BIG DOG DAYS OF SUMMER
3 FLAGS RIDE
By: Steve Cantrill
A summer Sunday at the dining room table found me looking at the western sky, with puffy clouds giving artistic texture to the endless blue. Just three days from now, over Labor Day weekend, I’d be meeting up with Chet to embark on the Labor Day weekend ride from Mexico to Canada. This was the 44th edition by the Southern California Motorcycle Association and I’ve heard about it forever, but I didn’t really yearn to take on a ride with 250 of my “closest friends”. A buddy said once: “think of motorcycling as NOT a team sport”.
And now as I write this, it is December, looking at my pile of maps and notes and trying to put together a story that few, if any people will read—but I wanted to get it all down while I could remember it. I had intended to edit it for a magazine, search for different and/or funny things to say and compress it all into 3 pages or less. However, I see that one of the riders on the event is the executive editor of Rider Magazine and a damned fine rider and writer as well. So—how can I top her?
While long vacation trips with 500+ mile days used to be routine for me, this routine has seen the miles each day getting shorter, but on the 3 Flags ride, I was getting ready to do 4 long ones in a row. I have been thinking seriously for months about how this butt and these shoulders are going to do it. If only I could look forward and know what we would see at the closing ceremonies, I’d quit grousing about it. Of the 233 riders who registered, the oldest rider was Betty McCloskey who is 93 and the oldest male was Bryan Sowers, who was 89. Both have done the ride many times. The youngest rider was 17 year old Katrina Bulger and she did it on Honda CB500X. So, as they say out west: cowboy up!
Look folks: water skiers don’t slalom at 70 like they did at 15. Even the senior golf pro tour sees folks slowing up a bit. And I shudder at who drives Class A motor homes. At some time it pays to take up ceramics and painting maybe—and give up welding and the table saw. I’ve never been a big adrenaline junkie but the call of the wild, the open road and the goading of some other riders in my circle of friends beckoned and said: “why not”. So now since April, I’ve been making lists that include a passport, maps, pills and clothes that get you from 118 degree desert weather to who-knows-what.
This ride takes a bit of early planning. Do you have a current passport? Not only will you need that, but you can also get a permit for an expedited border crossing—kind of like the airport boarding Pre-Pass. There is a fee for this but it’s worth it. However—that takes weeks, so by the time you leave on the trip, it’s too late. Before our kickstands are up, our rides are vision and imagination. Planning goes with it though. I teamed up with Chet and we had a hotel reservation made 6 months in advance for the first 6 days. That and the rally registration fee is quite a bit more commitment than saying: “we’ll just ride down the road and stop when we feel like it.” There was a mandatory starting point on this thing, 4 checkpoint stops and the finish. This kind of structure was something else that kept me from doing this before. As bikers—we often don’t like the structure—we like the freedom to go, stop and see what we want, when we want and at whatever pace we want.
However there are the similarities to our other rides: the constant input of sights, smells and riding that bike like it’s part of you. The Three Flags ride has to start in Mexico—duh? So when you sign up for it, no matter where you live or come from, you’ve got to make it to the registration and kick-off banquet and start with everyone else. For California and Arizona riders, it’s not a big deal. For everyone else it’s a bigger deal.
I was familiar with the first part: over to Prescott, past the Bradshaw Mountains, down Yarnell Hill and on to old U.S.60. And of course, I’ve been in every state of the lower 48. This ride beckons—as it should—to show me new open roads, new sights and stuff I’ve never done, which is what travel is all about. All vacations and trips have the excitement of discovery. The anticipation is a lot of the whole idea, whether it’s a 40 mile ride or a 4,000 mile ride. And the transition from the dining room, to the packing list, to the seat of the bike is always a once in a lifetime journey. Just make sure you’ve got good rubber, you’re all gassed up and you’ve had a fresh maintenance. Still, thinking that over 200 riders are going to get from here to Canada without any problems is fantasy. I am totally baffled that I’ve ridden for over 50 years, often alone, with just a few problems no more serious than a flat. [and yes, I think flats are serious]—and never worried much about it. Now I have too much reality in my diary, to blow it all off as an easy scoot. We’ve got the route all laid out to get to the banquet at the end of the ride in Vernon, Canada. Chet and I are not really familiar with Mexico, so we went down a day early to Yuma—which turned out to be totally unnecessary. That put 346 miles onto the front of the trip. As far as the entire trip goes, we had no specific plan for getting back. That’s the most intriguing part to me. The folks in San Luis Rio Colorado, Sonora were all gracious hosts.
They were genuinely happy to have the tourist money coming in and bent over backwards to make us feel welcome. San Luis is a border town, much like all of them with lots of shops on old streets and a population that crosses north to Yuma every morning for work in the U.S. It turned out that our skepticism about the safety for us and our bikes was unwarranted, although the year 2019 would find a big spike in gang and drug related murders in Mexico. It was hard to separate the news media chaff from reality. Our opening banquet at the Hotel Araiza was first class by any stretch of the definition—as well as the hotel itself. And the sign-in tables staffed by SCMA volunteers was organized to the max. We gathered our “passport” and bag of swag.
