Blood and Tears (7/5/2017)

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We last left our hero relaxing in the high country of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains on the banks of beautiful Morphy Lake trying to forget the possible motorcycle failures looming on the horizon. That was back on the Fourth of July. Yes, Joo-ly. It’s past time to finish up this chapter of the summer of 2017.

I woke up late and made a lazy breakfast while enjoying the view of Morphy Lake. I packed up slowly, following the sage wisdom of two year olds everywhere: if you can’t see the problem, it doesn’t exist. I was in no hurry to start up the bike, even after a long, uneventful day across Oklahoma and Texas. However, I had to pack eventually and the possibility of some twisty roads in the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains was pretty exciting after the last few days of interstate and straight farm roads.

The bike fired up on the second try. That was the first bad sign.

I let it idle under choke for a minute while I fiddled with my riding gear and tried to load up the days route on my phone unsuccesfully. The 1998 VFR is one of the few fuel injected motorcycles that retains a manual choke and it runs best if you let it come partway up to temperature before turning the choke off and dropping it into gear.

Without my LCD display, I couldn’t actually see when the temperature came up, so I let it sit a bit before dropping it into gear and rolling off. I rolled maybe six inches before it stalled. That was the second bad sign.

The third bad sign was when I stalled three more times just putting it in gear. I couldn’t keep it running without choke. This is a classic side effect of slow stator failure and a fun element of the story of how I rode off of Pike’s Peak the first time a stator failed on me. But that’s another story you’ll have to ask me to tell you sometime.

I decided to try to ride off the mountain under full choke and head back to Las Vegas, NM where I would at least have a data signal and could look for the nearest U-haul or call AAA.

The fourth bad sign came when I stalled the bike under power in first gear with full choke. I made it up the hill out of the state park by revving the engine hard enough to keep the electricity flowing and slipping the clutch the whole way up the hill. By this point, my head was spinning through the possible problems I would have just getting back to Las Vegas and my next steps to recovering the summer.

Should I park it in a cheap Las Vegas motel and wait for spare parts? It would be a minimum of 7 days and more probably the full 12 or 14 days for a new stator. I also needed a new regulator and there was a chance I would have to replace the stator cover gasket.

It wasn’t likely AAA would get me far enough to find a town big enough to have a Honda dealer or motorcycle shop. Sante Fe was closest, but it was on the wrong side of the mountains. Once I got there, I’d probably still be sitting around waiting for spare parts.

I could U-haul across the country. I have friends in Denver or I could back track all the way to Atlanta. Previous research said the difference in cost between those destinations was minimal. Denver would leave me sitting, but at least I could forgo the motel fees. My biggest problem at this point, though, wasn’t cash. It was time. I was running out of summer and I still wanted to make it to Alaska. In Atlanta I could bail on the motorcycle road trip and pickup the 4Runner.

My mind was spinning faster and faster the further I rode. I was trying to run through my options and monitor the engine all while riding down switchbacks with occasional gravel sections.

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The day climaxed at 9 am in a blind, decreasing radius, gravel corner. I was too preoccupied to notice how much tighter the corner became, and by the time I realized it, I was already transitioning from pavement to gravel. Despite that, it never actually occurred to me that I might drop the bike until I was already rolling on my back. I’ve ridden close to 10 miles of twisty, gravel mountain roads on this very bike loaded up with luggage on street tires.

I was already going slowly, so I braked smoothly with the front brake and just barely kept the rear on the edge of locking up. I could tell I would stop short of the edge of the road and patiently and calmly watched it get slowly closer. I was probably going 10 mph or less when the front tire locked up and sent me hard to the ground.

Now,  In 40k+ miles, the only damage I’ve done to this machine happened in the first week of owning it when I dropped it at a stop light. They were small scratches on the right side that were too small to show up in photos and most people couldn’t see them until I pointed them out.

