2023 Iron Butt Rally: Day 1 - Aperitifs
19 June ’23
Trust your fear, trust that the machine is going to work for you, trust your training. Your name wasn’t picked out of a hat.
-- Astronaut Mike Massimino
Slept like a baby, up at 6:30 for one last Dunkies, and breakfast of fruit and eggs. Everyone is getting into the zone now, so few people were at breakfast and even fewer felt sociable - game faces are getting firmly set. I went back upstairs to fetch the bags I was leaving at the hotel, and shortly after 8am moved my bike into the #2 position, getting my final odo check and the coveted orange dot sticker on my headlight that attested to my final sign-off from tech – I was set to go.
Nothing else to do for the next hour, other than get the rest of the gear out of the hotel room and stored on the bike. I had a few quiet, private conversations with other riders and IBR finishers who were only spectators this year; as much as I felt ready to go and steady, it was nice to get the check in. Thanks, you know who you are!
I took the time to get the bike squared away; I was running light on this rally, leaving most of my usual travel gear stowed in the hotel storage room. I usually run with 2 22-liter pannier, carrying all the clothes I’ll need, including street clothes, extra this and that, a nice dress in case I need to go out to dinner, swim suit for emergencies, etc.. This time, I was running one topper with 4-5 changes of underwear, 3-4 pairs of wool socks, a backup set of LD Comfort base layers, pajamas, and my dopp kit.. why pajamas? I dunno, sure, I can fall asleep in my gear, but for the best possible sleep, a quick shower and changing into pajamas does wonders for my getting as much relaxation and recharge out of shut-eye as possible. The other topper was barely packed, with only the sleeping mat I picked up at REI the week before and the really warm fleece pullover we got as part of the rally swag. There simply wouldn’t been any need for any other clothing the next 11 days.
I filled up my 1-gallon hydration jug with water and ice from the station setup in the portico outside the hotel, and wandered the lot a bit, chit-chatting with Team Kiwi (Chris and Stella Wiltshire) and just checking in with everyone else I recognized. The morning was already a little muggy, so I sat inside the hotel lobby and the A/C until the final rider meeting at 9:45, held in a patch of shade cast onto the tarmac by the trees along the creek bank. Dale squawked his bullhorn, and he and the rallymasters gave us our final instructions. Short and sweet - be safe, be smart, no changes to the rally book, etc.
9:55am, back to our bikes, a hundred and some engines firing up early and throbbing away in nervous anticipation. You might know the sound, if you’ve been at the starting line of a motorsport racing, nervous throttles spinning open throaty, eager yowls from crashing cylinders, here and there an accidental horn bleating surprise. You might know the sound, but unless you’ve sat waiting for the GO signal, you don’t know the sound inside the helmet, the heartbeats and breaths that push down the cacophony of machine, until the noise is just a vibration, the engine beneath you keeping better time than any watch, ticking away in drops of vaporized petroleum the seconds until you can, if everything goes right and you don’t dump the clutch or drop the bike like some squid, smoothly roll on the power and cleanly parade your way past the honking and flashing of the 120 other people who share this same weird compulsion to ride and ride and ride and never stop, who coughed up the 4-digit entry fee for the pleasure of being Jeff Earls’ plaything as he dangles meaningless points in front of you, goading you to the far edges of the map, all the while knowing you HAVE TO BE IN TULSA, OKLAHOMA IN 61 HOURS which is ridiculous, how is that even possible, who in their right mind oh shit, Warchild is talking to Ken Andrews in front of me, a brief hug, quiet prayer, and a slap on the shoulder, and Ken is moving confidently forward leaving on this amazing adventure and wait no, I’m not ready, Dale, stop, a quiet prayer, a slap on my shoulder, no one in front of me Ken has rounded the corner, crap I’m supposed to follow him, right right ok got this wait I’m already moving, I didn’t stall the bike, move confidently and carefully, oh man Bob Lilley is RIGHT BEHIND YOU can he pass me in the parking lot?!?
