Riding the Trans-America Trail MMM Leaves the Pavement Behind

by Paul Berglund, Mike Etlicher, Kevin Kocur, Marty Lier, and Victor Wanchena 

Our destination was the Trans-America Trail, or TAT for short; a network of public dirt, gravel, and paved roads that run 4,700 miles from eastern Tennessee, to the Pacific Ocean in Oregon. The creation of Sam Correro, the TAT is a labor of love. Sam mapped the entire route and provides those maps, for a small fee, to adventure riders willing to take on such a challenge.feature113a

After attrition due to family life and work schedules, five of us remained for the TAT. Mike on a never-ridden-by-him Yamaha WR250, Paul on the massive KTM 950 Super Enduro, Marty on a BMW 650X, Kevin on his old and cheap Kawasaki KLR250, and Victor on a Suzuki DR650. The plan was fairly simple: we would haul the bikes to the start of the trail in Jellico, TN. The truck and trailer would then be brought forward each day by one of the riders. This meant that each night one rider would have to double back and retrieve the truck. With a simple roll of the dice, the truck retrieval schedule was laid out before the bikes were even loaded.

After a 900-mile drive dotted with visits to Waffle Houses and burrito stands, we found ourselves in the parking lot of the Days Inn in Jellico, TN. There was an air of excitement among us as we went about making final preparations for the Trail. Last-minute connections for electric vests were wired in; suspensions were adjusted, nuts and bolts torqued and re-torqued, and chains were lubed.

After investing so much planning and thought into this trip, it was fantastic to finally be at the start. Spirits were high and good-natured verbal barbs were exchanged freely. Kevin happened to run into a retired Toronto cop, originally born in Dublin. From one Irishman to another, he prophetically professed that Kevin had the gift of gab, told us tales of being a motor cop back in Toronto, and, being Canadian, drank our beer.

Day One dawned cool and cloudy. We packed our gear and turned our bikes west. Victor led and, just fives miles out of town, missed a turn. He figured it out quickly and got the group turned around, but navigation by roll chart was new to us. This was the first of what would prove to be many routing miscues. We began our climb over a series of ridges. The roads were smooth and wide and we were making good time.

25 miles into the day’s ride, we descended into a narrow valley. The road turned to a muddy mess. It was thick clay mud and traction was poor. After about a half-mile of this, we reached the bottom of the valley and the end of the road. It simply stopped at a house. Victor was trying to figure out what went wrong when out ambled a rustic-looking fellow. He said, “You boys are lost.” We agreed. When asked if we could take his picture, he simply said, “I’m a mountain man.” Being Northerners, this declaration confused us. Being Northerners who had seen Deliverance, this declaration concerned us.

After much discussion, we figured out the routing mistake and pressed on. On the way out of the valley, on the mountain man’s driveway, the KTM got the better of Paul in the mud. No damage, just a muddy rider.

It began to rain around noon. We gassed up and added any extra layers we had. A cold, but exhilarated group pulled into the motel in Sparta, TN that evening. As soon as we were checked in, Kevin climbed back onto the wee KLR and tucked in for the chilly ride back to Jellico. Hours later, we were wondering why he wasn’t back yet. A call was placed to his cell phone.

“Hello?”

“Where are you?”

“Ummmm…I’m east of Knoxville” (Kevin was actually north)

“EAST?! How far east?”

“Ahhhh….”

“If you’re being kidnapped say the code word – pastrami?”

“What???”

The next morning, we awoke to find frost on the bikes. The temp quickly warmed in the sunshine and we found ourselves chasing along winding, country lanes. Unfortunately, many of the roads in this section have been paved over. But the scenery was still wonderful. At one point, we attempted to ride over the Great Falls Dam, only to find it closed for repair. In full gear, Marty volunteered to see if there was any way to cross. Watching Marty run towards the construction crew, Mike quipped, “I think Marty’s defecting.”

In the early afternoon, we were outside Woodbury, TN when Kevin’s chain wrapped itself around his rear sprocket. This locked his rear wheel and sent Kevin tumbling onto the pavement. Despite a swollen wrist, he appeared fine. A friendly local took him to get checked out at the hospital. He was okay, but the same couldn’t be said for the bike.

feature113bThe chain was mangled and the bars were bent. While Marty rode back to get the truck, we took up residence in the local BBQ restaurant. This was a fortunate choice. It turned out that the owner of the BBQ joint was a former road racer and had a brand new chain to fit Kevin’s bike. He took Kevin back to his shop and got the bike squared away, while we pressed on toward the evening destination; Columbia, TN. We got in late, but were happy for a clean motel, cold beer and a decent restaurant next door.

