How to learn about traveling on a motorcycle (Horizon’s Unlimited)

And so…   Here’s the problem

When you’re preparing for a long and complex trip, such as the trip I’m planning for, you start out with two problems.  You don’t know what you don’t know, and you don’t know who to ask about all of these things that you don’t know about.  So, the issue is all about finding people that have real-world knowledge of traveling abroad on a motorcycle, and there’s a real benefit if these folks also have knowledge about crossing into countries that Americans would classify as “difficult to enter”.

I guess you could find a few good books, and start reading, and while this is a helpful way to acquire knowledge, it does not afford you to ask questions, or brainstorm.  I love to read, and I’ll most certainly read 10-20 books to prepare for this trip, it seems to me that there must be a better way to prepare.

It just so happens that there is.  And it’s called Horizon’s Unlimited

What is Horizon’s Unlimited

Horizon’s Unlimited was started some 30 years ago by Grant and Susan Johnson, a couple that decided that they wanted to travel the world on Motorcycle.  Now, their passion has evolved into a website that supports other like-minded individuals, and a series of “Traveller’s Meetings” which happen throughout any given year.

These meetings are held all over the world, but it just so happened that this past weekend (Sept 20-23, 2018) a meeting was held at the Iron Horse Lodge, in Stecoah, NC.  Over the three days of the gathering, we share ideas, ride the local roads, and interact with presenters who tell the stories of their lives, as they’ve traveled throughout the world on motorcycles.

The Gallery below shows a number of pictures of the event, including some of the demonstrations and presentations.  A list of the presentations and demonstrations can be found here.

INSERT HORIZONS PICTURES

The meetings are remarkable in that the folks that show up are generally very well traveled, and are really interested in sharing their experiences and answering your questions.

The Iron Horse (Motorcycle) Lodge

The Iron Horse Lodge is a lodge, located in Stecoah, NC, about 35 miles from the Tennessee border.  The lodge caters to motorcycles and their riders.  Located just 25 miles or so from the Tail of the Dragon, if you stay here, you’ll be perfectly situated to ride the Dragon, and enjoy so many other great roads.

The lodge offers both camping and cabins, so whether you’re looking to go low-budget, or pay for a cabin, you can get the kind of accommodations you want, but remember to book early.

Below, you’ll see photos of the lodge, and the surrounding grounds.

What kind of things can you learn?

Well, during this gathering, I was focused on learning more about travel throughout Russia, China, and the ‘Stans, in addition to wanting to learn more about video editing, and filming with drones.  As such, I attended a presentation by Chris Smith, a professional photographer.  During the presentation, I asked a number of questions (those of you that know me would be surprised if I did not ask more questions than everyone else, right?), and was very impressed with Chris’s answers, so I sat down with Chris afterward, so that I could ask more questions.

While Chris focuses on still photography, he also has some experience using drones to photograph, and to capture video.  Chris shared information about his favorite video rendering tools, and why he likes them.  In particular, he recommended Adobe Photoshop Elements, and Adobe Premiere Elements to edit photos and video.  The cost for this s/w is in the neighborhood of $200, but I have a good friend who works at Adobe, who I’ve asked for the “friends and family discount”, and I should hear back very soon.

Chris shared with me how he uses a drone to capture video footage of him, as he rides his bike in remote areas, and he also gave me suggestions for other folks that use drones effectively to video their rides.  One of them in particular is Alex Chacon, who is a social media sensation, and whom I’ talk about later.  Chris talked about his favorite drones, and why he loves them (their simple, highly functional, and can be purchased at a fair price).

Given that I’m a self-confessed gadget freak, within 6 hours of getting back home on Sunday, I had already purchased a drone that has “follow-me” capabilities, and I expect to get it very soon.  I found a drone clone for about $50 on wish.com, which is a clone of another drone which sells for more than $800, so while I’m excited about getting the drone, I’m also dubious about how well it will work.  But, by my next post, I should have received the drone, and began testing.

I’ve inserted a link to video footage taken by someone, who is riding their bike, with a drone tracking them, and collecting video of the ride.  Notice that the rider has to hang the controller around his neck, and he seems to have some pretty good drone pilot skills.

