Alex Baldridge’s trilogy of his trip to MotoGP Austin concludes with an Iron Butt ride back home! Did you catch Part 2?
Guest Ride Report – The Austin Pilgrimage, Part 3 – The Hard Way Home
Story and Photos by Alex Baldridge
There’s a theme other than motorcycles that developed over the five days from leaving Nashville up to the Handbuilt Show Wrap-up Party, and it can be summarized in the first thing I uttered to myself the following morning: “Boy, am I tired…”
This was followed by: “Am I stupid for riding 1000 miles in a day? Probably.” I had the wherewithal to pack up the Velomacchi and panniers the night before, so after a quick pep talk, I donned my gear and headed to load up the bike.
Before I go further, I have to say I truly did not plan on an Iron Butt ride home when I decided to ride to Austin. I just hadn’t planned my way home, and after arriving in Austin and realizing I wanted to stay as long as possible I just figured, what the heck. People do this all the time, right? My wife tried her best to talk me out of it. The guy I rode down with didn’t try to talk me out of it, he just gave me one of those looks. That look became familiar to me as everyone I met and told about my plan responded the same way. Usually something like this was uttered: “Good for you; it’s not for me,” or “You’re crazy to do it on that bike,” and often “Keep me posted on how it goes, I’m curious and good luck!” Not a single person I’d spoke to the night before had done an Iron Butt challenge.
I didn’t see what the big deal was. In my mind, it was simple. I like riding motorcycles. I really like riding my motorcycle. I don’t mind traveling over great distances, and in fact I enjoy it more on two wheels. Before hitting the hay, I Googled what I needed to do for the challenge, which you can read here, and quickly realized I needed to plan a different route. The quickest way from Austin to Nashville is less than 900 miles, so I came up with a route that added another 150.
So, as required, I filled up my tank at 4:04 am with a witness, saved the receipt, and set off. You may remember that we were getting some very un-Texas like weather and temperatures while in Austin. Well that continued into Monday morning: it was 46 degrees when I left the gas station and headed north on I-35 in my highly breathable REV’IT Mantis jacket and no thermals. I made it an hour before I had to pull over.
As I sat at a McDonalds sipping McCoffee at a McTable and contemplating my choices, I was seriously considering calling off the challenge. Go as far as 500 miles and stop for the night and pick it up at a leisurely pace the next day. No shame in that, right? It’s almost 5:30 am at this point, and the cashier who took my order comes to talk to me about my bike. He’s inquisitive and asks all about it, and seeing the luggage, where I’ve been. As I talk, I find myself automatically bringing up the challenge, so when he returns to his work I know I have to continue mine. I wait until one more McCoffee and a McGriddle later (also known as 6:30 am) before hitting the road again.
It had not warmed up much, may have been 50 degrees at that point, but I kept telling myself that it would only get warmer from there. I had noticed that it wasn’t any more or less comfortable at 90 mph than it was at 70 mph, and if I was going to be cold regardless, I wanted to eat up some miles. I set my pace at 90 mph, looking for radar targets to tail. In Texas, this is not a problem.
I hit my first fuel stop at Hillsboro, TX, a little south of Dallas. It was starting to warm, which was good, but I had only knocked out about 150 miles, and I was having a lot of doubts about whether I could complete this. With the temperature and overall fatigue from the last five days, I was mentally and physically feeling drained. As I fueled, a father/son duo at the next pump who were hauling some bikes asked if I had come from Austin. They had spent the weekend at the track and were destined for home, somewhere in Ohio. It is strange how reinvigorating friendly conversation can be; I set off, again determined.
After crossing over Lake Ray Hubbard on I-35, the rest of Texas went by in a blur. I had another fuel stop just southwest of Greenville, TX and then made it to Texarkana without another stop. Both the bike and I were thirsty, and I was hungry too. I snapped one of my few photos of the day (1000 miles in 24 hours doesn’t lend itself to much site seeing, or prolonged stops), updated some folks on my progress, and then it was kickstand up again.
