Last winter, we received word that Team Strange was going to put on a fourth Butt Lite rally. The Butt Lite is just as it sounds, a “lite” version of the famed Iron Butt Rally. Instead of the IBR’s 11 day, 11,000 mile format, the BL is a 7-day, 7000 mile format. After clearing it with my wife and work (in that order), I sent in my application.
For many of us in the distance riding community, this is as close to the IBR as we’ll ever get, since the IBR has a complex drawing system to get in and only 75 or so get in from over 1000 applications. There were 75 spots in the BL, and it was a first-come, first-serve, basis, so by getting my payment in early, I was guaranteed a spot.
I spent the next several months getting the bike ready, including a new auxiliary fuel tank, and the usual maintenance needed for the bike. I did a warm-up ride in July, doing a 1000 mile, 18 hour loop of Wisconsin. I was ready, or as ready as I was going to be. On a lot of my distance rides, I’ve ridden with my friends and neighbors, Ron and Carrie Hanson. The three of us had designated ourselves “Team Newbie” several years ago, and decided to use it again, seeing as this would the first multi-day rally for all of us, and we agreed to ride together.
Team Strange didn’t release any of the route information in advance, except to announce the start as being in Niobrara, NE, home of legendary distance rider Arlene Liska, and the site of many Team Strange events. We left home the Sunday before the rally, which was to begin on Tuesday. After a quick stop at Zanz in Mankato for Chilitos to kiss up to the rallymasters, we arrived in Niobrara. There were a lot of pre-rally meetings and formalities, including photos, legal matters to attend to, tech inspection, and the pre-rally banquet.
At the banquet, they handed out one of the rally bonus sheets, including the location of the first checkpoint – Tombstone, AZ. We were required to check in at Tombstone on Thursday night, where a hotel room paid for from our rally fee would be waiting. The first sheet included large bonuses in Gerlach, NV, a location in the Black Rock desert well-known to distance riders, and Boise, ID, as well as stops in Winslow, AZ (from the Eagles song “Take it Easy) and the Grand Canyon. We plotted a preliminary route and went to bed.
The next morning, we woke to a pouring rainstorm – did they plan this? We arrived at the Two Rivers Saloon in Niobrara for the final meeting before the rally start. At that point they handed out three more bonus sheets. After looking over the new sheets, and plotting routes, we realized that the best route was the one from the night before – Gerlach, NV. I was kind of disappointed, because one bonus on one of the new route sheets was aimed towards me personally. Eddie James, one of the rallymasters knew I was a big Beach Boys fan, as is he, and one of the bonuses was the drive-in in Hawthorne, CA, where Brian Wilson was inspired to write “Fun Fun Fun.” I’d have loved to go there, but we felt the LA route would be a time-eater, so Gerlach it was.
We left as the rain was subsiding, and headed to the first bonus, which involved getting a stamp on our route sheet from Team Strange staffer Keith Collins at a park in Springview, NE. Our friend Paul Sundet had also decided to ride with us, making it a four-some. The next stop was a lighthouse near Scotts Bluff, NE. I’m not sure why there’s a lighthouse there, but we took our photos and went on our way.
Initially, we’d thought that Boise would be too far out of the way, but on the road, we started plotting the possibility of going there – all that was needed was a gas receipt from Boise. We decided to go for it, and turned north when we got to the Utah border with Wyoming. After our fuel stop in Twin Falls, ID, the wind picked up, which resulted in an odd, and at first, scary, occurrence. If you’ve never experienced hundreds of tumbleweeds rolling across the freeway, late at night, while riding a motorcycle, it’s an unreal experience. All of us agreed that it wasn’t unlike a video game, trying to dodge them at freeway speeds. We quickly realized that tumbleweeds don’t actually weigh much, so hitting one wasn’t a hazard. One then lodged itself on my crash bar, and rode with me all the way to Tombstone, AZ. I kept it in my tank bag as good luck, and still have part of it.
We rolled into Boise late that night, got our fuel receipt for the bonus, and then got a motel room for our rest bonus. Nothing too interesting or fancy, we set our alarms for about 4 hours sleep, and off we went the next morning.
Day two was my favorite day of the entire trip. After leaving Boise, we headed for SE Oregon on the way to Winnemucca, NV. This part of Oregon was beautiful, riding in the high desert in the early morning. The only drawback was the speed limit was 55! Why so slow in an empty rural area? We didn’t push it, as I’d read before that this stretch of road was notorious for speed traps. I can see why – compared to the surrounding states with their 65, 70, and 75 mph speed limits, 55 was a snail’s pace.