The next morning, Kevin felt good enough to ride and we were ready to make tracks. But the late nights were getting the best of us. We hit the trail around 9:30 am with a long day ahead of us. Today’s section had a lot more gravel and dirt, and the rain started back up.

Our route took us well off the beaten path as we crossed several streams. The first one was small and pretty simple. Victor forged across the next one with little trouble, but warned us the creek bed was slick. Marty headed across next. About 2/3 of the way across, his bike started to slide sideways and Marty tried valiantly to correct. But the creek claimed its first victim. Splash; down went Marty. Victor hurried out and helped Marty pick up the bike. As they pushed Marty’s bike out, Victor slipped and belly-flopped into the water. The creek claimed its second victim. The culprit was black algae, the low-friction winner in the plant world.

The rain continued through the day, but we discovered a friendly, roadside gas station/diner and warmed up with tasty road food. Eventually, the rain quit and we all dried out. We continued to wind through the low hills of western Tennessee, arriving at sundown in Selmer, TN.

We rolled out of Selmer the next morning, excited to cross into Mississippi. The riding was great as we climbed into the pine forests of the Mississippi hill country. The roads were fast and fun, and occasionally one would get a whiff of freshly-cut pine as we wound through the hill country. Many areas we rode through were still smoldering from controlled burns the DNR had recently conducted. We really enjoyed the ride through this section.

We then descended into the delta region of Mississippi. The first town we hit left a bad taste in our mouth. The unfriendly residents included rock-throwing little kids. We aren’t sure where their angst came from, but this region is burdened with little industry and a high unemployment rate.

Continuing on, we found our route brought us onto a giant levee. We rode for miles, zig-zagging our way into the setting sun. We ended for the night, across the border in Arkansas, at a motel full of pipeline workers. While feasting on delivered pizza that evening, Mike fatefully declared that he was the only one to not fall over yet.

The next morning, we tried to get an early start as it would be a long day, and we would be climbing into the Ozark Mountains. We headed out of town on a road that sadly ran past several large trash heaps. It was disappointing to see so much trash dumped roadside. At one point, something caught Mike’s eye and he stopped. We doubled-back, only to find him with an upright vacuum cleaner, running it back and forth across the road (see MMM® #112.) Mike was doing his part to clean up America.

It began raining as we headed into an agricultural area. At first, the rain was light. But then the storms came. It was raining pretty heavily when we hit a section of road that we are still not sure about. It ran along a farmer’s field and the distinction between road and field was blurry, at best. We fought forward for a few miles through a quagmire mud that removed most of the style from our riding. It was feet out as we paddled ahead.

We eventually made it to a small town where we took a well-earned break. We were tired, and concerned that we may have to fight a lot more mud. Fed and fueled, we were ready to leave when Mike tipped his bike over while trying to hop on it, much to the amusement of the rest of us.

The road conditions improved outside of town as we headed toward a clearing sky. We then turned onto a grass-covered strip that had been a road at some point. Somewhere along this stretch, Mike, who was leading, caught a greasy rut and his bike slid out. The WR peeled a long piece of sod and tweaked the bars slightly, but was no worse for the wear. Mike, on the other hand, did have a sore shoulder from the spill. He rode on with us for a while longer, but eventually became stiff enough to call it a day.

While Mike headed back to get the truck, we forged ahead. The weather had cleared, but the road hadn’t. We came to another section of wet, greasy clay and decided to save the bikes and ourselves. A short detour was found around the worst of it and we were back on the trial.

feature113cWe were heading north into the foothills of the Ozark Mountains. There were storms sprouting up all around us, but we managed to dodge most of the rain. The low ridges dominated the countryside and they were lovely to ride through. In a very welcome change, the roadside trash had all but disappeared. As the evening wore on, we crossed several low mountains and splashed through a few more water crossings.

We pulled into Clinton, AR at sundown; cold and tired. Mike arrived shortly thereafter with the truck. While doing a post-ride check, Marty discovered that his front and rear brake pads were almost completely gone, along with his rear tire.