I was heart-broken, angry, surprised, disappointed, stunned, and just generally pissed off with the summer. After a lot of cursing, yelling, and just an embarrassing amount of self-pity, I picked my bike up to survey the damage. It took even longer for me to calm down enough to perform a safety check and verify that all the controls still worked.

I worked my way off the mountain and into town without any more problems and parked myself in front of an auto shop. I always figure the best place to be if you break down is next to the local parts store.

At this point, I didn’t really trust myself to work through my options without someone to talk to and make sure my head was on straight, so I called my dad. My options weren’t much different than they were a few days ago in Oklahoma. There was a local U-haul a couple of miles away and a few cheap-ish motels where I could park it while I waited for parts. The local shop even had some generic gasket material I could cut to size if I needed to.

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After a lot of talking and some more self pity, I decided to pack it up and can the motorcycle trip. I was just losing too much summer.

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I threw my gear in the passenger seat of a 15 foot U-haul box truck and made tracks for Atlanta.

When I made it back to what was rapidly becoming the summer base of operations, I pulled apart the stator to confirm my diagnosis. What you see is a stator that is slowly burning itself up. The bottom windings of the stator are cream colored and pretty close to the original color. The upper windings are a couple shades short of a properly burnt out stator.

At the time of this writing, the old stator still works intermittently and enough to get it on and off trailers. I’ll put the new one in when I have a free weekend and think I have time to start riding again. That pesky stator lasted roughly 20k miles. I’m probably going to make some major re-wires that are common to 5th gen VFRs. I avoided that last time with the hope that a non-OEM stator and modern regulator would fix my electrical gremlins. I’m definitely adding a stator, R/R, and gasket cover to my road tripping kit, regardless.

This ends the motorcycle chapter(s) of my summer, but the summer didn’t end here. Stay tuned for more adventures from my “Summer of Attrition”.


P.s. Thanks for your patience with the blog updates. Even now in the new year, this update was a little hard to write. I had some wittier prose planned to try to keep the blog closer to the bouncy optimistic style I like to write in, but I forgot it all when I sat down to write. My journal entries from July 5th through the 7th are all empty and the log book entries for the U-haul miles manage to look pretty sour, despite simply recording the miles added to the odometer.

The real kicker to this story, though, is that I found a job I’m really excited about and I now live less than 100 miles from where my motorcycle trip ended.

The depressing end to my motorcycle journey(s) aside, there are some fantastic stories yet to come. I thought about holding out on you and not giving too much away. You got lucky. I decided a depressing post deserved a some happy (and extremely obvious) foreshadowing. Bonus points to anyone who can pick out the two unlabeled national landmarks. I might even make cookies.

Here’s a small taste:

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Dances with Tractor-Trailers (7/4/2017): OK to NM, 561 miles (0.1 miles gravel)

After all of the trouble shooting in OK City, I wasn’t feeling confident about the motorcycle, but I was also really tired of staying in one place. I had already done the best diagnostics I could without actually pulling the stator, so I hit the road and pushed hard for New Mexico.

I figured Route 66 was probably just more of the same through OK and TX and jumped on the super slab out of town. It was shortly after jumping on the Interstate that I realized my brand new soldering iron wasn’t situated well in the bungie net. Unfortunately, I was negotiating an Interstate exchange while following a couple of cars who couldn’t seem to see the lane lines and all I could manage was to readjust the soldering iron on the fly. By the time I had free space to get off the highway, my brand new soldering iron had taken a nose dive off the motorcycle. I guess it had seen the direction my summer was going and decided to pick it’s own path.

On the way through Texas, temperatures reached up to and just beyond 100F. Around lunch time, there weren’t a lot of food options, so I decided to find out what this Hunt’s Bros pizza was that I was seeing signs for everywhere. It’s crummy microwaveable heat lamp pizza, in case you were wondering, too. I did have a nice chat with a local OK farmer and his family who had come to the gas station for lunch. They had come in for lunch, too. I guess it really was the only place around.

