Three mates, three Harleys and 5000 miles of US countryside

Three Harleys, Three Aussies, One American Dream - Canyonlands, Utah

IT took the trio of friends about a year to plan their trip of a lifetime: riding Harley Davidsons some 5000 miles (8000km) throughout the west coast of the USA.

But really, the seed was planted in Stephen Starling’s mind almost half a century earlier.

In the 1960s and 70s, while growing up in the UK, Stephen listened to BBC broadcaster Alistair Cooke’s weekly show – Letter from America.

The respected journalist would talk passionately about the progressive nation and really portrayed it as the land of opportunity.

Some 50 years later, Stephen was still curious.

“In recent years, with things like the Global Financial Crisis and growing racial tensions, I wondered whether it was all still true,” he said.

“Was the US still the place where dreams can come true?”

Stephen, Jim and Peter, Los Angeles, California

So, Stephen and his mates Jim Cheeseman and Peter Melzer – all members of Perth’s Ulysses Club, for motorbike riders over the age of 40 – decided it was now or never if they were going to go.

Jim, a veteran of the metal fabrication industry and keen country and western music enthusiast, was starting to struggle with a sore knee.

Peter, a finance broker and night owl who likes to check out pubs and clubs when he travels, was starting to experience trouble with his eyes.

Stephen, the business management consultant, knew that the group of mates, now all in their mid-60s, had to get their act together.

They decided that hiring Harleys, as opposed to taking their own bikes, or buying them when they landed in the States, was the way to go.

What they didn’t really anticipate was the extreme weather conditions that they would encounter.

“Sometimes it was downright frightening,” Stephen recalled.

“We had a plan to ride down the spine of the Rockies (Denver, Colorado) and ended up being chased by a snowstorm for 10 days.

“It was crazy looking back, riding at 10,000 feet, with visibility of about 20 to 30m on a road without side rails, or crash barriers. It was scary.

“Two weeks later we were in the Mojave Desert, outside Las Vegas, in 40°C. The tarmac was soft and seemed to be moving about.”

The extremes were not confined to the weather.

The accommodation they experienced along the way provided them with some variety also.

The derelict hotel they booked into in Wyoming was like something out of movie based on a Stephen King horror story.

“If you’ve seen Psycho and know of the Bates Motel, it was like that,” Stephen said.

“Here we were staying in a bit of a ghost town, in a wooden shanty.

“That was one extreme. And then there was Las Vegas and Reno, which offer such great deals. We stayed in suites at a Reno casino that had gold taps and very flash fittings.”

The entire trip spanned five weeks, and took place between September and October, 2014.

You can read all about it in Stephen’s book Three Harleys, Three Aussies, One American Dream: A 5000-mile Motorcycle Adventure Around the USA which is available in some bookstores or to download on Amazon Kindle.

They planned their journey around visiting mainly national parks – although they did take some time to enjoy some of the touristy things as well.

They travelled as far east as South Dakota and the 242,756 acres of the Badlands National Park, where the Kevin Costner movie Dances With Wolves was filmed.

The moonscape-like scenery of Badlands has an important place in US history and the group made the special detour to explore it. It is an Indian Reservation and is close to where the Wounded Knee Massacre took place, when (in 1890) nearly 300 Minneconjou Sioux Indians and 30 US Army soldiers were killed in a bloody battle.

Pigtail Bridges, Custer State Park, South Dakota

Detours were common, although they didn’t really have a set itinerary to detour from.

They tried to stay away from what Stephen calls ‘fabricated tourist attractions’ – the things listed in guide books and tourism advertisements that ‘should never be missed’.

Places such as San Francisco’s Fisherman’s Wharf and much of the famous Route 66, fell into that category for them.

But more often, they relied on locals to lead them to places they should visit.

Motorbike enthusiasts would often point the trio in certain directions for the most scenic routes and the Harleys caught the interest of a one percenter motorcycle club in a place called Medicine Hat (located in the desert just over the Canadian border).

Stephen said that after enjoying a few beers with the club’s members, they pulled out their maps and pointed to areas they just had to see.

“They told us to go through Canyon Lands National Park, which is upstream from the Grand Canyon,” he said.

“We ended up racing alongside the Colorado River, on twisty little roads, with red and black rocks either side of us.

Hite Bridge, Canyonlands, Utah

“Then, one local in Denver, once he found out Jim loved country and western music, told us about a place called Grizzly Rose Salon and Dance Emporium.

“It was apparently the place to go.

“We got in to a taxi and started driving out to an industrial area, like Cannington; full of warehouses.

“This place was the size of a Bunnings warehouse; it was like a stock yard, with posts and rail fences.”

But the bar was 50m long and a big crowd gathered for a long and enjoyable night of listening and dancing to country and western music.

It’s those experiences that make Stephen glad they diverted from their initial plan of riding from one coast to the other.

He doesn’t think that the journey would have been anywhere near as enjoyable if they had.

“When we looked at it, it was a long way and the middle did look to be flat and boring,” he said.

“And when Jim had the idea of visiting eight of the most famous national parks, that formed the road we would take.

“So, for anyone going to US, my advice is to pick an area and explore that. It gives you the time and flexibility to experience it properly.”

For the motorbike enthusiasts reading this, the decision to hire the Harley Davidsons ended up being a good one.

Stephen in Monument Valley, Utah

Despite their initial concerns – mainly that they would be stuck with old bikes that would break down and eat into their travel time, no issues eventuated.

“Harley Davidson is a famous brand, but 10 years ago they went through a bad patch in regard to bikes needing maintenance,” Stephen said.

“There was a question about reliability and they got a bit of a bad name.

“But the bikes we had were less than two years old; the latest models. They had features such as keyless ignition and electronic cruise control.

“Three bikes, doing 5000 miles each, they didn’t break down.

“We were reassured and impressed.”