Soon we crossed into Nevada with it’s faster speeds, but then we hit construction north of Winnemucca. Traffic was stopped by a woman with a sign, as they were painting the road, and only one lane was open. It was a 20 minute delay, so we took that time to call home and check in. Oddly enough, in rural northern Nevada, we all had excellent cell service, unlike Niobrara, where you have to climb a hill and stand on your head to get a signal. After the delay, we headed for the freeway, where we stopped for gas. Gas stations in Nevada, or at least the ones we hit, were a time killer on an LD ride. All gas in NV is pre-pay, and pay at the pump isn’t as common as it is everywhere else. We stopped at a large truck stop, only to be delayed while everyone dropped credit cards at the desk to get them to turn on the pumps. What a convoluted system.
After that, we headed north to Gerlach (no way we were going to take the overland Jungo Rd, which has taken down some of the best distance riders). Gerlach is a remote small town in the Black Rock Desert, legendary for being a stop on almost every Iron Butt Rally, and the home of the IBA riders memorial, which honors fallen distance riders. The bonus was Bruno’s Country Club, a bar, casino, motel, and store, and just about the only business in town. We encountered at least a dozen other BL riders coming in, going out, or at Gerlach. It was clear that a lot of people took the same route we did.
After a short break, we headed south again, and took off through the deserts of Northern NV on our way to Williams, AZ near the Grand Canyon, by way of Las Vegas and Hoover Dam. This was a beautiful ride through a very empty area of the US. We passed a massive US Army arms storage area (which looked like something out of the X files), and were stuck in yet another 20 minute construction stop near Tonopah. After a stop for gas and eye drops (my eyes were burning from the dry heat) in Beatty, passing two legal brothels (one of which was for sale!) we headed for Vegas. The temp was still close to 100 degrees at 9:30 at night. I’d driven in Vegas about 5-10 years ago, but it’s just exploded since then.
Traffic was insane and the construction was confusing as could be. We took a wrong turn and had to get off a block from the Strip. If you’ve ever heard the Chris Rock bit where he says “Dr. King was a great man, but if you ever find yourself in a strange city on Martin Luther King Blvd….RUN – they always put it in a bad part of town, you’ll think it funny that when I looked up at the intersection, the sign said “ML King Blvd.” It didn’t look too bad, but the heat was miserable. We made it back to the freeway, and headed for Hoover Dam.
Since 9-11, I guess they’ve had to station security checkpoints on the dam, and I wonder how long they’re going to even allow people to drive across it. The officer did question my fuel cell, but it was no big deal (my guess is that he’d seen a number of them already), and we passed quickly. We stopped quickly for gas in Kingman, and headed for Williams. It had dropped to 55 degrees at this point, and I was COLD. I wanted nothing more than to get to the motel and sleep. That would have been too easy.
When we arrived in Williams, the police were at the motel. Six cars worth. The place had been robbed about ten minutes before, so we couldn’t check in. Who robs a motel – nobody pays cash for motels, at least not at major chains. Seemed stupid to us, but good thing that the construction stopped us, or we might have arrived at the wrong time. After a short delay to take fingerprints from the desk, they let us in. Only two more stops before Tombstone, making this an easy day.
We got up early, but then Carrie’s bike wouldn’t start. Not good. They told Paul and I to go ahead, so we headed for the Grand Canyon. I’d never seen it, so I was looking forward to going. We went up and took the required photo, as well as a few more, and then went to Winslow to take a picture of the statue “standing on the corner.” We ran into John Coons there, as well as a nasty gas station that didn’t have a working bathroom. Ron and Carrie showed up, but couldn’t talk because they couldn’t shut off Carrie’s bike.
We debated on how to get to Tombstone, and decided take the freeway from Flagstaff to Phoenix to Tucson to Tombstone, thinking it was the quickest way. A quick rain cooled us off in the mountains, but then it got HOT. About 110 degrees HOT. In heavy urban traffic. Uggh – who wants to live here? At least we could skate through in the HOV lane. We stopped earlier than needed for gas, just to cool off – the heat was unbearable. After one last bonus at a monument outside Tombstone, which resulted in a lot of riders dumping bikes in the sand, we checked in at the first checkpoint, over an hour before the checkpoint closed at 6 pm Pacific time. (Arizona doesn’t observe Daylight Saving Time).