The first day was the most brutal as far as weather goes. The planners had set up a special event lane just for us to get through the U.S. checkpoint and it would be open at 3:00 A.M. in the morning. The six of us in our Arizona group, thought we were getting a leg up on things and headed for it at 3:30AM. We were wrong. The line for everyone including citizens, to get across the border was blocks long and inching forward slowly in the dark with temps already above 85° and we were in full dress motorcycle regalia. However, the town mayor sent out a squad of his police cars to come alongside and wave us to the front of the line to the special event gate. It still took over an hour to put the front wheel in Yuma. Chet and I and the other 4 Arizona guys got separated in the dark, immediately riding out of Yuma. There is a convenient by-pass that goes east and then north to I-8 and then to U.S.95, but I was unable to re-connect in any way until that evening. This is a good lesson in planning. Each person had better have their own set of maps and/or GPS and a plan on how to meet up. I was o.k. with it but was riding alone the whole day.
It’s a long trip. You can plan and talk about it all you want, but it is very easy to put yourself in a situation where people are waiting around to hook up and their pals might very well be on down the road. So: who’s waiting for who and how long? Who’s ahead and who’s behind? Did they stop to call you on the cell phone? How long are you or they going to stand on the side of the road and wait? The 3 Flags planners had us going up U.S.89A through Prescott and on routes that we take all the time and on which we just rode coming south to Mexico. And it would have made a 500+ mile day over 100 miles longer. We knew then that the extra 2 hours would be two hours of blast furnace time. Our group made a decision to just go straight and fast. The ride was not as pretty, but we knew there would be plenty of pretty stuff on the rest of the ride. We went through Quartzite, Parker and Las Vegas. It was 118° when I stopped for lunch and gas in North Las Vegas around noon. I managed to find a spot of shade when I parked the bike at a Denny’s. I had time in the air conditioning to check my phone and confirmed that it would be almost impossible to join up with the rest of the guys unless I waited around for an hour. And on the way there was a long construction delay on I-!5. Luckily I had stopped for water and a break at the Littlefield exit before the construction and the clerk was a biker. He told me about it and how to get around it and end up in St. George, Utah north of the delay. It wasn’t any shorter or quicker, but it was a nice little loop.
I got into the first check point, Cedar City, Utah about 4PM. The checkpoint was right across the street from the Best Western hotel under a shady ramada, right downtown in a park. Water, snacks and hospitality awaited us, while a volunteer stamped our 3 Flags passport. Day 1 riding was done with 580 miles on the dial. Our group of 6 all finally hooked up and walked to a nice restaurant for a relaxing meal. Chet missed out on the “nice” part somehow and had horrible diarrhea for the next 4 days. It was very bad. I honestly don’t know how he continued the trip. We would be in Vernon, Canada before he got that straightened out.
On Day 2 we mostly followed the suggested 3 Flags route heading northwest out of Cedar City about 7AM, for the Great Basin country of Nevada, with 50° temps, zero traffic, ranches, endless pastures of alfalfa hay and the sun to our back. Incredibly long 6 mile vistas led is across mountain ranges and valleys as we headed to Ely, Nevada. I’ve done this a few times, but it is always as stunning as the time before. We even caught a little piece of the loneliest highway—U.S.50. Ever northbound we now crossed I-80 and continued north out of Elko. On this 2nd day of our trek, there was now only one east-west interstate north of us. The end of our 2nd day would take us way down in elevation to the Snake River Valley and Mountain Home, Idaho. It warmed up quite a bit by that time into the 90s. And along about 5PM saw us gather with the throng at the Best Western Town & Country, with 583 miles on the clock. The day’s mileage we kind of “rounded off at 500 miles” in our pre-planning all turned out to be more like 600.
Not to worry about the heat—kickstands up at 7AM in Mountain Home saw us riding up into elevation and eastbound on U.S.20 into a laser morning sun with temps dropping to the high 30s. Pretty nippy for September 1st!!! By the way: “Mountain Home” is quite misleading. Right there on the Snake River there IS NO MOUNTAIN. So if you were thinking of planning a bucolic vacation getaway, on a mountain-top, in a cutesy little cabin with a whiff of smoke rising out of the chimney, ala artist Thomas Kinkade—this is not it.
A rider more energetic than our troupe, got an early start in the dark. We passed what was left of his bike and the deer he hit with an entourage loading up a totaled Gold Wing onto a trailer. We heard he was o.k. We didn’t see anyone loading up the deer. It’s hard to scoop mush into a bucket. We turned north and rode up the east side of the Sawtooth National Forest and on to U.S.93 north past Salmon, Idaho and along the Salmon River. I had not been on this road for years since I attended the Stanley Stomp rally. By the end of September this area pretty much closes down to motorcycles, unless you love those freezing temps. The air settles down right out of the Salmon-Challis National Forest to chill that fresh game you just shot. Every bit of this day gave us exceptional riding. We took a break at a historical marker noting that mountain men first found beaver here in 1808. You can—or can’t—hardly imagine the rugged beauty they found in this wilderness area.
