USA Coast to Coast by Harley-Davidson

by Norman Harris

It was Harley-Davidson’s 100th anniversary in August 2003 and Harley had planned a massive four-day party in Milwaukee where the motorcycles are made. 250,000 tickets had been sold, so we were expecting a great time. We weren’t disappointed. Myself and 23 others members of the Rainy City (Manchester) chapter of the Harley Owners Group (HOG) took 15 Harleys and shipped them from Liverpool to Philadelphia for the celebrations. We collected our Harleys on the dockside at Philadelphia on the 23rd August and set off on the 1000 mile ride to Milwaukee. One of the Harleys was a 1918 version, which was being transported on the back of a pick up truck, (it only does 35 mph). We had a problem with one of the newer motorcycles and had to swap them over, the 1918 being ridden. In Lima, Ohio the 1918 stopped and refused to go, despite all our attempts. The group was then aware of two police cars with lights flashing arriving. Apparently someone had heard the 1918 backfiring as we tried to start it and reported hearing gun fire in the area! We got out of there quickly!

Milwaukee was spectacular, there were hundreds of people on the bridges over the interstate with banners welcoming all the Harleys and their riders ‘home’. Can you imagine up to 250,000 Harleys lined up on every street, open space and road? Harley-Davidson had taken over Summerfest, a large open space on the shores of Lake Michigan for the event with live bands playing all day, stunt shows and all sorts of side shows. The main event was on Sunday with the Doobie Brothers and some other acts, which I confess I’d never heard of, and the star of the show was Elton John. This was, unfortunately, a disappointment to a lot of the ‘rockers’ there as this signalled a mass exodus as they were hoping for the Rolling Stones or ZZ Top. Never mind, better luck next time.

My friends then set off around the top of Lake Michigan to wend their way back to Philadelphia leaving me to set out on my adventure.

I set off south on my own to fulfil a long held ambition to ride my Road King across the USA and, of course, back again! Unfortunately, I didn’t get off to a good start as I rode through both Chicago and St Louis in heavy rain. Beyond there I was in a T-shirt in glorious weather riding long sections of the famous ‘Route 66’ through Illinois and Missouri. I rode on to Wichita, Kansas (astonishingly flat countryside) to see a friend from Flight Test, Dave Sherrington, who lives out there now. After a few pleasant days with Dave I moved on to Roswell, the site of the ‘alien’ landing in 1947. This has always fascinated me and it was great to actually visit the ‘crash’ site. The alien I bought at Roswell then travelled across the USA waving to passers-by fixed to the back of my Harley! My planned route out of Roswell was thwarted by the weather, as Durango where I had planned to go, was under a foot of water. However, the weather wasn’t finished with me as my diversion included riding for 2 and ˝ hours in heavy rain with lightning and hail and no petrol station or town for 111 miles! The distances between places in the USA cannot be underestimated. The weather then improved and I did get to ride to the spectacular Meteor Crater and through the Painted Desert, both of which go on the ‘must see again’ list.

I spent two nights in Las Vegas, which I love, riding up and down the Strip several times at night just soaking up the atmosphere. I also rode the highest roller coaster in the world. This one runs around the top of the Stratosphere, which at 1140ft high is, by far, the tallest building in Las Vegas. Try a roller coaster with an 1100ft drop on one side for excitement! 

I had always planned to ride through Death Valley, so I got up very early and was in the Valley for 9.00am. ignoring the rather surreal ‘road flooded’ signs. In a desert? By this time it was already 105 deg. The ride across Death Valley was one of the highlights of the trip. The sense of isolation is incredible. You have to put those thoughts of ‘what would happen now if the Harley broke down?’ to the back of you mind and just enjoy it. 

I crossed into the Yosemite National Park via the Tioga Pass at 9800ft. Yosemite was as beautiful as ever and seeing it from a Harley was even better.

San Francisco, the end of the first leg of my trip, was a nightmare. I got there on the day of the Cycle Grand Prix and every road I knew was blocked off by the SFPD. It took me many frustrating hours to get to my hotel! The plan was to get a photo of me with the Harley overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge. Just as I got there the famous San Francisco bay mist rolled in and I virtually threw my camera at a passer-by to grab a photo.

The ride out of San Francisco was through some of the most spectacular scenery I have ever seen. I crossed something like 17 passes, typically at 7500ft, in two days. Ebbett’s Pass is just amazing with spectacular views around every bend. These passes lead into the ‘loneliest highway in the world’, which I rode for about 600 miles.

This has some incredibly long, straight sections (as do a lot of US highways) where you can see 10 miles ahead, 10 miles behind and there are NO vehicles at all! I reckon I saw about 50 vehicles in 500 miles and eight of them were other Harleys. This is exactly what the Road King was designed to do though, cover long distances, soaking up the thump, thump of American concrete in comfort. It certainly did.

I woke up in Rawlins, Wyoming, to find the Harley covered in an inch of snow! After discussing the situation with some other riders we decided to wait it out and let the sun and trucks do their work and clear the roads. It’s funny riding along a level road for hundreds of miles to realise that you are riding at 8000ft, (about twice as high as anywhere in the UK) so its not surprising its cold! The names of Cheyenne and Laramie brought thoughts of cowboys but their outskirts look like every other American town with a concrete strip lined with hotels and fast food joints. A disappointment I must admit.

The ride across Wyoming, Nebraska and Iowa is, how can I put it? Boring. Its so flat, with little to hold the interest. I saw one gas station with a sign saying, ‘Answers to questions: its 8,000ft, the nearest towns are 40 and 54 miles away, it always blows like this and, yes, we like it’. Sort of summed up a way of life.

I came back through Indianapolis, crossing my outbound route at a place called Normal, which somehow seemed appropriate.

At the time of writing, the Harley is somewhere in mid Atlantic on a container ship.  After 8,915 trouble-free miles, I figured it deserved a well-earned rest. 


October 2003