In May 1903, George A. Wyman left San Francisco with the then-crazy idea of riding his motorcycle all the way to New York City. More than 100 years later, I’m retracing his steps on an electric motorcycle. After riding from San Francisco to Reno, the journey continues.
The 40-Mile Desert
In 1903, Wyman left Reno and pointed his 1.25-horsepower California “motor-bicycle” toward the deserts of Nevada. Soon, I will do the same, riding my Zero DSR into “the land without charging stations.”
Wyman’s big challenge was the sand. “Sand in Nevada means stuff in which you sink up to your ankles every time you attempt to take a step …” he wrote, and it got even more difficult when it rained. But he had a plan “to follow the line of the Southern Pacific and Union Pacific railroads as far east as Omaha, because it is the direct route. The road runs almost in a straight line across the great alkali desert between the mountain summits.”
When the sand was too deep or muddy or rutted, Wyman rode on the railroad tracks. Not beside them—on them. Imagine taking an old bicycle from the garage and attaching a lawn mower motor to it; you now have a rough approximation of Wyman’s California motor bicycle, except it had better tires, wheels, frame, and brakes. And more power, too. Now imagine riding over railway ties for hundreds of miles. Yes, it’s a little crazy.
“Before I had traveled half of the desert I was having trouble with my inner organs, and violent pains in the region of the kidneys compelled occasional dismounts and rests.”
—George A. Wyman, “Across America on a Motor Bicycle”
My big challenge is charging. When I leave Reno, the next car charging station I can use is more than 550 miles away in Ogden, UT. I can travel 88 miles at 55 mph on a full charge. I hope to ride in the morning, charge midday, and then ride some more. Standard household current (120 volts) will charge the Zero DSR in eight to nine hours. That’s OK overnight, but too slow during the day. My midday plan is to use RV campsites with 240V, 50A hookups to cut the charge time in half or even less.
Motorcycle & Gear
After leaving Reno, I venture off I-80 in search of the kind of dirt roads that Wyman rode. I find one that parallels the Truckee Canal. I bake in the heat while the Zero’s electric motor whirs quietly, the soil crunching beneath its tires. The trail climbs a small rise, from where I can see the Truckee River, the railroad, and I-80: the history of transcontinental travel right before my eyes. A bit farther on I am balked by a locked gate and retreat back to the interstate.
I stop at the Best Western in Fernley to test my charging strategy. I pull the eMotorWerks JuiceCord Pro 20 cable from the topcase and plug one end into the Zero’s ChargeTank and the other end into the 220V, 50A RV hookup, one of several they have at the back of the hotel. It works like a charm. I retreat to the cool, air-conditioned lobby until the bike is charged and then ride headlong into the 40-Mile Desert.
“Almost one can, in fancy, see the sign of ‘leave hope behind all who venture here.’ This is the Forty Mile Desert of Nevada that was so dreaded by the immigrants in the days when the prairie schooner, the bronco, and the mule were the only conveyances used by man to cross it.”
Thousands of pioneers traversed the 40-Mile Desert seeking new lives and new fortunes in California. Not everyone made it. In 1850, someone counted 953 graves. Wyman crossed the desert with comparative ease, although he did catch a flat thanks to a beer bottle that had likely been tossed from a train. He repaired it with the biggest plug he had and carried on. My trip across the 40-Mile Desert along the interstate is easier still. It is oppressively hot in July, but after a quick nap in the shade of an underpass, I carry on too.