The Blue Balls Express: NY to LA in 48 hours
Published on March 15 2018
Part of a series about Other people's adventures
Adventures don’t have to be long,
& you can have varying levels of disregard for your safety.
2800 miles, 48 hours
Skip and I met at a picnic area in Ignace, Ontario.
The town was a third of the way across Canada, and half way through my first touring century. Kristian and I would clock a total of 111 miles that day.
For Skip it was another anonymous stop on his meanderings around the country, up the old logging roads that occasionally shot north from the west-east highway we were riding. We barely registered these roads while riding past, but later learned that they poke hundreds of miles into the wilderness: northward detours that would’ve taken us days, if not weeks.
We swapped stories over lunch, as per road tradition. “I got my foot crushed while loading my bike onto a ferry” was Skip’s opening gambit, followed by advice to drink shots of olive oil if you’re looking for the best calorific content to weight ratio. Then, perhaps most astutely, “avoid Thunder Bay, it’s awful”.
(Over the next few days, only the stomach ache I got from testing the olive oil trick was more unpleasant than Thunder Bay.)
But the story of Skip’s ride across the United States piqued my interest most: an attempt for the east to west speed record, undertaken at a time when infrastructure wasn’t as conducive to such rides and, bafflingly, in the depths of winter.
Skip agreed to an interview which eventually took place last November. He graciously diffused my apology for this delay, and the further delay publishing this write-up: “my story has been waiting since ‘75, it just gets better with age”.
Several sheep were harmed in the making of this ride
December 1975, the George Washington bridge, New York City. Dawn.
With winter temperatures way below zero and sleet coming down, not many people would be tempted to ride several thousand miles west from that point. But weather rarely accommodates those looking to prove to the world (or to themselves) that they can do the bold, grand feat they’ve set out to do.
Resolve only offers so much protection from the elements, though.
“There was no real good weatherproof motorcycle equipment in the US in those days,” Skip tells me. “You had two companies in Britain doing it, and their stuff was waterproof, but no good in the cold”. This isn’t something that could be skimped on with winter temperatures well below what we’re familiar with in the UK.
“I improvised with a women’s sheepskin coat with its fur on the outside, but I thought to myself it’d be better off on the inside.” Kimberly, his lady friend at the time, was a seamstress, and with scissors, imagination and teamwork they were able to reverse the coat and put the wool on the inside. It was a case of form over function: “the purpose wasn’t to make it look like a garment”. She also made custom canvas covers for the bike’s garish orange jerry cans, with “Blue Balls Express” emblazoned on each side.
Conspicuousness wasn’t a consideration for Skip’s attire: over his jacket went a bright orange XXL nylon wind-shell jacket, and bespoke “outer waterproof nylon drawers with suspenders” covered his wool pants and wool long johns. Leather Harley Davidson mittens with big gauntlets and sheepskin liners kept his hands warm and dry.
Kitted out with sheep-derived clothing and a full-face helmet that could withstand anything the weather threw at it, Skip rode.
“You got any idea how fast you were going, son?”
Timestamps from Western Union offices in New York and Los Angeles verified the journey took place, and signatures from gas stations along the way verified the route. The odometer readings at each stop tell an impressive story: between 6.30pm and the following noon, he clocked 1179 miles.
The first altercation with the law came about 120 miles into the ride, on an icy roadside in the Pocono Mountains. This part of the story started with Skip reminiscing about the policeman’s boots (“they were rubber, just perfect”), which may seem a strange detail to remember, but the encounter began with him only just avoiding slipping over and being crushed under the bike while dismounting. Not the smoothest way to introduce yourself to an officer who’s considering whether to arrest you.
This is the one drawback of aiming to break a speed record with a motorised vehicle on public roads: an inherent temptation – and sometimes necessity – to ignore the speed limits to get where you want to be on time*.
But legal recourse was avoided, with just a stern reminder to slow down for the rest of Pennsylvania and a warning that he’d radio ahead to the police in Ohio, a good few hours away. If Skip arrived at the state line sooner than the speed limit allowed, they’d know he’d been loose with the speeding laws again.
Coming down from the mountains brought dry roads and the first sun since leaving New York. He tells me how he “twisted the tube and started to fly” to celebrate. “I was just going, Chris, you wouldn’t believe it.”
