David Stafford's Journal of Motorcycle Touring and Technology

Wednesday, September 20, 2006 - Dispatch from the road

Hello friends and family!

Our first day on the Trans-Am Trail took us from Jellico to Sparta. It started out promising with tight off-road switchbacks and climbs up and down the Appalachian Hills. It's the perfect kind of off-roading to engage the mind of a rider on a fully-loaded dual-sport motorcycle but it isn't so tough as to be nerve-racking. Going uphill is a game of maintaining momentum that rewards good throttle and clutch control to keep the engine in the power band. Get it right and everything proceeds smoothly. Get it wrong and you come to a stop and have to start over.

The switchbacks were just the early part of the ride. Things smoothed out later with a combination of good dirt, gravel and asphalt. At the end of the day we were somewhat dismayed by how much riding time was spent on asphalt. It seems the Tenneessee Department of Paving Everything In Sight is much busier than the Department of Leaving Well-Enough Alone (It Was Good Enough For Granddad.) Most of the paved roads looked relatively new and we passed by several crews pouring fresh asphalt. In a few more years there may no longer be any public dirt roads in Tennessee. I understand it's a better life for the people who live there but at the same time I wonder if we're losing something important.

The poverty out here is real. Tarpaper houses. Old, wooden shacks with shabby clothes on the line. Rusting, beater cars of questionable mechanical condition. Enter the words "Appalachian Hills" in Google and you'll see this ad:

Fight Poverty in the U.S.
Help with Literacy and Nutrition by
Donating to Save the Children Today

So, I can't let myself be too selfish about the paved roads.

Day two took us to Columbia, Tennessee. We stopped by C & B Race Apparel in a small town with the unusual name of Bell Buckle. The owner of the shop showed us some tiny little sport bikes that can reach speeds up to 55 mph! I suggested to Geoff that we get one and carry it in the Ural as a spare in case we have a break-down.

There was a lot of asphalt today but we have been more than compensated by the beautiful scenery. Still, I'm getting restless. When will the "real" trail begin?


Sunday, September 17, 2006 - Dispatch from the road

Hello family and friends!

Today's miles: 314
Total miles: 1,273

We are in Jellico, Tennessee at the eastern edge of the Trans-America trail where our trip will change its character from well-groomed tarmac and the easy conveniences of urban life to dust, dirt, mud and gravel.

Geoff and I rode the Dragon at Deal's Gap twice today. This is a section of highway 129 that contains 318 turns in 11 miles of scenic, twisty road.

I've attached a photo of the Tree of Shame where pieces from motorcycles that have succumbed to the Dragon dangle like Christmas ornaments. If you look closer at the parts there is something more to see: Eulegies and poems dedicated to riders who lost their lives at the Gap are written on some. Reading their words makes me think of those riders who started out their day full of happiness and enthusiasm and didn't consider for a moment that possibility that it might be their last. It makes me think that I should back off a little and enjoy the scenery rather than take chances. I have no doubt the tree's grieving reminders have saved more than a few lives.

We met a mohawk-helmetted rider at a gas station on the tail of the Dragon. His bike has been wrecked to a point where I was somewhat astonished that it could be driven at all... much less here. I asked, "Did that happen on the Dragon?" "No, this is what happens when you loan your bike to your buddy." "Is he still your buddy?" "No!"

We met Deb's cousin, Linda, and her boyfriend, Jim for dinner in Knoxville. Deb and Linda grew up together and are more like sisters than cousins. Linda has great stories to tell and as you know by now I'm always up for a good story. I have to pass one of them along.

Linda told us how her family came to be in Tennessee. Linda's grandfather used to work for the Chicago police department as a car mechanic during the Great Depression. He developed a reputation for being able to tune an engine to run faster than anyone else. Word of this reputation eventually reached the ears of the biggest mobster of them all: Al Capone. Capone's livelihood depended on being able to bribe the police or, if that failed, outrun them. He spent a lot of money to have the biggest engines in the fastest cars and he arranged to personally meet with Linda's grandfather. The young man had the right qualifications: He had a family to feed and protect. Capone made him an offer. All he had to do was work weekends on the side tuning Capone's cars so they were a little faster than the police cars. This arrangement worked for a while until the police began to suspect what was going on. At that point the young man had no choice. He packed up his family, split town and wound up in Tennessee.

We had a little more than an hour's ride to get to Jellico and it was already dark. Just after we waved good-bye to Linda and Jim we discovered the Ural's headlight was out. It was a bad connection in the fuse-holder for the headlight. I unscrewed it and reconnected it twice and it seemed to work. Goeff suggested that he follow closely behind me if it should go out again but we were lucky and made it to Jellico without further problems. Electrical problems can be the worst to deal with and the Russian electrics are fragile. They are, at least, fairly simple to understand and that has some redeeming value.