Chris also shared with me how careful he is when he’s taking pictures.  Chris will watch his subject for as long as it takes, always waiting for the subject to do something special, which will cause the photos to go from beautiful, to beautiful and exceptional.  For example, Chris was in Costa Rica taking pictures of birds, and after shooting for quite a while, he managed to capture scenes of the bird flipping a piece of fruit into the air, and then eating it.  So, we’ve got a picture of a Touchan, with a piece of fruit between his beak, but not yet eaten.  It’s a striking photo.

I asked Chris a point-blank question…  You’re a pro, and your photos look great while my photos tend to capture the essence of the moment, but none of my photos are striking.  Should I spend more time waiting for the perfect shot, or should I continue on, simply pointing and a shootin’.  Chris’s answer was interesting.  First, he laughed, and shrugged.  Then, he said that I’ll always need to keep in mind how much time I have to spend on a shot, and make the decision separately, each time I stop to take a picture.  I thought to myself…  Duh, that makes sense!

Take a look at the lodge, and also note that there were presentations on tire changing, ergonomics, outfitting your bike with Farkles, etc.

My picture-taking style aside, take a look below to see how Chris’s photo’s show so much depth and meaning.

A little bit about Chris, a professional photographer

Chris Smith is a motorcycle enthusiast, but also a photographer, and owner of Chris and Cami photography.  So, he’s well suited to help us with our photography questions, but he’s also got a day job, which keeps him busy, and traveling.  In addition to doing some commercial work, Chris also shoots weddings, and other family events, for which people wish to have a photo record.

If you’re in North Carolina, and need a photographer, don’t hesitate to talk to Chris.

Really, presentations all day?

I love listening to these presentations, but no motorcycle gathering would be complete if it didn’t include some actual motorcycle riding.  And so, I looked at a map, and decided to take the short drive to one of America’s most iconic stretches of highway, seemingly designed just for motorcyclists to enjoy themselves.  This place, this road, this bit of heaven on Earth is called “The Tail of the Dragon” and it’s located at the intersection of Hwy 28 and Hwy 129, in North Carolina, at the border with Tennessee, in a little place called Deals Gap.

Riding the Tail of the Dragon

The “Dragon” as it’s known, is 11 miles long, has 318 turns, and is as beautiful piece of asphalt as you might imagine.  And so, at 8 AM, on Saturday morning, I headed to the dragon.  The map below shows the route of the dragon.

My route began in the lower R corner of the map, and progressed through the turns, arriving at the far end where I stopped for about 60 seconds, before returning over the same route.

You’ll sometimes hear a motorcyclist talk about being in a Zen-like state while they’re riding.  This describes your ride when you’ve somehow found the ideal speed for every inch of road that you’re traveling on.  You push when you can, and you apply caution when needed, always leaning the bike to it’s maximum lean-angle, while using the brakes and throttle to let the bile flow through the turns.  Well then, it’s probably not a surprise if I say that I was in a Zen-like state on this ride.  I had checked the tire pressures, making slight adjustments to both front and rear tires.  I started the bike, and attacked the dragon.

Riding the dragon is a very popular thing to do, especially on weekends.  So, arriving at 8:45 or so was of paramount importance if I wanted to be able to ride, without having to deal with too much traffic, but even at 9AM, there was a bit of traffic to contend with.  I started my ride, and wasn’t quite sure what to expect.  Well, as it turns out, throughout the 11 miles there are turn-outs on the side of the road, and other places where professional photographers.  Each photographer has a big sign setup, indicating that the photos could be reviewed and purchased at “Highway 129 photos”.  So, I rode along, trying to keep track of the time of day, as I approached and passed these various photo stops.

As I approached one of these stops, I decided to let my arrogance get the best of me, and I pointed at the photographer as I rounded one of the turns.  Perhaps not my smartest move, but I was confident, and remember, I was in a Zen-like state.

The ride was awesome, and I really enjoyed my 22 miles of bliss.  However there were some problems with the ride, and the bike.  Let me describe what happened.

What happened, the bike won’t start…

When I was thinking about riding the Dragon, I discovered that Grant was going to do a presentation on how to change a tire “in the wild”, and I did not want to miss it.  The presentation was going to start at 10:15, and the time was now about 8:00 AM.  So, I had a little more than 2 hours to get to the dragon, run the “course” and get back to the lodge.  It was about 25 miles to the start, and then 22 miles of dragon, followed by another 25 miles of return trip.  Just about 75 miles in 2:15, this should be no problem at all, right?

