I thought it best to make a trip back east for this story and the ones to follow. Putting down 3,000 quick and dirty miles on the way back to my roots sounded a lot more worthwhile than just flying in to ride for only a few days before flying back out. I wanted to ride thousands of miles traversing this country – one that contains so many different landscapes and cultures all bubbling over in a big ol’ melting pot of freedom. Also, I needed the forced introspection.
Six years ago, I set out on a similar 5,800-mile journey. In many ways that trip was comparable, at the same time it was very different. Different situations and different times. I had just been let go from my job after confessing to my boss that I wasn’t happy in my current role and had hoped to move departments. I was a bit surprised when they cut me loose not long after, but hey, it gave me time for a nice long road trip and a chance to try to figure out what I was going to do with my life.
During that trip I spent more than a few nights wondering what the hell I was doing riding across the country during such an uncertain time. I didn’t know how quickly I’d find a job, and I didn’t have a whole lot of money in my bank account. I felt selfish and thankful at the same time, totally conflicted about one of the most epic rides of my life. The other day I found my situation at the time described in John Burn’s latest book review when discussing solo adventurers, “… more common is the lone introvert struggling with internal demons.”
Cold, happy, and unemployed.
Flash forward six years, setting out on this trip, the country was in the process of waking up after an 18-month pandemic fever dream. Around the world, folks were going from being scared of the outside world to wanting nothing more than to be out in it. My situation’s different too these days. I’m a little more employed, and rather than just riding to work, riding is work, and I’m always looking to stay busy.
The idea came into fruition during an email exchange with Aerostich founder, Andy Goldfine. We were discussing Aerostich products for review. Andy was going to set me up with the company’s staple product, the latest Roadcrafter R3. If I was going to have the chance to test a custom-fitted Aerostich R3, a suit that was made by hand in the good ol’ U.S. of A and dreamt up not too far from my home state, it felt a lot more sincere to spend the time traveling to the facility in Duluth, MN to be fully immersed in the company’s culture and atmosphere. And, of course, to meet the man who started it all, in person. I needed to lock down a bike.
2021 Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 Special Review – First Ride
The Harley-Davidson Pan America press introduction hadn’t taken place too long prior, and the machine was fresh in my mind. It’s often unrealistic for us to put thousands of miles on press bikes during testing with the internet’s insatiable hunger for content. We simply don’t have the time or bandwidth. So, when an opportunity comes around to do just that, we’re all for it. Afterall, at the end of the day, we’re just lucky motorcycle enthusiasts over here.
With the Brass’s approval, and Harley’s media folk confirming just days before the trip was set to kick off, all was a go. After wrapping three days of testing and shooting our Middleweight Naked Bike Shootout, I picked up a Pan America 1250 Special kitted out with aluminum panniers and a top case. Over the weekend I’d pack the bike, on Monday we would shoot the fourth and final day of our comparison, and I’d hit the road Tuesday morning before the sun came up.
Having three days to cover 2200 miles meant blue highways were going to be hard to come by. Thousands of miles of droning freeway simply wouldn’t cut it though. I decided day one and three would be for covering ground while day two would be more of a mix including a couple of national parks and scenic byways.
Loading the SW Motech-made H-D branded luggage, I had to pack strategically. Not because of the lack of space, but because I would be wearing an Aerostich R3 on my return trip and would need room to stow the REV’IT! Sand 4 jacket and pants that I’d be using on my way to Duluth. Given that I had 120 liters of storage between the top case and panniers, space was a non-issue. Even still, I packed only the essentials, leaving the camping kit at home after considering the idea of camping after riding 14 hours in what was likely to be sweltering heat during most of the trip.
I packed a tool roll in the panniers, but was able to tuck the small Aerostich compressor that had saved my haunches so many times before under the passenger seat. As for the top case, I preferred to leave it empty so I’d be able to stow my helmet and gloves safely when spending time off of the bike. Again, thanks to the voluminous 38 liters of storage it provided, it swallowed my medium AGV Sportmodular voraciously.
