2009 Grave Robbers Ride

December 2, 2009
Bart Madson
By Bart Madson
Editor|Articles|Articles RSS|Blog|Blog Posts|Blog RSS

Bashing away at the MotoUSA keyboard for nine years now, Madson lends his scribbling and editorial input on everything from bike reviews to industry analysis and motorcycle racing reports.

This photo needs no caption except: This is Steve Wilkinson.
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We knew something was wrong heading up Lolo Pass. Wilkie had been setting a leisurely, yet steady pace for hundreds of miles through the Idaho and Montana mountains, but now his little Honda was burping smoke and smelled awful. Making a rapid approach, our three-rider group blitzed by grinning good luck. Wilkie grinned back. Miles ahead, the small pods of our nine-rider troop collected together in the dirt parking lot of Lolo Hot Springs. We waited for number 10.

After enough time to pull off helmets, gloves and jackets, and speculate as to poor Wilkie’s fate for a good 20 minutes – there he was. The Honda CB350 sputtered, hiccupped and popped its way down the asphalt and up the dirt. Pungent smoke followed, along with the sizzle of burning oil on the hot engine. Enveloped by a bungeed sleeping bag, tent and side luggage, Wilkie rolled to a stop with his feet pitched on makeshift highway pegs – a pipe lashed to the frame with half a roll of electrical tape.

Jumping off the bike and pitching it on the centerstand, Wilkie cackles while pointing at his rear tire. One side glistens in the sun, completely slicked with oil. Running to the front of the bike he looks at the four header pipes.

Grave Robbers Run Photo Gallery


“I blew a cylinder!” He yells, his voice raised because his ears are ringing with wind noise, not in anger or despair. Far from it. Our rally leader is giddy, hopping around with excitement. He blew a cylinder.

This was not your typical biker run…

Robbing the Grave

There were two simple requirements for participation in the first-ever Grave Robbers Run: Bikes had to be older than 1980 and no more than $1000 could be spent purchasing said bike and bringing it up to running order (exceptions made for safety items, like say, tires with tread on them and chains with more metal than rust…). After that, the plan was ambitious: Ride these junkers out of the grave and over 750-miles of mountain roads in the Idaho and Montana hinterlands.

Motorcycle USA tagged along with the Robbers aboard the vintage-themed Triumph Bonneville SE and Ducati GT1000 Touring.
Motorcycle USA tagged along with the Robbers aboard the vintage-themed Triumph Bonneville SE and Ducati GT1000 Touring.

The man behind the concept, Steve Wilkinson, is a friend of MotoUSA as a representative for powersports gear distributors like Joe Rocket and AXO (the latter actually sponsoring the ride). Motorcycle Superstore E-Commerce Manager Greg Anderson and I were eager to accept his invite out to Boise, Idaho – even if we were flagrantly flaunting the rules.

MotoUSA showed up with the retro-themed Ducati GT1000 Touring and Triumph Bonneville – a fitting backdrop for a modern classic comparison. I was happy to have a bike I knew would start with dull reliability every time I thumbed the starter, but there was great jealousy as the Grave Robbers assembled.

Seventies’ era Honda CBs started appearing, including two CB350s and a CB360, along with a Honda Hawk and CL350 Scrambler. After an hour a Hondamatic showed up too, with a Suzuki GS425 and Kawasaki KZ650 joining the fray. All were loaded haphazard with sleeping bags, camping gear and random tools, including extra parts that owners suspected might fail along the way.

One of the Robbers rides: 1972 Honda CL Scrambler.Grave Robbers Ride: Suzuki GS425.Another Robbers ride included this Hondamatic.
Three of the more eclectic rides to make of the Grave Robbers included a Honda Scrambler (left), an indestructible Suzuki GS425
(center) and the two-speed Hondamatic (right). Virtually all the rides were purchased on Craig’s List for well under $1000.

More surprising than the rides were the riders. We expected adventurous grey haired chaps, but only four riders, including myself at 32, had even been born before the 1980 cutoff for the bikes! The largest contingent were in their early 20s or late teens, including Wilkie’s son and several friends. Wilkie and his two close friends made up the older vets.

Almost all had bought their rides off Craig’s List for dirt cheap. One, the Suzuki GS425, cost a piddly $150 and like most of the others was purchased in unstartable condition. But Wilkie guided the inexperienced through the restoration process: new tires and chains, occasionally soaking seized cylinders in brake fluid, flushing out old fuel tanks and the magic fix in most cases – cleaning out the carburetor. The youngsters, some of whom had never fussed with a motor before, were prodigious carb cleaners by the time their ancient mounts kicked over and fired to life. One young Robber rolled his eyes in mock horror when asked about the procedure. He’d cleaned his Honda Hawk’s carb 25 times.

