10 Times Things Went Wrong on the Trans America Trail
Trans America Trail Mishaps
By: Yermo Lamers
Over many years, a man named Sam Correro carefully mapped out a nearly 5000 mile largely off pavement route spanning from Virginia to the Pacific Coast in Oregon. He named his route the Trans America Trail, or TAT for short, and it has become quite famous.
When I first heard about the TAT years ago, I reflexively thought, “I need to not think about that, because if I do …”
It was too late. I had thought about it and knew I would eventually have to do it. I also knew I would end up having to do it solo.
It was not long after that I found myself in possession of a low mileage 2009 Suzuki DR650SE which I began to prepare.
It had been over 25 years since I had done any real off road riding and even back then I had mostly limited myself to easy trails. I knew despite decades of riding on pavement that in this domain I was a rank beginner and would have to approach it with a beginner’s mind. I was also well aware that I did not know what I did not know. So I set about coming up to speed. What do you prepare for? What is overdoing it? When do you know you’re ready to go?
I have friends with deep long distance off pavement experience who patiently answered endless questions and gave me much needed advice. They helped me pick out equipment and prep the bike. I researched ride reports and watched endless videos, some of riders falling off mountain cliffs and sustaining serious injuries, which was concerning. To practice, I did multiple weekend trips to OHV parks and attempted to get as many local gravel miles under my belt as I could reasonably do. I even had three very accomplished riders take me on a shake down run through an Eastern Tennessee section of the TAT to cover 4 water crossings on Witt road.
What was I in for? I knew things would go wrong, but I did not have a good sense of what was probable.
I wish I could have found a telling of the problems riders actually ran into. Of course there were all kinds of discussions of flats, chain breaks, and offs but not much else. No one likes to discuss failure, especially not the small embarrassing mistakes that lead to long delays, but it is often from seeing the failures of others that we can learn the most.
After what I felt was a reasonable amount of preparation all that was left was to give it a try so in August of 2016, I set off on my Trans America Trail mis-adventure.
I have long said, “Experience is directly proportional to mistakes made and equipment ruined.”
1. My GPS Kept Trying to Kill Me
I had purchased Sam’s TAT tracks and loaded them onto a Garmin Zumo 550 GPS. I also purchased the paper maps and roll charts knowing that GPS’s often fail along the Trans America Trail
The first problem I ran into was with the GPS. If I took a wrong turn, it would recalculate and route me onto pavement causing me to miss coveted miles of gravel. It took me a while to realize there was a setting that disabled this.
However, changing that setting did not completely solve it. I would soon learn that even with recalculation mode turned off, if I had to do a U-turn, it would recalculate the route.
I learned to stop and restart the route each time I took a wrong turn.
The second problem with my GPS was that it kept trying to kill me. I never understood what I had done to make it hate me as much as it does. In Oklahoma it lost it’s ever loving mind and would consistently lie to me saying my destination was much closer than it actually was.
[That arrival time ended up being 3 AM the next day. Oops. 58 miles to the next turn should have been a clue.]
My error was not noticing the nonsensical values I was getting out of the gadget. I would learn to pay attention and if the GPS was not making any sense to stop and reevaluate. My suspicion is that some of the tracks exceeded some internal limit. This error caused me a lot of pain as I would end up doing 467 miles that day … and run out of gas. See below.
2. Parts Kept Falling Off
I had prepared for major problems like flat tires. I had not expected so many little things to fall off the bike. Imagine attaching a thin seat to a jackhammer, turn the hammer on, then sit on it for 8 or so hours. That’s what the Eastern portion of the Trans America Trail through the Smokies felt like. At one point, the thumbscrew holding onto my, up to that point largely unused, roll chart fell off causing the paper tape to flap around dramatically in the wind and wrap around my helmet nearly causing a crash. If there had been any witnesses, I suspect they would have found it amusing.
Then the mounting screws for my exhaust heat shield fell off making it so my boot would get toasty.
After that, the mounting screws for the tail light fell off….
Bring zip ties. You can never have too many zip ties on the TAT.
It’s amazing how much time even these superficially small problems can waste. When I do the Trans America Trail again, I will go over the bike and loctite everything I can. While I did carry spare nuts and bolts with me, the error I made was that I just picked up a generic set that happened not to include many of the typical sizes used on the bike.
3. Water Crossing Mishap
By the time I reached Arkansas leg of the Trans America Trail, I had many water crossings under my belt. I am well aware of the dangers of flowing water, at least conceptually, but I had little practical experience with it.
I came across one of those cement culverts that had water flowing over it fast enough that it made me pause. It didn’t look too bad to me but was enough to make me walk it first.