I used the Rokform universal mount and Rugged phone case during most of my ride so I had easy access to my phone. The Pan America includes a USB-C port to the right of the TFT display that I used to keep my phone charged throughout the day. Even during the moist parts of the journey, water never seemed to collect around the power inlet.
Tuesday morning was here before I knew it – and nearly before I was ready for it. I set off early to limit my time squeezing the widened (luggaged) Pan America between groggy commuters. The miles and states ticked by over the hours. As you might imagine, a 700-mile day on the interstate isn’t terribly exciting. One of the most memorable parts of day one was sitting in stop-and-go traffic entering the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona. A stunning stretch of I-15, but, when it’s 112 degrees and your right boot is inches from the catalytic converter on a 1252cc V-Twin, it’s hard to focus on anything other than wondering if the rubber sole of your boot is actually melting or not. I swear it feels squishier than normal.
Eventually, I made it out of the gorge and up to South Salt Lake. Situated on a nine-acre farm in a small community sprinkled between industrial complexes, I had booked a night’s stay in a 1947 John Deere sheep herder trailer tucked between a ranch house and horse stables. Chickens wandering aimlessly pecking at the ground while the goats chewed their cud in the corner. A couple of Great Pyrenese came to relax next to the trailer as I peeled my gear off in the golden late daylight.
Home, sweet home.
I got to chatting with a ranch hand who had originally come out to SLC for the lucrative tile work the temples provided but, thanks to COVID, he’d lost his job and found solitude (and pay) here on the ranch. We chatted about big-bore KTM dirt bikes, the 37-year old horse keeping me company in the stable, and dog diets. Man, I really missed talking to strangers.
During the COVID-induced weirdness of the past year or so, I felt relatively unaffected. Work continued as usual, even ramping up as we felt it was MO’s obligation to keep home-bound enthusiasts entertained with our exploits. We were still shooting comparisons and reviews as it’s relatively easy to stay distanced while riding motorcycles. I had worked from home for four years, and it was a bonus to have my wife around more often as she transitioned to a work-from-home set up. My situation hadn’t changed much, but the bit that had was a net positive. Even though I hadn’t noticed much of a difference, I was beginning to realize I may have been missing more than I thought.
Work doesn’t wait. Thankfully the house’s wifi extended to the chambers.
I woke up to the sunlight peeking through the cloudy window of the old caravan. Packing quietly so as to not disturb the animals, I was quickly on my way north toward Beartooth Highway by way of Yellowstone.
Brooks are gonna babble.
In Idaho, I skirted alongside Tincup creek during a particularly pleasant stretch of highway. Just cutting through the southwest corner of the state made me want to come back as soon as possible. If it was this nice during the small stretch I had sampled, some proper exploring was necessary.
Not long later, about the time I was sitting in traffic roasting in Jackson, WY, I realized I might have made a routing mistake. Would you believe it, I wasn’t the only person longing for adventure and a view of the Grand Tetons in June? Traffic began in the Bridger-Teton National Forest and didn’t let up until I was well east of Mammoth. For 165 miles, I passed countless RV trains and slow moving looky lou’s whenever I could only to slot in behind an infinite slow-moving stream of traffic. I would not recommend passing through Yellowstone during peak season immediately after a worldwide pandemic has begun to lift.
From this angle, you can’t even see the dense traffic 100 feet in the other direction.
During my last trip through this part of the country, it was late October and Beartooth Highway had just closed. Climbing to nearly 11,000 ft, Beartooth pass is the highest of highways in both Wyoming and Montana and requires substantial effort from the National Parks Service on the Yellowstone side and the Montana Department of Transportation on the northern side to keep it passable between Memorial day, (the weekend before I was traveling) and Mid-October.
Thanks to some filming going on near the top of Beartooth Highway, I was able to stop in the middle of the road for a picture.
