Dr. Frazier’s Continental Divide Ride

July 12, 2012
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Horses were aplenty in Montana and optional for carrying or pulling a small motorcycle.
Horses were aplenty in Montana and optional for carrying or pulling a small motorcycle.

Foiled plan. I had failed in a wild attempt to foolishly try to do what I thought had not been done, ride a motorcycle on the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico.

Youthful foolishness 45 years ago found me mapping a route from the Montana/Canada border where the Continental Divide starts in the Lower 48, to where the Divide crossed into Mexico from New Mexico.

The plan was nearly derailed from the start by misguided planning, and then some foolishness. The Continental Divide entered the United States from Canada in the middle of Glacier National Park. There was no road into the Glacier National Park Continental Divide entry point, not even a trail. All motorized vehicles were prohibited from entering the area. As a result my plan was put on “hold” before I could even tag the Start point.

Then the youthful foolishness set in to find a way around the prohibition, that being to use a small motorcycle, strap it on the back of a horse and hoof it to the Start point and then let the horse pull the non-running motorcycle on a short length of rope south through the National Park while I sat on or guided the motorcycle. Park authorities questioned my sanity when I proposed the adventure. Their most often asked question being: “Why?”

Another year or two went by as I scouted the route through my home state of Montana. Barriers were more closed public lands, private lands and no real trail or track along the Continental Divide.

In the 1970’s I was living in New Mexico. With the Continental Divide Ride still an optional plan, I scouted the Divide from near Chama, New Mexico in the north to a small village on the southern border with Mexico, Antelope Wells, west of which the Divide crossed into Mexico.

Some sections of the Continental Divide ran through Indian Reservations  National Parks and over private lands marked with serious No Trespassing signs.
Some sections of the Continental Divide ran through Indian Reservations, National Parks and over private lands marked with serious “No Trespassing” signs.

In between Canada and Mexico I had found small sections of paved roads, gravel roads and even trails that followed the Continental Divide. Some were hiking or bicycle trails only. Others were good pavement or dirt roads.

One night in the early 1980’s I shelved the Continental Divide Ride plan. While I still considered the plan doable, it seemed there was going to be more horse travel being done than sitting atop a motorcycle. While I appreciate horses and their contributions to civilization, I prefer them under the hood of a car or between my feet on a motorcycle. I also could not see much fun in looking at the north end of a south bound horse for any miles.

In the 1980’s I began to more aggressively seek remote locations using BMW’s, and specifically the R80 G/S models. At the same time I was asked to organize a BMW GS weekend for the local dealer in Denver, Colorado, BMW of Denver. The owner wanted a way to say “thank you” to a couple of new BMW GS owners for being good customers and thus was born the BMW GS “BIG DOG RIDE” – although at first it was called The Divide Ride for the number of times we crossed the great Divide.

While my plan for a Continental Divide Ride was sitting on a shelf it never was tossed out. If I was traveling near the Divide, or saw signs pointing to it, I would vector towards the area to explore, often driving back and forth across it numerous times in a single day.

A new Continental Divide Motorcycle Ride plan morphed into “how many times from Canada to Mexico could I pilot a motorcycle across the Continental Divide.” The new plan thankfully did not involve horses and I could use any number of motorcycles. For the easy pavement crossings I could use a large displacement touring motorcycle, while for the tougher stuff I could move to one of my smaller, more dirt oriented off-road motorcycles, like my KLX250S.

It soon became a boring number game of keeping track of crossing #56 or #65. I discovered the adventure was not to be found on the Continental Divide itself. In fact, I soon discovered the Divide went through some very boring places. Where risk, unplanned events or exploring were best was often away from the natural feature.

The ridgeline in the background was the Continental Divide. This gravel road got me close  but not on the ridge. To reach it I would have to bike  bicycle  or hike.
The ridgeline in the background was the Continental Divide. This gravel road got me close, but not on the ridge. To reach it I would have to use a bicycle or hike.

