.
September 14, dusk: From the Appalachians to the coastal plain,
around the Washington Beltway, across Chesapeake Bay, then 35 miles to St.
Michaels, Maryland: The ride was done. And I was more convinced than ever that
we have the most beautiful nation on earth.
dirt-infested roads all over the world, and can’t imagine a better way to
experience travel than by going overland, off the pavement. It takes patience,
it takes planning, and things don’t always go the way you anticipate. But
that’s half the fun.