After Texas there was still a fair amount of Interstate riding to do in New Mexico before I could turn off and head for the nearest National Forest with twisty roads. This is when the wind picked up and started blowing the heat down my sleeves. It was windy enough that I stopped for gas early to check the weather and considered calling it a day at only 4 pm.

Without any hazardous weather advisories and no big storms forecast, I pushed on and continued my dance with the tractor-trailers as we pushed up into the hills. The gusts were big enough that some truckers had pulled off behind the blocking hills to wait out the wind.

I made it to my turn of the Interstate without incident to ride up to Las Vegas, NM. The Hillcrest restaurant has some great dinner platters. I was considering desert when I noticed that I was running out of daylight and had only about an hour to make it to a campsite.

I made it to Morphy Lake just before sundown. It is by far my favorite pay campsite from the summer at the time of this writing.

It is a high elevation lake surrounded by the mountains. The scenery is perfect. The campsite was less than half full, probably because fireworks are prohibited, and the only sounds I heard all night were the sounds of nature. I will definitely be returning whenever I pass through Northern NM.

I spent the evening sipping whiskey and watching the stars. If I wasn’t so terrible at sitting in one place, this is exactly where I would have chucked my travel plans and parked it for a few days.

“Well, at least you have a plan.” (7/3/2017): OK city, 12 miles (0 miles dirt)

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In addition to the motorcycle’s problems, I was having difficulty keeping my phone charged. Now, if I had stator issues, this would be a symptom of motorcycle electrical system failure, but it was also possible that it was just the phone battery. After checking into the motel the day before, I had run 3 miles down the street to a local Verizon store where I was told that they couldn’t test the battery, but the phone was unusually hot. There was a battery store in the next parking lot, and I left my phone battery with them overnight after purchasing an aftermarket battery.

I woke up the next morning and no motorcycle shops were open. There were only a couple that had regular Monday hours, but those were closed for the holiday. I decided to pack up, check out, and do more trouble shooting in the battery store parking lot before possibly pushing on.

After warming up the bike, I put it in gear and started rolling out. Before making it out of the parking lot, the bike stalled when I pulled in the clutch for the first time. This is the first classic indication of stator failure and I had seen it a few days before my stator failed near the top of Pike’s Peak. That was 20k miles and 2 years ago. It could also be a spark plug problem or FI issue, but my spark plugs had many thousands of miles left and I’ve never had a problems running with old spark plugs and the FI light was still off and indicating no problem.

Before leaving the parking lot, I verified that the nearest Uhaul was only 1.5 miles from the motel and a mile from the battery shop. When I showed up to the battery store, I was told that my old battery was only charging to 35% and was definitely bad. This was probably good news. While I was there, I had them load test my motorcycle battery and it came back good. This left me with either a stator problem or a FI problem.

I set about pulling the rear fairing, which is made harder by all the extra bolts from the luggage rack. In the end, I managed to get one side loose enough to separate the plug between the stator and rectifier, which is all you need to do to troubleshoot the stator if you aren’t pulling it for a visual inspection.

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All of the stator and harness checks came back good, but the plug showed signs of arcing.

From my past stator issues and subsequent research, I knew that it was possible that simply replacing the stator and regulator/rectifier (R/R) with modern style aftermarket parts might not fix my electrical issues. Lots of VFR owners have had to take extra steps, all of which involve modifying the electrical harness. The simplest job is to cut out this plug and solder the stator directly to the R/R. The harder job is to replace the main electrical harness with what is known as the “VFRness”. If memory serves, this re-routes the R/R output to the battery only, running all other systems off of the battery instead of the R/R.

At this point, I strongly suspected that my as yet un-diagnosed and non-recurring flashing FI light was just a new-to-me symptom of stator failure and that my phone charging and stalling issues were the same symptoms of stator failure I had seen before. The next step was figuring out how fast I could get replacement parts. This was an important step because if I pulled the stator cover to inspect the stator for overheating and broke the stator cover gasket I was stuck.

