by Gary Charpentier
Kermit and I were having a bad day. My spanky-new KLR650, which my daughter Emily dubbed “Kermit” the moment she saw it, lay on it’s side in a mud bog in the middle of the ChippewaNational Forest. Dripping and cursing a blue-streak in the 95 degree heat, I lifted the bike up and began the laborious task of pushing it out onto dry ground. At first glance it looked like he had come out unscathed. Covered in slimey guck, certainly, but nothing broken; until I spied the shift lever bent back 180 degrees from it’s normal position. That’s not right…
Sweating and peering through the fogged-up visor of my street helmet, I questioned the wisdom of accepting my cousin’s invitation to go “trail riding” with them in the northern Minnesota wilderness. Eric and Chad Lexvold, along with their friend Wade Young, were riding souped-up 250cc dirtbikes, and their idea of a “trail” was the space between large trees. Never mind the saplings, just mow them down like ranks of Iraqi conscripts before an M1 tank. We had already stopped four times to clear large deadfalls out of the way. I found it hard to believe that these guys really thought we were having fun! This is what happens, I think, when you are raised in a place where paved roads are few and you often have to chase your dinner down and kill it.
The mud bog came as a surprise, but after watching Chad and Wade roost right through the center of it, I’m still baffled as to what caused me to take a different line. I guess I thought I could skirt the edge of it and avoid getting soaked in the foot-deep muck. It was a sure sign of my off-road inexperience that I didn’t consider the slope or lack of traction. So when both wheels washed out and Kermit decided to lie down and take a break, the whole thing had that sad feeling of inevitability.
But let’s back up a bit… I had owned Kermit for only a week and a half when the mud bog fiasco occurred. During that time, I had put on 700 miles without incident. The folks at Hopkins Hitching Post had given me a great deal on a new 2003 KLR, which I had been visiting during my lunch breaks for some months. Jim Chisum and Rick Klociek had probably grown embarrassed watching me come in at least once a week, sitting on the bike and making “vroom vrooom!” noises. Finally, they took me into a back room and we laid out a deal where, if I would stop coming by and scaring the other customers, they would let me have the bike for a price I could afford. A week later, my wife Amy and I closed on our refinance, and Kermit was mine.
The first weekend I had the bike found us in Hudson, Wisconsin on Saturday morning to ride with the Indianhead BMW club. The meeting place was the Daily Grind, a small coffee shop on the main street. Walking through the door, a lady seated with a group of friends around a small table in the corner asked, “Are you on a KLR?”. Taken aback, I answered cautiously, “Um, yeah. How can you tell?”. Turns out this lady was Shelly, long-time companion of Judson Jones, a good friend and president of the Indianhead club. Shelly revealed that they were expecting me, and I was immediately assimilated into the little group. Introductions all around, more names than I could ever hope to remember, and we settled down to get acquainted.
I had been warned that this was a relaxed group, that they tended to hang around and socialize a lot longer than I was used to with the cafe racer crowd, and this was no exaggeration. Jud came in and leisurely worked on the crossword puzzle while other riders showed up in ones and twos. I milled around, drinking way too much coffee, anxious to get under way. Pretty soon I was vibrating with the excess caffeine, nearly climbing the walls, impatiently asking my new friends,”Uhh, so what time do you think we’re going to ride?”
“Well, we usually stop for breakfast first.” &endash; came the reply. Aaarrgh! I tried to remain calm. These folks are BMW riders, after all. They do not hurry, unless it is correct and necessary to do so. They are civilized people, unlike the speed-addled outlaws I used to hang out with. “Just go with the flow…”, became my temporary mantra.
Jud was riding his ancient Sears/Puch two-stroke. I’m sure there were millions of mosquito deaths between Hudson and Bayport resulting from the dense smokescreen they laid along I-94. “It’s over-oiling a bit.”, he said. Noooo… ya think!? It’s just kind of a Public Service/Volunteer thing he does for the community. I’m sure everyone appreciates that. We stopped at the “Not Just a Cafe”, and I enjoyed an excellent Denver Omelet much too quickly. After breakfast, having put on a grueling 5 or 6 miles already, most of the club decided to go home and call it a day. Jud and I rode over to his house to fetch his KLR and wait for Shelly and her daughter Ashley to show up so we could finally go riding in earnest.
We had been sitting in the shade of huge trees in Jud’s yard, chatting listlessly for two hours. Just when I was seriously contemplating a nap, the gals pulled in and suited up, and the four of us finally hit the gravel road. The ladies rode two-up on an old BMW R80ST. I was concerned that this was a questionable mount for any kind of dirt riding, but I needn’t have worried. Shelly proved to be an excellent rider, and Ashley was a champion passenger. After a couple of hours on gravel roads and mild trails, we came to a hill above the first of several water crossings. Jud said, “Wait here for about five minutes, and then come on down. I’m going to try to get a picture as you come through the water.” Ever the gentleman, I let the ladies lead. They barreled ahead, down the hill, and disappeared in a wall of spray. I was surprised to see them upright and intact on the other side. I rode down the hill at a modest pace and splashed across with little drama. I instantly regretted that approach when Jud showed me the pictures on his digicam. Those girls kicked my ass! Oh the shame of it…
We stopped for dinner in Plum City, at a little tavern that served excellent burgers. Afterwards we parted company, as I had business farther east. I would spend the night in a motel in Durand, and wake up to a rainstorm which would spoil my plans for Sunday. The TV in my room did not have the Weather Channel, and the local forecasters were clueless. I rode home in the rain, but this time I was wearing my waterproof First Gear jacket and Stearns rain pants, along with my Thor motocross boots. The handguards on the KLR protected my leather gloves as long as I kept moving. I arrived home totally dry in a couple of hours, only to discover that the storm system had passed, and the rest of the day would be sunny. I think meteorologists should be held accountable for incompetence, don’t you? Public floggings on the newscast at six and ten would be just the ticket. Think of the ratings!
So, back to the miserable mud bog… I looked at my bent shifter in despair. With a fatalistic resignation, I took hold of the thing and gently, slowly bent it back. All the way back. I don’t know what material they use to make these levers, but I suspect it might be a super secret alloy of aluminum and mozzarella cheese. “Cheezanium” perhaps? Whatever it is, there was no evidence of a stress crack that I could see, and I have ridden the bike over a thousand miles since.
Wet and miserable, I insisted we get out of these thickets and onto the forest service roads or logging trails, where the KLR would be more at home. Somewhat disappointed, my cousins nonetheless obliged. Out on the dirt roads, they showered me with rocks and roost, to show their contempt for my city-boy ways. I ate their dust gratefully, happy to be out of the clutches of the gnarly old trees and bottomless pits of muck. When it came time go back, I took to the paved highway, and left them to ride the ditches home. Off-road riding is a real challenge, and as I get better at it, I’m sure it will be a lot of fun. But at the end of a hot, sweaty day on the trails, miles from home, it sure is nice to be street legal.