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Robin DeanMay 11, 2018 (Updated Nov 25, 2019)3 CommentsShare

What “Failing” The Iron Butt Can Do For You

Everything. Well, “Everything B” to be exact. That’s the title of my brother’s book.

He wrote it while scaling the highest peaks and lowest valleys of the paranoid schizophrenic, manic depressive bipolar landscape.

… and that disorder took him from me.

My brother’s death doesn’t self-simplify, either. He likely passed just shy of three years before this article’s publishing date. We won’t know for sure until they confirm that it is in fact him, though the lot of us (myself and my remaining siblings) feel it to be most likely.

My middle brother and a lost uncle organized a memorial service after informing us directly. Not that I didn’t have enough in my emotionally overflowing bottomless cup, everything got pushed aside. I needed to ready myself for all kinds of the unexpected, not only with red tape but collisions between sometimes incompatible family members.

The constant static over the matter is like being in a pinball machine without a drain. My concerns, never to be resolved, freed a sinkhole that laid in wait for the many years since my brother and I last spoke. My motivation to pack a bag and fly, even drive were toxic. I basically found that in the face of my loss, I was looking for a way to escape its gaze.

My response isn’t to dodge a bullet in search of its mark. Instead, I’ll race it to the finish line. My newly bought bike is ready for 2018, so …

I’m going to ride a motorcycle from Chicago to Daytona Beach and I’m going to do it in one day.

1000+ miles in 24 hours is commonly referred to as an Iron Butt challenge. Riders set an impossible-to-fake destination before situating a witness to note their launch time and another their arrival. Gas receipts offer additional proof before proper paperwork gets submitted.

The reward? A plaque commemorating your success and a few bragging rights.

In my case, however, it’s a way to turn my self-centered nature on it’s end and insure that I do what’s right: go and help my family remember the very best of what my brother gave the world before he left it.

That’s a real trick to adulthood, I think. Turning whatever “wants” you have into fuel to help others with their needs … and it’s okay to do so! It’s even better if you can come to self aware terms with it while among those who’ll be there for you as well.

I love riding motorcycles. There’s a void in my heart. I’ll ride to the source and heal, however minimally, on my own along the way.

Let’s Get This Show On The Road

Having bounced back and forth about the option to ride, my wife finally makes the executive decision. “You plan to ride. If the weather doesn’t permit, take the truck.”

“If the weather doesn’t permit” only applies to road conditions, by the way. My new Beemer hilariously informs me when there’s the possibility of ice. Said notification is somewhere next to its “comes standard” juice weasel.

The day before, I pack, unpack and pack again, testing different configurations in my luggage. I pull our entire flock out of the garage and position the BMW next to the main door (sit-and-go access). Everything’s ready and it’s time for rest, the dichotomy of treasure vs. tragedy now a behemoth.

At any rate, morning arrives. I’ve barely slept and yet still oversleep my alarm. My eyes speak to the fatigue I’m not yet aware of and a nuclear cup of light-roast challenges it loudly to debate.

There are no signs or notifications about snow. I can either do this … or not. Much like my brother’s constant drift between infinite anchors of the soul, I can’t decide what to do.

So, I just … start.

After wheeling out the bike, she fires up with confidence. The ice warning notification kicks on and with it, my first grin finds me. I let things be, entering the house to get my gear in order.

The temperature at my actual start time/location is 28°F. I believe this to be the coldest temperature I’ve ever set out on (30+°F has never been a show stopper). My gear, my wonderful gear, remains as follows:

  • riding boots
  • Smartwool socks
  • charcoal foot warmers
  • long underwear (top/bottom)
  • riding pants with both wind/rain & thermal liners
  • quick-dry wicking t-shirt
  • heated vest
  • riding jacket with same liners as pants
  • heated gloves
  • 1/2 balaclava
  • helmet
  • heated grips

Double, triple and quadruple checking my “gear-dash-luggage, gear-dash-luggage, gear-dash-luggage” is surely my final emotional stall. Here my wife just wants to kiss me goodbye and I’m trying not to leave. I tell myself “you’ve got this” and pull away.

The time is 6:30 AM and the temperature has risen to a balmy 29°F. I’m leaving early enough that traffic between our house and the Skyway should be free flowing but I’ve failed to consider that this is Chicago. Explaining our traffic clock is much like Lord of The Rings’ Pip and Mary discussing fifteen different kinds of breakfast that are mandatory.

Three Hours

… the time it takes, in below-freezing temps, on a motorcycle, to get across the Chicago skyway.

At first, all motion is as fluid as one would hope but once I reach I-90, well … “pre” morning rush hour types have already clogged things up. My efforts are fast tested but quite honestly, I’m not just comfortable. I’m somehow happy as a clam at high tide.

That is until I actually cross the Skyway. At its entrance, I see only a little trouble. I haven’t rigged an I-Pass mount yet, so I have to stop, remove the I-Pass from my pocket, present it to the radar, place it back into my pocket and ride on knowing it’ll have to happen a second and final time on the other side.

