David Spangenberg’s only riding experience before a 1,000-mile trip consisted of turning a wide circle in a parking lot in first gear – once.
But for less-than-romantic reasons best left unsaid, he needed a change and to do something that ripped up the rule book, so he bought a Triumph Tiger Explorer over the phone.
“I had no experience. The dealership owner was perplexed when I said I needed it delivered. I wasn’t about to ride it across town never having ridden before,” he laughs.
The Tiger arrived a few days later and the shop owner talked him through starting it and the basics of the controls, got back in his truck and drove off.
“So there I was with a 1215cc bike in my driveway and no riding experience. I knew how to shift and use the clutch from riding four wheelers, but this was a whole different animal.”
After easing into a new jacket, gloves and helmet, he got on, started up and headed off around the block, repeating for several days, each time venturing further. But then winter came and David read every book written about how to ride a dual sport bike.
“I bought some accessories to install and scheduled my motorcycle safety course. Once I passed the MSF (Motorcycle Safety Foundation) testing, I rode every moment I could to get experience before leaving for South Dakota.”
A thousand-mile trip to the west awaited, but how would the journey from complete rookie to off-road revolutionary go?
Here are the 12 lessons David learned:
1. Pack the perfect pannier…well
Within an hour of leaving, I realised two things: one, that the Tiger Explorer had longer legs than me; and two, how to pack a pannier.
Backside aching, I stopped and discovered why it’s better to pack all the heavy stuff at the bottom of the pannier as I wrestled to keep the bike upright.
After a stop in Chicago, I stayed with a pal and we continued towards the tourist trap that is Wisconsin Dells. He offered good company and moral support.
It was the first time I’d ridden with someone else. What a great experience.
We made it to the Dells and after lunch, Bob headed for Racine and I for Kilen Woods State Park, a fantastic campground with all-new facilities. I checked in, had my camp set up, boiled some water, showered and ate a boil in a bag meal. At sundown I called it a night and slept like a log.
2. Man’s best friend is… his bike
As I left the state park, my first priority was gas. I filled up, got back on to I 90 westbound for Deadwood and experienced a whole lot of nothing, except for an 80mph speed limit and a moment of exhilaration crossing the Missouri River.
Farms, freeway and ridiculous monster windmills ruined the skyline of the prairie lands until I met a young man on his bike with a dog. He was planning on travelling to the west with his best friend. He had a box set up in the back of his bike for the dog to have shelter from the wind and a place to sit and sleep. Maybe a solution to travelling alone one day.
After passing the Missouri River and monotony of farmlands, windmills and freeway, 432 miles later I hit Rapid City. My pal Jason had arrived in Deadwood a few hours before me but I’d made it and my adrenalin was pumping.
The Tiger now had 2,400 miles on it. This was the sum of my experience on motorcycles. I had been riding for six months.
3. Twisties are a dream come true
We headed for Lead, South Dakota, (pronounced like ‘lead’ the way) to tour the mine museum and then south on Highway 85 to ride the twisties. This was my first experience on a twisty mountain road. I was amazed at how exhilarating this really was. It was living a dream come true.
4. Random acts of kindness get rewarded
In Lead, we ate at a great burger joint called Lewie’s Saloon & Eatery (lewiesburgers.com) and as we arrived, we noticed a wedding party getting ready out front.
A guy in a tuxedo turned around, looked at us and asked: “Would you guys happen to have any tape?”
Of course we had duct tape because – and here’s another tip – you can repair just about anything with it, even if only temporarily.
I said: “I’ve got duct tape” as the bride turned to us and showed the hem of her wedding dress completely coming apart. I handed my tape to one of the groomsmen and he said we’d saved the day.
I’m sure things would’ve worked out anyway, but we were happy to help. They all got their things together, thanked us and left.
We got comfortable at a table on the deck as the waitress approached. She asked if we knew the wedding party. We said no and explained what happened and she said they’d left $20 for us for lunch. Wow! What a nice gesture and a surprise; all that for a bit of duct tape.
5. Your first time on dirt won’t be your last
I wanted to get off the seat and learn that too, but one thing at a time. I kept my butt firmly planted in the seat as I tackled a dirt road for the first time.
