Islander’s motorcycle trip across the country honors the past

Nancy and Chris O’Brien tend to Chris’ vintage motorcycle under the awning of their van.
                                Courtesy Photo
                                Nancy and Chris O’Brien tend to Chris’ motorcycle under the awning of their van (Courtesy Photo).

Nancy and Chris O’Brien tend to Chris’ vintage motorcycle under the awning of their van. Courtesy Photo Nancy and Chris O’Brien tend to Chris’ motorcycle under the awning of their van (Courtesy Photo).

From the time he was a boy, islander Chris O’Brien heard stories about his grandmother’s cousin Alan Bedell, who set a record crossing the country on a Henderson motorcycle in 1917. It took him just seven days and 16 hours to ride from California to New York. Last month, O’Brien completed a cross-country venture in that same spirit — riding his own 1917 Henderson as part of the Motorcycle Cannonball, considered the most difficult antique endurance run in the world. O’Brien’s trip, from Portland, Maine, to Portland, Oregon, lasted for 17 days.

“What a way to see America,” he said last week. “I wanted to do a tribute to Alan Bedell for decades, but I, number one, did not have the motorcycle and number two, did not have the time,” he added, noting that prior to this year, his career as a neurologist and his responsibilities as a husband and father had prevented him from doing so. “That was just a dream.”

Now, retired and having recently completed the 3,700 mile journey, he is looking forward to competing in the next Motorcycle Cannonball in 2020. Then he will ride a slightly newer bike: a 1928 Henderson, one of several old bikes he owns and likes to tinker with at his shop in Dockton.

The Motorcycle Cannonball is named after Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, who set the first cross country record, 11 days, in 1914 on his Indian motorcycle. The Cannonball website says that the event’s founder, Lonnie Isam, Jr., wanted “to see the scenic Americana landscape one mile at a time from the saddle of ancient iron with his riding buddies.” He believed old bikes should be tended to and ridden.

“His logic was that if the motorcycle greats could make those miles on the early machines, many with no roads whatsoever, certainly modern riders could do the same,” the website states.

As one of those modern riders, O’Brien explained the pull of riding an old bike across the country.

“These bikes are special,” he said. “They bring you back, they make you slow down, they make you appreciate the history not only of motorcycles, but of America.”

The roots of O’Brien’s trip go back to his grandmother’s stories of Bedell and research he did on his own over 20 years. Bedell was born in Mont Clare, New Jersey, O’Brien said, but as a young man, he headed west and worked for the forest service in Arizona and California, where riding a motorcycle was part of his job. He went on to open a motorcycle dealership in California, selling Indians and Harley Davidsons. But he soon found a way to bring more buyers to his shop.

“Then as now the way to sell bikes was to get publicity for winning races and setting records,” O’Brien said.

Bedell started competing, sometimes in 24-hour races around wooden tracks and other times in long distance competitions. After Baker set his cross country record, as O’Brien tells it, Bedell knew he could do better. His choice was a Henderson, a four-cylinder motorcycle first produced in 1912 in Detroit, designed and built by William Henderson.

In June of 1917, Bedell, then 21, set off from Los Angeles bearing a letter from a military commander, bound for another military leader in Staten Island, New York. He arrived less than eight days later.

“That was shattering,” O’Brien said. “That was a transcontinental milestone.”

Bedell would not live long. With a young bride and World War I underway, Bedell shipped off to boot camp, where he died in the flu pandemic of 1918.

Still, the adventure stories were passed on in Bedell’s and O’Brien’s family, and O’Brien was a young man himself when he and his wife Nancy bought their first motorcycle in 1974 as college students.

“It was a choice. Do we rent a cabin for a week for a vacation, or do we buy a motorcycle and go camping? We bought a motorcycle and went camping,” he said. “Of course the motorcycle broke, and I had to learn how to fix it. And then I bought another one and fixed that one. It became just part of my life for the next 40 years.”

O’Brien, now 62, would go on to become a neurologist in Denver and then a chief medical officer of a biotechnology company in California. With his knowledge of the brain, he said he compartmentalized some of the risks motorcycles bring — and continued riding throughout the years.

“I was motorcyclist first and a neurologist second. I have always ridden, but I have been a careful rider. I always wear a helmet, and I appreciate that there are risks in life,” he said. “We are all going to die, and you choose what gives you joy and what risks you are willing to take, and I get incredible joy from fixing and riding motorcycles.”

And so, fueled in part by that joy — and helped by contacts in the vintage motorcycle community — he began acquiring parts to build a 1917 Henderson: the frame, front forks, engine and tank.

“It became very clear to me that to do a Cannonball, you have to have a really well prepared motorcycle because 3,000 or 4,000 miles of hard riding on an antique bike is a challenge no matter who you are,” he said.

A Henderson expert in New York state built the bike, while others painted it and fabricated parts. O’Brien brought the bike back to the island last October with the intent of putting as many miles on it as he could to make sure it was ready for the big trip — somewhat of a challenge on Vashon, where the longest road can be driven in less than a half hour.

In August, Chris and Nancy O’Brien loaded up his motorcycle in their van and drove across country, stopping to see friends and family along the way.

Finally, Sept. 8, the first day of the Motorcycle Cannonball, arrived; 106 bikers set out from Portland, Maine, on bikes dating from 1911 to 1928 and with participants from all over the world, Italy, Japan, Germany, Ireland and Canada among the countries represented.

The riders had to complete the day’s route by a set time in the evening or be docked points. Sometimes, O’Brien said, organizers would add in secret check points, serving as a deterrent from heading off the two-lane roads in search of a highway. GPS was not allowed. Instead, every morning riders were given directions for the day on a scroll—which they put in a simple handcrank box on their handlebars for viewing and kept an eye on their odometers, calculating just where to turn.

Each night the entourage of more than 200 people would stay at the same hotel and take over the parking lot.

“It would be like a circus,” O’Brien said. “They put up their tents and awnings and trailers and vans, and the lights would come out and generators, and people would spend all night working on their bikes. Some people had to rebuild their engines — at night.”

Points were given for every mile correctly completed each day. While riders had support crews — his included his wife and a good friend from Ottawa, Canada, whose brother was riding a Henderson with O’Brien — contact between motorcyclists and their support teams was not allowed until the day’s ride was over.

And so for about eight hours every day — with one day of rest added in — O’Brien and his fellow riders rode through the back roads and small towns of nearly every northern state between Maine and Oregon, passing through the twisty roads and hills of Vermont, with its stone fences and round barns; the flat, green fields of Iowa, where they could see nothing but corn on either side of them; on into Eastern Washington, where they rode by decades worth of farm tractors and trucks in open fields, used hard and then put aside.

Traveling at 40 to 45 miles per hour on two-lane roads through the rural United States, the days were filled with sight-seeing, he said. There were low times, of course, among them, including contending with powerful head winds in South Dakota and a cold, wet climb in Montana. But Montana held one of the highlights, too, on a trip up the famed Going to the Sun Road. It was a cold morning, threatening rain and snow, but as riders entered the park, the clouds parted, shafts of sunlight came down, and pockets of rain were visible off in the distance, as was a grizzly bear grazing nearby.

“By then you are one with your machine after that many days of riding,” he said, recalling the day. “The views are spectacular, and you are riding with your friends.”

The trip came to a close just a few days later, nearly 4,000 miles after it had begun.

“I think it is good to appreciate the past and understand where we have come from and what people went through keeping these old bikes going,” he said, reflecting on the ride and all that led up to it. “It gives many of us a lot of joy tinkering on these old machines, keeping them going.”

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