The good news was that I could get a stator cover gasket in two days if I paid $60 shipping on a $12 part. The bad news was that no amount of outrageous shipping charges would get me a new stator and R/R in less than 9 days.

My options were now:

  1. Press on and hope for the best
  2. Diagnose the problem by pulling the stator cover to find:
    1. A burning up stator requiring 9+ days wait for parts
    2. A good stator leaving an unknown electrical issue
  3. Bail to Atlanta or Denver by Uhaul

I actually made it to the Uhaul store to ask for a quote on a box truck to Atlanta or Denver before my dad called and reminded me that the VFR forums suggest a soldering job might fix my problems. I was still pretty convinced I needed to bail and replace the stator in either Denver or Atlanta until I heard the quote. $1400 to Atlanta or $1200 to Denver.

My options were now:

  1. Press on and hope for the best. Zero up front cost. Risk of spending hundreds in a tow (despite 100 mile tow AAA coverage because there is a LOT of nothing in NM and even more in the Yukon) and still have to spend thousands in Uhaul.
  2. Diagnose the problem and find:
    1. A burning up stator.
      1. Sit in OK city waiting for parts. ~$600 motel up front cost. Risk repeat failure in less than 20k miles.
      2. Bail to Denver by Uhaul. $1200 up front cost. Hope that the stator is the only issue and a new one will last at least 12k miles.
      3. Bail to Atlanta and either fix the VFR or pick up the 4Runner. $1400 up front cost.
    2. An unknown problem.
      1. Bail to Denver or Atlanta as above.
  3. Wait for motorcycle shops to open. ~$120 up front cost. Chances are they’re going to tell me everything I already know, but they can check the ECU directly to tell me what the heck is going on with the FI and MIL codes.
  4. Cut the plug out, solder the wires together, and hope that the plug was causing all my problems. ~$60 up front cost in tools and parts and another $60 in motel costs. Risk fixing a problem but not THE problem and still having to bail as above.

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As soon as I could check back into the motel and find lunch, I walked to the nearby Lowe’s and bought a butane soldering iron, shrink wrap, flux, butane, and some spare 12 gauge wire. I already had a wire stripper/cutter/crimper in my tool kit (and I thought I had packed 14 gauge wire, but couldn’t find it).

The title of this post comes from the grizzled gray beard Lowe’s employee who showed me where the soldering irons were. When I told him why I wanted a cordless soldering iron (1400 miles from home working out of a motel on a motorcycle with electrical issues) and my general plan to sort it all out, he spoke his second full sentence to me: “Well, at least you have a plan.” He sounded like Sam Elliot.

That moment, when Sam Elliot told me at least I had a plan, will probably go down as a top ten moment of this otherwise cruddy summer unless some pretty cool stuff happens.

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After I got back to the motel, I put together the three ugliest soldered joints East of the Rockies and outside Massachusetts. The first picture in this post shows the aftermath of the prep work pulling the luggage racks and rear fairing. Everything went back together and the motorcycle fired right up!

I ran it three miles up the road to see if the cell phone charging issues had gone away. I would have run it further, but I hit the advancing front of a T-storm. Since the stalling out issue is an intermittent issue and mostly happens cold, I only had the one chance to use that symptom as a reality check on my potential fix. With the cell phone charging under full use on the way back, I was tentatively hopeful that I had fixed THE problem.

I spent the rest of the evening racing the T-storm on foot to a local used bookstore and bringing Subway back to the motel for dinner. I thought I was pretty slick when I walked into my motel room just before the downpour started, but when I got out of the shower the ceiling was leaking.

I got another room within sight of my parked motorcycle, moved my stuff, and watched an early Stargate SG-1 episode over dinner. Things were looking tentatively up. Very tentatively.