After checking in, eating, and sitting through a monsoon rain, we received the route sheets for leg two. The destination…Atlanta, GA. Wow! To make matters worse, is that to get to Atlanta, you lose three hours in time zone changes. Yikes. We retired to our rooms to plan leg two. There were two route options. Both of them had a large bonus in Phoenix that opened at 9 am the next day, but Phoenix was several hours west. The bonus was cool – you got to get your bike pinstriped by a noted artist, Ed Kafka. It seemed to us though that going in the opposite direction in morning rush hour would be a time-eater though. The best thing to do would have been to leave immediately that night, sleep in Phoenix, and wake up close to the bonus location. The notion of leaving a paid for room in Tombstone was too much for us – we stayed and left early the next morning, heading east.
The ride through southern Arizona into New Mexico (what do you mean Marge, there’s a NEW Mexico?) was nice. I’d never been in New Mexico, and it was a lot greener than I’d thought. We headed for Alamogordo to buy some pistachios for a big bonus (more on this later), but were delayed AGAIN on the road. This time for a missile launch test on White Sands missile range. We ran into some other BL riders there, as well as a local motorcyclist whom we talked to for a while. The launch was delayed however, and they let us through. Too bad – for all that waiting, we could have at least seen a launch!
After getting the pistachios, we headed for a little town called Yeso, which is in the middle of nowhere, to get a photo of the post office. In a bit of a trick, the first thing you see in this ghost town is a run down building that says YESO POST OFFICE. We weren’t fooled, and across the street is the new post office building. Nobody appeared to live in the town, so I doubt they get much mail.
After Yeso, we headed north to Cadillac Ranch, near Amarillo. This was cool for me, as I’m a huge Route 66 buff, and Cadillac Ranch is an old 66 icon that I’d always wanted to see. We hit some nasty wind and rain near the Texas-NM border, but it passed and we hit Cadillac Ranch just before sunset. I think we were the only people not to bring a can of spray paint out there to graffiti the cars. On a side note (as if this isn’t long-winded enough), just past the Cadillac Ranch is another Route 66 icon, the Big Texan steak house. This is the place that serves the 72 oz. Steak, and if you eat the whole thing, and the sides, it’s free, and you get a t-shirt. If you don’t, you have to pay $80 or so. I’ve always wanted to try it (hey rallymasters, make THIS a bonus!) but not this time.
The rest of the ride through Amarillo and Wichita Falls was uneventful, and we pulled into Dallas that night for another few hours of sleep. The long days were taking their toll on me at this point.
We left Dallas early and headed for Jasper to take a picture of a small chapel. This part of the ride was difficult, as it was all stoplights, two-lane and it was getting extremely hot. We were losing time, and we needed to make Atlanta by 4 am the next day. At this point we also realized we mis-timed a bonus at Hot Coffee, MS that had a time limit. This was a big point total, and we wanted to make it. The GPS had us arriving over 30 minutes late and that’s a lot of time to make up.
We hit the Louisiana border, and we had made up some time, but it wasn’t to be. On one of the worst paved roads any of us had ever seen, with basketball-sized potholes and reverse potholes, Carrie hit a bump and lost a saddlebag. I was riding behind her, and watched it bounce into the ditch like a football. To make things worse, it was in a makeshift construction zone, so when I pulled over to what looked like a hard packed shoulder, my bike fell over into the sandy mush. I was pissed at this point. Paul and a passing motorist helped me pick up the bike, which had a bent crash bar (those things have saved my butt so many times…). It was hot and miserable, and we were all really irritable. We decided not to go for the Hot Coffee bonus.
Even worse, when we stopped for gas next, we found out that Chevron had cut off our pay at the pump privileges. It seems that after three transactions a day, their bank makes you go inside due to fraud concerns. Now we had to avoid Chevron stations too. Things were not going well. The heat and humidity were unbelievable – at least out west, 100+ degrees was dry – this was like being in a steam room. You know it’s bad when you drink 9 quarts of water, two bottles of Gatorade and a Diet Coke, and you don’t have to pee all day. (I’m not kidding either).
Our next bonus was near Natchez, MS, where we had to photograph a restaurant in the shape of Aunt Jemima. (it didn’t look that much like her), and we ran into Peter Behm, another BL rider, there. I think my bike boiled over a bit there when I had to make a quick U-turn, but all seemed okay. After that, we had lost a lot of time on two-lane roads and with the bag/bike dropping incident we had to decide whether we wanted to pick up more points, or make it to Atlanta and get a few hours sleep before check-in closed at 6 am.
After much discussion, we decided to get the sleep, so we’d be more fresh to plan in the morning when other riders might be more tired. We picked up one final bonus, about a mile from the checkpoint, and went to the hotel. We checked into the hotel and got up about 4 am, to head over to the checkpoint. The second leg really took its toll on me and I was very mentally fried when we got to the BMW dealership to check in.