So far, the Harley-Davidson Pan America 1250 treated me well. The intense heat from the catalytic converter on the Pan America – which I was reminded of every time traffic slowed (and it slowed a lot in Yellowstone) – was my only real complaint. The H-D’s seat (set in the high position) was comfortable enough to burn through a full tank of fuel (between 170-190 miles was usually when I would gas up) with little bend at the knee, but the ergonomic triangle wasn’t perfect. The reach to the handlebar had my upper body leaned forward just enough to be annoying. Using cruise control let me sit upright though, and much of my journey was spent using it. You hardly need hands on the bars anyway, despite the relatively steep 25-degree rake, the 4.3 inches of trail and 62.2-inch wheelbase of the PA kept the ship steering straight and true while I napped during the boring stretches.
I attempted to roll the bars back a bit to help with the reach and position my shoulders were in. While it helped feel less fatiguing on my shoulders, it didn’t make much of a difference with the actual reach to the bars.
Once I’d made it a few miles from Mammoth, and finally had some clear road in front of me, I was able to enjoy Highway 212’s voluptuous curves. The entire stretch of Beartooth Highway between US 89 and Red Lodge, MT is absolutely incredible and definitely a bucket list item (our own E. Brasfield, a man who’s been all over the world on motorcycles, admitted it was on his short list). The road zigs and zags high into the mountains with bottomless canyons all around and epic scenery that is ever-changing thanks to hundreds of thousands of years of glaciation.
Not a bad view.
When the going gets twisty, you can definitely feel the extra load out back. Braking early and generally slowing down is recommended, but the bike will still hustle through corners. On my way down the mountain toward Red Lodge, I took my time, enjoying the scenery, not pushing the pace as I was on point to roll into my night’s accommodations at a reasonable hour. Then all of a sudden I thought to myself, why does my jacket feel loose? I’d left my hydration pack complete with a Spot tracking device and a few odds and ends at the pull-out where the picture above was taken and, to add to the situation, I was running low enough on gas that turning around wasn’t an option before refueling.
I pulled off my Kriega bag, set it next to the bike, and removed my jacket for this picture. Afterward, I donned the jacket and gloves and set off on my way down the mountain.
I blasted into the outskirts of Red Lodge, filled the Pan America, watched a woman’s infant child who’d desperately requested I do so while she ran inside to buy ice, and shot back up the mountain. This time, I wasn’t taking in the sights, I wanted to get back to the gravel pull-out as soon as possible with the hope my bag would still be there. Once I crested the ridge I found a truck with a built-in bed camper parked in the spot where I had left my bag. Walking around the vehicle, there was my pack, fastened around one of the snow level markers so it wouldn’t blow off the ridge. My assumption was that the good samaritan was likely in the back of the truck, but I wasn’t going to bother him. I breathed a sigh of relief and enjoyed my third run down the back side of the mountain, rolling into the Botts’ Family Motel a bit later than expected but still before dark since the sun didn’t set until after 9 pm.
My stay in Joliet, MT wasn’t random. Actually, the motel – and Beartooth highway, of course – was the reason for routing north before cutting over to Duluth, MN. A high school friend of mine’s family had moved out to Montana and purchased the motel five or six years ago. That friend also moved there in the past few years. Since then they’ve tastefully renovated the property and dedicate their time to ensuring guests are comfortable and well-accommodated on this side of Beartooth Highway.
After catching up with the Botts family and tucking into more than my fair share of pizza from Jane Dough’s, I turned in. The next day’s 920-plus miles wouldn’t suffer a late start. Turns out the mileage wouldn’t be the most taxing part of the day, though.
Sure, it was a long day with the cruise control set at 85 mph for much of it, but the hours on end would have been more easily managed had there not been an intense side and/or headwind through the entire state of North Dakota. It was there that I returned the worst fuel economy of the trip: 30.9 mpg. I guess 85 mph into a headwind with a substantial amount of less-than-aerodynamic luggage was a bit taxing for the Revolution Max 1250 motor. In addition to the poor mileage (at best I saw 46.4 mpg, but averaged 40.8 over the course of the trip), I noticed the front cylinder had started to weep oil. Enough oil was seeping from the valve cover that it had actually spattered onto my boot and as far back as the subframe. I kept an eye on the oil level for the duration of my trip – something I had planned to do anyway, given that the bike had less than 800 miles when I picked it up.
