September 30, 2011 — In far western Wisconsin there is a stretch of road every motorcycle rider should experience at least once. It’s The Great River Road. It follows the east side of the Mississippi from just outside the Twin Cities all the way down to the Illinois border. Similar roads will take you all the way to Memphis in the south, and to the source of the Mississippi in northern Minnesota. But it’s this Wisconsin stretch that I love the most. Particularly the section between the Twin Cities and Alma, WI.

Alma has become a yearly motorcycle pilgrimage. In 2010, the riding adventure The Mrs and I had there with four of our closest motorcycle friends was the highlight of the season. It shouldn’t have been the highlight, but it was. The CM400 blew a head gasket 30 minutes into the trip and we had to abandon it temporarily in Hastings, MN. Both The Mrs and I spent the weekend cramped, cold and uncomfortable riding two-up on my CB650. And yet, we had a terrific time. It was a lesson in “type-2 fun” as Santiago called it. It was a challenging weekend that wasn’t nearly as fun in the moment as it was in retrospect. Yet it really was fun.

So as soon as the winter snow began to melt in 2011, I had Alma on my mind. I wanted to go back. The CM400 had been fixed by then, and there were exciting new machines in my fleet. I wanted to see the CM400 re-conquer that ride that had conquered it — to get back on that proverbial horse and reach its destination beyond Hastings. I also wanted to ride the GL1100 I’d just acquired. I’d sold my CB650 and bought that beast of a bike born and bred to travel long distances.

But rather than being able to just ride my new GL1100 from the start, I ended up fighting it and two other project bikes all season. Specific riding goals soon gave way to just trying to get something I could actually ride. By late September, I was beyond frustrated. The season had slithered by, just out of my grasp. Plans for a June birthday ride, a Bearded Lady CB450 reveal, and even a rideable GL1100 had all fallen short. Of all the motorcycle-related things I wanted to do in 2010, only a revisit of the Alma trip remained possible, but only if I could wring a running bike out of my crippled fleet.

Thankfully, Robb and the fellas at BlueCat motors helped me get my 1981 Honda CB750 resurrected and rideable. No sooner did I get the bike home, I got in touch with Joe and Santiago. Perhaps an Alma trip could redeem this season of far too few miles. Santiago and Lynn were in, as were Joe and Rochelle. Also added to our merry band was Wil, who is an Alma regular and long-time scooter/motorcycle friend of Joe and Rochelle’s.

We had to act fast. Our weather window was closing. Autumn was turning colder and soon evening and morning temperatures would push colder than the group would want to deal with. We settled on the soonest available date that everybody could make: the weekend of October 1st. Daytime temperatures would be in the low 50s and as the weekend approached, the forecast was clear of rain. We were gonna do this!

Departure Friday arrived. A little after 4:00 PM, the Mrs and I loaded our bikes and headed off to meet the rest of the group at a nearby coffee shop. The five of them were gathered around an outdoor table, all but Rochelle wearing their riding gear. It was cold enough that she’d opted to be the group’s caboose in her Smart. Can’t say that I blamed her. I’d rather drive than be a chilly passenger on a Royal Enfield. Especially if I had to hang on to Joe the whole time. I kid! The whole scene was a terrific echo of the year before — a great group of bike nerds off on a bite-sized, overnight adventure. This was my chance to redeem last year’s trip — to, in a way, show off all that Jeff and the boys at BCM had taught me about old motorcycles.

Since this whole second excursion had been my idea, the group informed me that I had ride leader duty. I hadn’t expected that, but fair enough, I could set an easy pace on my CB750. Santiago and Lynn were riding two-up on his Suzuki V-Strom 650. Joe was astride his army green Royal Enfield 500. The Mrs had her now healthy CM400. Wil, our energetic tagalong, was riding a monstrous Honda Valkyrie — a bike of particular interest to me as it’s the more modern equivalent to my own naked Goldwing. No one would have trouble keeping up, so off we went.

The group set off with little fanfare and we headed east out of Eagan toward Hastings. It was on this stretch that the CM400 had so spectacularly blown its head gasket the year before. As we passed through Hastings, The Mrs and I exchanged knowing looks and she patted the CM’s tank lovingly as it buzzed onward toward Wisconsin. Hastings wouldn’t get her this trip.