Howdy Doody,

Well we arrived in Jellico, Tennessee last night and have had a good sleep and we are spending the day checking the bikes, laundry, emailing, studying maps and GPS settings in preparation for our departure tomorrow morning.

This is where we start the "Trans Am Trail" after riding 1200 miles from Austin, Tx through 8 southern states in absolutely beautiful weather..... so far the gods have been with us.

From now on we will be "on the trail" so to speak (dirt roads, some bitumen, small towns, farms, camping and beautiful scenery) and we probably wont have access to wireless internet or any other type so our communications may not be as frequent. We will actually leave the "trail" around the end of the first week in October at a place called Baker, Nevada.

In terms of photographs I will let David send those as we dont want to hit you with 2 lots of downloads (especially those with slow internet) but we will have a big library at the finish which we be available for anyone interested.

As two people travelling together and 2 vastly different bikes and with quite a difference in ages (David is 41 and I am 68) we are getting on really well and David as a leader (Major Bloodknock as a dear friend of mine has christened him) is extremely considerate, capable, professional and with what I consider one of the most important tools of life "a great sense of humour" SOOOOH I have been blessed and am enjoying this once in a lifetime experience very much indeed.

One last comment,...Yesterday as part of the days trip we road what is called "The Dragon" which is a hilly road through pretty thick bushland and past a lovely lake that is 11 miles long and has 318 turns in the road (a bit like the Jenaolan Caves 4 mile hill) and we went out and back which of course means 22 miles and 636 turns and during the trip numerous "Harleys" were encountered plus quite a few "crotch rockets" (racing bikes) which gave me a few scares but you can imagine how my body feels today after all those body shifts and arm tugs to manipulate the "rig" through the ride............ I think David did this on purpose to test me and get me ready for the off road stuff thats coming up.

Well there is a bit to do so I will close now hoping this finds "yu_all" (bit of southern lingo) well and happy.


Saturday, September 16, 2006 - Dispatch from the road

We are in Centre, Alabama tonight. Today was a short riding day: 159 miles (959 miles so far in the trip.) We spent several pleasant hours wandering around the Barber Motorsport Museum gaping at motorycles. They have over 1,000 on display and every one of them is kept in superb cosmetic and running condition. We could have spent the whole day there. If you are ever near Birmingham it's worth going out of your way to spend a few hours at the Barber Museum.

Another Ural Delay Factor event today: James Johnson introduced himself and asked about the Ural. He calls himself "Ghost" and rides with the Nomad Motorcycle Club.

He served in Vietnam as a military courier and is now retired and rides his bike full-time. He explained, in matter-of-fact seriousness, that he won't go anywhere his motorcycle can't take him. He has a good sense of humor as you can see from the attached photo of his business card. Everyone has a story!



We are now in Tuscaloosa, Alabama and its 730am Sat morning and we had a great day yesterday and did about 350 miles through predominately cotton country in Louisiana and Mississippi and I couldnt help but sing to myself that old song called "Cotton Fields" and "Mississippi Mud".......I have for many years related experiences and places to songs one of those quirks of old age I guess.

The bikes are going well although mine is chewing a bit of oil.

I must confess that last night I was definately ready to stop and call it a day as I was getting that "bum" ache which just wouldnt go away but I am ready today to hit the road again.

Today we head for a town called Birmingham, AL and we are going to visit a motorcycle and automobile museum and then head in the direction of Jellico in Tennessee where we hope to arrive on Sunday and that is where we start the Trans Am trail and also where we start to experience offroad conditions.... I am looking forward to that but it will cut down on the daily mileage but make up for it in challenge and scenery and people we meet.

Anyway, must go as lots to do before we leave.


Friday, September 15, 2006 - Dispatch from the road

We left Bastrop, Louisiana this morning and arrived in Tuscaloosa, Alabama this evening. We did 340 miles today-- just a bit more than yesterday.

I was reminded of something very important today. Travelling is less about the places I visit and more about the people I meet.

There's an little greasy-spoon diner on a corner of the main square in Bastrop. Step inside and you can immediately tell it's the kind of place that's been there longer than anyone can remember and has taken on the roll of the town's social center. Geoff had his first taste of grits (and declared them edible.) I couldn't help but to pay more attention to the clientele than my breakfast.

Four old friends who looked to be in their 60s and 70s were sitting at a table next to us; their dishes long since cleared away as they sipped coffee and chatted. One man seemed to be in charge of the conversation and the others deferred to him and nodded as he spoke. He could have been anybody but to me he looked exactly like an old-time blues musician: wide, pencil-thin mustache, short, graying hair under a faded red bowler hat that had to have been at least thirty years old, and a white jacket with thin red stripes. What an image! I regretted not bringing my camera but I don't know if I would have had the nerve to ask him if I could take his photograph. It will have to live on in my memory.