After 6,300 miles the Pan America had developed a bit of an oil leak from the front cylinder’s valve cover. The picture above was taken just before returning the machine. Despite beginning to seep oil around the 2,300-mile mark, the Harley-Davidson’s oil level had remained in the operating range for the duration of the trip.
Passing through Fargo and onto US 10 east in Minnesota, traffic slowed, temperatures rose, and the humidity hit an all-time high for the trip. “Yep,” I thought, “I am back in the Midwest.”
The rest of the ride through Minnesota was quite enjoyable. I was finally off of the interstate cruising down highways lined with lush vegetation, lakes, and marshland. My main concern was deer as the shadows grew long later in the day. I maintained a sense of hypervigilance and kept my fingers on the front brake the entire time. Then, while closing in on a white car in the middle of nowhere – not too closely or quickly I might add – the passenger swung his arm out of the right side window quickly and fired two shots from a handgun into the ditch. At what? I do not know. Confused, I passed the car as soon as I was able and put a considerable amount of distance between myself and the trigger-happy co-pilot.
The weather was cool and overcast as I came down the hill into Duluth. The warm humidity I had experienced just miles earlier was now a cool dense mist blanketing the bay. For the next two nights, I was staying just a few miles south in Wisconsin at the Sleepy Hollow Motel near Amnicon Falls State Park. The small roadside motel was shrouded in dense fog when I arrived. With the sun well below the horizon, its neon sign was a beacon through the haze.
I was digging the eerie vibe when the proprietors – a young couple, one from South Africa, the other a Superior native – popped out of the office to greet me. Both were pleasant and welcoming. If there was any way they could make my stay more comfortable, they assured me, they were eager to know. While I walked to my room with the bottles of water they’d given me, they spoke with another guest who’d just rolled up – an elderly couple two-up on a Gold Wing pulling a trailer – inquiring as to how their day in the area had been.
Another reminder of something I didn’t realize I had been missing. The kindness of people you don’t know so far removed from your daily life is inspiring and infectious. The feeling was further drilled home the next day.
Like many others around the world, I’ve been avoiding people for most of the past year. I still saw my friends here and there outside, but only chatted with family online (most of them were 2,000 or more miles away though). I took a stranger danger approach to everyone else as the news had made us all 100-percent certain that interaction with people you don’t know will kill you. In some cases, unfortunately, that was true.
The wall of “totaled” suits in the Aerostich retail area, each with a description of the incident which caused the damage.
I couldn’t wait for my second visit to the Aerostich facility. I’d been there before on the aforementioned trip and bought myself a nice black silk scarf that I still use. I showed up at 8:30 am and asked for “Mr. Goldfine, please,” only for the person running the retail area to reply in an apologetic tone, “Andy usually doesn’t come in this early. Do you have a number to reach him?” During the hustle and bustle – and lack of planning – I’d realized I didn’t ask Mr. Goldfine when he would like to meet and had just shown up on the day. Sheepishly, I thanked her and walked away pulling my phone out pretending to figure out what to do. At that moment, the phone lit up in my hand with a message from Andy asking when I’d like to meet.
Not long after, I donned the custom-tailored R3 – which was surprisingly spot-on in terms of fit with the few measurements I had given – Mr. Goldfine arrived, and we left for brunch. We didn’t have to wait long for a table to open at the considerably busy Duluth Grill, but standing outside, the R3 was the perfect gear to be wearing to stave off the wind and fog from the typical overcast day in Duluth. We had coffee and were just about to dig into our order when Andy mentioned he hadn’t been to the establishment for some time – he’s a bit introverted. He explained that the last time he was there he was sitting in the same booth but in my seat. Across from him sat his future father-in-law. He was there to request permission for his girlfriend’s hand in marriage.
Most everyone had gone home for the day by the time I was walking through the manufacturing area.