Local PD guided us through the first of 2 red lights between the hotel parking lot and the I-376 onramp.. smack into a small traffic jam as a dump truck decided it had to stop at the light instead of following the cop’s direction to clear the intersection, backing us all up. Lilley was having none of this, and crossed into the opposing lane of traffic to cut around the block, which seemed a little risky to me - I was nerves, but an extra 10 seconds wasn’t going to make a difference, as impatient as I was. I then got to slooooowly follow the dump truck up the on-ramp, a string of riders behind me.. frustrating! I saw a gap in traffic and cracked the throttle wide, crossing the rumble stripped gore and getting right into the flow of morning traffic. A few riders passed me, but we were already moving at the 10-15mph over that local drivers seemed to consider normal, so I didn’t pay any heed to anyone who wanted to race.
It only took about 5 minutes before I came to my first turn, heading south on I-79. Only one of the riders who passed me took this turn, while the rest continued east, obviously heading for the New England Loop. Was a Southeastern Sweep going to be a bad idea? Riders behind me turned as well, and I slowed down a bit and let folks overtake me and set pace. I fell in with the Rufos - Lisa and Molly, the first mother/daughter 2-up team, and Stephen, as well as someone else behind me. A nice little pack, we set a good pace for 20 minutes, eventually turning west on I-70 towards Columbus, OH. Riders would occasionally pass, sometimes we’d pass them, and it soon was clear to me that lots of people would be heading to the same first bonus location.
After crossing through the northern arm of West Virginia, through the tunnels of Wheeling, WV, we soon crossed into Ohio, and I noticed that I’d forgotten to top off the fuel last night. No worries, I had plenty of range, being only down a couple gallons, but the last cup of Dunkies this morning prompted me to pull over about 45 minutes after the start for a quick bathroom break and a splash of gas. It might have cost me a few minutes, but I knew that the first bonus I had in mind - a specific statue of a corn cob in a field FULL of statues of corn cobs - would be much simplified if I arrived a few minutes after the rest of the pack. I wouldn’t have to waste time trying to locate the right statue if I rolled up and walked over to where the clot of other riders were taking photos!
By the time I got to Columbus, OH, the grey skies that had threatened rain at the start started to release their payload, a warm, muggy drizzle, very much like a proper Seattle storm. I fell in behind Danny Dossman for the last couple miles of city highway, before hopping off and meandering through office parks to the first bonus of my 2023 Iron Butt Rally.
1) OHD - Field of Corn - Dublin, OH - 1,267 pts
Take a photo of the one concrete ear of corn with the damaged, missing kernel 5 rows from the top of the ear. Yes, you will need to search the field for the correct ear.
I pulled up and saw that my cunning plan had worked; there were easily 20 bikes already here, precariously parked along a narrow drive adjacent to the park, a multi-acre green field with 109 6’ tall concrete ears of corn perched on end. A small crowd of riders was gathered around one particular ear, so I hustled over, confirmed it was the right one, and got my picture.
|198 miles, 2h55m
|198 miles, 2h55m
One thing I started doing during Heart of Texas was to photograph my bike’s odometer and the current time at each bonus. Since we had to fill out paperwork by hand recording the mileage and time of each bonus. The photo helps document the stop when I went back later to review the sheet before I turn it in for scoring.
With business done, I was off to my next bonus. I was, according the itinerary, 9 minutes ahead of schedule… would that hold?
2) O3 - Popeyes Louisiana Kitchen - Cincinnati, OH - 73 pts
Get a receipt from any approved Popeyes location and take a photo of the same restaurant with your motorcycle in the photo.
I had to stop for a potty break anyways, so when I saw Popeye’s on an exit sign along I-71 on the outskirts of Cincinnati, OH, I ducked off to get my bonus (along with a spicy chicken sandwich, since it was technically lunch time.) I ate half the sandwich, saving the rest for later.. I mean, I’ve got all those pre-packed bags of somewhat healthy snacks to eat, too!
Service was a bit slow, and all-told the stop took about 20 minutes, from getting off the highway to getting back on. A nagging thought bubbled up in the back of my head; these “fast” food stops were going to eat up a ton of my time. I sure hope my guess as to them being valuable over the course of the rally plays out, or I’m going to waste a lot of valuable time for fairly little reward.
|98 miles, 1h52m
|296 miles, 4h47m
3) OHCI - Kroger - Cincinnati, OH - 541 pts
Take a photo of the large produce mural on the east face of the Kroger office building.
Cincinnati was quiet, and I was glad for it as I had to navigate their downtown streets of slick brick and trolley tracks. I had a couple “traction control” moments, and pulled in just as another rider was leaving.. and another one pulled in as I left.
|19 miles, 0h29m
|314 miles, 5h16m
4) G5 - White Castle - Cincinnati, OH - 235 pts
Get a receipt from any approved White Castle location and take a photo of the same restaurant with your motorcycle in the photo.
