Dr. Frazier: Cannon Ball Adventure

June 12, 2014
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Contributing Editor| Articles|RSS

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.

Official Centennial Ride sticker.
Finding Cannon Ball’s Trail. This year’s Cannon Ball Run celebrated the 100-year anniversary of E.G. ‘Cannon Ball’ Baker’s cross-country journey.


Take a diverse group of riders and motorcycles. Toss in a splash of P. T. Barnum and more than 3300 miles of sand tracks and paved roads across America. Cram it all into an 11-day window of time, and one appreciates the recipe for fun on the E. G. “Cannon Ball” Baker Centennial Ride (www.cannonballproject.com).

Celebrating the 100-year anniversary of Baker’s record-setting 1914 ride across America, ring leader Don Emde and his writing/racing pal Joe Colombero concocted a Centennial Ride. While Baker made his ride on 1914 Indian motorcycle, the 100-year celebratory ride was trying to find and follow the approximate Baker route on modern motorcycles, but within the same 11 day, 12 hour and 10 minute record-setting time frame set by Baker.

Both the original Baker ride and the Centennial Ride had to deal with timing, but for different reasons. Baker was trying to beat a previous 20-day record. Emde and his followers were trying to arrive on time at preset media and social events. In their own ways, both were races against the clock, albeit for different reasons.

While the Centennial Ride was sponsored in part by Yamaha, an Indian motorcycle managed to find a way to meet regulatory requirements. It was a new, but modified, Indian Chief Vintage piloted by Indian Motorcycle’s PR Manager Robert Pandya. In between the Indian model and Yamahas were a myriad of motorcycles ranging from a custom bagger to a “self-modified and cheap” 1992 Kawasaki KLR650.

The majority of the motorcycles entered were farkled and blinged dual-sport models, some set-up for what looked like adventurous solo attempts to cross Africa or Russia, not the paved highways of America. At the event motel parking lot in Socorro, New Mexico, one rider on a BMW 1200GS Adventure said to the Yamaha Super Tenere-mounted entrant next to him as they were connecting their GPS’s and emergency locating devices, “I think we’re OK now, it’s paved from here to New York.”

Yeah guys  its an Indian  said Indian PR Manager Robert Pandya.
Not all the bikes on the Cannon Ball Baker ride were traditional adventure mounts, foremost being this Indian cruiser being ridden by the American brand’s PR manager Robert Pandya.

The Centennial Ride was a well organized, heavily sponsored and orchestrated event with two chase vehicles (one in front and one in back) hardwired for communications to two of the group leaders. One chase vehicle towed a trailer for entrant luggage and some spare parts, while the other was often out front breaking wind. At morning rider meetings the route for the day was detailed as well as planned stops for lunch or dinner. At the Socorro rider’s meeting a local guide for the day explained how the group would ride through downtown Santa Fe after exiting Interstate 25, with the necessity of making the tour of the town square on a timely basis to arrive at a scheduled lunch stop.

Arriving in Trinidad, Colorado, the entrants had tagged some of the remaining sites Baker touched 100 years earlier, like Watrous, New Mexico. The long closed and falling down post office where Baker got his paperwork stamped as proof he tagged Wastrous had been replaced by a newer structure, where Centennial Riders presented their official Centennial Ride booklet for a post office stamping. In other towns, like Las Vegas (not that Las Vegas…), the original post office was bypassed. When I asked if any Cannon Ball riders had stopped at the original Vegas post, a man identifying himself as “Joseph – Las Vegas’ Goodwill Ambassador” said, “No Cannon Balls here, but once Tom Swift was in town on a motorcycle, and we have a big Rough Rider Motorcycle Rally (www.roughridermotorcyclerally.com) every year celebrating Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders meeting here 100 years earlier.”

The ride from Watrous to Trinidad, 100 years earlier, had been a tough one for Baker. He noted in his journal (that was later published by the Indian Motorcycle Company), the road was “fine” and “good.” The route had formerly been much of the Santa Fe Trail and, before Baker’s ride, a railroad and accompanying dirt roads. But from Raton to Trinidad, now Interstate 25, Baker said the road was “rough” due to washouts from a storm he was following.

The original general store and post office in Watrous  New Mexico was a pit stop for Baker  but 100 years later nothing more than fallen down walls and dust. Baker left Watrous at 3:00 AM  not leaving much behind.
The original general store and post office in Watrous, New Mexico, was a pit stop for Baker, but 100 years later nothing more than fallen down walls and dust.Baker would have ridden past these trees between 3:00 AM and 4:00 AM after leaving Watrous  New Mexico and crossing two streams.
Baker would have ridden past these trees between 3 and 4 a.m. after leaving Watrous, New Mexico and crossing two streams.