Andy and I spent the entire day chatting not only about Aerostich, but also all manner of other subjects. I felt very fortunate and grateful to have been given so much of this man’s time and had the opportunity to walk around the 100-year old candy factory that has served as the company’s headquarters since its inception in 1983. Wrapping the day with a fairly standard interview, I watched Andy’s eyes well up with pride when he discussed the people he works with and how important each of them is to the company’s success. Equally important to him is fostering an environment in which his coworkers can also be proud to be a part.
Our own John Burns wears his ‘Stich on most of our adventure shoots. I can see the appeal, but also, for me, the Gore-Tex of the R3 would be a bit too warm when the trail tightens. Photo by Evans Brassfield.
That day – walking around the old building, meeting the employees, and learning about Andy Goldfine and the business – made the entire trip for me. It was the human interaction of getting to know someone at not just a professional level, but more importantly, at a personal level. Apparently, I hadn’t bothered Andy with my constant questions because he invited me to dinner with his lovely wife, Molly.
Around seven, Andy and Molly picked me up in a 1973 Land Rover, one that had been purchased by Andy new in 1973. We enjoyed a casual dinner at a typical wood-clad northern bar. The establishment didn’t have too many patrons, but the ones it did were loud, nice, and slightly inebriated. More than a few people who came through the door asked about the Land Rover.
Andy Goldfine and the ‘73 Land Rover he bought new (with his wife hiding in the back).
After getting dropped off back at the Sleepy Hollow motel, I bid a fond farewell to my gracious hosts and settled into my gear-strewn room. I felt a level of content that I hadn’t experienced for some time. Thankful for the day and the trip I was on. Look for the full Aerostich story complete with Andy-isms and a full R3 review to come in the near future.
Trying to maintain my road-hugging weight while visiting home.
Over the weekend, I made my way to Chicago and then further south into Illinois, visiting friends and family – some of which I hadn’t seen in more than three years. It was nice to visit, albeit briefly, my hometown. The trip had already begun reminding me how much I do actually miss people.
I don’t miss the bugs.
The return trip to California was much the way it had started; two long days split by one fun day through the mountains, this time, in Colorado.
The stretch from central Illinois to Colorado was a straight line on I-70 almost the entire way – and it was hot and windy. I’m pretty sure it was in triple-digits all the way through Kansas. I made a brief lunch stop in Olathe, KS to visit a friend and meet his new puppy but had to be back on the road to cover the 820-plus miles necessary to enjoy the following day.
Photo by Evans Brassfield.
I wasn’t having any trouble covering this kind of mileage. Between the cruise control, 5.6-gallon tank, and comfortable seat, I never dreaded the long days in the saddle. I used the heated grip here and there in Colorado, but most of my discomfort during the entire trip was centered around the ambient temp.
The luggage I got to use was sturdy and well-built. H-D made a good call teaming up with SW Motech for the aluminum cases. Pulling the cases on/off the bike is super easy and they both lock closed and to the motorcycle. One thing that got tiring during the trip though was the fact that you have to use the key every time you open or close them. There is no leaving them unlocked for easy access when you’re on and off the bike all day. I began to dread fishing the key out every time I wanted to get in and out of the luggage, moreso because the Pan America uses a key fob so, if you could leave them unlocked, you wouldn’t need to pull the key out of your pocket during a day of riding.
My route through Colorado skirted up and down through the Gunnison and San Juan National Forests. It seems like you’d be hard-pressed to choose a bad route through Colorado. Even the detour I took around some unexpected construction ended up being some of the best riding of the day. Chatting with the construction worker at the front of the line of cars about the reroute he assured me, “You’re going to have fun up this road on that thing.” He was right.
It’s hard to decide when and how often to stop when you’re faced with views like this for hours on end.
At one point, while waiting for more construction, a group of 15 or so motorcyclists pulled in behind me. We were heading up into the twistier sections of highway 50 out of a valley. I took off, set the cruise (because I have a habit of speeding) and two of the riders behind me eventually passed. Now I was a part of the group, I guessed. When the going got serpentine, the rest of the group fell back. There were guys on cruisers, adventure bikes, and sport-tourers. I ended up politely passing the two guys in front of me. The gentleman leading was keeping a decent pace but eventually, I stopped seeing him coming out of corners in my mirrors. In another valley 25 or so miles later, stopped for construction yet again, the group trickled in behind me. It was a group of friends on a tour of Colorado from Mexico. Nice fellas, all enjoying their time in the States.