The next stop was right across the river. I was slightly excited about this one, since I’d never been to a White Castle before… and now I miss who I used to be, someone innocent and pure. The place was a grimy, dirty disaster, took forever and a day to get the most basic menu item (their infamous sliders) of which I took one bite and spit it out onto the pavement by the bike. Absolute garbage.
|2 miles, 0h16m
|316 miles, 5h32m
That 9-minute buffer I had coming out of the first bonus location? Gone.. along with 30 additional minutes. These Gut Bomb Bingo stops were going to eat my schedule if I wasn’t careful.
5) KYW - Hall’s on the River - Winchester, KY - 727 pts
Take a photo of Hall’s On The River with your motorcycle in the photo.
Kentucky apparently has a “Beer Cheese Trail” you can wander down, sampling the various award-winning offerings of pubs and taverns throughout the region. Hall’s is on the list for having won Best Of awards for its particular blend of said delicacy, although I didn’t have time to sample it. Located a few miles off the interstate, past horse farms and small hamlets in a small holler carved out by the Kentucky River, the persistent rain had made their sloped parking lot slicker than pig snot. I gingerly pulled in beside Russ & Cathy Neal, who were just finishing their own photo. I lost my footing briefly when dismounting, but undeterred, I snapped a photo, said a little curse for good luck, and went on my way.
|96 miles, 1h37m
|412 miles, 7h09m
GPS and Waze agreed on a weird route, backtracking first past several horse farms then down a single-lane (but paved!) twisty hill road that cut through a Christian Bible camp before dumping me on a frontage road just shy of an on-ramp. Heading south, I stopped briefly in Mount Vernon, KY for gas, getting into a great conversation with a local who opened not with “where ya from?” or “I used to have a bike” but “how big is that extra fuel tank?” A retired welder himself, he was duly impressed with Lincoln Seals work, and after a few minutes of casual chat around “what’s it like in Seattle?” I managed to get back on the road.
6) G3 - Long John Silver’s - Corbin, KY - 113 pts
Get a receipt from any approved Long John Silver’s location and take a photo of the same restaurant with your motorcycle in the photo.
I was settling into rally mode at this point, clicking off miles, and called Gabby to chat for a bit. I wasn’t really watching the GPS, so didn’t notice until after I turned off I-75 onto US-25E that I was heading for the Cumberland Gap, where I’d last ventured during LDX last year. I spotted a Long John Silvers, and while I knew they were pretty common, I wasn’t used to seeing them, so rather than gamble on another one popping up in my travels, I hung up with Gabby and pulled in to claim another Gut Bomb Bingo bonus.
|82 miles, 1h29m
|494 miles, 8h38m
I called Gabby back, and chatted until I lost signal amongst the Appalachian hills. I briefly thought about stopping at the National Historic Park to grab a stamp, but I was already really behind schedule, and they were long closed as I passed them by, cutting through the tunnel and into Harrogate, TN past Lincoln Memorial University. I gave the statue of old Honest Abe a wave as I passed, remembering this stop on Day 5 of my 2022 LDX rally as a high-point, where I recovered from a sucky Day 4. What kind of low points would I see over the next 10 days? Would a sunny afternoon and a statue of a founding father lift my spirits then?
US-25E is a fun, fast road of sweeping curves through the hills of eastern Tennessee, and I easily made up some time here before crossing Cherokee Lake, a TVA-era hydroelectric and flood-control reservoir, and turned onto the commercial strip of Morristown, TN.
7) N3 - Pal’s Sudden Service - Morristown, TN - 358 pts
8) B2 - Cook Out - 294 pts
9) G1 - Bojangle’s Famous Chicken n’ Biscuits - 237 pts
10) O5 -Taco John’s - 158 pts
11) N1 - Freddy’s Frozen Custard and Steakburgers - 128 pts
My target was a pair of bingo locations that were very small regional chains isolated to the southeast - Pal’s Sudden Service and Cook Out. Both were located next to each other, and both were staffed by Very Nice Young Men who, when I tried to order a small sweet tea, politely said “No charge, ma’am” and then looked slightly confused and/or offended when I insisted on paying, not understanding why I needed a receipt.
