After high school, Neil worked for nine years at Quality Towing, as a tow truck driver or dispatcher. Recently, he quit, though, to pursue a new career as a licensed massage therapist.
Neil loves snow-boarding, working out and hiking with his dog Toast. He has a large movie collection, and he lives in his grandmother, Bonnie’s house, caring for it until it will be sold. It’s the house his dad Curt grew up in.
Sounds like a normal kid, right? Wrong.
To celebrate his new future as a massage therapist, Neil decided to take a two or three week vacation – alone and on a motorcycle. He planned vaguely that the trip would take him to the Grand Canyon and various parts of California. It wasn’t cast in stone, though. He planned to just let the trip take him wherever seemed interesting. Returning home to Washington state from California, he planned to take the scenic route along the coast.Along the way, it was one crisis after another. To those of us sweating it out at home, Neil’s solo motorcycle trip started to sound perilously close to the one we’d suffered through in the movie “128 Hours”.
Considering all the things that could have prevented him from celebrating his 28th birthday today, I decided to let Neil tell the story in his own words – diary-style. He has a judicious way of minimizing the hazards he faced, but in case you yourself would ever like to bike your way along the same route, read on.
From Neil Warden’s Motorcycle Diary, April 2011:
Departed Seattle at roughly 5 pm. On a motorcycle. With a tent, a (worthless) sleeping bag, ipod, some food, and a tarp. It was a familiar ride to Yakima, Washington where I camped the first night. I made a quick stop on the top of Snoqualmie Pass to check that all my gear was secured. It wasn’t very secure but I said whatever and kept going. It turns out it was secure enough. Nothing fell off throughout the entire ride. That I know of.. After Cle-Elum the wind was high and gusty and made it a little difficult to ride, but no big deal. I camped Monday night at the Yakima Nation campground. Pretty uneventful night. I remember eating snacks for dinner and sipping warm water from my nalgene bottle. The night got a bit chilly. I think i woke up at about 1am in the tent and didn’t sleep much the rest of the night. The sleeping bag i brought just didn’t cut it. It was very compact but not warm.
Used the bathroom at the campground to charge my phone and ipod. Packed the gear back on the bike which takes about 20 minutes. When I was packing the gear that morning, I remember thinking “i should probably get a new sleeping bag”. Got back on the road to take a less familiar ride south east toward Oregon. I had gotten gas two times thus far. The bike has a 3 gallon tank which will get you 150 miles max. Give or take a few depending on riding conditions (wind, rain, hurricane, tornado, blizzard, etc.) I decided I would look for gas between 120 to 130 miles on each full tank for the rest of the trip. The ride on this day was great. Two lane curvy highways, sunny, hardly any other traffic. The plan was to go to Bend, Oregon and see how I was holding up being on the bike.. I think Bend was about 200 miles. I stopped at a sporting goods store in Bend and looked for a new sleeping bag. They were too expensive so i decided to just pickup a cheap blanket somewhere later. Got back on the bike and decided to ride down to a KOA campground in Klamath Falls, Oregon. This put day 2 ride at about 350 miles. It was a pretty ride. I think about 70 degrees. No wind. Good riding. Got a blanket at a Fred Meyer later in Klamath Falls and got thru another frigid night.
This was my favorite day as far as being on the bike goes. I went to Starbucks after packing my gear on the bike. Got coffee. Charged phone and ipod. This night i would end up in Reno, Nevada… A long ride, I don’t remember how long but somewhere 350 or 400 miles? Depending on how many towns I passed thru or how many times i stopped to take a break, these rides were about 6 to 7 hours. I enjoyed this ride because it was mostly all canyons and curvy and wide open. There were times on this ride where I would see no one for a good half hour. Once you leave Oregon and move thru California to Nevada there is a lot of farmland in between mountains and not a lot of people. There were a ton of signs for deer crossing which made me a little nervous at first, and I remember spending some time in my thoughts daydreaming about a huge buck jumping out right in front of me, and just before the crash happened, I would spring off the bike seat at 75 mph into a front flip and continue to roll into 8 or 10 somersaults eventually reaching my feet and slowing to a run, then walk, then stop and turn around to go back and pick the bike up to see if it was still operational, and then possibly tend to the animal with my first aid kit. I’m certified in first aid and CPR, just FYI. There are border check crossings in and out of California and Nevada which I was unaware of. So I am glad this was a trip that I didn’t happen to be transporting any illegal firearms or substances. I did have bananas though which I illegally smuggled into the state. I remember when I had almost made it to Susanville, California, the ride was great. No one on the road and a lot of 30 mph curves which I took, not at 30 mph. I stopped at Wal-mart in Susanville because there was a Subway inside and I had 100 gift card to Subway. I can only eat 3 things on the menu because I decided to not eat meat. Tuna, veggie delight, or veggie patty. I’m still sick of these sandwiches. I remember as I passed thru all these small towns thinking how strange these people were in the way they interacted and spoke to each other and even dressed. Everyone knew each other. But later I realized I was in these nice people’s environments and I was the weird guy on a motorcycle wearing Addidas shoes and baggy jeans and Volcom t-shirts. I think that the smaller the population a town has, the slower the time goes. No one is in a rush. I made it to Reno, Nevada that afternoon. Gambled a little bit. Ate some buffet. Got a room at the Circus Circus.