This is where things go south (get it?). The second radar doesn’t detect my I-Pass and that particular gate isn’t staffed today. Fortunately, traffic is all but gone so there isn’t a line behind me. I look back to see what may as well be thirty yards of divided gateway. Turning around and riding against traffic would be crazy, so I resort to what is merely insane.

I toe the bike backward for the entire length, pick a booth with a human in it and make good on my momentary self-promise to not blame said human for what I’ve just gone through. She’s kind, complimenting the bike and getting me rolling again. After a would-be grueling three hour start, the temperature finally reaches a luxurious 33°F and I begin my escape from Illinois’ grasp.

Enter “The Slab”

A friend warned me a few days prior that I-65 is riddled with bucket-size potholes and that I should avoid it at all costs. Robert Downey Jr. once described how he’ll sometimes listen intently to a directors advice before doing whatever he originally wanted to. While my friend has my better interests in mind, I’m too tired from planning to explore a detour, so there I am, barreling due south on what turns out to be a pretty smooth surface.

Sidenote: the center lines are reeeally bad. Pick your lane change opportunities carefully!

The next many hours might be significantly less interesting if not for a few entertaining constants:

For one, I keep receiving strange looks from cagers (car/truck drivers). They likely think I’m crazy (I might be) and that there’s no way I can possibly be warm on “that thar space bicycle”. Gaining southward miles away from the lake, the local temp is well above 40°F, warm enough that I have to dial back my heated gear as I’m beginning to sweat.

Also, this is my chance to better assimilate my bike’s handlebar controls. Whenever my distance from other vehicles is greater than 100 yards, I have a quick glance to see which button near either grip is worth memorizing next. The goal: know the physical location of each button so I might access it without having to look. I’ll still have to eye the dash momentarily but operation gets streamlined regardless. After several hours, I’m gettin’ pretty good.

This is also how I accidentally learn about my GPS unit’s “everything” screen. If you elect to install the optional and fully integrated GPS system, its computer works with the motorcycle’s gauge information in a variety of ways. Futzing around for a button, I bump the jog dial next to my left hand grip which I already know zooms the GPS birdseye view in/out. What I didn’t know is that it also toggles menus, one of which shows Every. Single. Variable. Each. Gauge. Offers.

Ever heard of microfiche? Yeah. Duct tape one slide to a door, stand on your head twenty feet away and read whatever you can from its 13th frame … blindfolded.

Still, that’s useful information for the garage or mid-travel break, something I was now due for.

Road Food

My cholesterol is 20 points high. I don’t know exactly how bad that is because, at 43 years old, this is the first time in my life that such a condition has found me. I do know (and just reconfirmed) that I have low blood pressure. The combination of the two isn’t good. On the upside, it makes my suggested dietary intake more interesting.

Red Bull, potato chips and cholesterol-free protein bars are all green lit. A year ago my first choice would’ve been whatever Starbucks’ answer to energy drinks was but those are off the menu. Beyond this gas station cuisine, an occasional peanut butter granola bar marks desert.

These munching breaks are also my one opportunity to connect with whatever social media I’ve been missing. I logged into Facebook and discovered a few dozen “likes” to my Iron Butt takeoff. It feels like I have friends with me, even if I can only communicate while off the bike.

Apparently, in the void, they’re my breath. It’s relieving but it reminds me that I’m in a bit of pain. Even as I type this, I haven’t yet gained control over how I cope with this ride’s purpose. I’m dancing on the roof of my own sadness. What’s worse, it’s becoming second nature.

Stay On Detour

Each leg south offers the same pattern outlets. I continue familiarizing myself with all of the BMW’s perks. My Road Ruckus playlist keeps my ear candy in place and after two more direct-ahead stops, I’ve shed most of my layers thanks to warmer weather. My next concern makes itself known late in the game, integrated perfectly into a friend’s recommended reroute to ghost ATL.

The default “fastest” route between Chicago and Daytona Beach would take me straight down to Nashville before bouncing east via Atlanta, Georgia. The traffic there is known far and wide to be horrible. My initial riding schedule puts me there in rush hour, so at some point in northern Kentucky I set my sights on Knoxville.

By day, I-40E out of Knoxville is a thrilling good time complete with ear-to-ear grins. Unfortunately, I left 30 minutes later than intended this morning only to be bombarded with circumstantial obstacles, not the least of which was Chicago itself. Tuning in to social media once more to find my friends commenting amongst themselves while cheering me on, I abandon all concern for when I’ll be arriving in favor of focusing on basic safety.

This is both good and bad.

Gassing up, the time is roughly 7pm give or take. I hop onto I-40E to find it as simple and smooth as any interstate … until I pass Wilton Springs. That’s where certain realizations begin to kick in.

Receipt #1Receipt #2Receipt #3

Receipt #1Receipt #2Receipt #3

At night, I-40E is as frightening as it is entertaining. A lot of it is constructed directionally off camber. By that, I mean that westbound traffic is 10-30 feet higher than my eastbound trek (like a strip mine). The only shoulder on either side is 2-feet wide, so I have no escape path. All lanes being fully contained by a 3-foot concrete barrier compounds the problem.

