The Iron Butt Rally Pizza Party: Vacation by 2 wheels

Vacation. It’s one of those words that caused me as a kid to tremble a bit. To understand you’d have to have a clue about how I grew up. From around junior high school through high school graduation I lived on a boat with my family in the Pacific Northwest. My lifestyle was basically one long vacation with bouts of school tossed in the middle of the day. Party? I lived where everybody went to party. So, as a family when we went on vacation it was usually an adventure type of vacation.

Consider most years when school let out at the end of the year for Christmas break (or for me a few days earlier) we’d hoist sail, spin up the engine, and head north. In winter. A sailboat is like a little bit of outdoor paradise. And, we were heading north. We’d head from the Seattle area into the great northern zone of Canada to spend Christmas wherever we’d find snow. Lots of snow. Standing at the wheel of a sailboat with 20 knots of wind coming across the deck with freezing salt water (think about that for a second) hitting you in the face and coating the decks. It builds character. I was 13. That’s how I spent almost every Christmas vacation growing up. So as an adult my vacations aren’t like a lot of other peoples.

For Sydney, she hasn’t had a vacation in 9 years. Sure, we’ve gone places. Yes we’ve spent time on lakes, or traveled around the country. While I drove she graded her students work on her laptop. We chose hotels and destinations based on reviews of the quality of the bandwidth. She did seminars (lectures) on line with her students at all hours of the day with the bottle of Corona just out of webcam view. For my kids and I, we did sort of vacations. Sydney got to do a work as you vacation. Until this year Sydney and I were both academics. Now, I’m the last academic standing in the family. Her new job though comes with an added bonus. Vacation time. So we just took one.

Sydney and I are long distance adventure motorcyclists. She and I have ridden all over the United States. In 2005 I entered a PhD program and slowly things in our life got shelved. Since Sydney was in the program with me it wasn’t much of a surprise as these things got shelved. Our rally and ride schedule slowly got compressed. The demands on our time rapidly escalated. Where in the summer of 2005 I put on nearly 10K miles in the summer of 2006 I put on nearly no miles. I continued to commute by bike and ride to some interesting places for an activity called “ride to eat” but generally I started falling out of the rally and organized ride scene.

2013 Iron Butt Pizza Party

I was starting to consult to government and had made an agreement that I would serve one year of government service. This would necessitate me taking a leave of absence from Purdue. Where Purdue had nudged me saying get a PhD and the government had paid for it (through NSA/DHS) I was left with a quandary. As my time approached for needing to leave for gov service I was offered an interesting job at NSA called a Global Network Exploit Vulnerability Analyst (GNEVA). The pay was less than I was making as a low paid academic (I only work 9 months and make about a third what I did in industry).  The job was “contingent” and “non-negotiable” and I queried the NSA contractors handling the hiring. No guarantees, and no negotiating. I turned it down. But, I was on the hook. I owed a year.

The conversation with some of the government sponsors went something like this. You can come work for us as a civilian or we’ll recall you as corporal in the Marine Corps. Either way you will pay us back the year. Likely a simple joke. Likely. A friend at another DoD organization saw that I was frustrated with the process. He suggested I come work with him. In 2010 in preparations for a move to Washington DC I sold my last motorcycle and started negotiating in earnest. I talked to my bosses at Purdue Calumet but they had the quizzical academic glaze and mostly ignored me. No, I wasn’t kidding. One way or another I’m heading out for at a minimum of a year. In a classic “what evs” they weren’t so sure. In July of 2010 I blew out my ACL, in August I had reconstructive surgery and in August the leadership at Purdue Calumet blew me off. I was pissed. My friend in Washington DC saw this and put my resume forward. In December they made a firm offer.  The start date was March 2011.

I’d sold my bikes, sports car, house and all the extra crap and moved to DC. This wasn’t instantaneous. I spent 17 months and a few days (call it 2 years with all the other stuff going on) in Washington DC. At the end of August 2012 I returned to Purdue West Lafayette (the main campus). I still go back to Washingto DC nearly monthly. Why I left Washington DC and the National Defense University is pretty much documented. You’d have to be totally out of the media loop to not see what is going on now in federal government. The one thing I didn’t get between 2005 and two weeks ago was much in the way of vacation. When you start out in federal government you only get 2 weeks, and the IRMC schedule precluded using much of it.