I felt like I really hit my stride, so to speak, in Arkansas. At this point during the day it was significantly warmer, the weather was cooperating, and the mental fatigue I was experiencing early on (and thought wouldn’t go away) was gone. Just east of Little Rock, I hooked up with my old friend I-40.
In my mind I think this is the home stretch; this is a trick that I-40 plays on many. No matter where you think you are on I-40, you’re almost certainly further away than that. I was about halfway at this point, but a great thing about I-40 is that it’s riddled with speedsters. From Little Rock to Memphis I feel like I’m flying. I ride along with a Harley rider on a Dyna doing triple digits until he pulls off for gas, and at those speeds my next fuel stop rapidly approached. Spend about 15 minutes resting my mind and my keister, answer some questions about the bike and my travels from strangers, and clean my lid.
Before hopping back on I-40 though, I have to double check my route. To hit 1000 miles I can’t just head straight through Nashville out to my house on the east side of town. There are a number of options to take the long way around, and I decide I’ll commit to one once I get closer to Nashville. I make a quick stop in Memphis to say hi to Elvis, and then keep it pegged with a Beemer looking to qualify on pole.
Familiar Tennessee names are blurring by but the temperature is starting to drop again; I need a jolt so I call my wife. She’s from the area as well, so I pick her brain on alternate routes and she suggests hopping off I-40 onto highway 50. This is a lovely road that reminds me of the Trace (fitting), it’s also known as the Minnie Pearl Memorial Parkway, and it will take me to Columbia, TN for what will be my last needed fuel stop.
My riding buddy on the way to Austin is still making his way home; he took the same way down in reverse. Being wiser, he is waiting for the temps to rise before setting out, so it appears we’re going to be getting into town about the same time. We make plans for celebratory scotch at his house. I like scotch a lot, and with that to look forward to the last 150 miles needed don’t seem so challenging.
Well, the last 150 miles were by far the most taxing. The sun was setting when I fueled in Columbia, and the temperature quickly fell to 50 degrees as I headed north on I-65, then east on I-840. As I hopped back on I-40 up an exit to Lebanon, TN my legs started to shake, and my teeth were chattering. I had maybe 60 miles at this point (to hit 1000), but my calculations, or some misread in the GPS location, showed I was less than 40 miles from home. I was frustrated.
My wife calls to check in as I’m heading west on highway 70, she can hear the cold through the phone and makes me stop for coffee for my own safety. It was the right call. I re-watched my Instagram highlight from this challenge, and though I had very few miles to go, I can hear the emotional and mental strain in my voice. Coffee helps, so I ring up my riding buddy and tell him I’m taking the long way to his house to pour a scotch.
I headed back to I-40, exiting at highway 155 and taking side streets to his house. It was about as long as I could last at that point. His face and scotch were welcoming, and as I’m now aware, needed. We caught up, shared a dram, discussed future adventures and then I was back on the bike. I recall this being the first time ever thinking “I don’t want to ride my motorcycle.”
I had 16 of the longest miles ever to go. I had my wife on the phone in my helmet to keep me in it and focused. Behind every Iron Butt Champion, I’m persuaded, is an Iron Butt Cheerleader, and mine is the best. As I hit the exit for our home, I was elated to see the 1000 mark tick over, and a warmth ran through me, the warmth you only get from besting an obstacle you thought would do you in. Adrenaline surged and I practically floated through the last three miles.
As with any tough challenge, you should expect to stumble, to doubt yourself, and to want to give up; I believe this is natural. I went into this thinking it would be far more mentally challenging than physically. Well, it was equal parts of both, and they pull on each other. Had the temperatures been warmer would I have struggled as much? Maybe, maybe not. I think those last 150 miles are hard no matter what, especially on a Ducati Monster without cruise control.
I traveled 1003 miles in 18.5 hours, that’s not something that a lot of people can say. Being a motorcyclist means you’re automatically part of an exclusive club. Completing an Iron Butt just takes it to another level for me. It’s good to push yourself from time to time, and I’d encourage any rider who hasn’t had a test of late, to take this one up. You never know what you’ll discover in yourself. Also, you will be surprised at the people you meet and the conversations you have with total strangers; I’m convinced that random, positive interactions like this feed the soul.