A flat tire one hot and dusty afternoon in the Great Divide Basin of Wyoming resulted in a new friendship. The Great Divide Basin is the only place along the Continental Divide where it splits, running parallel around a barren drainage basin of high desert dominated by bluffs, sand dunes and alkali flats. It was in this near-dead zone a nail worked its way through my rear tire and through the inner tube to bring me to a wobbly stop.

I was 20-30 miles from the nearest town, Rock Springs. My tool kit and repair parts had what I needed to fix the flat. The downside was it was nearly 100 degrees and the only shade offered came from sage brush. About halfway through my hot and sweaty work a pickup truck appeared. The truck was a repair truck for oil and gas wells headed back to Rock Springs after doing field work at some remote location. The driver stopped and asked if I needed any help.

I told him I had everything I needed except for some shade and a cool drink. He said, “I think I can fix you up.”

He drove the truck around and parked so that shade from the truck covered me and the motorcycle. He got out and dug into a cooler on the back, coming up with a can of cold soda or water and offered me either one.

While I cooled down for a few minutes he told me of his some of his motorcycle history. He owned a Harley-Davidson that ferried him each year to the annual gathering at Sturgis, South Dakota. When he asked what I was doing in the middle of nowhere on my Kawasaki KLR650, I told him about my efforts to drive back and forth across the Continental Divide.

He laughed, and said, “I’ve heard of some crazy stuff, like riding around the world or going to Alaska, but I’d sure not bring my Harley out here just to ride across some invisible line. If the road ain’t paved my Hog and I don’t roll.”

We joked more about crazed motorcycle adventures while I returned to the dirty task of fitting the new inner tube in the back tire. When I took out the small hand operated air pump to start filling the inner tube, he said, “Whoa! I’ve got something you’re really going to like.”

Near the Continental Divide this biker art seemed to invite me into the nearby restaurant where I traded Divide tales with local inhabitants.
Near the Continental Divide this biker art seemed to invite me into the nearby restaurant, where I traded Divide tales with local inhabitants.

He crawled into the bed of the pick-up truck and started a gas operated air compressor, then tossed me the end of an air hose with a tire chuck on it. One minute with his air hose knocked off 10-20 minutes of hand labor with my small bicycle pump.

When I was finished I gave him a business card and a couple of motorcycle stickers, as he would not accept any cash for his help and the cold soda. We parted but have remained friends since. He sends me an email once in a while asking what crazy adventure I am up to and where. I write him back inviting him to join me with his Harley-Davidson and I always get the same reply, “LOL, LOL, LOL.”

Near Hachita, New Mexico I was stopped by a most unfriendly border patrol officer who demanded that I unpack my motorcycle for his inspection. When I protested by saying he had no authority to search my gear he put the palm of one hand on his gun and with the other pointed to his uniform and said, “This here is my authority. Unpack!”

Unpack I did. There on the side of the road he looked in every sack and bag I had. When he saw a large red plastic bag inside of one of my panniers he pulled it out, and with his bare hand started to root around inside, saying, “What have you got in here, your dope?”

Trying not to smile, I replied, “No, dope, just my dirty underwear.”

He yelped and gave a girlyboy scream while yanking his authoritative hand out like it had been in an acid vat, dropped my well soiled clothes on the ground and stepped back two or three feet.

While wiping his hand on his pants he regained some composure and said, “OK, just tell me where you’ve got your dope or gun.”

“Sorry, I’ve no dope or firearms. The most dangerous weapon I have is my multi-purpose knife,” and I showed him where it was stashed in my tank bag. I wanted to add, “You just stuck your hand into the most dangerous thing I have on this motorcycle, a week’s worth of unwashed dirt bag traveler shorts and socks.” Common sense prevailed and I said only, “What are you looking for?”

As I began to repack my gear he said there had been reported cases of drug smugglers using dirt bikes to mule drugs from the nearby Mexican border to points north. Since my dual-purpose Kawasaki KLR650 looked like a big “dirt bike” to him he was just “doing his job.”

Just east of the Continental Divide  restored South Pass City was located on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.
Just east of the Continental Divide, restored South Pass City was located on the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail.

As I finished packing and started to suit up he asked “What are you doing out here?”

