By Tim Leary
Take your bike, reduce its weight to about 250 pounds, replace its seat with a slab of thick leather, virtually eliminate its suspension, downgrade its handling, reduce the engine’s reliability and put it on highly inferior, skinny tires. Now ride your bike cross country…on unpaved roads.
At one time, this is the kind of enjoyment that motorcycle touring enthusiasts faced with every ride. It’s a wonder the sport continued. But in the 1920s, riding clubs throughout the state filled with young men eager to prove their manliness or fulfill their need for adventure and fostered the growth of the sport. For others who were interested in touring but not quite ready to join a club, several guides to touring and camping were published. The guides included basic information on what to take along such as the best tools, patch kits, shelter tarps, bedrolls and riding attire.
Other items and riding suggestions listed in the guides were more reflective of the era: handlebar-mounted shotgun holsters “guaranteed not to interfere with your steering,” deluxe liquid compasses, animal traps, spoke tighteners and maps listing road conditions, gasoline “distributors” and even “hostile peoples.” Naturally, all of this equipment was available for sale through the guide. And judging by the lengthy lists of “necessary” equipment that some of the authors suggested, it became obvious that some of these guides were surely written by those who had never toured before or were owners of camping and accessories shops.
Not surprisingly, the most popular destinations back then were the same as those of today. Stillwater, Taylor’s Falls and Red Wing were destinations of choice due to their “natural scenic attractions and parts availability.” Part of the appeal of these towns may also have been that their bridges gave riders access to Wisconsin. Apparently, riding to another state by motorcycle was a prestigious badge of honor among bikers back then, similar to the prestige of riding to a coast today.
On the longer tours, camping was far more of an adventure than it is now. Wherever you happened to be when the sun started to set, the road ended or the bike quit was your campground. (Maybe that’s why the shotgun holster was deemed “handy.”) Compact, lightweight tents didn’t exist so riders either slept under the stars or under a tarp tied to their bike or trees. If riders were lucky enough to be near water, it was fish for dinner. Otherwise, it was either luck with the animal trap or the remainder of whatever they may have purchased at their last stop.
Despite the difficulty of touring in the early parts of this century, many Minnesotans undertook the challenges involved. Even our world famous flyer, Charles A. Lindbergh, was a touring enthusiast, taking his Super X cross country in the early twenties. (In next month’s issue of M.M.M. we’ll have photos and his handwritten captions from his trip from Minnesota to Kentucky to Florida to Alabama and back home.) The early riders’ courage to face mechanical and geographical unknowns, and their sheer physical endurance certainly makes touring today on any bike seem like complete luxury.