We reached our mid-point gas stop just as the sun was setting. Not a moment too soon either. I was cold. We all were. The temperature was in the mid 40s and I hadn’t counted on just how much warmth having the sun on our backs was giving us. After topping off, I headed inside to down half a cup of hot chocolate — trying desperately to nudge my core temperature up a few notches.

“Next year, let’s do this trip again …in August.” Joe said from under his own cold layers of cloth and leather. “Let’s leave on a Saturday, about noon, and quit doing this cold weather, after work, freezing sprint shit.” I couldn’t agree more. I would have loved taking this trip in August, but I didn’t have a bike that worked.

With full tanks and slightly more feeling in our extremities, we saddled back up for the final push on to Alma. When I hit the starter on the CB750, it turned over sluggishly, which was out of character for that bike. That is, for as well as I knew it. I’d only been riding it for a couple weeks at that point. It’d been in barn stasis for about six years previous to that. The bike started, but the anemic starter had me concerned. The bike had a brand new battery in it, so everything ought to be alright, but maybe it was a bad cell. It wouldn’t be the first time a new battery failed on me, nor the last. I didn’t think too much of it — figuring it might have something to do with the temperature.

As we were ready to pull out from the station, I flubbed the clutch and stalled the bike on the little incline that butted up to the road. Hitting the starter, I got nothing. “Click.” Without even thinking, I swung the bike around to my left, tamped it up into neutral, gave it two or three quick, walk-along steps and rolled it back down the incline. I toed into first and let the clutch out smoothly. The bike fired to life! I felt like a badass for getting it on the first try. My thoughts went back to that exhausting day in the parking garage the year before. There I became an unwilling expert in bump-starting old Hondas thanks to a bad battery in my CB650. With the 750 running again, I figured it was no big deal. Either the battery would charge on the way there, or the charging system would continue to run the ignition and I’d just have to bump start it all day.

There was no turning back. I continued east, content to face further problems as they came. The autumn colors were in full splendor in the setting sun. The landscape was changing too. The flats had given way to rolling hills and bluffs overlooking the river. They call it The Great River Road for a reason. The last golden rays of sunlight were bouncing of Pipen Lake as daylight gave way to twilight. It wasn’t quite dark enough for my headlight to really light my way. The eager blacktop swallowed up what little light it made. The bluffs looked absolutely enchanted in the last shreds of sunlight. Soon, it was properly dark. Cold as I was, the whole experience was still charming. We were doing this. We were having this motorcycle adventure against all odds — against a season that seemed hell bent against me having any riding fun on my own bikes. It didn’t matter that it had gotten even more chilly.

Truth is, it had gotten properly cold. The final 45 minutes of our journey got progressively more uncomfortable with each mile. My hands were starting to go numb as we finally cruised through Alma to our accommodations — the same riverside B&B we’d occupied the year before. Rather than park on the street at river level, I headed around the house and parked the CB750 about 30 yards up the hill. If I was still having battery issues, I didn’t want to waste what juice I had trying and failing to start the bike. A neighbor in the house up the hill was out in his yard when I pulled up and asked why I bothered to park all the way up there. I told him I seemed to be having some battery issues. He graciously offered me a battery charger. Hungry, tired, and pretty sure I wouldn’t need it, I turned him down, thanked him, and hoped I was right.

Finally in Alma, the relief of our arrival was pretty palpable in the group. We were glad to be there, and glad to have ridden, but relieved to be out of the cold. The warm comfort of Kate & Gracie’s Restaurant was just what we needed. The place was packed. It’d be a 45 minute wait for a table that could seat us all. A year ago we had the whole restaurant to ourselves. I remember being worried the place wouldn’t stay in business long. No worries there now.

We warmed ourselves up at the bar and chatted with the locals — our riding jackets and helmets making for easy conversation starters. It felt like our trip was fully realized now. The things I was hoping to recapture and reinforce were coming together and despite one mechanical hiccup, all the machines that had set off from the Twin Cities had arrived safely in Alma under their own power. This was a marked improvement over the year before.

Adding Wil to the group was a real treat. I have yet to meat a wholly un-likeable person who rides both scooters and motorcycles. Wil was the bachelor of our group though. His wife was originally going to join us for dinner in Alma by car, but her working schedule had changed and she was needed back in MSP by 7:00 AM the next morning. Given the amount of heavy food, wine, whiskey and finally top shelf tequila our night would involve, it was probably wise for her to stay in town. But that didn’t stop Wil from passing the the phone around the table to let her have “wish you were here” greetings from several complete strangers. The party moved back to the B&B and that’s when the Casa Noblé came out for the second year in a row. Smooth as ever. Conversational hijinks ensued well into the wee hours. In a word: perfect.