In the Pines, in the Pines…

Idaho City was once the most populous town in the Idaho Territory thanks to a gold rush. But those days are gone.
First stop on Day 1 was Idaho City, which was once the most populous town in the Idaho Territory thanks to a gold rush. But those days are gone.

Yes, they grow some big ol’ Russet potatoes in Idaho, and the college football team plays on blue Astroturf, but once you get out of the flat drudgery of the I-84 Snake River plain you see what Idaho should really be known for – some of the most beautiful and rugged mountainous terrain in the Lower 48. Our planned three-day journey would skirt majestic ranges like the Sawtooth and Bitterroot, with almost a dozen rivers and two crossings of the Continental Divide along the way – a big loop from Boise up to Lolo, Montana and back. A memorable ride to be sure, provided those old bikes could make the journey…

Our Grave Robbing crew hobbled up Highway 21 – the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway – headed to Idaho City. Once the most populous town in the Idaho Territory upon discovery of gold, but like many such boom towns in the West, surviving today as a quasi-ghost town (relying on the annual Western National ISDE Qualifier as a major economic boost). The rickety buildings were an interesting site, but the first day was all about the natural scenery. The twisting Alpine road on 21 to Loman was memorable, but the first view of the aptly named Sawtooth Range in Stanley was worth the ride by itself.

The view of the majesty Sawtooth Range was worth the ride all by itself.
The view of the majestic Sawtooth Range was worth the ride all by itself.

Growing up in the West develops a powerful lust for open country. Fortunately, there are still great swaths of unspoiled landscape in which to lose yourself. Only three small towns dot the vistas of our route as we trace the Salmon River from Stanley to Challis on Highway 75, and then the Lemhi Valley and Salmon, Idaho on Highway 93. The open landscape as the thick forest transformed to bare rock and desert scrub is humbling – the only constant being steep canyon walls and an accompanying river whisking runoff to the Pacific.

That evening the crew shook out the kinks of 250 miles in the saloons dotting the main street of Salmon, which at 3122 population is a small town by any standard but the largest, excepting Boise, that we would ride through. Strolling back to the hotel that evening we reflected on how remarkable it was that nothing major went haywire. One rider, the youngest at 17, had a pair of minor low-speed get offs on his Suzuki, but no harm, no foul.

About then we smelled the gas fumes, a great slick of oil and fuel cascading from the Scrambler during our evening misadventures. Looks like we might get a late start tomorrow…

It looked like our trip might slow down considerably when seeing this oil and fuel slick the morning of Day 2.
It looked like our trip might slow down considerably when seeing this oil and fuel slick the morning of Day 2. But a quick fix was found and the behemoth wrench unveiled.
Due to the breakdown  Wilkie got the wrench.

Crossing the Great Divide

The Robbers awoke, waiting for the Scrambler to get a fix. A hole in the carburetor float leaked all the fuel and we needed a part shop, which needed to be open, which needed to have the proper replacement for a 1972 Honda CL Scrambler on hand. Here’s where the Grave Robbers were acutely unaware of their exceptionalism. The average rider would toss their hands up and call roadside assistance. Trip’s over. Not in this case. The exact part was found immediately in the town’s small bike shop. Open up a couple tool kits from fellow riders, fiddle with the carb, then kick the little CL to life and listen to a sweet purr from a 37-year-old bike!

We were surprised the little bike resuscitated so quickly, but not as surprised as when Wilkie brought out “the wrench.” A gigantic, grotesque mother of a wrench. A wrench that could tighten bolts on the Golden Gate Bridge, double as a medieval mace or bludgeon a full-grown bison. For our purposes the iron monstrosity served as a baton ritually passed to the latest rider breakdown. And it would get passed around with alarming regularity.

The first true test was an ascent of Lost Trail Pass, crossing the Continental Divide and entering Montana. Our Day 2 route traced footsteps of Lewis and Clark, not to mention Sacagewea – who, by the way, was born in present day Salmon (one of the reasons she was invaluable to the expedition because she spoke Shoshone, the dominant tribe in western Idaho at the time).

The Robbers took a liesurely approach to their near 800-mile journey.
The Robbers took a leisurely approach to their near 800-mile journey. This Robber’s CB360 took an even more leisurely… As it often didn’t want to start.

Climbing into Montana was memorable, but stopping at the top wasn’t optimal for one rider, whose CB360 refused to start. The last two to set off on the descent, we waited for the CB to kick over – to no avail. After many frustrating minutes he decided to coast down the pass and try jump starting. I followed for a time, watching in horror as he balanced on one footpeg trying to pirouette over his stacked gear, all the while his Honda rapidly gaining MPH as it freewheeled down the pass. Back safely in the saddle after a couple false starts, he waved me ahead and I enjoyed the triple-digit jaunt to catch up with the others. We all waited for the straggler at a perfect vantage to take in a long glimpse of Trapper Peak and the Bitterroot mountains, where upon arrival a cool down and tightening of the spark plug provided a fix for the 360.