Despite what it looks like in the photo, the water was well under the height of my boots. I stood at the fastest flowing portion and tried to assess whether or not there was too much cross current. I reasoned, as it turns out incorrectly, that the with spokes that the surface area of the wheels and tires was probably less than the side of my boots. I hardly felt any pressure so I guessed it might be ok, but was uncertain.
Then a guy in a side by side rolled up looking at me as if I was nuts for walking it. “The locals here cross this all the time. It’s no big deal.” and he took off across it. I figured since he was there if I got swept off the side, I’d have someone to pull me out. So I went for it only to see him race off.
At about the halfway mark the cross force on the bike was significant and it felt like it was going to get swept out from under me. Unable to keep the bike upright, I had little choice but to aim the bike at an angle and hit the throttle hoping that maybe, just maybe, I could make it to the far side. I jumped off the edge of the culvert into the deep water. The bike cut out immediately as the water level came up to the gas tank and steam rose around me. Before I was even completely stopped I was on the starter motor and to my surprise the bike started and I was able to make it across the 25 or so yards to safety. How it didn’t suck water into the carb I’ll never know.
This could have turned out very badly. I could have lost the bike in the drink or worse. It however, did set me up for some multi-day delays later.
When it comes to moving water, if there is any doubt there isn’t any. To my surprise, walking it provides no insight into what riding it might be like.
4. Offs in Silt and Sand
On the entire Trans America Trail, I fell twice. Both times happened in similar circumstances, namely deep sand and silt. I had very little experience in sand and silt and, given I was alone, was loath to take the recommendation to “gas it out”. Both times, the front wheel got caught and pitched violently to one side and I hit the deck. The second time I went over the handlebars and face planted. Surprisingly in neither case did I or the bike get damaged. It could easily have turned out differently, especially if I had landed on a rattlesnake.
In retrospect, knowing I don’t do sand well, I should have trained more extensively in it. To this day, riding in deep sand is still a large gap in my skills and one I’m going to have to address.
5. The Day the Bike Wouldn’t Start
Prior to the trip, I had done significant work on the bike. I’ve come to appreciate how very small things going wrong, when you don’t know what’s going on, can ruin a trip. Once, during an AMA Shenandoah 500 event, a rider’s Suzuki wouldn’t start. He was convinced it was something in the starter. I looked the bike over and it didn’t take me long to find that his battery ground wire was loose. That saved his trip.
Having some basic understanding of how the machine is put together provides options. One day in the middle of the trip I went to start the bike one morning and it simply would not start. I had heard that the regulators on these bikes often fail and had pondered packing a spare, but did not. I was able to go through the bike and determine that it was getting fuel, spark, and air but unfortunately this required taking a fair bit apart.
All the basics were present. As an experiment, I walked over to a gas station and got some starting fluid. It’s cheating, I know, but with a shot of starting fluid the bike fired up and remained running. This happens from time to time and I still haven’t figured out what’s causing it. But if I had not had the rudimentary understanding that I do, my trip could have easily ended at this point.
6. Broken Exhaust
Remember that water crossing oops from above? Hot metal being shocked by cold water has consequences.
I had been wondering why my boot was getting so hot. Securing a replacement exhaust while in the middle of the country cost me several days.
If I had realized the exhaust was cracked I could have called around ahead of time and gone to a place that had an exhaust in stock. After deep water excursions, it’s a good idea to carefully give the bike a once over, especially the hot bits.
7. Running Out of Gas Outside Springer, NM at 1AM
Remember how my GPS kept trying to kill me? Sometimes small problems compound into bigger problems. On that day when it kept telling me I was close to my destination but wasn’t, I ended up riding some 467 miles before reaching civilization. That was a long day on the Trans America Trail. I have a beast of an Acerbis 6.6 gallon tank. I thought it would give me plenty of range. I had failed to carefully track fuel consumption which, if I had, I would have noticed that my fuel consumption had fallen to less than 36mpg.
So it came to pass that at 1AM on a moonless night in the middle of absolutely nowhere on a largely abandoned road 7 miles outside of Springer, NM I ran out of gas. I tried to push the bike for about a half mile up a long incline, with the intent of trying to push it all the way to Springer, but it proved to be too much.
I was on the verge of pressing the Spot Tracker HELP! Button, when a kind couple rolled up who happened to have a can of gasoline with them. They gave me a gallon and I was able to make it to Springer where I found a gas station.
It’s a good idea to keep careful track of fuel consumption as it can vary dramatically with changes in conditions and elevation.
8. Flats in Colorado
I had anticipated that flat tires would be a problem. What I had not anticipated was having a brand new TKC 80 that I had just had installed that day get sliced open dramatically after just over 100 miles in some desert in Colorado.
