By: JIM BILLINGS
Each summer, I travel around the United States on my Honda Gold Wing®. For years, I've been planning the ultimate tour. Sponsored by the Southern California Motorcycle Association (SCMA), it's called the Four Corners Tour. To complete this trek, you travel to the four corners of the United States, take a photo near a local landmark, find a secret phone number, and mail the whole works in to the SCMA. My 14-year-old daughter Maggie and I undertook on this journey, a father-daughter adventure that is impossible to relate in detail. Here are our favorite highlights and photos.
Day 1: We awoke to a thick fog with light drizzle. Departing from our home in Atkins, Arkansas we made our way toward the first corner in Madawaska, Maine. Passing through Little Rock and Memphis, we reached Ashland, Kentucky. The rain was only a slight annoyance, but the fog accented the gorgeous landscape as we rode through the hollows of Eastern Kentucky and the western portion of West Virginia. We had never visited West Virginia, and were really taken by the beauty of the nonstop rolling hills and mountains. As we rode into the capitol of Charleston, its scenic rivers and bridges captured our hearts and we vowed to return and spend time here again .
Day 2: In Arkansas we have some bad Interstate highways, but some of those in New York make ours look much smoother.
Day 3: Before we knew it, we were in New Hampshire. And before we knew it again, we were out of it and into Maine. I asked a local guy at a gas station where we could find the best clam chowder. He sent us back into New Hampshire, to Portsmouth. We fell in love with Highway 1 and the way it meanders north along miles of coastline dotted with tiny fishing villages. Better yet, we shared the road with hundreds of other riders.
Day 4: As we approached Madawaska, the first corner of the tour, the sky darkened. When we pulled over to put on our jackets, a man in an SUV told us a tornado was approaching from the south. We hustled north and about 10 miles ahead, the road climbed out of the forest and onto a ridge top. That's where the rain caught us. Not a speck of cover anywhere, but there was also no traffic, so we slowed considerably. The driving rain pierced us with cold, the wind pounded us, and at times visibility fell off to where I could only see the white line at the side of the road. But as suddenly as it began, it ended. We were soaked, but we pressed on toward Madawaska and re-entered the forest. After a few miles, Maggie shouted out a warning, but I was already on the brakes as a big moose sauntered out of the trees and onto the roadway. A little farther on, a fox holding a bird in his mouth looked over his shoulder at us as we passed him. This was deep woods indeed.
Finally, we arrived at our destination, the Gateway Motel in Madawaska. The motel clerk knew all about the tour and directed us to the local post office, where we posed for photos. We also found the secret phone number, so our first stop was a success.
Day 5: Leaving Madawaska, we crossed the international bridge to enter Canada at New Brunswick. Upon entering Quebec Province, the six hours of French I learned at Arkansas Tech helped us get by. Summertime brings a really early morning in Canada-about 4:30 am. We made tracks at daybreak and soon we were heading through the next province, Ontario.
The transcontinental highway between Sudbury and Sault St. Marie offers a very special experience. You feel alone, very alone, while wandering down a vast ribbon of highway, seeing no one for miles on end. We just sat back and enjoyed the scenery. Heading west, the Great Lakes roll by on the left side, while miles and miles of trees envelope the road in green. All too soon, we made Sault St. Marie and re-entered the U.S. in Michigan
Day 9: After spending several days crossing the northern states via the Interstate system, we entered the rolling grassy plains of Montana. Westward from Billings, the countryside quickly transitions to majestic mountains-truly Big Sky country. The Beartooth Mountains loom high and mighty, and the detour to Beartooth Pass along Highway 212 is definitely worth the trip-in fact, some have called this ride the most beautiful in America.
Day 10: Leaving Missoula at 7:00 a.m. took some doing; the Gold Wing's air temperature gauge showed 46 degrees. Our path along Interstate 90 crossed back and forth about 20 times over the breathtakingly beautiful Clark Fork river. The northern portion Idaho is only 80 miles wide, so we reached Lake Coeur d'Alene in no time. It's deep, dark and cold, not like our comfy Arkansas lakes. (We couldn't understand how the locals can enjoy water that cold.) We quickly crossed into Washington state. Spokane catches the tree belt of the Rockies but as we traveled west the trees soon gave way to grasslands. It looked more like Kansas than the picture of Washington I had formed in my mind. The highlight of that day was when we stopped in the town of George to gas up: George, Washington.
As we drew close to Seattle, the traffic ran faster and grew more hectic and congested. After passing through this metropolis, we continued riding north to our second corner of the tour, the little town of Blaine. We asked a passerby to snap our picture while we stood in front of the post office, but the landmarks where we needed to obtain the secret phone numbers were closed for the day. So we fueled up the bike and used the contact information from the gas station in hopes that this substitution would suffice.
Day 12: The best riding of the whole trip so far, one of those days you dream about. In Oregon we took I-5 to mile marker 162, where we picked up Highway 38, a most remarkable road winding through woods and tunnels carved out of rock, along a stream that grows into a river that flows into a lake, over old bridges and beside herds of elk. It's was just 58 miles, but it's one of those roads you wish would run on forever. From there we picked up Highway 101 and headed south to the Oregon Dunes. There, we stopped to rent ATVs for a short while. After turning in our four-wheelers, we headed south on 101 once again, and the highway paralleled the Pacific shoreline. Spotting some islands of rock jutting out of the water at low tide, we stopped to investigate life in the tide pools.
