Once settling into at motel in Knoxville, Tennessee, the first step was to make contact with the people who had the replacement part for my trailer lighting system. They knew I was coming and it seemed all sorted but I didn’t have a lot of extra days before I needed to be in Baja. Sure enough though I was put in contact with Curtis at Electrical Connection, and was told exactly where to go and when to be there, and that he remembered our previous conversation and had everything set aside to troubleshoot the problem.
It turns out Electrical Connection doesn’t just make trailer lighting kits, but they dig into the many accessory connections and stereo upgrades that touring bikes like the Honda Goldwing have. What this means is they are very used to splicing wires into complex electrical systems that are nearly as difficult as a modern car. Curtis told me while we pulled my bike apart that his family used to own Bushtec Trailers, which are still around and make some pretty high end stuff. They’d been making trailer wiring kits since the days when all you had to do was splice a few wires together.
These days the VCM (Vehicle Control Module, which is like the engine’s computer except now it controls everything from the lights and gauges to the fuel pumps and ignition system) will notice an extra power draw if you just splice a trailer’s taillights into the motorcycle’s own taillight wire. It will throw warning codes, which means you need a mini-computer to talk to the VCM, and an isolator to stop any short circuits in the trailer from jumping up into the motorcycle and frying thousands of dollars in electronics (which the warranty will not cover, since you essentially vandalized their wiring harness).
The only solution available for weeks was a sign to alert following vehicles not to run into the back of me.
But the long and the short of it is Curtis knew exactly what was going on. We did some troubleshooting and never truly figured out why the fuse blew, but there was clearly something wrong with the controller. Even though I had failed to secure the controller after I had tested it– letting one of the wires touch the hot engine and melt– Curtis didn’t try to blame that as the failure: mainly because he actually listened to me as I described the problems that had built up over time.
The faded “NO LIGHTS” sign that had been on the back of the trailer, fixed to read “LIGHTS.” It may seem small but it takes a lot of stress out of driving in traffic.”
Not only did Curtis replace the burned out controller, but he relocated it to a new spot away from the engine (in case heat coming off the engine had caused the failure), then directed me to a nearby Harbor Freight to get another wiring connector for the trailer. A few of its wires were getting old and I planned to fix them, but at Electrical Connection’s shop they had better tools and better connectors: ones that would keep more water out and last longer. I was finally armed with the simple joy of functioning brake lights; I had spent so much time staring in my mirrors the last few weeks that I was enthralled to think of being able to enjoy the road in front of me again.
Curtis went one step further, showing me around the shop where they manufactured parts, showed me his vision for the future, and showed me a few test bikes that he was hopping up with ultra-high-end sound systems. There were some cool race bikes hiding around, and then I saw a very rare motorcycle and mentioned it, which caused the weirdest thing to happen…
The bike was an Excelsior-Henderson, which were two American motorcycle companies that merged but still ended up in bankruptcy. In the 1990’s it was resurrected and a huge factory was built. Only a few hundred bikes were built before the new company folded again, unable to create a network of dealerships and running into parts suppliers that didn’t want to risk losing business they already had with Harley-Davidson. I thought Curtis just had the bike, but he took me to what is absolutely the strangest museum I’ve ever seen: the employee bathroom.
It was full of all the promotional items the company was giving away to promote their rebirth. There were manuals and other technical data, but also playing cards and belt buckle and patches and keychains. The company truly had a vision of not just building boutique bikes, but of being a true player in the American motorcycle industry. so far the only player to even crack that market has been the reborn Indian Motorcycle, owned by snowmobile and ATV builder Polaris, based in Minnesota. As wonderful as their bikes are, they are still only producing about 35,000 units a year compared to Harley’s 194,000. But it’s worth noting that Indian was bragging about 11,000 unit sales only a year ago.
In any event, I was in better shape than when my trip started now, having gotten not just the bike’s wiring sorted, but improving the trailer’s. And now came the slog. I didn’t plan to kill myself with any 800 mile days, so I hoped on Interstate 40 and began running west. I’d already done this run though. In 2004 I graduated from helicopter mechanic’s school in Newport News, Virginia. My military unit had been activated so I had to get back to California pretty quick, and used I-40 to get back, coast-to-coast.
This run was even less interesting, since I had the trailer behind me and essentially looked at my fuel economy gauge more than my speedometer. I played games, seeing if I or the cruise control could maintain a better average over the course of one tankful, but it was a draw. Eventually I landed with a Bunk-a-Biker by the name of Eddie Nunn. We had been in contact because I believed he would be the location I needed to service my motorcycle and also swap out my trailer tires again.
Doing vehicle maintenance while chickens run around brought back memories of right as I was selling my house.
While the tires still had some life in them I couldn’t have picked a better spot to do some work on my vehicles. Eddie was an outstanding guy. He had everything I’d shipped ahead lined up, gave me access to his large work shop, and even helped me improve my trailer towing set up. We did end up stripping a bolt, but in the morning Eddie took me to a few hardware stores until we had what we needed, then let me hang out a few more hours while I waited for a storm system to pass.
Eddie Nunn is one of those guys that’s all heart and really appreciates just being a human being, alive on planet Earth.
I was getting too antsy waiting though, so Eddie came out to bid me farewell, prayed over me and my machine for a safe trip, and sent me on my way with some leftovers wrapped in aluminum foil. All this because I emailed him on a website where people leave their contact info on a little map on the internet. Moments like that remind you that as ugly as the world can be, the inverse is possible, and there is a beauty as powerful as any ugliness or evil we have found.