Photo by Evans Brassfield.
I worked my way southwest to Cortez and got an AirBnb for the evening. While I was grabbing another night of dollar menu food, it began to rain, and I was in Levis and the REV’IT! Sand 4 jacket (without the waterproof liner). Turns out the channels that direct air around the Pan America’s engine also direct rain and spray from the front tire directly onto the rider’s knees. Something I hadn’t noticed in the Aerostich R3.
The next morning, I departed early – I was waking up super early for weeks after this trip too – for the final day of the trip. I had 800 miles or so ahead of me to get home to my family. I’ve always loved passing through the Navajo Nation near Monument Valley. If you can pass through in the early morning light or near dusk, the majesty is taken to an entirely different level.
Heading toward Flagstaff, it just kept getting warmer as the miles and hours flew by. Between Williams, AZ and Barstow, CA – nearly five hours of riding – the Pan America’s temperature gauge read between 115 and 119 degrees Fahrenheit. I had shut the vents on my helmet and kept the Gore-Tex R3 zipped to the top. Any exposure to the elements at the point was searing.
I couldn’t believe the relief I felt when I saw 109 on the dash as I neared Cajon Pass. It’s all relative, I suppose.
I rolled into my driveway, tired, sweaty, and content, but admittedly stressed about this monster of a story now looming over my head. I was so full of appreciation for the people I met and reconnected with during my journey that I was still able to bask in it for the remainder of the weekend before jumping right back into the grind Monday morning.
It’s best to be conservative when exploring off-road on a fully loaded adventure bike. Not too far from civilization, and not too difficult terrain.
When I weighed the bike later that day with a full tank of gas, loaded just as it had been on my trip home, the Pan America tipped the scales at a devilish 666 pounds. Each side case weighed exactly 33 pounds (and I hadn’t even tried that hard to keep the weight even) which is exactly eight pounds more than H-D lists as their weight limit. So, the bike with the luggage racks installed (and my Rokform mount) was right at 600 pounds. Not light, and I was reminded during the few off-road excursions that I took. The PA isn’t as confidence-inspiring off-road with a full load, but nothing is.
Ha! Didn’t think you’d get a dyno pull out of this story didjya?!
The adaptive ride height helped my 30-inch inseam feel comfortable on the bike throughout the trip. The heat from the catalytic converter and the seeping oil were the only major issues. I did try to use the app while in Chicago for routing, but it never loaded the map fast enough to be of actual use. Oh, let’s not forget the kickstand. H-D kickstands are always nerve-wracking. Of course, that’s by design, the way they lean a bit further once you put pressure on them which supposedly locks them into place. Well, the Pan America has the same style of kickstand which was stressful to use every single time. The taller seat height (than most H-Ds) makes this particularly challenging if the terrain is even slightly higher on your left side.
We had made it, a road-grimed astronaut and his equally grimed spaceship.
Kickstand whining aside, I was still a little emotional turning the bike back in. It had been a whirlwind of a trip. It felt long and rushed at the same time. The odometer read 6,296 when I dropped it off at Harley’s fleet center. I’d put 5,529 miles on it over the span of two-and-a-half weeks and basically had the same view of the bike as I had when I left. Sure, if I had bought the bike, I’d be looking for answers about the oil leak, and the heat isn’t something I’d be stoked to deal with around town in the summer, but neither one would be a deal-breaker depending on the situation.
If you managed to make it this far, you’ve read almost as many words as miles I covered during this quest. So, the least I can do is offer to answer any questions down in the comments that I didn’t cover in the opus above. Questions about the Harley-Davidson Pan America, Aerostich (stay tuned for that story), or touring in general, let me know. Thanks for reading.
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Source: All Bikes news one