Most of the riders were in at that point, many of them sleeping on the floor of the dealership. We had to buy a t-shirt at the dealership to get another bonus, which was fine, and they had a nice spread of food for us as well. Did I mention that I was mentally fried? For the first time in a Team Strange event, I lost points at the scoring table, and it was a big one. After almost losing ALL my points for the leg, because I couldn’t find my route sheet at the scoring table – you have to turn in EVERYTHING they give you when you get scored, otherwise you get no points. (it was in my box with everything else, sitting right in front of me when I sat at the table, so I did have it), I then left my pistachios from Alamogordo back on the floor. While I didn’t lose all my points, I did lose 1377 points for not turning in the pistachios. D’oh! That was a big hit, both scoring-wise and mentally for me.
Soon after, a couple of fellow Concours riders came up to me to chat about my bike. The Connie has a pretty dedicated following, though there aren’t as many of them doing serious endurance riding anymore, as new bikes like the FJR have passed it by. I chatted for a while, but I apologize if I seemed rude or disinterested. Days of little sleep and food don’t give one a cheery disposition. One of the guys made the comment that the bike seemed to be missing on one cylinder. I’d noticed it had been starting a bit rough, but I didn’t think much of it. This is what is known as “foreshadowing.”
After scoring was complete, Ron, Carrie and Paul were in 20th place, and I was in 28th. A lot of ground to be made up. We received the final route sheet back to Niobrara and went back to the hotel to plan. I had checked the day before the mileage from Atlanta to Niobrara. The distance via the shortest route according to the GPS, was about 1550 miles. It seemed to me, that the best route planning would look at that route, and then figure out how to zig-zag on and off the route to pick up the maximum amount of points in the shortest time. It would allow the most bail-outs in case of problems, and leave time at the end if there were bonuses near to, or past the finish checkpoint. In other words, run an efficient route – something we didn’t do on leg 2.
I plotted that route on the map, while Ron, Carrie and Paul entered the points into the computer. The direct route I’d thought of in my head ended up being the one we chose. The route, if run perfectly, would net over 10,000 points for leg 3 alone. We packed up and went to pick up a few quick bonuses around Atlanta. A receipt from a Waffle House, a receipt from the Varsity Drive-in, and a picture of Stone Mountain, and we headed north.
We stopped in Nashville to pick up some BBQ sauce at Jacks. It was torture to stop at a BBQ joint and not be able to stop and eat, but we had to keep moving. A quick stop in Scale, KY to record the mile marker in the town for more points, and then to Metropolis, IL for a picture with Superman. (A drunken local was volunteering to hold riders flags for them – Victor Wanchena was only too glad to let her do it). At this point, it was getting dark, and we had one more bonus before hitting St. Louis for the night.The last bonus for the day was in a tiny town called Reno, IL to get a picture of a church sign. On the dark country road out there, we came across a sidecar rig, driven by a guy in a Hi-vis yellow Aerostich suit. It was Bart Bakker, picking up the bonus as well. It’s always cool to see other riders at weird places at weird times.
We got to our hotel just outside St. Louis really late that night, scheduled for four hours sleep. When we woke up the next morning, it was pouring rain. This put me in a really foul mood. To make matters worse, when I went to put on my riding pants, the zipper that runs all the way up the right leg broke, along with any sense of sanity I had remaining. I lost it at that point and threw a fit. I told the others to go on without me, and that I’d see them at the finish. I went back up to the room, called my wife Lisa, and slept for three more hours. When I woke up, the rain had passed, and I was in a much better mood. I still had to duct tape my pants shut as best I could, but I was ready to ride.
I’d been to the first bonus, Chain of Rocks bridge before, as it’s a famous Route 66 landmark. Unfortunately I didn’t read the bonus information correctly, and took the wrong photo at first. Even worse, I was out of Polaroid film, so I had to walk the half mile to the middle of the bridge twice in the 90 degree heat. Uggh.
As I was leaving Chain of Rocks, I could tell that my bike seemed to be running differently. It seemed sluggish, but I couldn’t put my finger on it. I went west out of St. Louis toward Columbia, and the bike still seemed to be running rough. I stopped at a Sonic for lunch (I love Sonic, and we don’t have them in Minnesota, and even if it cost me rally points, I was going to eat there.) As I was heading north out of Columbia, I realized I was heading into a storm. It started to pour, and with my duct taped pants leaking all over, I decided it was a good time to stop for gas.
