Smoked. Heart pounding in my ears and gasping for air, my right hand clung to the brake lever to hold the front tire on a narrow section of solid soil, desperate to keep the bike from tumbling back down the hill, yet again…
6 Hours Earlier
Following the excitement of Red River Scramble and Conserve the Ride, summer started to get away from me as I crossed over day 365. Having finally sorted out output shaft leak, I was ready to get back into the woods. Having started the Daniel Boone Backcountry Byway (DBBB) in April of last year, my buddy Tom and I were both anxious to finally finish the full loop. Riding down to his place near Cincinnati, I parked the Scrambler in his garage as we decided to trailer two of his lighter bikes down to Kentucky to tackle the more gnarly trails, more specifically, the last outstanding section, Mountain Springs/Furnace-Pilot Road.
Following the original game plan from last spring, we headed northwest out of Slade, running the DBBB loop counter-clockwise, starting with Spaas Creek Road just west of Red River Gorge. Tom put me on his (daughter’s) TW200 while he took the reins to his new (to him) KLX250SF for their first off-road adventure. Rolling out of Slade, it was strange riding the pint-sized Yamaha, a bike that’s less than a third of the Scrambler’s displacement and right about half its weight. The “Tee-Dub” felt incredibly nimble on the street, albeit it was headed nowhere in a hurry. I’ve always wondered how awesome it has to be to “float” over all the mud with those big beach tires, finally pulling onto Spaas Creek I was about to find out.
As one would expect, Spaas Creek proved to be much easier on the TW, despite the exceptionally muddy conditions. Passing Hatton Ridge, and down Hawkins Branch, Pumpkin Hollow proved to be more of the same. The wet slimy clay was even more challenging than previous visits, however, I rapidly discovered that the mighty Tee-Dub is the proverbial mountain goat of the dual sport world; it won’t set speed records, but it’s tenacious in limited traction conditions. I was especially thankful for the mild ride and nimble maneuvering of the TW as I came upon a particularly deep creek crossing on Pumpkin Hollow; a creek I’ve ran through at speed on other occasions had easily tripled in depth after the unseasonable rainfall we’ve had this year.
Passing the quarry that marks the beginning of Chop Chesnut Road, Tom and I made short work of the sandy trails on the lighter bikes before arriving at the infamous “stair case”. Considering we were riding more “appropriate” equipment, I suggested that we try riding up the “steps” with the KLX as it had the suspension to make that possible. While riding up the sandstone ledges, Tom commented over the intercom that he distinctively smelled gas for some reason. Stopping at the bottom, he stepped off the bike for me to make my own run on the steps when he saw gasoline gushing down the side of the bike. As we pushed the bike to the side of the trail, we realized there was a hole in the fuel line as the entire tank emptied into the sand before we could get the bike disassembled.
Fortunately, the stock Kawasaki tool kit had the necessary equipment to remove the plastics and lift the tank to ascertain the culprit. Apparently, after spending many years of its life in the garage, the fuel line had dry rotted and cracked, and naturally failed after being jostled by the finest Bluegrass backroads. As luck would have it, the Tee-Dub donated a short portion of its breather hose, and with the help of a sharp license plate, we patched the KLX back together. With a little splash of gas from a fuel bottle, we nursed the Kaw back to Slade to top off and head down to Mountain Springs to finish the last outstanding part of the loop.
Earlier this spring, I led Tom and my buddy Jeff down to the DBBB for a little Red River Scramble reconnaissance mission. After a very short distance down Mountain Springs Road, we discovered the conditions were extremely harsh for big bikes, especially the taller KTM 990 shod with more desert-friendly skins, so we turned around and moved on to other trails (Fincastle and Big Andy Ridge Roads). Considering that previous visit also involved a short dirt nap for Rosie the Scrambler, I was thankful to have the Japanese Mountain Goat as my tour guide for my first trip down the most challenging trail on the DBBB (main loop).
With Mountain Springs Road behind us, Tom and I headed south through the more beginner friendly Fixer-Leeco and Hell Creek Roads before arriving at Old Fincastle Road. I proposed that we deviate from the DBBB main loop, and tackle Walker Creek Road, coincidentally “hard section 11” on the Kentucky Adventure Tour. I caught a YouTube video of two Africa Twins finishing this section a while back, I figured since we were on lighter bikes, we should give it a shot considering we’d just finished battling the worst of the DBBB.