The Ural attracts attention everywhere we go. People can't help coming up to us and asking what it is or if it's an old BMW. Geoff patiently explains that it's Russian and that it's a new motorcycle. They are always surprised. This whole series of events is so common among Ural owners that it has developed its own acronym: U.D.F. for Ural Delay Factor.

At one such stop we were greeted by a middle-aged woman named Melody. Melody works at the only gas station in a very small town but she has quite a history. She grew up in Haight-Ashbury, San Francisco in the late 60s, the daughter of hippie parents who lived in a commune there. Haight-Ashbury was the epicenter for everything that made the 60's the 60's: Drugs, protests, free love and music. She said she rebelled against her parents because, even when she was 13, she knew it was wrong for a man to have more than one wife. According to her, everyone was searching for something but no matter how hard they looked they couldn't find it. She knew the commune was doomed. They didn't find it because they didn't look in the right place: The Bible. Melody found the Lord and eventually, after wandering around a bit, settled back in the home of her grandparents in Louisiana. She's at peace with herself.

Maybe it was the Ural or the two unusual strangers passing through her small town but I'll never know what prompted her to tell us her story. Whatever the reason, I'm grateful. She has a fascinating story and reminded me of why it's so fulfilling to meet different kinds of people everywhere we go.


Hello folks,

This is Geoff at the wheel of Davids laptop and it is 7.30 am on Friday and we are at Bastrop, Louisiana our second night out after leaving Austin on Wed about 3pm.

David has given a very detailed coverage of our trip so far but I will add my comments below.

My first day was mainly a day of getting to "know" my motorcycle again (I have ridden the ural sidecar rig before for a few days when Tip and I visited David and Deb last October) and it was a mixed feeling for me as I had forgotten the "marked" difference between riding a solo bike and a "chair" and it did cause a few unmentionable embarrasments and panic attacks but all in all I settled in pretty well.

We stayed at a place called Centerville, Texas the first night and it was nice but in my inevitable style ate TOO much and had a bit of indegestion during the night not to mention giving my "partner in crime" a few shocks during the evening with my ability to snore in various "keys" and speeds...... We got off to a late start and proceeded through Texas into Louisiana to a where we are now.

Yesterday I bought a nose tape gizmo to try to lessen the snoring trick and I haven't any comment from David as yet but I noticed when I awoke during the evening that one side had come unstuck which I fixed but I fear it may not have been 100% successful.... but I will keep trying.

The second day (yesterday) was much better but as David has pointed out the overall average including stops was only 36mph due to the slow average speed of the bike I am riding, the Ural, being about 55mph and I really would not like to ride it much faster even though it is capable of it...... BTW for ease of writing in the future I will call it "my bike" on the understanding of one and all that David owns the bike and has graciously permitted me to ride it on this great trip...... A short round of applause please!!!

We are up a bit earlier to day but time is getting away (its 7.55 am already) but we hope to hit the road by 9am and our aim to increase the daily total from 330 to maybe 400 today as a test of what it will take in time to do that.

We are taking photos and will include them from time to time but just to say that the scenery has been lovely and I said to David yesterday a lot of it reminds me of different pats of Australia.

Well I must go as we have to hit the road and we havnt had brekkie yet or checked and loaded the bikes so fare thee well till next time I write.


Thursday, September 14, 2006 - Dispatch from the road

We're in Bastrop, Louisiana tonight. My first impressions are of rivers, lakes, swamps, bayous and.... bugs. Swarms of them! You can see a swarm just about a second before you smash through it. I ducked and dodged what I could but every so often I got hammered. By the end of the day we looked like well-tempered fly paper. The big crop here seems to be cotton. We passed by miles of cotton fields that stretched off to the horizon and watched crop-dusters performing their impressive low-altitude acrobatics.

This is our first full day on the road and we managed just 330 miles. Our pace is slow-- 50 to 55 mph is all the fully-loaded Ural wants to do. That means the interstate is off-limits but it's just as well. The interstate is a heartless trade of living to reach your destination for living in the moment. We'll stick to smaller roads. It's hot and stops are more frequent and slightly longer than I would normally take alone but that's to be expected. At almost nine hours start-to-finish we're averaging 37 mph. A 400 mile day would be doable but it would be tough. And that's on good tarmac. We'll have to see what it's like on dirt.

The Ural is getting about 28 miles per gallon. My F650GS gets twice that. The minimum range we'll need in Russia is 200 miles (that's a bare minimum rather than a comfortable number.) My F650 has enough range but the Ural will need to carry spare fuel. For estimating purposes I'm thinking 25 mpg to give us a little buffer (lower-quality gas or an engine in poorer condition.) The Ural has a five-gallon tank so that's 125 miles. We need three more gallons, at least.