To my surprise, I’d used 9 gallons, but only traveled 240 miles, instead of the usual 320 or so. The bike was running poorly, and it appeared to be that one of the cylinders wasn’t firing (remember that guy in Atlanta and the foreshadowing?) Not wanting to tear into the motor too much on the road, I made the choice to forego any bonuses not specifically on the direct route to Niobrara, and try and limp my bike to the finish. Better to finish with fewer points, than not finish at all by pushing a broken bike too hard on the last day.
There were two bonuses on my route in Iowa so I decided to get them both. The first one was only a few miles off the main road I was on – take a picture of the church in Monterey, IA. Easy enough. Or not. The route I took there involved about four miles of gravel (I hate gravel), but I wasn’t going to completely give up on the rally. I went out and found the church fairly easily. The way out was another story. I tried a different route out, hoping to end up farther north on the main highway. I also made the mistake of blindly following the GPS. The GPS led me to a ten-foot deep rocky ditch. “What the hell” I thought – if John Coons could ride the back roads to Gerlach on his BMW RS, I could take the Connie through the ditch! I did it, albeit slowly, and was feeling really proud of myself, until I looked left to where the GPS wanted to go next. A muddy bog with a sign that said “flooded area ahead.” I decided I’d been lucky enough for one day, and found another way back to the main road.
Realizing I couldn’t make the Buddy Holly memorial in Clear Lake in daylight, I planned my last bonus of the day for Des Moines, where rallymaster Eddie James had us visiting his father’s gravesite. Since his dad never got to take part in a Team Strange event, Eddie had us take the event to him. The cemetery closed at six however and the GPS had me getting there at 6:05. Uh oh. I made good time though, and was able to make the cemetery with ten minutes to spare.
I stopped again for gas and to decide where I wanted to stay that night. I could have made Niobrara by midnight, but it’s a very small town, and I wasn’t sure if there would be anywhere to stay. I thought about Sioux City, but that was 90 miles out from the finish, and I’d rather ride less the next day. I chose to go to Vermillion, SD, only about 40 miles out from the end -I looked up the number for the Super 8 in the GPS and called for a reservation. The woman at the motel seemed pretty rude on the phone, but they had a room, so I reserved one and said I’d be in around 11 pm.
I headed out through NW Iowa – a nice ride, if one’s bike was running well, but I was a bit nervous running alone at night with a suspect bike. To make matters worse, about 40 miles south of Sioux City I noticed my cruise control was on. Figuring I’d just bumped it with my tank bag, I went to shut it off. It didn’t shut off. Uh oh. That’s not good. I thought about pulling the wire, but I was able to coast into a small co-op gas station in a tiny town and shut the bike off. I pulled the fuse and went back on the way.
I pulled into Vermillion about 11, filled up with gas, and grabbed some food. When I went to check in at the motel, there was nobody around. I dialed zero on the phone like the sign said, and a very irritated woman came out of the back.
“You must be Chris!”
“You’re Late!” (It was 11:20)
“Uh, okay – can I have my room?”
After that pleasant exchange, I got to my room. This was one of the WORST places I’ve ever stayed. The whole place smelled like cat piss. There were water stains on the ceiling, and this was on the bottom floor! I opened the window to air out the room, and next door, the building must have flooded, because an extremely loud pump was running at the front door. That wasn’t going to work. I shut the window again and went to sleep. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one with problems with that motel. A few other riders had checked in at about 3 am, and had an even more amusing exchange with the desk clerk.
I woke up around 7 and after picking up one last bonus, I arrived in Niobrara. I had finished the Butt Lite. I went through scoring, not losing any points this time, and ordered a Fat Tire Beer and a cheeseburger. Man was that good. Ron and Carrie and Paul came in about an hour later, after picking up all the bonuses on the original route. At the banquet that night, Ron and Carrie tied for tenth, and Paul took 14th, having lost a few points at the table on the final leg. Excellent job guys! I came in 28th of 60 riders. At least I finished in the top 50%, and I was happy with that.
Without question, the Butt Lite was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, mentally and physically. I lost 12 pounds, made a mess of my bike, and I couldn’t write my name for about a week. The funny thing is, we all asked ourselves at the end “would you do it again?” While it’s a lot of money and a lot of vacation time, and lot of the time spent not having fun, the sense of accomplishment is like nothing else. It will be a while before I have to make that decision, but I can’t say I wouldn’t do it again – in hindsight it was one of the best experiences of my life. Thanks to Eddie and Adam and of course all the volunteers who made the rally happen. As always, it was a first class operation – I always recommend that people run Team Strange events if they can – it’s always a good time (even if you’re not always having a good time!)