“140-160mph is normal for a motorcycle now, they all do that. But in those days going over a hundred was a real risk”. He was riding in the breakdown lane too, not allowing himself to slow down. The image of a fluorescent orange blur cruising down the highway, out of reach of any pursing vehicles, is amusing. At this point he saw sirens coming toward him in all lanes.
“What the heck?” He pulled over to let the sirens pass, but soon found himself sandwiched between several police cars who’d been unable to catch up, and the back-up they’d called in from ahead. There were six or seven officers “jumping up and down” shouting at him, seemingly less forgiving than the guy in Pocono.
“We’re gonna arrest you son, but we’re not taking your motorcycle. Follow us, and if we lose sight of you we’ll put you down”. He did as he was told, following to a small town with a courthouse, wondering en route how long he’d have to wait before getting on the road again. It was the middle of the night at this point.
In town the magistrate was called for a short-notice late-night trial. The list of offences reeled off – driving over 100mph, driving out of lane, driving to endanger – but incredibly, some combination of admiration and ambivalence toward the law led the ringleader of the police officers to fight in Skip’s corner. “Don’t put him in jail, just fine him.”
A fine was issued, way above what Skip could afford to pay. The officer stepped in again to negotiate on his behalf, and had the fine dropped to $120 – down from “a lot of money”, as Skip described it.
So he paid up, returned to the bike, and got some gas from the station across the road (“it was too soon to fill up, but I figured I should use the opportunity”). Then he went on his way to St Louis.
I could almost hear a wry smile in his voice when he told me about the outcome of this encounter.
Out for the west
Skip rode some more.
There were no further run-ins with the law, just thousands of miles of open road with ever-dwindling energy reserves and time to make up.
His bike- a borrowed 1974 Silver Smoke R90s – was equipped with two 5 gallon plastic jerry cans on each side to optimise fuel capacity and minimise stops. The jugs were set on custom carriers, just high enough to clear the mufflers, and were plumbed together with their fuel lines connected to the standard lines just above the banjo fittings.
So while time was saved on fuel stops, we wondered how much time had been added by not being able to go full throttle the whole way*, and by roadside conversations with policemen. Then we wondered, perhaps more sensibly, how long the ride would’ve taken if legal speed limits were observed along the way.
Google Maps reckons about 42 hours non-stop with today’s roads. Skip isn’t quick to recommend a similar ride to this generation of riders though, despite better infrastructure. “Current automobile technology instils a false sense of confidence – so everyone drives too effing fast”.
For people prioritising speed he offers tips to streamline time moving from the traditional (“only eat at fuel stops”), to the ingeniously creative (“grow a big beard so you can crumble up flapjack and drop it through your visor, then it will stay on the beard until you open your mouth”).
He stopped short of recommending peeing through a tube though – “a trucker trick”.
The only other hitch Skip encountered was looking down and seeing a sidecar on his bike that hadn’t been there when he set off from NY, complete with Kimberly sitting inside. “She used to love riding in that thing”, he says. This was 40 hours into the ride when, thanks to zero sleep, mild hallucinations started to kick in.
But despite odds stacked against him he arrived safe and sound. The first stop in Los Angeles was a public park where he collapsed into sleep for a few hours before being woken up by a kind stranger at dusk, with the advice not to spend the night there. The second was the YMCA for a warm shower and a softer, safer bed.
Skip’s gung-ho attitude hasn’t dwindled with age. When we spoke in November there was an epilogue to the foot-crushing story: turns out he’d been riding for several weeks with a broken bone which a doctor, after seeing Skip stride defiantly into his office brandishing a cane, didn’t dare tell him not to ride on. “Just take it easy”, was the advice.
(It was a “mildly displaced comminuted intra-articular fracture at the base of the fifth metatarsal”, if you’re curious).
The underlying ethos of his rides has changed, though. I mentioned we met while he was meandering gently around backwater Canada, rather than pursuing any speed records. Skip captured the shift in attitude best in an email:
“I used to say, back in my youth, I went fast enough so I would never be hit from behind. Now I sez’ to myself, what’s the hurry, slow down, watch your back, pull aside and wave the tailgaters on.”
After speaking with him the temptation is strong to spend weeks doing what took him days. But slowly, off the highways, and not wearing fluorescent orange.
At his request, Skip’s real identity was kept anonymous. Of the story he says “I don’t know who cares anymore, I don’t need to be famous or infamous”. A humble attitude to an impressive feat.
* I don’t condone speeding.