Riding through the relatively congested small towns of the Bitterroot Valley proved the most tedious part of the trip. Fortunately, a stop in Darby, Montana allowed for some pranksterism in the form of a life-size cardboard cutout of John Wayne, purchased at a local souvenir shop, which was zip-tied to the back of the Hondamatic.

One rider got an unexpected pillion in Darby  Montana.
One rider got an unexpected pillion in Darby, Montana.

It’s an odd feeling trailing the visage of the Duke staring you down on the road. Motorists seemed confused too, but cardboard pistols drawn, and who knows how many real ones concealed (this is the Idaho/Montana panhandle after all…), the Robbers rode on in good humor – the Duke making it not quite to Lolo before the joke got hazardous enough to end up in a gas station garbage.

After Lolo, however, we started to climb again, which brings us back to Wilkie and his blown cylinder. The wrench was transferred as the great debate swirled over what to do. It is an immutable law of nature that broken machinery requires a quorum of men to debate the correct diagnosis and merits of solutions. Wilkie’s fix was no different, the consensus being to identify the blown cylinder and pull out the plug. Suddenly, the Honda was demoted to a CB270 Triple.

There it was, another five minute fix and we were back on the road. And Highway 12 proved the best riding of the day, skirting the Lochsa River and blasting wide sweepers en route to our night’s destination – the Three Rivers Resort.

Confluence of Rivers
The Lochsa and Selway converged to form the Clearwater River not a mile away from our cabin door as we awoke for Day 3. The morning would be a scenic jaunt down 12 to the town of Kooskia, followed by some fantastic roads – maybe the best of the trip – south on Highway 13. After that it was bigger highway, in the form of 95 and 55 to Boise.

The Day 2 destination was the Three Rivers Resort and its spacious cabins.
The Day 2 destination was the Three Rivers Resort and its spacious cabins.

The final day would prove to be the sprint, or rather, putter to the end. The odds of Wilkie limping home appeared either decent or lousy… We couldn’t be sure. Other rides seemed suspect too, notably the CB360 Twin, which was now skittish on whether it ever wanted to start.

Memorable stops on the way included a pullout descending the Whitebird Summit on 95, where the earth seemed to stretch out forever. The Grave Robbers also took a midday dip in the Salmon River, as the more respectable riding public kept on the road. The water temperature soothed overheated bodies, and the white sand beach, that’s right, white sand beach, was all to ourselves. We were having fun, and it showed – a perfect contrast to some others we saw on the road.

Sturgis was only days away, and there were plenty of real “bikers” heading out. One group gave a look, not a scowl, per se, but a look of near disapproval. I remember one rider in particular in Stanley, perfectly done up in the official H-D leather, official barely legal helmet, official head band and surly attitude. He was smirking at the Robbers’ collection of rides, and you could see “jap crap” and “rice burner” right on the edge of his lips. But he couldn’t say it. No one could. It’s next to impossible putting down a group that was having as much obvious fun as we were. Not to mention the fact that his bike was double, probably triple, the price of the entire Grave Robbers stable.

The final day included a refreshing dip in the Salmon River on HWY 95  the third such road on our trip to follow the Salmon.
The final day included a refreshing dip in the Salmon River on HWY 95, the third such road on our trip to follow the Salmon.
The wrench couldnt decide where it wanted to stay throughout the trip.
The wrench couldn’t decide where it wanted to stay throughout the trip. This was particularly true on the final day, where it changed hands repeatedly.

It must be tiresome living up to an image, rather than riding for fun… But nothing could’ve brought us down.
That the wrench refused to stay in one place on the final day just made it more fun. Who would hold it last? The CB360 wouldn’t start. Here’s the wrench. Kawasaki’s battery went dead. Wrench. Somewhere in there Wilkie got it back again, and then passed it off. One wrench bearer actually dropped the monstrosity in the middle of the road, which could’ve taken out a semi – such was its ungodly size. But he smartly retrieved it before getting rid of it again.

As the hours wound on, the crew scattered into small groups, or solo riders. Every man for himself back through the more congested Highway 55, and stellar views of the Payette River rapids, before opening up to divided four-lane and downtown Boise.

As with the beginning, at the end we waited as Grave Robbers trickled in one or two at a time. As more and more arrived, the wrench was nowhere to be seen. We couldn’t decide if it would be fitting or a big letdown to go rescue the final rider just miles from the finish. But just as we made ready to go looking, we could hear the motors.

The final two limped into the driveway. The $150 Suzuki, the most bulletproof bike of the bunch it would turn out, escorting the CB360, whose rider kept his sneaker smashed over the right cylinder. Rolling to a stop he raised his foot to reveal a wad of duct tape barely keeping a problematic sparkplug in place. He’d made it to the finish, the last man to lunge across the marathon line and jumping off the Honda he hoisted the mammoth wrench above his head.

He was grinning ear to ear, and so was everyone else.