There was also the pressure to NOT engage in anything risky. My OPM investigator for my clearance asked me numerous times about my motorcycling. I thought he was worried I was some criminal of some type. I then realized after being counseled on my tie, earring, the cut of my suit, how I wore my beard, and so much more that it was about “fitting in”. They use words like risk and rules to force conformity. I talked to a few of the motorcyclists on my base. They were either military (not subject to the Title 10 civilian process) or regular federal employees (also not subject to the Title 10 process). Whether it was real, made up by others, or cultural the fact remained. Riding a motorcycle while working at NDU was a no-go.

The end result is pretty basic. I got to serve my country in a way that had direct and lasting effects on national security. I traveled to dozens of countries over a two year period. My ENTIRE PhD was paid for or forgiven cost wise. I made new friends all over the world. I had experiences that can only be said to be amazing. I met with, briefed, talked with, had breakfast with many national leaders. One morning I had an unplanned breakfast with three other faculty and three of the former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. While It cost me motorcycling for a few years but it was worth it. I’m not sure whether I miss John, Jim,  Dennis or Roxie most at NDU. The guy that recruited me to NDU? He left right before I got there.

When I got to Purdue in the fall of last year I started out by buying one motorcycle then another. My chosen and preferred mode of transportation. It is completely without any kind of socially responsible or likely arguable support. I’ve owned cars that get better miles per gallon and cost less to operate. When it rains you get wet. When it snows you’re cold. I love it. Then again I formed my ideas of vacation in the bitter cold winter winds of the northern Pacific.

Elizabeth Town Kentucky

Elizabeth Town Kentucky has a Wendy’s Restarant where I lost my Leatherman tool. Sydney found a new occasion to remind me of the horrors of taking her picture right after she took a bite. What you can’t see is her kicking me under the table right after I snapped this picture. (click to make larger, each click gets me kicked)

After a short run in the morning, last week (Tuesday) I got on my BMW K1600GTL and headed towards the south. With Sydney on the back of the bike, my teenage twins watching over my parents (yep you read that right we left the responsible ones in charge) and a full tank of gas we left West Laffyville for Daytona Florida. It was snowing. We kept going. They call this vacation.

Around 500 miles of sub 30 degree weather we pulled into Chattanooga Tennessee at the Chattanoogan Hotel. It’s a nice upper class type hotel. Great food, and awesome service. I was doing my best to replicate the BMW european advertisements. You’ve seen the achingly beautiful couple on the BMW going through gorgeous scenery on a pristine clean BMW in Europe to restaurants with no waiting in gorgeous locations? The bone wracking shivering and terrible feeling of missing my kids aside. I scored the deal. Grabbing my honey close we had a great adult dinner (that’s sans kids if you know what I mean) and the ride was awesome. It didn’t snow all the way to Tennessee. It was just cold. The bike wasn’t dirty but it sure wasn’t clean.

Fine dinging in the Chattanoogan Restaurant

A long ride broken up by a great night dining out in a gourmet lounge. There was Sydney I guess there was food too.

The next day after a tasty breakfast we loaded up the bike and headed south. Another day and another nearly 500 miles. It was already much warmer as we headed south. Atlanta which I will come to dread was folded under and tossed aside quickly. Still coolish we had only one goal. Get to Jacksonville so we could go for a run. We’ve run everyday this year (trying for a streak) and the deal was to get there early enough to get the run in. While admiring the speed limit from afar we transited Georgia and the upper portion of Florida. As you cross the bridge into Jacksonville proper you pass the Jacksonville Naval Air Station. The bridge rises up and you get this gorgeous view of the bay. That is what welcomed us into Jacksonville proper.