What now!? (7/2/2017): OK to OK, 200 miles (0 miles dirt)

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I set about making the most of the boring, straight roads in Oklahoma by heading straight for Historic Route 66. Once on the old highway, I settled into the uneven rhythm of 65 mph open highway with 35 mph towns scattered along the way.

It was entertaining to ride through all the small towns with “The best Route 66 museum” or “The biggest Route 66 sign”. However, I wanted to hit the other side of Oklahoma to set myself up to cross the Texas pan-handle and get into New Mexico the next day. I decided to hop off the old road in OK City and jump on the first bit of Interstate since I started this portion of the trip.

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Before I reached Oklahoma’s featured city, the state decided to play some games with me. It started with gusty winds that bounced me clear across my lane, only to push me right back once I got there. Having mastered the gusts well enough to stay in my lane, the storm added a down pour that restricted sight lines to a few hundred yards. I had passed the last bit of cover a mile ago, but my Klim gear was keeping me dry and I slowed down and pushed on looking for the next bit of cover.

Then the hail started.

Now, this wasn’t my first hail storm on a motorcycle, but the last hail storm played nicely and kept the hail small. This storm jumped straight to marble sized hail and brought me from 50 mph to 35 mph in a real hurry. I was looking for cover and watching my mirrors for nearly a mile before spotting the liquor store awning shown in the first picture.

I drove straight up under the awning, only to realize that the wind was blowing the rain and hail up under the awning. I tucked the motorcycle into the most sheltered corner where the hail wouldn’t hit it straight on without bouncing first and settled in to wait out the storm.

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Just as I was settling in, the storm stepped up it’s game and let loose with the half-dollar hail. I guess it was angry I pulled out of the game before it had really gotten rolling.

When the storm let up enough for me to take a picture of the awning I was hiding under, I checked the radar and weather report.

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Yeah… this is the kind of weather report you miss when you’re traveling several hundred miles at a time and 150+ miles on a tank. Everything looks sunny at lunch, but one hundred miles away storm clouds are grouping up in formation for an all out assault. I need to start checking a larger area radar at each gas stop.

I wish I could say this was the title story of the post. Unfortunately, this was just another interesting storm in my collection of weather related stories when road tripping by motorcycle.

The title story is that just before I hit OK city, my motorcycle stalled under power at 55 mph…

It started right back up, and I drove 3 miles to the cheapest motel in Edmond, OK in the early afternoon to sort out what variety of crappy luck I had run into on the second iteration of my summer 2017 travel plans.

The quick diagnostics were easy. Plenty of oil, plenty of coolant, fully charged battery, and good voltage while running. The FI light had been blinking while I tried a rolling restart with the clutch in and just after I pulled off the highway. It had gone away after re-starting, but I suspected some FI problem. Diagnosing the Malfunction Indicator Light (MIL) codes requires jumping a connection I couldn’t find with a spare piece of wire I couldn’t find. So I unpacked, did laundry, pulled out a book and some whiskey, and settled on calling motorcycle shops in the morning.

Swimming in Illinois in Oklahoma (7/1/2017): AR to OK, 283 miles (0 miles dirt)

I woke up to a dry tent. The rubber cement patch job worked pretty well, but left a few gaps for water to drip in. Fortunately, it was such a slow leak that even in the downpour most of the water ran down the inside of the rain fly. I caught a few tiny drops from somewhere higher up the rain fly, so eventually I will need to run seam sealer along all the remaining seams on the fly.

After packing up, the rest of the day was spent playing in the Ozarks. The scenery was amazing, but the best roads are pretty torn up. I saw a few locals blasting along, but without knowing where the pot holes were I had to ride cautiously.

To make things more interesting, Arkansas has decided to implement a citizen weed out program via the road signs on their mountain highways. Not all tight corners are created equal and the Arkansas recommended speed road signs don’t always match the corner. Four instances stand out. I rode through two very tight, first gear hairpins early in the day that were marked as 15 mph corners. No more than half an hour later I rode back to back corners marked as 10 mph corners in second gear. Good luck to anyone going the other direction on that highway, I suppose.