It felt like I was riding on ice. I thought the bike was going to slide out from under me at any moment but, after a few miles, my nerves settled down and I was able to keep up with Jason.
He’s a very experienced rider and was very patient with me as I rode my own ride and ‘tested the waters’ of my new machine.
6. Don’t ignore the scenery
It’s easy on tough terrain to forget what an amazing landscape you’re riding through. Don’t.
We were almost cresting Flag Mountain, with the peak of it just to our west. It was like gazing out over a large open prairie before we started downhill and took a break at Deerfield Lake in temperatures nudging 85 degrees.
We reached Custer State Park and I was completely taken aback by all the beautiful scenery. Amazing granite spires along the road, switchbacks that went around huge peaks towering out of the ground, a valley that seemed to drop off into an abyss.
We were staying at the highest campsite in the park and could see in all directions. It was truly breathtaking.
7. Be warned: adventure riding is addictive
We got settled in, pitched tents and set up camp. We’d made it, we were on our grand adventure. This was far and away above anything I’d ever done. It planted a seed. I wanted more, another trip, and we’d only just got here. We made a campfire and began talking about our next trip.
As we talked it dawned on me that I was 1,000 miles from home, on a bike on top of a mountain. OK, so we’re not Ted Simon or Charley Boorman, but hey, this was our adventure, we were there and we were doing it.
We looked at each other and couldn’t believe that all the planning and anticipation led us to be standing at the top of a 6,200-foot mountain in the Black Hills National Forest.
As the evening slipped away into night, we watched the sky and the stars. Shooting stars and satellites passed over as the campfire burned to a golden hue.
8. Beware the bison
Next up was Mount Rushmore along Iron Mountain Rd, a beautiful scenic switchbacked road that cuts through tunnels blasted out of the granite.
Mountain goats gazed down at us. I don’t think I had ever seen one in the wild before. After that, we saw prong-horned sheep and a large herd of American buffalo, but then came our biggest test.
A herd of bison had settled alongside the road, close enough to touch. We’d been warned by one of the Custer park rangers that they don’t like motorcycles and will charge. We kept our distance, but over the next hill there were two of them blocking the road.
To continue, we’d have to go between them. I went first and as I passed, the big one turned its giant head and looked right at me. He was about six feet away and scared the xxxx out of me. I accelerated as I went past and I was close enough to smell him. There were these little sparrow-type birds sitting on his back.
9. Get off-road and catch air
We headed south into the heart of Badlands National Park for the pinnacle of the adventure.
The five or so miles we put on that simple not-so-technical trail were the most exciting miles I’d ever ridden. Admittedly, not difficult given my inexperience.
Labelled on maps as 195th avenue, this two-track trail was amazing. I didn’t want it to end.
It was the first off-road experience for me and I was elated. I can’t put into words the feeling of crossing muddy creeks and climbing steep hills when it’s something I would never have conceived of doing a few short years ago. I even caught some air on one of the creek crossings.
10. Go on, surprise yourself
Our final day, we were splitting up to head home.
The winds were out of the south, gusting around 30mph. The buffeting was killing me for 150 miles but I made it 520 that day from Wall, South Dakota, to Rochester, Minnesota.
I was amazed I could do those kinds of miles with my limited experience. I think I was finally breaking in the seat. I rolled the 3,000-mile mark on that long stretch.
11. Be proud – you’re an adventurer
I caught the Lake Michigan car ferry service from Manitowoc in Wisconsin to Ludington, Michigan. Two hours to my front door from there.
I rode the bike on to the boat and had to park next to a bunch of Harley riders. The look of disdain that swept across their faces when they saw they had to park next to a muddy, dusty Triumph was deeply gratifying to me.
These guys had come up from Chicago to ride the boat to Michigan and ride home the next day… a big adventure for them. When they asked where I’d been, they looked at me like I was from Mars, and proceeded to ignore me the rest of the boat ride. I couldn’t have been happier.
12. Most importantly – ignore the naysayers
As I rode home, I began to reflect on the amazing experience Jason and I had created for ourselves. I will remember those 10 days for the rest of my life. There were many naysayers and people telling me I needed more experience.
But there were two people that believed I could do it. Dave Gugle, the Triumph salesman that sold me the bike, and Jason P. Collier, my best mate.
We had made a dream a reality.