Getting a few miles run and done we headed off to find dinner. Failing miserably we ended up eating bar food while in a meeting. I’ve been pestering Lisa Landry for years off and on. She emailed me awhile back and said I needed to get myself into the noob rally they were running in Jacksonville. “I’m not a noob, and I ran rallies in the past” I said. Since it was nearly a decade since we last did one (actually only 9 years in 2004) Sydney and I were branded rally virgins. My waggly creepy eyebrows rising at having a virginal mother of four and entirely inappropriate string of adult jokes were cut short when my wife said, “She said RALLY virgin. Nothing else.” I could have had fun with this for days!

The Iron Butt Association isn't really a club

The Iron Butt Association isn’t really a club (click to make larger)

These rallies work like this. They’re a puzzle. You’re given a certain amount of time to accomplish them. Sometimes 24 hours, and sometimes 11 days. In this particular rally we would get 6 hours. The shorter the time frame the more important the planning. What you have to do in that short time frame is put together a route of bonus locations. They really aren’t “bonuses” but they are locations. You go to a location and find a particular object and take a picture of it. Then you go to the next location and take a picture of it. You document your mileage, your time, and keep on going. Just to make things interesting the bonus locations each have points for getting them. And, you have to be back at the start location (or check point) by a particular time. You can’t speed enough to make up for a poor choice. You have to create a route that works from the start.

I start by plotting all of the bonus points. I use 8 categories of points and size the bubble accordingly in a Microsoft tool called Map Point. The tool allows me to visualize the location and weight mentally a possible route. I know that in six hours based on various averages I can travel a particular distance.


6 hours @ 45 miles per hour = 270 miles

6 hours @ 50 miles per hour = 300 miles

6 hours @ 55 miles per hour = 330 miles


I then take half the distance (out and back in this case) and put in a fudge factor. I drew a circle 100 miles out and reevaluated by possible listing of bonuses. Sure at higher average speeds I could likely make those bonuses that are at the 150 to 165 mile mark. I then factored in traffic and road conditions. There was a large forest fire near Lake George Florida. A route, though I will basically admit, I don’t claim the best route emerged.

MapPoint depiction of the Jacksonville 6 Hour Rally.

MapPoint depiction of the Jacksonville 6 Hour Rally. Each bonus point is a sized bubble (8 categorical sizes) and the circle is drawn at the 100 mile location from rally headquarters. (click on image to make it larger)

We used the routing tools of BaseCamp by Garmin to tie together a route figuring for every stop we’d need five to ten minutes off the bike. This further drives down the average speed. So even though for half the mileage ridden we’d be at over 70 miles per hour speed limit we’d be returning in 35 mph and 55 mph speed limits. Getting stopped by a police officer for 30 minutes would choke our ride. When it came to the actual ride we wrote down the bonus codes (BLU, PIT, FTM, MER, BON, TUR) and then rode them backwards. When we finished our ride was almost 45 mph average (we finished around 25 minutes early with around 221 miles ridden.

Bonus Picture at the Turnbull Ruins

Bonus Picture at the Turnbull Ruins

Every ride is a collection of requirements, objectives, goals, and compromises. Our ride was set up so Sydney could watch the sun rise over the Atlantic Ocean. Sure I gave up some miles, but I got to see and hear my wife thoroughly enjoy the event. It’s as much about the ride as it is about the efficiency. You have to ride your own ride to get that biggest bonus of all called fun. As to the other bonuses there is a plan.

Bonus Picture at the Ruins of Bongoland

Bonus Picture at the Ruins of Bongoland

The way you collect a bonus is you ride up to the location. You’re given some piece or fact and a specific item to take a picture of with your rally flag (pennant, towel, card) in the picture. Since we were riding two-up the driver was required to get off the bike and have his face in the picture too. This in my case is hard on cameras but was accomplished quickly.