The ride from Reno, Nevada to Vegas on Google maps told me it would be 10 hours of straight driving. It’s only 450 miles but the road isn’t straight. So I decided to get on the road early at 5 am. From Reno, there was a lot of small towns to pass thru until you really get into the desert. And then in the desert . . . there is nothing. This is also when it began to get hot. I think it was in the 80’s and got hotter throughout the day. I remember thinking after I got out into the middle of nowhere, “Man, I hope this bike doesn’t break down, that would suck.” Luckily it didn’t. In the desert, you will see a sign that says the next town 40 miles or whatever, and if you squint your eyes and the heat waves on the road ahead aren’t too thick you can see the next town. It’s just flat and barren. I stopped at a town exactly in the middle of Reno and Nevada and had lunch. I think the population was like 1900 people. I saw like six. Three of them were shirtless men in tattered overalls giving me evil stares as I walked into the one restaurant in the town. They were frightening and I kept a close eye on my bike as I ate my fish sandwich and french fries. They were probably nice men that lived there their whole lives, but I’m glad I never saw them again. I had been doing well on meeting my goal of fueling the bike every 120 to 130 miles. The last time I got gas this day i remember stopping at a tiny gas station/gift shop in the middle of nowhere. The gas pumps didn’t have credit card readers so I had to go inside. Anytime I would talk to any local people they would ask me where I was from and where I was headed. The guy working the cash register at this station asked me the same thing. I told him I’m from Seattle and not sure where I’m headed. He said he wished he could get on a bike and do the same thing, which is also what everyone else said. I left the station on the last leg of the ride into Vegas. I began to get a little paranoid about the extreme heat at the operating condition of the bike in the extreme heat. It was definitely in the high 90’s and getting hotter. I think part of me actually willed the bike to fail. I kept thinking about it, like, “Well something’s gonna happen.” So I finally made it to Vegas and decided, instead of continuing on the freeway to my hotel, why don’t I get off at the north end of town and cruise down the Strip. In this 100 degree weather, on a bike that hasn’t been ridden in like 5 years or something… Hitting every stoplight red i could literally feel the bike getting hotter and was just waiting for something to blow… About 5 blocks from my hotel I went ahead and pulled the clutch in to come to a stop and weird, there was no clutch. No clutch at all. So i banged it thru some gears and violently slammed my way into the parking garage. As it turns out it was a minor fix.. The hydraulic fluid was a little dirty and had some moisture in it disabling the clutch. So that sucked. But I dealt with it later.
Got picked up from my hotel at 6:15 am by a crazy bus driver that took me to Planet Hollywood to get on a bigger bus with a bunch of other people to take a tour to the Grand Canyon. This was a much better idea than riding there and camping. It’s a 4 hour drive from Vegas to the Canyon. The bus driver was a nice fella and entertained everyone with some knowledge about the Canyon, Vegas, the Hoover Dam, etc. I was the only American on the tour bus that I know of which was interesting. All the people were nice and interesting. As I was talking to one man, probably in his 50’s and from northeastern Canada, he asked me where i was from. “Seattle” I said. He responded with “Seattle, now where is that?” At first I thought he was joking but he was serious. I thought this was strange and said something like, “You know Seattle, the Space Needle, SeaTac Airport, Microsoft?” He had no idea. Later I talked to a couple from Macedonia. I acted like I knew where Macedonia was when they told me, and then later confessed I actually didn’t know where it was at all. It’s a small country just north of Greece. So it’s actually not weird at all the other guy didn’t know where Seattle was. I didn’t know where his city in Canada was either. The world is actually really big. And also really small. We finally made it to the Canyon at about 2 pm. I thought that when I got off the bus and walked to the edge and looked down it would be breathtaking. It is very impressive, but breathtaking not so much. It’s more weird than anything. What a big hole in the middle of nowhere. The rim of the canyon is all the same level. You can see across the canyon to the rim at the other side and follow the tree line as far as you can see. Like someone took a big shovel full of earth and threw it off the planet. I wasn’t mesmerized by it, but it was definitely worth the trip and I hope to go back someday. There are trails thru that Canyon that you can navigate with a guide on foot or on a donkey. When I go back, I would like to ride a donkey into the canyon. The bus took us to two different view points on the Canyon and the view was great from each. It was also fun to observe all of the people there. I think I was one of the very few Americans. The bus didn’t drop us off till very late, about 10 pm that night. I was tired. Hit Subway, got some nasty sandwich and walked around town for a bit. Vegas always smells the same.