But I was prepared, or so I thought. I had brought a compressor, patch kits, and even a tire changing mat so I wouldn’t lose small bits in the dirt. In the middle of a hot day, I proceeded to remove the wheel, break the bead, remove the sliced inner tube and patch it. It has been many years since I’ve done this and, honestly, I should have practiced it before the trip.
But it worked. I pumped it up a bit to check for leaks. It seemed to hold air. I got it back on the rim, inflated the tire, and seated the bead. I waited a while to see if it held and it seemed to. I was concerned about the slice since it exposed the tube a bit, but I thought if I was cautious I might be able to make it to some town.
It lasted 1 mile.
What I should have done is reinforced the area of the slice with several layers of duct tape or something else to shield the tube.
I had a spare front tube and I had been told in an emergency one can use the front tube in place of a rear one. It was sketchy but it held long enough for me to ride 80 some miles to Pueblo Colorado where I was able to get a replacement rear tire after some difficulty the next day.
I now carry a spare front and rear tube with me along with the mat wherever I go. I have since heard there are a number of strategies for handling this situation better than I did.
Carry a compressor. Twisted Throttle sells one small enough to carry on a bike.
9. Terrors of Ophir Pass
While technically nothing went “wrong” per se on Ophir Pass, I include it in this list because riding this pass was the one time I was truly terrified.
Ophir Pass was presented to me as the easiest of the high passes. By the time I reached it, I had traversed quite a few passes and had gotten comfortable riding in the high country.
Ophir Pass is covered in broken green rock. There had been a landslide on the far side downhill slope of the pass. The road was covered with large sharp jagged rocks. Truck traffic going up hill had made the situation more challenging by churning up dust and dirt.
This photo does not do it justice. My bike up at the top is barely visible. The white spec of my helmet can just be made out. Heading down this mess was a serious challenge for me and frankly, at the time, well beyond my skill level. A steep drop off implied that any mistakes would represent my instant demise. I was reminded of some of the YouTube videos I had seen where riders hit rocks wrong and were thrown over the brink. As I descended, I would get good traction rolling over a flat rock only to have the front wheel lock as soon as I hit dust. Because of the aggressive downslope, letting go of the brake so I didn’t fall would then cause me to accelerate, because gravity sucks, at which point I’d hit the next rock and the bike would pitch one way or another. Terrified, I stopped and put both feet down. Involuntarily, I kept looking over the edge at all the broken sharp rocks on that serious descent realizing if I fell over that edge, that would probably be it for me. I was so scared, even knowing better, I was unable to make my locked arms do what I asked of them. I tried proceeding with my feet on the pegs and nearly dropped the bike to the outside edge at which point I, for a split second, pondered what the hell I was doing here alone and thought about giving up motorcycling entirely. For what seemed like an eternity, I slowly duck walked the bike with the engine off over the worst few hundred yards. After that I was able to get under way without incident.
Running lower pressure in my tires would probably have helped. One thing that would have made the duck walking descent significantly easier would have been to think to leave the bike in gear and use the clutch as a kind of rear brake alternative. But I think more than anything, some training over this kind of rocky terrain would have made the biggest improvement. I know it can be done. I saw other riders do it without incident.
10. Trip End In Mud
On a remote mountain in Utah after the first heavy rain in ages in that area, the deep silt on the Trans America Trail turned into a kind of quick setting cement which I found very challenging to ride through. I encountered other riders who had decided it was not passable and had turned around.
At one point, heading up a hill I lost momentum and stopped. When I went to let the clutch lever out, nothing happened. It felt as if the chain had come off the sprocket but I would quickly come to realize that here, on this mountain, in the late afternoon, 12degF forecast for that evening, 7 miles up a muddy inaccessible jeep trail, 30 miles from the nearest town, I had completely fried my clutch.
My trip was over and there were fresh bear tracks near the bike.
To my surprise I did have good cell coverage but none of the emergency services I had signed up for were able to come get me.
I was on my own.
It became clear that I needed to abandon the bike, which is a scenario I had not considered.
I would later be told that the mountain I was on was so remote it’s where the local governments would release all the problem mountain lions and bears that they caught.
I did eventually make it out. The story is too long to tell here but you can read about my escape from the mountain in the blog I wrote about that ride.
In retrospect, I should have had some kind of plan for abandoning the bike. With some high viz orange covering and a sharpie, I could have indicated the bike had been abandoned and pointed to the direction that I had taken so that if rescuers found the bike first they would know which direction I had taken. Thinking about it now, I could have used the tire change mat I carried with me…
In any motorcycle trip (especially the Trans America Trail), there is always this competing balance between preparing and going. How much do you practice especially when going into the vast unknown? What kind of mishaps do you prepare for?
At some point, you just have to go, make the mistakes, and learn from them.