Bonus picture Merci Box Car

Bonus picture Merci Box Car

Sitting back at rally headquarters we were looking at the bonus list and the bonus score sheet. You have an hour from the close of the window (end of the rally) until scoring has to be done. That is time to coordinate and get your stuff in order. We carefully went over every picture and item to make sure we were being accurate. Sydney and I talked about whether to add the log to the bonus listing. Since it was not in the rules but on the bonus sheets themselves we decided to add it. We figured it wouldn’t count but better safe than sorry. When the first person was scored we were very glad we had added it. Some might say such harping on paper work or skills and strategies in routing aren’t’ necessary. That’s a fine opinion but credibility of the ride is important too. The credibility is found in the documentation task.  I enjoy the mental puzzle of time distance calculations just as much as some of the other investigative strategies I work around. Afterwards we went for a warm sunshine filled afternoon run. What a glorious run too.

Bonus picture Fort Matanzas National Monument

Bonus picture Fort Matanzas National Monument

On Friday Sydney and I took the day off from riding and enjoyed a great run in the morning and camaraderie of many friends we hadn’t seen in a long time. Having spent so much time on other things it was great to be back riding with friends and seeing people. The Iron Butt Pizza Party where they don’t serve pizza was fun. Seeing people who you know dimly remembered you but weren’t sure how can be entertaining. Others though gave warm embraces and whole hearted glad to see you back welcomes. It was interesting to see how my absences was perceived. To some I hadn’t been around since my last visit to Gerlach in 2003, but I had ridden rallies since then and attended the Iron Butt meet in Omaha of 2005. To others the last time they remember seeing me was 2004 when we did an Indiana Motorcycle Touring Forum rally. Still others 2007 when we attended a ride to eat in Michigan.

To me it was an absence of motorcycling from 2010 to October 2012. Not so long but to long by far. Realizing my riding solo across the nation or not engaging in long distance riding events or certificate rides had been at least partially noticed. I can say that my bosses at the National Defense University would have been quite peeved had they even caught wind of such shenanigans.

Gathered with adults who understand and acknowledge the risks of riding and celebrate the life of having lived fully is wonderful. As a subscriber to various adventure type social media portals I have a tendency to just lurk and perilously post rarely. I like to be involved in few things. But, I do set them aside. Vacation is a time to let the fun come out and play. Friday night I got to sit with some great people and listen to some interesting stories.

The story of this ride though wouldn’t end in Jacksonville that was the fun part. The adventure really began on the ride home. Leaving Jacksonville Saturday morning in the warm Florida sunshine was a treasure. Getting up early, Sydney and I went for a longer run and really just soaked up the morning warm air. More humid and warmer than any run since last summer in Indiana. The run was through pines along the sidewalks of Jacksonville. I’m fat, ugly, and slow.. but, I enjoyed the run. Getting back we showered and cleaned up quickly. Packing the bike we headed north to Chattanooga for another night in the Chattanoogan hotel.

We watched the weather close in. The temperature on Sunday morning dropped but when we left Chattanooga was still nearly 60 degrees. We would cross into Kentucky and see the temperature drop to 50 then 40 degrees. When we entered Louisville heading north on Interstate 65 the snow dumped in wet sticky flakes as big as your palm. Within minutes the Interstate was being covered in gullies of water and slush. My almost “wish they were waterproof boots” filled first. The slush rising up my pants legs and freezing to my legs. Visibility dropped quickly as spray from trucks mixed with a freezing snow on my visor. I’ve ridden my GS Adventure in this kind of weather before, but this was a first on my K1600 GTL.

As we headed north the snow got worse. Looking at the weather radar we knew if we could just get  100 miles further north we’d be safe. This was not to be. We were truly screwed. Within ten minutes snow on the Interstate was over 4 inches deep. Wet mushy, slushy, icky snow. The bike was cutting down to pavement but it would be only a matter of time until it was ice the tires found and not road surface. We crossed into Indiana listening to truckers discuss the cars sliding off and how horrible the conditions had gotten so quickly. One trucker on the CB radio quipped that no matter how bad he felt about the road conditions at least he wasn’t the couple on the motorcycle. Another trucker announced, “It’s simply pandemonium out there!” When you’re getting sympathy from truckers you’ve accomplished something.

Using as much skill as possible and pulling the strings of fate, prayer, and promising various deities favors we creeped up an off ramp and into a local Kentucky Fried Chicken parking lot. We found two couples on Harley’s that were hiding out waiting for a friend with a truck and trailer to pick them up. We didn’t have that option. Grabbing a sandwich and some coffee we sat down to wait. Watched the weather radar and hoped. Next door was a Days Inn. Would our ride continue or would we call it a day?

