The Billings Rally and the trip home
I was surprised and more than a little touched by the number of people who had been following Barley’s fight with lymphoma. We hadn’t even rolled to a stop in front of the registration building when people began shouting hellos and well wishes. So many greeted us inside that it was hard to get registered! But eventually we were able to present our membership cards and get our wristbands (collar band for Barley), then motor onto the fairgrounds to find a place to pitch our tent. It had to be around people, as he loves to socialize, but remote enough so we didn’t have to worry about riders going a tad fast on their way past. We selected a grassy patch adjacent to a busy boulevard. Ambien and beer would help me deal with the traffic noise, and the spot had the advantage of being under a tree that provided a bit of shade.
We set up our tent, changed into more comfortable attire (shorts and sandals for me, a loose-fitting vest for Barley), ate dinner together then explored the fairgrounds to get the lay of the land. As is often the case, we ended up in the beer tent just making friends. While there, the wind picked up significantly. A cloud of dirt and grit blew off the nearby bluffs; a few tents were blown across the grounds. When Barley and I returned to our tent we found new neighbors…and the large branch that had been our shade hanging by a thread directly over our tent!
With help from half a dozen fellow campers, we picked up the tent and moved it out of harm’s way, pulled the branch down and moved it to the side, then put the tent back in place, sans shade. It was a novel sort of social mixer, with the group gathered round making introductions and sharing stories of their rides from home. Barley soaked up all the affection the group had to offer.
Thursday was the official opening day of the rally. Barley and I had breakfast with some new friends, then made rounds of the vendors. Unfortunately, I’m the sort of rally goer the vendors really don’t want to see. Having reached the point a couple years ago where I was completely happy with how my bikes were setup, I was driven more by a sense of curiosity than need. We said hello to several of the vendors whose products we use, and whose phenomenal customer support we appreciate, but left empty-handed.
Eric Ristau, producer of the documentary Sit, Stay, Ride: The Story of America’s Sidecar Dogs, was to have presented his film in person, but had been unable to attend. In his stead, Barley and I had been asked to fill in. I was a little nervous as I knew nothing about film making, and was up front about that. My plan was to introduce the film, show it, and offer a Q&A session afterwards. Security helped by opening an overhead door so we could roll our rig inside – the ultimate show and tell. And it went very well. After the showing well over half the audience joined us in the back of the room to examine our sidecar setup and ask questions.
Q: How did you train him? A: Barley took to the sidecar from the start. Over the years we’ve each morphed a bit, with each of us attuned to the needs of the other, but he was a natural.
Q: How much ground can you cover in a day? A: We’ve done 850 miles in a day across the Midwest trying to outrun a storm, but 350-500 is an average transit, with less than that when we shift into explorer mode. As we both age I find we tend to slow down and explore a bit more.
Q: What sort of fuel economy do you get? A: Sidecars are heavy and increase your sail area significantly. On the old US Highways I can get 32mpg if I keep it around 55mph. Doing 85mph into a stiff headwind on I-90 I managed only 18mpg. It’s nice to have speed when you need it, but you pay a huge penalty.
Q: How do you deal with veterinary needs on the road? A: I belong to an online network of golden retriever people. Prior to each trip I ask those along my route which veterinarian they trust with their own dogs. Also, because of my medical background, my local vet ensures that I’m well stocked for trips.
Q: What sort of medical supplies do you carry? A: I carry three bundles. The first contains only life-saving basics in case we come across a crash. I call that my Oh-Shit Kit and it’s kept in plain view in case someone needs it for me. The second contains minor first aid stuff like tweezers, aspirin, bandaids and such. The third is for Barley and contains canine pain killers, antibiotics, steroids, and dog-specific trauma equipment.
Q: Do you ever ride with your wife? A: Occasionally, but she doesn’t enjoy it and to be perfectly honest about it I find her screams somewhat distracting. Barley is good for hundreds of miles, day after day. He has absolute faith in my riding abilities, never criticizes my dietary choices, hangs on my every word as if it’s the most profound thing he’s ever heard, and snuggles better than my wife.