Morning came, but not too early, thankfully. Though the Fish Float was very fondly alive in our memories from last year, the group decided some variety was in order. We settled upon the Pier 4 Cafe and Smokehouse, right on the river. After all, could we resist the slogan. “Best BBQ by a dam site.” Our farmer’s breakfast included plenty of rather interesting conversation from Wil in his area of expertise: organic agriculture. I also discovered by happy accident that a little sweet BBQ sauce on eggs and hashbrowns beats catsup any day. Do try that at home.

The plan after breakfast was to carve up some Wisconsin “alphabet roads” and then head back to the Twin Cities that afternoon. Collecting our stuff from the Bed & Breakfast, we all loaded our bikes. It was brisk out, but the sun was shining, which makes all the difference in the world when you’re below 50º F. I pulled the choke all the way out on the CB750 and headed down the hill. A gentle release of the clutch had the bike running. It looked like I wouldn’t be needing that battery charger after all. The way I figured it, if the bike could keep running under its own power, I ought to be able to bump start it as needed and still ride the bike home. I’d then sort out the charging system, or battery, or whatever was wrong when I got the bike back to BlueCat.

I kept revving the 750 to try to put some temperature on it. I didn’t want to risk it dying on me, as the last thing I wanted to do was push it back up the hill. By now the group had gathered and everybody’s bikes were loaded and running. Joe was our designated ride leader for the day’s backroad wandering, so he and his olive drab Enfield pulled away from the B&B with the rest of us in tow. Heading south on The Great River Road, the plan was to intercept one of the alphabet roads that loops east into Wisconsin, around Alma, and back to HWY 35 on the other side of town. The group came up to speed on the 55 mph road, but I had a problem. The CB750 was bogging and sputtering. I couldn’t get it to top 50 mph. Did I forget to turn on the gas? I reached for the petcock. The selector was straight down — the ON position. I switched to RESERVE just in case. No change, I was still losing power. 50. 48. 45. 40. I blew my horn a few times and pulled over, not sure what to make of the situation. The Mrs pulled up behind me as the rest of the group rode on up the road.

“I can’t go any faster than about 50!” I yelled over the still running engine. “I’m going to head back to the house!”

I didn’t make it. Though we’d only gone about a mile down the road, I was only able to get about halfway back — our accommodations hidden beyond the a bend in the road. The bike had steadily lost more and more power. By the end, full throttle would get me all of 5 mph, then a walking pace, then the bike finally sputtered and died. I was at a complete loss. What the hell was wrong with this thing? The battery was obviously dead, but the charging system wasn’t producing enough juice to even run the ignition. I didn’t think such a complete system failure was possible on a motorcycle, dead battery or no.

Within a few moments, the group returned to see what had become of us. Santiago, being the seasoned touring rider that he is, had a set of jumper cables with him. The hope was that a jump would at least get me back to the B&B where I could call the boys at BCM and get their recommendation on what to do. This was much more complicated than it ought to have been, unfortunately. I had to pull out tools, remove the seat bolts and the side cover in order to even access the battery. Thankfully the jump worked. The bike fired back up and with the two machines tethered to each other for five minutes or so, I had enough borrowed juice for the 750 to run on its own. I quickly bolted on the seat, tossed my tools back in my panniers, suited up and rode back to the B&B. With my bike safely at port, the rest of the fleet rode on, but The Mrs stayed. Always good company, that one.

Before they left, Joe said something wise and timely. “Nathaniel, sell all these old bikes and buy one that works.” I couldn’t help but chuckle. Was he right? Were my expectations of vintage motorcycling too ambitious? On the one hand, here I was with yet another broken motorcycle on the Alma trip. And yet, right next to it was the previous year’s problem bike, which was running like a top. His words stuck with me though, even today.