Chatting with the other couples, they went out and looked at the ice covered BMW. They couldn’t believe we had made it there. The roads were horrible. Shivering I couldn’t even take a picture of the bike. My gloves normally waterproof had filled from the inside when the seal against my Aerostich wasn’t perfect. Then they just got wetter and colder. My boots filled with water, but as I walked they squeezed the water out. Next up I go shopping for new gloves and boots.

Stories are only good if they have happy endings. Vacations though aren’t always about sunshine and great friends. Sometimes to get home things have to be endured. There is no mark of fatalism or fear just something to be done. Looking at snowy roads rapidly clearing to just wet gulches filled with slippery slush is not easy. Weather radar does lie and sometimes it is better to just bail on a failed attempt. Sunday was not a day to bail out and quit. To the stunned Harley riders’ amazement after the snow turned to rain Sydney and I suited up and climbed back aboard the bike. Leaving the side stand down, down, so as to catch the bike if my feet slipped I pushed out backwards from the iced in parking place. Getting to a clear patch I fired up the bike for the final push home.

Dragging the plastic of the bikes front fairing through snow ridges and slush pools we worked our way out to a slowly moving, but primarily just wet Interstate. An hour after the road was covered it was now mainly clear. Pushing up to a slow speed of traffic congested by police efforts to clear spin outs, slide offs, and general wrecks we worked our way slowly north. We encountered more rain. It was a lot of fun.

Getting out of the rain and snow bands around Indianapolis the temperature steadily got warmer and finally we even saw a little bit of the sun peeking out. For the first time of the day I went to put down my sun visor (internal on Schuberth helmets) only to find it slimed by rain and slush. I still don’t know when that happened but figure lesson learned. Heading further north we bagged the 70 miles between Indianapolis and West Laffyville quickly with no incident to arrive at home another 500 miles under our tires. The bike is dirty, covered in salt stains, and well loved by both Sydney and I. What a great ride.

I’ve often worried about how people balance the work and lifestyle of having fun and getting out and about. In Jacksonville I talked again with John Ryan who the book titled “The man who would stop at nothing” was written about. I’d talked to him in the past but like many he didn’t remember me. Not being remembered is kind of a special trait. Everybody remembers my wife though. That’s likely due to the difference between fat, bald, old man, and cute, blond, young woman. John Ryan gave me a lot to think about. He finds something special out on the road between the places that are named. He has ridden all over the continent, but he seemed lonely. I don’t know why. He also seemed peaceful, and I would really likely to know why. I reflected on that for quite awhile.

John Ryan and I share a few traits. He doesn’t do rallies. He does do certification rides. I’d pretty much left the rally scene as I said earlier, but I wasn’t doing rides for certifications just riding.

The certification rides are distance or point to point rides that have some goal. Something like riding from Key West Florida to Prudhoe Bay Alaska in 30 days. It’s just a few hundred miles a day to accomplish the 5800 miles. Some people go up and come back down. Some people visit the four furthest corners of the United States. The are reasons to ride not necessarily rides for a reason.

Those kinds of rides are fun, but for my wife and I if I want to share my love of motorcycling I need to find something that is more than the solitude of droning down the Interstate. That shoveling up a wheel barrow of miles and dumping it all in one day is my balm for calm. Hers is solving puzzles. This is a win win for us. I like solving puzzles too. So, I think we’ll do some more of these together. Her love of riding is increasing and we bought the K1600GTL for us. We’re maturing into an ability to carve out the time and the enjoyment is definitely there.

When you roll into the driveway after a long ride the dog goes nuts, the kids are wild, the bike makes the most wonderful ticking sounds, and there is this feeling that washes over you. That feeling of “I’m home.” As great as it is to be out and about I do like that feeling of coming home.

A great room at the inn

A great room at the inn. Relaxing and getting ready to ride. This is the time honored traditional adventure rider salute.


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