I told him about crossing the Continental Divide from Canada to Mexico and how there were two sections nearby. Seemingly that plan served no purpose he could see and his final question to me was, “Why?”

I shrugged, put down my face shield, started the motorcycle, slowly began driving away and vowed not to return to the area until he was either transferred or retired. His kind of adventure I chose to try to avoid.

Crossing the Continental Divide near the center of Wyoming found me wondering about the reason there was a town named Atlantic City nearby and what could be of interest at the neighboring South Pass City. A few miles of gravel road to each resulted in my nocturnal meeting with a bear, wolf, cow or dog.

According to local lore, Atlantic City, Wyoming was named after its East Coast predecessor in hopes of being viewed as the Atlantic City of the West. The tales of its origin and early history have as many as 2000 miners digging for gold with the town claiming to have had the first brewery in the Territory. Today it is a sleepy town with “about 57” regular inhabitants. The tales of miners, card slicks and assorted “working ladies” were an interesting contrast to the other Atlantic City in New Jersey, where I had recently seen current breweries, card sharks and working ladies still flourishing.

Nearby was the restored town of South Pass City, 4.5 miles west. Several numbers float around about the boom population of this restored town, ranging from 1000 to 4000 in the late 1870s. I found the number 7 to be the agreed upon current population when I asked. Near dusk I counted two cars and three dogs. Bicycle riders told me it was a touch point along the 3100 miles of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, a point where some have provisions shipped to collect as they pass through.

The Atlantic City of the West had at one time boasted of nearly 2 000 inhabitants digging for gold near the Continental Divide.
The “Atlantic City of the West” had at one time boasted of nearly 2,000 inhabitants digging for gold.

The bed & breakfast in Atlantic City was closed, so I opted for sleeping in the nearby BLM campground. At nearly 7000 feet above sea level the night was cool enough for me to wear a cap and be thankful I was sleeping on an air mattress rather than the cold ground.

Sometime well after midnight I was awakened by the sound of some animal, a snorting or gruff breathing. It sounded like it was near the fire pit or my motorcycle. I was faced with some options, one of which was to hunker deeper into my sleeping bag and hope whatever animal it was would go away. The other options, those of making noise and yelling, or being most brave and unzipping the tent and snapping a flashing digital image seemed to be inviting more attention than the reward would be worth. I opted for option #1, burrowed into my sleeping bag, fetal-positioned and hugged the family jewels. I thought about putting my motorcycle helmet on, but decided the noise might attract the visitor.

The next morning I had coffee at the one restaurant in Atlantic City. While there I mentioned my nocturnal visitor and was the butt of several jokes for the next minutes. The others around me, locals, all seemed to agree it was “Old Duke,” the town mutt that was likely sniffing around my campsite because pickings and handouts in town had been low. The laugh was on me, the “townie,” and I laughed with them.

The Continental Divide had been described as that point where rainfall divides, flowing to the west where it drains into the Pacific Ocean and to the east into the Atlantic. My crossings of the Divide found me at what I thought to be the perfect place to prove this point, the village named Continental Divide, in New Mexico on Interstate 40. I parked the motorcycle at the exact point where a sign was located describing the point as being the Continental Divide. There I sprinkled nearly a quart of yellow water onto the ground and waited to see if it divided with some flowing to the east and some flowing west.

My test water mysteriously pooled and then disappeared  seemingly not flowing east or west.
My test water mysteriously pooled and then disappeared, seemingly not flowing east or west.

My plan to verify the dividing of water was foiled by either miscalculation of the sign placers or possibly the position of the sun or moon that day. The water merely pooled and then dissipated into the air.

As I drove away from Continental Divide, New Mexico, having notched another crossing of the famed demarcation between east and west watersheds, I wondered if my original plan had been all that crazy. Having wandered back and forth across the Continental Divide for 45 years I had heard tales of adventurers riding bicycles the length of the Continental Divide National Scenic Trail, others walking it. To me those achievements seemed wilder than piloting a motorcycle the length. At least until I started to think about the north end of a south bound horse.