Presenting at the rally was a fantastic experience and we both thank the BMW MOA for the opportunity! We made several new friends, were able to further the dreams of several riders who were searching for a way to bring their cherished dogs with them, and the interaction was absolutely therapeutic in Barley’s fight for life.
That evening we walked to Applebee’s with a handful of new friends, where we enjoyed dinner, drinks and great conversation. We met a woman who actually completed an Iron Butt Ride on a scooter! Barley curled up at my side, diligently watching for sloppy eaters among us. We walked back to the fairgrounds in crazy traffic and said our goodnights. Barley and I meandered around the grounds until we were discovered by the delightfully crazy bunch at Camp Glockenspiel.
The name, if I recall correctly, came from the fact that the sign was left behind at a previous event, and was free. Free is something that appeals to my sense of New England Thriftiness, so I was all in. A cold beer was placed in my hand. Barley was offered grilled ahi, grilled steak, grilled bratwurst, grilled chicken, and cold water. We were both very happy campers! The next evening we returned with a bottle of Scotch and received an even warmer welcome!
Long after Barley is gone I will carry with me fond memories of the Billings Rally. Escaping the heat by curling up with him on the cool concrete floor of the vendor building. Giving him commands in a language I thought nobody else would know and having a passerby laugh as he realized I was using Tamarian commands from Star Trek. Barley’s excited barking and play-bowing as he recognized friends from previous years. The way he salivated while watching the ducklings in the pond. Waiting patiently in line at Subway, then having him jump up and plant both paws on the counter as if ready to place his order. But most of all for the kindness shown him by members of the BMW Motorrad family. So many lives have been touched by this dog of mine…
We broke camp early Saturday morning, said our goodbyes, and after a few construction delays passed through Red Lodge by mid-morning. There was some sort of antique car show in town, and we marveled at the old Fords and Chevys of an age that never survived the road salt of the east. We reached Beartooth Pass by late morning. The chill in the air felt fantastic after the heat of Billings, and we made several stops along the way. Half a dozen couples were preparing to mount their shiny Harleys as we reached one pullout. The riders took one look at Barley and immediately decided to prolong their stay. Barley loves motorcyclists and women with squeaky, excited voices. In this group he found both, and happily told them all about his life of adventure! This particular group had ridden together for a while, generally trailering to a central spot then making a series of daytrips from there. Next year they were planning on visiting New England, so I shared contact info and offered to scout out some routes for them. Paved, of course.
Over Beartooth we rode, then over Chief Joseph and across the arid Big Horn Basin to Ten Sleep. Left at Ten Sleep onto Hwy 16 up and over the southern Big Horns to Buffalo, WY. I-90 at a high rate of speed past Gillette to Moorcroft, WY, then angling down to Newcastle before crossing into South Dakota at Custer. South through Hot Springs all the way back to our friend, Dan, in Chadron, Nebraska. We loaded up the trailer and headed east toward home.
The drive home was fast and boring, with Barley nevertheless insisting on taking it all in to the point of exhaustion. Eventually he fell asleep draped over the storage compartment between the seats, with his head in my lap and his rear in the passenger seat. There were only two moments of excitement. The first came in Iowa in the wee hours of the morning when I realized that US Highway 20 was unlike the Interstate in one respect: there were no open gas stations after midnight. I actually had to pull over at one point and use the emergency gas supply from the sidecar. Finally, just when I thought I should find the nearest gas station and park until it opened with the dawn, we found an all-night station and refueled.
We retrieved our truck and trailer in Chadron, Nebraska, loaded up the rig and immediately headed east. Barley refuses to rest during the drive. He sits up and studies the world even as his body begins to slump from exhaustion. It’s as if he knows this will be his last adventure and he doesn’t want to miss anything. I pull over to take breaks and let him sleep now and then
Two days later we reached Pennsylvania where we were able to visit our friends, Linda and Dennis. Linda has had a special bond with Barley for years, as he looks remarkably like her own departed golden. With a high likelihood that this would be Barley’s last big adventure, I wanted them to see each other again. Barley leaned into her and told her all about his latest trip.
Eight hours later we were home.