As the 2014 Centennial Riders were zipping along Interstate 25 from Las Vegas it was hard to imagine this section fine, good, or rough, until one looked across the paved secondary road, the railroad tracks and then some rolling prairie to see ruts of the tracks of the Santa Fe Trail (1822-1879). Once Interstate 25 started to climb over Raton Pass it was easier to envision what Baker called rough as a stream carved a rocky route through the canyon with only a railroad track running alongside it.

The Centennial Riders were invited to a free seminar titled “Long Distance Riding Adventure – 100 Years,” which dispelled some of the myths and mysteries about the first long-distance motorcyclists. During the presentation they were told of how a young married couple had covered their route of that day 101 years earlier (one year before Baker) using a 1913 Henderson motorcycle with a self-made sidecar. The honeymooners were setting the first coast-to-coast ride for a couple by motorcycle, and “marked the way” for others to follow, like Cannon Ball Baker. However, one year earlier for Leroy and Gertrude Snodgrass, the ride across the section from Las Vegas, New Mexico to Raton, New Mexico was far from “good,” or “fine.”

The Snodgrass couple had arrived in Las Vegas, with 15 cents in their pockets. A two day wait for a money order to arrive at the post office caused them to miss a series of rain storms that washed out many of the stream crossings between Las Vegas and Raton. To avoid electrical problems with the magneto it would be removed and placed in the sidecar before the deep water was entered. Leroy wrote about having to push his non-running sidecar outfit across the streams and then use his 60-foot rope and block and tackle to pull the outfit up the far stream bank. With a bit of humor he added that after he got the motorcycle and sidecar up the other side he would walk back through the stream and carry his wife across upon his shoulders, she not requiring the use of the block and tackle. Given the degree of difficulty the couple faced in their adventure across the USA, it was easy to see how what Baker had done in five days solo had taken the sidecar team a year earlier a long slow month to complete.

Centennial Riders also learned that while speedster Cannon Ball Baker was setting endurance riding records, others had gone before him across the US. The first known to do so was George Wyman, in 1903, on a 1.5 horespower, 200cc Motor Bicycle. He left San Francisco on May 16 and arrived 51 days later in New York City, using a route through Nevada. He said he made about half his ride on railroad tracks and when the engine died in Albany, New York, had to peddle the last 150 miles into New York City.

The oldest motorcycle spotted at one overnighter was this 1992 Kawasaki KLR650. The owner proudly proclaimed it as self-modified and cheap. His panniers cost  25.00 for the pair  army surplus ammunition boxes.
The oldest motorcycle spotted at one overnighter was this 1992 Kawasaki KLR650. The owner proudly proclaimed it as “self-modified and cheap.” His panniers cost $25 for the pair, army surplus ammunition boxes.

One Cannon Ball Centennial Rider commented after the seminar, “I was told Cannon Ball Baker was the first motorcycle adventure rider, but learning how men like Carl Stearns Clancy had circled the world in 1912-1913, and Wyman had crossed America in 1903 is kind of humbling. Maybe Baker is better defined as the first Iron Butt rider.”

Internet warnings to the group leaders of high winds in Kansas later in the day found the Cannon Ball Centennial Riders wanting to beat the storm by leaving Trinidad at 6:30 a.m. At the post office in Trinidad, which Baker would have stopped in for his stamp 100 years earlier, the post master said he had seen no “Cannon Ballers” that morning but would welcome their return during office hours. When he was told how Baker, 100 years earlier, had left Watrous, New Mexico at 3:00 a.m., he said, “These Cannon Ball guys have got to be made of tough stuff, getting out there on the road before daylight. 100 years ago Baker would not have been able to see with that poor headlight he had, and must have been driving on faith alone.”

After the Cannon Ball Centennial Ride was successfully completed one journalist opined that the spirit of Cannon Ball Baker had watched over the group. If so, one had to wonder what Baker’s spirit would think about terms like GPS, ABS, Drive Mode, LEDs, ES, SPOT, GoPro and WIFI; terms being bantered around on departure mornings like Baker might have swatted mosquitoes.

These 100 year celebratory motorcycle events can be great fun. Like The Clancy Centenary Ride the Cannon Ball Baker Centennial Ride idea was spawned by a book or publication. The Clancy Centenary Ride, originating in Ireland, resulted in a follow-up book titled In Clancy’s Boots. Don Emde said he is working on a follow-up book about the Cannon Ball Baker Centennial Ride, which should be a fun read for those page turners and old motorcycle adventure aficionados.