An old, disassembled, rail line, Walker Creek Road runs almost dead north from Fincastle to Kentucky Highway 715 in Rogers. Starting out with a string of endless mud puddles, “Hard 11” wasn’t particularly eventful for the first couple miles. Eventually emerging from the tree canopy, we were met with a trail completely overrun with Kudzu, making for a bizarre, unworldly, experience.
Nearing the northern terminus of Walker Creek, the trail gained significant elevation as we were met by a lofty rock ledge. I managed to ramp the TW’s front wheel over the right side of the ledge with the help of a few tactically placed rocks but getting enough grip at the rear wheel to scramble up the shelf was another story. Trying to rock the bike, meanwhile not rolling back far enough to tumble into the ravine beyond was the task at hand. Ultimately it took a good shove from Tom to get the bike over the giant mantel. The KLX naturally scaled the same obstacle with less fanfare, but a few more yards up the trail the story would change completely. Met by a series of slightly shorter ledges, ranging from a foot to two feet in height, I attempted to ramp the Japanese mountain goat up the ledges with the help of the right side embankment. The slick stone, loose soil and clay proved to be a major obstacle considering the TW’s wheelbase and the short run of each of the “steps.” Again, it took a little pushing and pulling by both of us to get the bikes over each of the ledges.
At the base of the final “step”, there was another steep incline, cross-crossed by wheel-swallowing ruts with a series of mudholes sprinkled in. I walked the next hundred feet or so to scout out a good line and took a run at it with the T-dub. There was a lot of “dabbing” involved, hideous form, along with some choice four-letter words, but I got the micro-motorcycle parked on a nice level spot up the trail. The KLX proved to be the more challenging bike to traverse the final stretch. Having already disturbed the ground on the limited “run-up”, the KLX would get halfway up the dirt mound before the rear end would slide out and drop you back into an unclimbable rut. After several attempts to ride up the clay-clad obstacle, Tom and I were both all but wasted. I took a few moments to catch my breath and look over the terrain one more time before I decided to climb back on the KLX to make one last attempt on the final yards of Hard 11. Compared to the T-dub, it was even uglier. At this point, I’m not entirely sure what level of wide-open throttle, pushing, and “body English” made it possible; all I knew is that I had to stay on the gas and manage to not throw myself off the mountain for the hundred or so feet that followed. That’s about the point I stalled the bike, just as I crested a hill onto a narrow dirt patch, perched above two water-filled ruts and a nasty drop-off a little further to the left.
After battling two bikes up a flight of Appalachian “stairs”, and muscling traction into the rear end of the KLX to make the climb, I was completely smoked. Head down over the tank, desperately gasping for air, I held the front brake with everything I had to keep from sliding back down the hill, yet again. Tom climbed up the hill to hold the KLX steady while I fired it up one last time. More flailing feet, whiskey throttle, wide-eyed desperation, and some fish-tailing was involved, but I somehow managed to thread the needle to cross the last few feet of Hard 11’s worst obstacles.
Two Weeks Later
Finishing the last section of the DBBB meant checking another item off the Moto Bucket List in 2018. Of course, riding the last section without the scrambler wasn’t quite the same. Fortunately, my buddy Bill was also looking at another chance to tackle some Kentucky clay a couple weeks later.
There’s no question, Hard 11 was the most challenging off-road riding I’ve ever done, even on a “little” bike. That said, the northwest sections of the DBBB were unquestionably the worst I had ever seen them that day on the Scrambler. With more water, bigger rocks, deeper ruts and sand… needless to say the wet summer turned trails that were once challenging to a novice adventure rider, into nearly insurmountable obstacles on the 500 pound pig (er… warthog). Mountain Springs Road, bypass and all, tested the Scrambler (almost) right up to its absolute limits in ground clearance and suspension travel. I picked up that bike more that day than every day combined since I bought it. It was an incredible experience, but one that unquestionably highlighted the limitations of the machine. Rolling off the sand and onto the tarmac at the south end of Mountain Springs was a much bigger sense of accomplishment after battling the worst mud I’ve ever seen on my high-pipe-hipster-coffe-shop machine. The question now is, what’s next?