We were headed through Missoula, Montana for the day’s end in Coeur D’Alene, Idaho. The end of the day was a quick blast westbound on I-90, which was the longest stretch of interstate that we would see on this trip. But that is very scenic stretch, much like I-70 eastbound out of Grand Junction, CO. This was a 589 mile day, once again closer to the 600 mile mark. I have a stock seat on my “BIG DOG” BMW R1200RS and all things considered—I think I was dealing with it pretty well, thank you. The cruise control was a blessing for my old wrist. I was thinking of riding my 2004 R1150RS on this trip and for that one reason alone—I was glad I brought Big Dog.
When you look at the daily routes so far, you’d have to say that there was a good mix of curves, scenery, fun and then mixed in some stretches where you can make some good fast time. Very few of the miles had any traffic worth noting. We were in the best of the west. You have to conclude that the Three Flags guys from the SCMA, are all veteran riders who like the same things we do.
Our 4th day would be all new stuff for most of us, headed north on U.S.95, across the causeway over Lake Ponderay, past Bonners Ferry and on to Creston, Canada. It was a day of spectacular weather and scenery. Growing alfalfa hay is also a major thing in these parts and I was wondering just exactly what the population of horses and cattle is in North America. Good Lord they were baling mountains of it. And just in case you thought that the logging and lumber industries were dead: I also have to conclude that the spotted owl habitat is not everywhere. Or if they have any of them here—they just don’t care. [Does the Sierra Club exist in Canada?] Our group took this day as an opportunity extend the ride and see all new things. There were shorter routes to the end checkpoint at Vernon, Canada but we looped around a couple lakes. And I don’t mean that you “just drive around the lake”. Up one side is about 60 miles one way. The topography seems different in the Canadian Rockies.
The mountains seem steeper, the valleys deeper and more vertical. We rode Canada 3A towards Kootenay Bay and the road rose up and down above the lake. On one downhill it was so steep that there were four  truck runaway ramps. I know I’ve been on roads with 2 before, but this was the longest downhill I can remember. And speed limits are deceiving in Canada. Of course, everything is in kilometers per hour, so 100 KPH is about 60 MPH . That’s not a problem. We weren’t trying in any way to set speed records. We were just enjoying the ride and made up our minds to chill out. But if a curve is posted at 40KPH—that’s a pretty slow curve. You need to be going 40% slower than a 40MPH curve. I spent the rest of the day adjusting my perception of what my speed should be and frequently found myself going too fast. The entire time riding in Canada would require some extra thinking—although I was told that the authorities are “not big” on enforcement. The maximum I saw any posted speed limit was 100KPH and there were almost no stretches that were posted that fast.
And this part of Canada has this thing called “water” that we don’t see much of in Arizona. This was also so different from where I grew up in Illinois and from where I spent 15 years in Ohio. The agriculture is phenomenal: orchards, vineyards, and alfalfa are endless. The lakes are enormous. The economy is booming. People are prosperous. It was a beautiful place to visit in early September. And our hotel at the final checkpoint was pretty grand as well. The Prestige Lodge in Vernon was every bit up to the task of handling the 3 Flags crowd. The rooms surrounded an open atrium with a live stream running through it and dining all around. The September 2nd Labor Day banquet filled a huge ball room. In addition to the great food, everyone seemed to have enjoyed the ride and were relaxed and jovial about the ride and experiences from these four days. And to a person—they all seemed to think that it was over too soon. These had been four days of breathtaking scenery and great riding. We got so lucky with the weather—except for that first blast furnace day. And now everyone could look forward to many more days for the ride home. Some had come from Canada to start the ride in Mexico—so for them, the new stuff was kind of over.
Chet’s gut had finally given him some kind of reprieve. Four of our crew were headed for the Pacific Coast. I’d done that a bunch of times, so we opted out. I think they found a weather pattern of ocean fog. Our ride southbound from Vernon continued past endless agriculture. And I forgot that the grand Columbia River starts in Canada, so my North American geography education was refreshed. Chet and I spent the first night out of Canada in Yakima, Washington, which I learned grows most of the hops that are produced in America. All along we said we would probably do this only once. Then we found out at the closing banquet that quite a few riders had done it over 30 times—including the oldest rider. So here I sit on December 4th just drumming my fingers and pecking the keyboard. Next I’m going to pick the pictures to go with this story.
Two days ago I emailed Chet to tell him to ponder that the 2020 ride goes from Mexicali to Vancouver. He said it was something to ponder. My bike will still be under warranty.