While finishing the paperwork, I noticed across the street was a Bojangles, so I zipped over there and went through the same script - order a small tea, then have to insist on paying. Realizing I was on a major commercial strip, I took a minute and compared my bingo cheat sheet to what Google Maps was showing me, and I spotted a Taco Johns and a Freddy’s also on this same stretch, so I knocked them out as well.
Well, it was a slow series of stops, burning up all the time I made up through the Cumberland Gap, but I was 1,200 points further ahead!
|94 miles, 2h15m
|588 miles, 10h53m
As I was leaving Freddy’s, I realized I hadn’t checked in to Johanna, so I gave Coach Jo a call and we chatted for half an hour or so. Heading south, I picked up I-40 and headed west for a stretch before turning south towards Pigeon Forge and Gatlinburg when I said goodnight to Jo, promising to stay in touch during the rally. It was about then that I noticed the lightning on the horizon, and I stopped to check out the weather radar.
I was getting a little sleepy at this point, between the weather, the junk food stops, and the sun having set, so I pulled into the Sevierville Visitors Center and took a nap while waiting for the storm cell to pass. I’m glad I did, as the wind kicked up and hail started washing over the parking lot in writhing, pulsing sheets of icy pellets… no thanks!
They had these really comfy rocking chairs set out, so I dozed right off, just a quick 25-minute disco nap, and the rain settled down to a steady but not overwhelming soaking. While waiting, I texted a few people with check-ins, and had a little glucose snack to wake up the ol’ brain. All in all, I spent about 40 minutes off the bike. I felt the keen edge of competition calling me on, and I was struggling with purposefully moving slowly instead of rushing headlong into the drenched night. Why am I doing this, if I’m not competing? Maybe running a “rookie ride” isn’t the best plan.. maybe what I need to do is get back on the bike and GO!
Back on the road, I didn’t realize I’d be going through Pigeon Forge, right past Dollywood and all the satellite attractions, like Ripley’s Museum, an aquarium, zip lines, ATV rentals.. every kind of tourist trap business imaginable.. it being after 9pm on a Monday, all were closed, traffic was erratic, and as I wiggle through the mess to downtown Gatlinburg, the rain clicked up in intensity 3 more notches until it was a veritable deluge. I had to slow down well below the speed limit with my hazard lights on, and I was starting to second guess if it was at all a good idea to be out here at all.
12) TNGA - Pancake Pantry - Gatlinburg, TN - 586 pts
Take a photo of the Pancake Pantry building.
The streets of Gatlinburg were a flowing torrent of water 8” deep in spots, water crashing through gutters, picking up all manner of trash and debris. I managed to find a place to park, and drenched despite my rain gear, struggled to take a photo while keeping the expensive, single-purpose digital camera out of the rain, taking multiple photos just to be sure I would get credit.
|47 miles, 1h50m
|635 miles, 12h43m
Leaving Gatlinburg, I headed east on US-321, skirting the northern edge of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. The night was rainy and dark, with on-coming traffic around blind corners making it difficult to use my aux lights to really see much, so I took it slow and cautiously until I managed to get east ahead of the rain; it was really coming down, but it wasn’t moving fast, so soon enough I found myself out from under it. I came to a T intersection, and Wave wanted me to go right, Garmin left. I usually trust Waze, but as soon as I turned onto the new road I saw ahead of me a giant sign warning of “UNMAINTAINED MOUNTAIN ROAD” and something about GPS being incorrect. The sign sure looked official, so I decided to trust Garmin, and almost immediately after turning around and going the other direction, Waze picked up the new route.. I guess it just really wanted to save my 50 feet of travel or something.
I soon turned onto the Foothills Parkway, a beautiful little road that I would love to try sometime in daylight! It ended after about 8 miles at an interchange with I-40, a road I know all too well. I was feeling a bit sleepy at this point, so as I crossed into North Carolina I stopped at the rest area/welcome center to put my soaked jacket under the hand dryer while I checked the map for a cheap motel up ahead to get a couple hours of sleep. Everything for 40 miles was booked up, and feeling pretty beat I opted instead for another power nap. A convenient picnic table under cover, a bit away from the bathrooms and on the opposite side of the rest area from the big idling trucks looked appealing, so I racked out around 12:15am, which seems like a good place to end this day’s report.