The next morning, Marty, using a proper telephone voice reminiscent of a British Viceroy, found brake pads back in Little Rock. Bad news was, that was 100 miles in the opposite way. He decided to take his bike to the shop and get it repaired, then meet us farther down the trail that day. Mike was still sore from his incident and decided to ride a direct route to that day’s destination.

That left just three for the time being. We quickly climbed higher and deeper into the Ozarks. The scenery was fantastic, with narrow mountain roads winding along the mountaintops.

At one photo stop, we heard the roar of something coming up the mountain. We waited to see what it was. It turned out to be a guy on a quad, who had passed us earlier, heading the other way down the mountain. He was looking for riding partners and was very impressed when we told him where we were headed exclaiming, “Dag gum!” He rode with us a bit while we wound our way down the mountain.

The scenery was so wonderful and roads fun, we felt guilty even mentioning it to Mike or Marty. When asked, our cover story was going to be trash and burning tires. No fun at all. Mike and Marty didn’t buy it for a minute.

Continuing west, we ended up in Oark, AR. It turns out, the little general store in Oark is a veritable Mecca for dual-sport bikes. There were ten bikes parked out front when we arrived, and in the space of 45 minutes, another 30 came and went. The food was wonderful. We recommend the buttermilk pie and there was plenty of BS swapping out in the parking lot.

After checking in with Mike and Marty, we decided to rendezvous in Mountainburg, AR and ride the last section of the day’s trail together. Victor called to give them an ETA about four miles out from Mountainburg; little did he know what lay ahead.

It turned out we were on a stretch called Warloop Road. The road started as a narrow gravel road, but soon deteriorated into a muddy dirt track. While detouring around a large mud puddle, Victor decided it was his turn. The front end washed out in some mud and down he went. Kevin scrambled for the camera, Victor just asked for help with the bike.

After that, the road further eroded into a V-shaped gully. All the gravel from the road had been washed away and all that was left were large rocks and ledges. We picked our way down this, only to find a 36-inch diameter tree blocking the road. We detoured around it into the woods, only to find one last, and very large, mud hole blocking the way. Paul tipped over trying to negotiate around the tree, his tank panniers saving his bodywork from any damage.

We finally reunited in Mountainburg and the final section of trail that day was uneventful. Arriving in Alma, AR, we checked in, then walked over to a nearby Mexican restaurant to feast and celebrate with Margaritas. Well, we would have enjoyed Margaritas, had we not been in yet another dry county.

feature113dDay Seven and the last morning on the trail found some of the boys oversleeping. It seems the alarm clock proved to be complicated. We continued west into Oklahoma and the finish of our ride. Somewhere after we crossed into Oklahoma, Mike stopped when he noticed a pink cell phone lying in the middle of the road. A short while later, he tried to contact the owner. This didn’t go well, and soon he was in a shouting match with an irate boyfriend convinced Mike was up to no good with his gal.

The roads were an interesting mix of straight, section roads with occasional plunges into small hollows. The straight, section roads would lull you to sleep, and over-shooting the corners that drop you into the hollow would wake you up. The wind was blowing strong, but the sky was blue and the riding was good.

As we got farther out onto the prairie, we encountered a small wildfire. We never could see the flames, but the smoke was thick in spots. When we arrived at the middle of this section of nowhere, Marty picked up a nail in his rear tire. Mike and Vic both confessed they had jinxed the group by thinking it was great no one had gotten a flat on the trail. A makeshift bike stand was made using large rocks. Still, it took over an hour for the repair, including some swearing when trying to get the brake caliper and tire back on. They came off so easy, but refused to go back together. We continued on, but being pressed for time, we decided to bypass the last few miles of trail for the day. We were tired, and the sun was setting. We knew that last section would still be waiting when we returned.

Pulling into Bartlesville, OK was bittersweet. We were happy to make it to the end of the first section of the TAT, but it felt like we had only begun our adventure. We had learned a lot about the TAT, about the bikes, and about our off-road riding skills. We knew what would work for the next leg, and what not to pack.  We learned that traveling is best when done with friends and by motorcycle.  Mechanical problems, bad gas station food and its inevitable consequences; only add color to the stories we told each night back at the motel.  Things that were holding the individual riders back from taking this journey, melted away as the group rode down the trail.  Petty problems are burned as fuel to propel us onto the next adventure.

The group is planning to tackle the next leg of the Trans-America Trail; Bartlesville, Oklahoma to Green River, Utah, next summer.

For further information about the Trans-America Trail, visit www.transamtrail.com

M.M.M.

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