Opinion: Crossing the country

It’s not a simple thing to ride across North America, even today with the Trans-Canada Highway and interstates and bikes that don’t break down. You still need the right mindset, and it helps to have time on your hands. Throw in some extra variables and the ride can be very challenging indeed.

Wolfe Bonham knows this. We talked to him last month about competing in the Iron Butt Rally, and when it wrapped up last Friday morning, he came in 66th place of 71 finishers. If this sounds unsuccessful, it’s not – he rode more than 15,500 km (9,655 miles) in 11 days and actually completed the rally, which is an achievement in itself. Along the way, riders had to stay alert enough and thoughtful enough to complete a scavenger hunt for points, and he was pipped from 65th place by a guy named Don Duck – yes, really – who earned more points but rode only 14,300 km.

Wendy Crockett and her trusty Yamaha FJR1300. Endurance riding is not about the bike, it’s about the rider, she says.

This year’s rally, which you can read about here on the IBR’s website, was memorable because it was won for the first time by a woman, California-based Wendy Crockett, who is a motorcycle technician and the mother of a 4-year-old daughter. She’s a rally veteran on her high-mileage 2005 Yamaha FJR1300, and rode more than 20,900 km to the podium finish. The only person who rode farther came in 22nd place. Clearly, long-distance riding is about having both endurance and smarts.

Mark Hunnibell hopes to have both when he sets off tomorrow from New York City on his 1919 Henderson motorcycle. It will be a much more relaxed ride for him over the five weeks to Los Angeles and up to San Francisco, but it’s still no easy feat. He’s recreating the cross-country ride of 100 years ago by C.K. Shepherd, who wrote a full account in his 1922 book Across America by Motor-Cycle.

C.K. Shepherd’s Henderson in 1919, which he named “Lizzie.”

(This is not to be confused with Across America on a Motor-Bicycle, published in 1903 and accepted as the first successful Pacific-to-Atlantic road trip. It was undertaken by George Wyman and makes fascinating reading. You can read his daily accounts here.)

Hunnibell’s dad gave him the old Henderson as a basket-case in 1978, and when he started researching it a few years ago, he found Shepherd’s book online – Shepherd had ridden an almost identical Henderson on his cross-country adventure. He was a recently demobilized British Royal Air Force Captain who thought it would be a good idea to make the journey as “the first foreign motorcyclist of note to make the transcontinental trip across America.”

C.K. Shepherd on Lizzie in 1919, pausing from the ride in Kansas City.

Back then, roads were dirt and poorly mapped, if they even existed. The Henderson’s engine had to be rebuilt five times and Shepherd fell off the bike so many times he stopped counting – more than 200, he estimated later. “The mileage indicator just flicked to 4,422,” he wrote on arriving in Los Angeles. “The skin on my face was tanned dark with the desert sun and bore the dirt of many days’ accumulation. The growth of the previous week was upon my chin. My hair was bleached and dishevelled, my clothes and boots laden with the sand and dust of Arizona and California. With a bandaged, broken finger, and the rest skin-cracked and bloodstained with the alkali sand, I held the handles with the palms of my hands. The sole was missing altogether from my right boot, and the left contained many a piece of stone or gravel from far away.”

Quite the ride. As part of his research, Hunnibell – a retired air force and American Airlines captain – tracked down Shepherd’s son in the U.K. and has since filled in most of the gaps in the story. The original account is both vivid and frustrating, with no maps and few dates, but Hunnibell has published a fully annotated and illustrated centennial edition that is a rewarding read. All the details of the book and the upcoming ride can be found at Hunnibell’s website here.

I called up Mark Hunnibell at his home in Ohio and asked him if he was looking forward to the ride. He admitted he’s nervous. After all, he’d never owned a motorcycle before, and bought a Honda CB350 Four fairly recently to get his licence.

Mark Hunnibell’s planned route across the U.S., following the 1919 route as closely as possible.

“C.K. (Shepherd) was an unbelievably creative person. He was one of those people, I suspect, who would take a working thing apart to figure out how it worked, figure that out, and then move on without putting it back together again. He’d get bored with it and move on to something else. I’m like that. I can find the answer to a mystery and then never quite wrap it up.

“This ride will definitely be the cherry on the top of a large sundae of research and effort.”

Hunnibell retired from commercial flying last year, but spent much of the last decade both restoring the Henderson and researching Shepherd’s mysterious life. “I wouldn’t say obsessed, because that almost has a negative connotation, but I certainly have been focussed on it,” he said. Would his wife call him obsessed? “It’s possible,” he admitted.

The red Henderson is not completely original. It was restored by Mark Hill at 4th Coast Fours in New York to be a runner, not a show winner, and so has an aluminum case for engine strength and a front brake for safety, among other things. Hunnibell estimates he’s spent more than $100,000 on the bike so far. The final fix was just last week, when he fitted a kick-starter (on the left side) so the bike wouldn’t need bump starting every time.

Capt. Mark Hunnibell and his 1919 Henderson, named “The Red One”.

Unlike Shepherd, Hunnibell won’t be alone on the journey. He’ll be followed by a chase truck and a safety rider, including a mechanic, though they’ll be riding almost entirely on the original roads taken in 1919. If they make it to the Grand Canyon, where his family will be waiting with Charles Shaw, Shepherd’s son, then he’ll be happy, but the hope is to arrive in San Francisco on August 6. You can follow his blog posts along the way at his web site, and you’re welcome to ride down and join him, too.

But what of Canada? The first proper cross-Canada road trip, from Halifax to Vancouver, was with a motorcycle ridden by Manxman Graham Oates in the summer of 1928. That was also quite the ride, and you’ll read about it here soon.

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