Again I aimed the bike west on I-40, pushing through all of Arkansas. I’d love to explore more of that state, as it is full of hidden gems despite the rest of the country thinking it’s a fly-over state. There was no time today though, and I ended the night in a small campground outside of Fort Smith, AR, as more rain came pummeling down. I was happy that I at least got my tent up just as the rain came down, but I somehow forgot to close one of my saddlebags overnight and it had two inches of water in it when I awoke in the morning.
Fortunately none of the things inside were electronics, but it was still a mess of waterlogged rags and snacks and a tube of sunscreen adding an oily film to the water. I packed up without bothering to try and dry off the tent or anything else; with the ground and picnic tables wet there was no place to lay them, and nothing but an overcast sky to dry them anyway. Back onto I-40 and westward ho. Oklahoma was under my wheels by the end of the day and I stopped in Shamrock, Texas.
It’s a weird town in that it had a ton of history in the 1940’s through the 50’s. It seems the baby-boom happened big time after WW2 and a lot of car culture and crazy teenage antics happened there that might have made a better screenplay than American Graffiti,’ but now it was eerily still to the point that when a single semi full of cattle or hay drove 20mph through the main drag it felt like the Roman army was assaulting the city.
There were very cool homages to Route 66 and many gorgeous murals, so the city was far less dead than many others I’d ridden through in my many years exploring the Southwest, but it still had the marks. The downtown had a theater and the original neon light worked, but on either side were storefronts with the windows covered in newsprint from 30+ years ago.
My motel was comfortable and perfectly set up in that motor-court style that is supposed to be the hallmark separating a motel from a hotel. I feasted on fast food and cheap beer, then made tracks again on I-40. I did give myself a detour though, because I really wanted to see Las Vegas, New Mexico. It’s not that far off the interstate and gave me a chance to hit some backroads, which in open country like that means the same feeling as the interstate but with two lanes and less traffic.
Still it was a nice change and I booked another hotel room, smack in the town square of Las Vegas, NM. The Historic Plaza Hotel was a gem, as it has remained an active hotel for over a century. Rooms were fully updated but with the old-timey aesthetic, so you had hot water and a modern shower but also used a real key to open your room, and your feet caused loud squeaking on the ancient wood floors.
The area was been used to film multiple movies, most famously No Country For Old Men and more recently the TV series Longmire. I’m not so much into celebrity hunting but it was very cool to see over a century of history, though sadly both their cafe and their bar were closed. I grabbed some dinner at a pizzeria on the other side of the town square and settled in, knowing a cold front would come through overnight.
Sure enough it did, and it was a rather bitter cold as I rejoined I-40 and worked west. I blew through New Mexico though i did keep my eyes open, as the mountain ranges you cross are very unique among the ranges of the Old West. It’s no wonder so many cattle companies hoped to make use of the terrain to naturally fence in their herds while giving them free access to the grasses that grow at higher altitudes.
Route 66 actually closely parallels I-40 through a lot of this, and I ended my day in Holbrook, Arizona, which has a more-than-coincidence level of similarity to Radiator Springs: the fictional home of many of the characters in the Cars animated motion pictures. I couldn’t afford to stay at the Cozy Cone– ahem– I mean the Wigwam Motel, which has rooms shaped like large teepees. I went for a Motel 6 since it was the cheapest, but the lady at the desk refused to check me in if she couldn’t scan the barcode on the back of my driver’s license.
As far as I’m concerned, you don’t need to know my organ donor status or any of the information on there: my name and address are right on the front of the same damn card. If I only had a passport, I’d be denied a room? It may seem petty but I’ll be damned if I just hand over my personal information because it’s too hard for an employee to hand-type my name and address into a computer to give me a room.
I didn’t take any pictures of Holbrook, because I’ve been through there like five times, so here’s a random picture of me on a lonely road.
Just down the street I found the 66 Motel, an original motor-court shaped place built in 1949 and struggling against the large franchise operations. The lady there happily took cash money and had me fill out a small 3×5 index card with my information, then handed me a key. See how hard that was? On the downside though the room was pretty beat up. There were obvious attempts like a new laminate floor that was laid in with terrible craftsmanship. The marks of many botched repairs were there but the hot water was hot and the toilet worked– the sheets were clean and the heater worked.
Holbrook is one of the many Route 66 towns that lived off of the tourist traffic. Because they were bypassed by I-40 by an insignificant amount, they still cling to this way of life. It’s all small restaurants, gas stations, and small hotels. You never know what it’s really like just by looking though, just like the tourist at the ski resort doesn’t know resort life, even if they own a cabin and go up 20 times a season. It felt slow though…like everyone was just hanging o because they didn’t know what to do next. It gave me an uneasy feeling but I also understood that the amount of transients meant people might notice you less if you kept a low profile. Still, small towns are small towns and it’s not easy to be anonymous.
Still not Holbrook, but the Fort Courage tourist trap reminded me of how ideas come and go, like waves brushing a shoreline.
The important thing though as far as this story goes it I made it to Las Vegas the next day…finally. The last 50mi or so I felt the trailer wobbling more than usual, but inspecting the wheels and the hitch revealed nothing. It looked odd in my mirrors though. I’d been able to see the corners of it in my mirrors for over five months, and it just didn’t look right. Finally I pulled over again and made a serious inspection. Then I found it: the left suspension was broke. It was a single leaf spring and it had snapped right in the middle.
With nothing I could do about it I wobbled the rest of the way into Vegas, finally unhitched it after months of dragging it with me everywhere, and prepared to get down to Mexico. I had pets and a house to watch, and I looked forward to the solitude of a casita en la playa, where I could be alone with my thoughts and reflect on what I had done and what I was doing. More on that later though. We’ll wrap up this trip in the next installment…