The road that was in the best shape with entertaining corners was Highway 123. It has some great S bends, but they’re separated with miles in between. Overall, I think the roads were fun but the scenery was much better. I think I would have enjoyed the tighter roads a lot more if I was a local and knew which corners were in good shape.

I wrapped up my day in the Ozarks with a late lunch and some supply shopping before hightailing it to a free campsite on the Illinois river just across the Arkansas/Oklahoma border. I took a short swim to rinse off the sweat from the last few days, but somewhere along the way I lost my camp soap and shampoo. In the end it didn’t matter because I was just as sweaty an hour later after making dinner and setting up camp.

Trial by Deluge (6/30/2017): AR to AR, 268 miles (0 miles dirt)

 

I spent the morning reviewing my patch job and applying another layer of rubber cement along the outside edges of the rain fly windows. A friend had also emailed the night before about a possible job matching my resume. It was a really good match, so I made use of the free internet to apply.

The rest of the day was spent getting from the very Eastern edge of Arkansas to the national forests on the West side to set myself up for a play day in the Ozarks. I had 5 hours of planned riding just in the Ozarks and wouldn’t even get to hit all of the interesting looking roads.

Just South of the Ozark National Forest is the Ouachita National Forest. I was originally planning to camp here, but I was having trouble riding only 5-6 hours a day and pushed on towards the Arkansas river via Mount Magazine Scenic byway.

Mount Magazine Scenic byway was my favorite road I had ridden so far. On the ride up from the South, it reminded me of one of the best roads in North Georgia, GA-60. On the way down the North side, it reminded me of the cruisey sections of Cherohala Skyway in TN/NC.

It also has a spectacular cliff with a great view of the valley between Ouachita National Forest and Magazine Mountain.

I again setup camp a bit early, but I wasn’t sure how easy it would be to find a site on the holiday weekend. Surprisingly, the free campsite along the river wasn’t packed out. All of the trailer and RV spots were taken, but the tent camping field right up against the river had plenty of space.

I spent the evening talking with the other tent campers and reading. Jeptha, Beverly, and Melvin had a lot of good stories, and I was able to tell some of my own about the adventure so far and previous motorcycle trips.

The easy-to-find camping early in the weekend may have had something to do with the weather forecast. The later in the evening it got, the closer the big dark thunder clouds got. They finally rolled down our side of the river just as I was getting ready to hit the sack. It was going to be an immediate trial by deluge for my patch job.

Rain, Rain, Go Away (6/29/2017): AL to AR, 350 miles (0 miles dirt)

No pictures from this day. I packed up in a drizzle that was threatening to turn into a rain storm. Fortunately, the new luggage is waterproof and I was able to leave everything packed on the bike that I didn’t need for the night.

The drizzle let up for long enough to pack the tent, but the windows on the rain flow tore at the adhesive seam when I shook it out. It’s a 6 year old tent, but it surprised me. I left the camp just in time to hit that rainstorm and popped in and out of storms all day.

About lunch time I was riding through rural Mississippi on back roads and state highways. Now, I don’t really know much about Mississippi, but I know that when you’re passing through a small town and see a local BBQ place with a half dozen pickups parked out front you stop for lunch. It was as good as those pickups promised.

I made sure to buy rubber cement and patches when I passed a Walmart, but it was threatening rain on and off all night at my next planned campsite. I pushed farther down the road to the next town with a cheap motel and stopped relatively early in the evening to take advantage of a dry space to re-glue my rain fly windows to the rain fly.

Satisfied that the first seam was holding well enough, I ran rubber cement under any other failing patches along the windows and on the outside of all the seams in hopes to seal them a little better.

Then it was phone calls with friends and more reading to round out the evening while I watched the rubber cement dry.