Now, take the above scenario and introduce the following:

  • I have 5 hours of sleep, 3 protein bars and 2 cans of Red Bull in my system.
  • My GPS mileage suggests a 2 AM arrival for Iron Butt success (I left at 6:30 AM)
  • It’s Friday night in the south where drunk drivers often claim semi-pro status.
  • With little room, truck drivers barrel side-by-side at 20 miles over the speed limit.
  • My Sena SMH-10’s battery finally ran out of juice. I have no music to keep me going.
  • At the top of a sweeper, I pass 5-10 adolescent deer, three of them facing the road.

Somewhere roughly 700 miles from home … I’m done.

The Sunshine State

I wake the next morning feeling indifferent to my decision to stop. I know I’ll attempt the Iron Butt challenge again but when I do, it’ll be a significantly less complicated route. Libertyville to Sioux Falls with a group of friends might be the way to go.

Nonetheless, my time spent in Florida connects me with friends I’ve not seen for quite some time. They’re living the travel trailer dream, a concept that my wife and I are considering for future adventures. Being able to pick up from one beautiful view before parking next to another certainly has its perks.

Bill BooksBill and Family

For the memorial, my siblings and I rent an enormous beach house for everyone (in-laws and extended family) to enjoy. Meals play host to a mixture of conversations. It gives us all a chance to interact and better understand one another.

My 1/2 way point also offers a window to catch up on some much needed reading. We mention three books in specific that make for a great introductory library on all things long distance motorcycling. I’ve since continued my Jupitalia fandom by way of Dreaming of Jupiter (any rider who completes their second circling of the globe, especially at 70+ years old and complete with two broken bones, certainly deserves a round of whatever they’re drinking on me).

Palm TreesTurtle!

I’m also grateful for this opportunity to walk with my wife along Ormand beach. She flew down to meet me on the day of the memorial before heading home shortly after. Even in that micro-vacation of an afternoon, memories are made and immediately savored.

Homeward Bound

With all of my initial “challenges” long behind me, it’s easier to relax and set a course that’s more, well … enjoyable. Guest author Greg White offers up an absolutely gorgeous ride to Knoxville where I’m welcomed by two friends with dinner, whisky and a comfortable bed. I’ve never been on the Cherohala Skyway before this ride, now one of my top five all time favorite riding experiences.

Out of Knoxville, I find my way onto the Day 5 portion of our 777 group tour. Spaghetti tangled through Daniel Boon National Forest, it’s exactly as fun as I remember. It also lets me check the road conditions and resource lunch options before its start.

A flasked night cap and I’m sound asleep at the Li’l Abner Motel.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m enjoying these twisty country backroads but I have a home to get back to. The next leg of our 777 route heads west toward Elizabethtown, zigzagged or not. My destination being Chicago, I figure I best be getting back but why not have fun along the way?

I set my GPS destination for my front door but with curvy roads as the default navigational format. This proves its weight in gold until Indiana simply runs out of worthy riding. Northern Indiana, an unavoidably bland obstacle, is less difficult to tolerate after a light helping of twisted tarmac.

From here on it’s slab. I-65 meets 94 meets 294 to home, where our editor-in-beef runs full slobber to welcome me back. I’ll miss my brother often but always love the sight of my family upon return.

What “Failing” The Iron Butt Did For Me

Suggesting failure to be a matter of opinion sounds like one part excuse, two parts denial. I can’t say for certain that my initial attempt came preloaded with the expectation of success. I just knew I had somewhere to be and that it would require the totality of whatever strength I could muster.

Emotion fueled my efforts to reach family in memory of my brother Bill. Those efforts then allowed me to learn first hand what my latest motorcycle purchase has to offer. If nothing else, I now know what I’m made of, especially with regard to safety and decision making.

What this ride really did for me though, beyond connecting me with friends and family to mourn a loved one lost, was draw me back to the threshold of our front door and all that matters within. There’s a well known saying about motorcycle travel:

It’s not the destination. It’s the journey.

I have to contest that statement when (and perhaps only when) that destination … is home.

What Long Distance Rides Have You Conquered?

There are a lot of great touring opportunities in motorcycling. Which ones have you embarked on? What did you like about it and why? Your input is invited. Post an article!

This is the end!
Robin Dean

About Robin Dean

Motorcycle advocate, enthusiast and traveler. Founder, The Riding Obsession (2014). MSF RiderCoach credentials: BRCu, BRC2u, MSRCu, ARCu, 3WBRCu ~ Spotify Playlist

Comments

Dale says:

I’d usually take any excuse for a long ride, but not that. I’m very sorry to hear it.

Andres says:

I’m sorry for your loss but it sounds like you found exactly what you were looking for in the first place. Happy riding and excellent decision making.

Jason says:

Robin, great story man! Cathartic and insightful. Thanks for sharing your journey of grief with us. I could’ve used some of that throttle time to deal with the loss of my Dad last year. I’ll file that one away for future use.

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