Farther south we crossed into California and entered the land of the giant redwoods. One stop we had planned in advance was the Trees of Mystery, where a giant-sized Paul Bunyan and Babe the Blue Ox serve as official hosts. Paul stands more than 42 feet tall, while Babe tops 35 feet; together the two weight more than 860,000 pounds. Maggie was upset because she thought Babe would be a girl, but he turned out to have the construction of a boy ox.
Day 13: We had to ride through Leggett's Chandelier Drive-Thru Tree, which is 21 feet across and more than 2,500 years old. We then headed down Highway 1 along the Pacific Ocean, a twisty and scenic road, perfect for motorcycles. After arriving in San Francisco, we made the usual tourist stops including Fisherman's Wharf. We drifted off to sleep while being serenaded by foghorns, the lighthouse on Alcatraz blinking in our window.
Day 14: More sightseeing, then we left the chill of the City by the Bay for the Central Valley and arrow-straight I-5; we wanted to make time. Big mistake: This part of California bakes in the summer, 102 degrees and few towns along the way. We stopped early to rest during the hottest part of the day; we'd ride during the cool of night to make up time.
Day 15: Leaving at 2 a.m., we worked our way down to Los Angeles and skirted its famous 6 a.m. traffic, then continued south to San Diego and then San Ysidro, our third corner. Entering town, we ran into lots of construction; it was a mess. We eventually got our secret phone number and photos done, then rode east to El Centro. With a midday temperature of 104, we stopped again so we could ride the night shift.
Day 16: We headed out at midnight, riding through the dark while it was still 95 degrees. But at least the sun wasn't beating down on us. After a while we saw a weird light show. A set of headlights zoomed through the air first up, then down, making sharp turns. As we drew closer the lights turned, dove across the highway and headed down a service road. Thinking we had discovered a UFO, we quickly caught up to the lights-only to discover a crop duster working at night.
Day 17: After sleeping during the day once again to avoid the blazing heat, we got up at 10 p.m. and headed for San Antonio. In the dark, barely illuminated by the headlights, we could see the glowing eyes of watchful jackrabbits and deer. Texas is a big state. You already knew that, but it seems even bigger from the seat of a motorcycle. As it was Sunday, traffic through Houston wasn't too bad, but then we ran into the edge of tropical storm Claudette just as we entered Louisiana. When we called home, my dad told us a close friend had passed away, so we decided to head home to help out. It was a long detour, but it felt good to be home once again.
Day 22: After that sad delay we left for Florida to visit the final corner of our tour. Our hearts weren't into this last part of the trip, but I knew I had to prove to Maggie that you finish what your start. But somewhere down the road our attitudes changed once again; the therapy of the open road at work.
Day 23: Around Gainesville the rain began, hard, blinding rain. Visibility was about 10 feet and cars were coming to a complete stop in the fast lane. Then it began to hail. I heard it hit my helmet first, then marble-sized balls began to pummel us. Luckily, we came upon one of Florida's many rest stops and took cover.
Day 24: We made good time to Key Largo, then bam, slow-boat city. Every RV and boat trailer was on the Keys, so I was lucky to do 40 miles per hour. We saw the African Queen, Key deer and the seven-mile bridge they "blew up" in the movie "True Lies." I made it to Key West at about noon and found the Circle K where one of the phones was located. As luck would have it, I parked next to one of Key West's finest. The lady cop took two pictures of me with her cruiser in the background. She asked me what I got for completing the tour and I told her it was a certificate indicating my total lack of common sense.
In summary, the trip was more than I had planned for, both in the cost and in the fun. Would I do it again? You bet. As a matter of fact, it's in the planning stages right now.
Here are some insights I learned along the way, things to do at least once in your lifetime:
See the Oregon Coast
Ride an ATV on the Oregon Dunes
Take the ferry across Puget Sound
Stop and look at a buffalo herd
Walk down a deserted beach
Stop in Belfast, Maine
Gas up in George, Washington
Drive through a redwood tree
Drive under Boston in the Big Dig
Ride Route 38 in Oregon
Ride the Pacific Coast Highway
Eat barbecue in Cambria, California
Eat clam chowder in New Hampshire
Eat clam chowder in a sourdough bowl on Fisherman's Wharf
Tour the San Francisco Bay area
Buy a San Francisco-logo jacket because it's colder than you thought it would be (everyone else will have one on too)
See a moose in Maine
Seek out mom-and-pop diners
Speak French in Quebec
Speak Spanish in Southern California
Say "eh?" at the end of sentences while in Ontario (they really say this there)
Make friends with the host of each hotel you visit
Seek out small hotels in Canada with chairs in front of each room
Be nice to the customs officers and border guards
Say "hi" a lot
See the Russian submarine in Seattle
Tour the locks in Sault St. Marie
Pause in front of the site of the World Trade Center
Eat Rocky Mountain Oysters in Missoula
Take more photos
Make memories with your kids