Yellowstone, the world's oldest national park, is one of the five most endangered in the country. A study in contrasts, the 3,400 square miles (2.2 million acres) of parkland are protected from development yet overrun by smog-spewing RVs and snowmobiles; it's wild and dangerous terrain though amply supplied with boardwalks and guardrails. Drivers are warned to "stay inside your vehicle" if a herd of buffalo appears. Riders, as usual, take their lives into their own gloved hands. Just stay alert and ready to motor: bison when frightened attain stampede speeds of 35mph.
Two-time world circumnavigator Ted Simon always signed off his reports: "The interruptions are the journey." We're standing around a Chevron station in Jackson, Wyoming, while Dale and Scott drain diesel from Laura's gas tank. Laura's misfortune - to have chosen the wrong nozzle at a self-service pump - gives me an opportunity to find out why my companions on Great American Motorcycle Touring's seven-day Yellowstone/Teton tour chose a guided ride.
Scott, a manufacturing manager from Connecticut, didn't want to project-manage his vacation. "That's what I do every day," he says. Dale, a senior citizen from Indiana, with many guided motorcycle tours behind him says, "so my wife would come with me." His passenger/wife Judy likes the security of the support truck. "It's nice to know it's there," she says. "My time is at a premium," Dale continues, "and I want to get the best of everything." Art, from Florida, toured Colorado three times on his own, then he tried a guided tour. "I saw more in that week than the three previous trips combined," he says.
Of course, guided tours aren't for everyone, or RoadRUNNER wouldn't exist. But they do fill a niche in the motorcycle-touring market. Great American Motorcycle Touring provides a guide (company president Steve "Skip" Schippers, in our case), a support truck for luggage, luxury accommodations and most meals - plus the advantages of accumulated local knowledge.
We're six bikes on the road. Skip's R1150RT, Dale and Judy's Screamin' Eagle Road King, shipped in from Indiana; Scott and Nancy's rented yellow Gold Wing; Art's rented R1150R; Laura's open-piped Dyna, trailered by Skip from Ohio, and me, riding a V-Rod supplied by Eagle Rider. It's not the perfect touring bike (nor intended to be) but Eagle Rider's entire inventory of big twins is on its way to Milwaukee for Harley's 100-year bash. And with my luggage stowed in Skip's Mercedes truck, I can at least enjoy the Rod's outrageous performance.
Salt Lake to Ski Hill
The day before Laura's diesel calamity, on a crisp September Saturday, Skip leads us out of Salt Lake City from the point where I-80 winds toward Park City. But we're not here to ride interstates, and soon we're swinging through the Wasatch Mountains. A brief stop at the Kamas Café to cozy up with hot coffee and extra layers intervenes before we soar to Mirror Lake summit at an impressive 10,200 feet. Above the tree line, Highway 150 skates across the barren summit before swooping back down through glades of evergreens and opening out onto high plateau farmland.
Our route north to Jackson shadows Wyoming's Utah and Idaho borders, crisscrossing a number of times; but it's Idaho for lunch. Sleepy Cokeville's general store deli doesn't usually see this much business, so we hang out in the city park while our sandwiches are prepared. Weak sunshine struggles through the clouds and the air is cool on the high plain.