The group rumbled away and I rang up BlueCat Motors to get their recommendation on how to best limp the bike home to the Twin Cities. Talking with Jeff and Robb I learned a couple of key things. On motorcycles with CDI ignitions, they won’t just run under their own power like bikes of yore. The capacitors in the ignition need a good strong current in order to feed spark to the engine. So if some component of the charging system fails, the bike is left to run just on the battery — which it can do, but only for as long as there’s sufficient power in the battery. I’d never thought of a motorcycle this way. I’ve always thought it was gasoline that drove a bike forward. It is, but not without spark. I usually think of the bike’s electrical system as supplementary to the work of internal combustion, but with the charging system down, it’s just as true the other way ’round. My electric motorcycle was broken.

I went in search of the lady of the house, who kindly led me to the man with the battery charger I’d been offered the night before. My best bet at this point was to fully charge the battery, then ride it straight to BlueCat Motors in St. Paul if I could make it. Since I’d possibly ridden the entire 90 or so miles out to Alma under battery power alone, chances seemed good I could make it back. Charging the battery would take time, so The Mrs and I took the opportunity to walk around downtown Alma on a lovely, sunny autumn morning.

It’s a charming place — the kind of town where if you could make a living there, why wouldn’t you just build a modest little house on the hill? If you had the Mississippi slowly strolling by your front porch, wouldn’t you just want to sit for a while and watch it pass? The cool autumn air fought with the mid day sun for control of our comfort, but neither side could quite prevail. Broken down motorcycle notwithstanding, walking along the river was a nice stretch of serenity — a welcome change of pace on the end of an anxious season of seemingly endless bike repair.

We returned to the 750 about an hour later to find it well charged. There was nothing else to do but try to make it back to the Twin Cities. I bump started the 750 for the third time that weekend. If nothing else, I was very pleased with myself for getting so good at that. We left Alma without ceremony, just the two of us. It was sad knowing that the rest of the group was still out carving up the alphabet roads. That’d be one part of last year’s trip we wouldn’t get to repeat. What’s more, the trip home now had the dark specter of mechanical failure hanging over every mile. Would the bike make it? Would I have to jump it again? Would I have to get towed?

With trepidation, we retraced our miles up the Great River Road and crossed the Mississippi over into Hastings, MN. As we did, we saw two familiar faces in our rear view mirrors. It was Santiago and Lynn on their V-Strom! I was glad to see them. An additional wingman was a comforting sight on this uncertain journey. Thanks to I-94 construction, we hit a traffic snarl on the outskirts of Hastings. The first 100 yards of stop-and-go traffic was more than the CB750 could handle. Its already taxed battery ran out of juice once again. This meant I had to push the old thing across three lanes of oncoming traffic, which turned out to be more embarrassing than it was difficult. Santiago and I attempted to jump the bike back to life again without success. The irony of it all was crushing and hilarious. We’d tried to go to Alma and back, and one of our bikes had broken down in Hastings. Is this town some sort of bermuda triangle for old Hondas?

Thoroughly set back, the trip to Alma had now fully transformed into a rescue mission for the CB750. The logistics would be simple, but they’d be obnoxious. The Mrs would ride her motorcycle home and return for me in her car. Meanwhile I’d pull the battery from the CB750. On her return, we’d drive home with the battery, hot charge it, then return to the bike. Then I’d reinstall the battery and try — again — to ride home. That’s what we did. About three hours later, under cover of night, the electric CB750 finally rolled wounded into our Eagan garage. It sat where the CM400 had sat a year ago — broken, disappointed, but home. Like a year ago, I was both frustrated that it’d gone wrong, and satisfied for having overcome the challenges of bringing a wounded bike home without shelling out for a tow truck. Frustrations aside, we’d still had fun on this trip, and that’s what ultimately mattered. We’d spent great time with great people and on any trip, that’s what really counts.

In the end, the bike was easier to fix than my pride. Our triumphant return to Alma was to be the pay off for all the wrench work I’d done that season. I’d pulled it of, but just barely. I was humbled by the 750. I still had more to learn. On the bright side though, I’ve now replaced an entire charging system. Scratch that off the know-how list. As inconvenient as the breakdown was, I’m now that much more capable a mechanic because of it. I also know that I’ll return to Alma and the Great River Road, hopefully this year. Yet I can’t help but feel a little bit of relief that when I do, I’ll be coming from Chicago and none of our bikes will have to pass through Hastings, MN. Seriously, what is it with that place?

Photo credits to Santiago and Wil for some of the images in this post.

Nathaniel Salzman