I should have known I was going to have a problem when I jumped on the bike, and pressed the start button, and nothing happened.  I tried 6 more times, and eventually the bike started, and I headed toward the dragon.  During the trip, I noticed a warning light on the dash, which I believed was an indication of the tire pressure being set incorrectly in both front and rear.

A quick sidebar about key-less ignition

My bike is one of those sophisticated technical tour-DE-force motorcycles, which pushes technology toward the limits.  As such, it is equipped with Key-less Ignition, which simply allows me to keep my key in my pocket, and ride the bike without ever inserting the key.  Both the keys and the bike are trained to remember each other, and as long as either key is within proximity to the sensor, the bike will start.

The start button is mounted ahead of the gas tank, within 2″ of the dash.  The sensor however is located inside the rear fender.  Within the rear fender there is a small indentation, which is a visual indication that the sensor is mounted on the other side of the fender, in that location.

When the battery on the key wears down, and there is little, if any power available, then the signal is not strong enough to inform the bike that it (the key) is nearby.  Under these circumstances, the rider must find a way to tell the bike that the key is nearby, and that the gatekeeper of the bike should open the gates, and let the engine start.  To do this, the rider must reach under the fender, and hold the key near the sensor while they simultaneously reach up towards the dash, and press the start button.

As it turns out, I’m well suited for this task, having a nearly 80″ reach, it’s not very hard for me to make the reach, but I can’t imagine how a shorter person could do this, without any help.  I’ve inserted a little video to demonstrate.

INSERT KEY VIDEO (This video will be inserted once I receive the new editing s/w)

Now, back to the problem…

As I noted, I needed air in my tires, and I was running low on gas.  So, I pulled into a gas station on Hwy 28, at the turn-off for Fontana, NC.  After fueling up, I tried to start the bike, and had no luck.  So, I pushed the bike over to the air pump, filled the tires, and tried it again.  Still no luck…

But, it was now about 9:05 AM, and on Saturday, my local BMW dealer opens at 9AM for sales and service.  So, I gave them a call, and spoke to Michael, the Service Manager.  Over the past couple of years I’ve gotten to know Michael and Paul, the Service guys, and Mark, the owner.  All of them are really great guys, and have worked tirelessly to help me keep my bike in top running order.

I described the problem to Michael, and within 20 seconds, he had reminded me about the sensor under the rear fender.  I put the phone on speaker, reached under the fender, and performed “The Procedure”.  It worked perfectly, and so I jumped on the bike, and high-tailed it toward the dragon, which was about 10 miles from where I was.

I rode the dragon, and then rode back to the Iron Horse Lodge, just in time to arrive at 10:25, at the very beginning of Grant’s demonstration of how to change and repair a tire in the wild.

Global Security and border crossings

Another one of the presentations offered to us was a presentation about security, and how to keep yourself, your bike, and your stuff safe, as you cross through remote lands, enter and exit countries, and walk away from your bike in order to solve a problem which has arisen.

Mark XXXX has lived in Russia for 6 years near the end of the 20th century, and he shared with us a number of key points addressing all of these issues.  After the presentation, I spent another 30 minutes talking to Mark about border crossings in these remote parts of the world, and he provided sound answers to nuanced questions.

I know that I’m going to be disadvantaged by not knowing how to speak Russian or Chinese, so I’m thinking of hiring Boris and Natasha as my fixers.  But, I haven’t seen them since they were ever-present in the Hanna-Barbara cartoons of the 60s and 70s.

So, what have I done after attending this event?

It seems to me that we attend this kind of event to have fun, and to learn.  But both having fun and learning are things that must be done actively, not passively.  I mean to say that you can’t just sit there, and expect to have fun, and you can’t just sit there, and expect to be taught something.  You need to be involved, and you need to follow up.

And so, after returning from the trip, I’ve already done a number of things…

  • Purchased a drone with “follow the bike” capabilities
  • Ordered new handlebar mounts for 2nd perspective cameras
  • Ordered Adobe s/w for video and photo rendering
  • Replaced the battery in my key-less ignition FOB
  • Purchased 6 motorcycle travel books
  • Written this blog post
  • Communicated with Chris to get his approval for using his photos in my Blog

 

About the Author

Cliff Musante

Cliff Musante is a technologist, business leader, motorcycle enthusiast, father, grandfather, and more. In June, 2013 his passion for motorcycles was revitalized, and he set out to ride across Patagonia. Since then, he's logged thousands of miles, ridden across the US, and is planning a trip through Russia and China. This 'Blog is the story of all of his adventures.