Checked out of the hotel at about 7 am. Called AAA and had them come pick me and the bike up to go 3 or 4 miles to a shop. The tiny shop I got to was a run down hole-in-the-wall shop. I felt a little uneasy about this. The owner of the shop was also the only mechanic and in what could of been a 20 minute repair job, I spent 3 plus hours at the shop. He was a nice old man in his late 70’s. By hour number two, he had me helping customers load bikes into their pickup trucks and show them where the service desk was. I remember thinking about if he was ever going to start working on my bike and or am I going to get paid for working for him. He told me a lot of interesting stories about riding around the country in the 60’s and 70’s and about his relationship with his son who he hasn’t spoken to in a while. He was also a little absent minded. He gave me free diet cokes and i put some of his special flavored soda from Mexico in his cooler for him. He prefers that soda, you know, because it’s got real sugar in it. The minor repair finally got done. We bled the hydraulic fluid. Put new fluid in. And that was it. I asked him about the limits the bike has in intense heat and if I should worry about some serious mechanical failure. He has been fixing bikes since he was in his teensm and he said this bike is never going to break down. And I believe him. When I got back on the road, I merged onto highway 15 towards Los Angeles. At this point, I had no idea where I was headed, but it was early afternoon and I hoped to get somewhere before dark. But then it got windy. Windy like I would be leaning all my body weight to the left and turning as hard as I could to the left just to stay straight in my lane. I have no idea how windy it was but I would guess approximately 1 thousand mile per hour gusts. The road from Vegas to LA is a super flat raised highway about 10 feet above the desert floor. Very hot. The idea was to get to Bakersfield to get a bite to eat and figure out where I would stay. The whole ride towards California was windy. Wind going south then abruptly changing direction to north, south, north, south south, north. I was too busy trying to stay upright, and things like wind resistance and miles per gallon slipped my mind. So, on this silly highway in the middle of nowhere with about 120 miles run on this particular tank of fuel, the motor let out a little sputter. Weird, I thought. I better pay attention to that. Maybe 10 seconds later, another sputter. Well shit, i thought, I’m running out of gas. At this point on the road, I was passing a sign for the next exit, 1 mile. I couldn’t see what was near the offramp because there was a canyon wall to my right side. So I back off of the throttle a little and tried to keep it going. The sputtering got real bad.. I thought it was all done but I made it to the end of the onramp where the bike died. I put it in neutral and coasted on the slightly downhill offramp towards the stop sign at the end of it. I could see no one was coming to the left so I stayed off the brakes. The canyon wall was dropping to my right and as it did, it revealed a little gas station. Oh dear, I thought. I failed to stop at the stop sign, made an illegal lane change and coasted up to the pump with the bike not running. After I got gas, the bike almost didn’t start because it had been sucked dry but it did eventually. So it all worked out. I finally made it to California where there was miles and miles of rolling hills and grapes growing. I rode into the night and stopped at a motel in a small town. Days Inn, i think it was.
Got up and had my continental breakfast. Raisin bran and black coffee. In matching styrofoam cup and bowl. I could tell a lot of the people, families, that were also enjoying this continental breakfast were probably not there for one night. I think they lived there. I thought about that for a while and then packed the stuff up and rode north. It rained that night so there was a little water on the seat… The forecast was like 60% chance of rain or something. There was rain in the forecast all the way north thru Oregon into Washington. The plan was to go west to HWY 101 and ride the coast highway home. Stopping at cool places and camping on the beach or near it. Stopping at Six Flags on the way…. The point where I would break west from old hwy 99 to hwy 101 was Sacramento, but I decided if the weather was bad I would just head north. It’s no fun to camp in the rain. When I reached Sacramento, I wasn’t so much concentrating on what direction I should head but rather thinking about whether or not one of the massive bolts of electricity coming from the sky was going to shoot me in the helmet. The weather conditions were poor. Standing water on the road, zero visibility, no windshield wipers on my helmet. At first, it was raining so hard that I slowed to about 40 mph in the 70 while the cars flew by me because I couldn’t see anything. But I really couldn’t see any better at 40 then 70 so i just accelerated. There were breaks in rainclouds which was nice. But the ride this day was rather shivery. I made it to Oregon – boots soaking wet, but most everything else was dry. Stayed in a Motel 6 that night. Watched some TV and had pie and decaf coffee at Denny’s across the street.
This day was pretty messed up. I had decided to just come home because the weather forecast was so bad. I should have stayed in Nevada or southern California and just waited till it got better. But I got up at 4 am. Packed the stuff up. And took off towards the Sisques. The Sisques are a group of mountain passes that sit on the border of California and Oregon. There’s snow up there. As the sun came up, I thought “I am doing pretty good so far.” No rain or anything yet. Also, I had put large ziplock bags over each foot before I put my boots on for protection. And then I came to the first pass and the temperature started to drop. It was very cold. Some body parts, my hands in particular, lost feeling very quickly and actually weren’t as uncomfortable as others. The extreme numbness actually helped but my arms and legs not so much. It was 20-ish degrees and then it started to snow off and on. I got through the first couple passes by getting off at off ramps and doing jumping jacks on the side of the road and then getting back on. Luckily, just past Weed, California there was a Wal-mart. I went to the sporting goods section and looked for those hand warmers for skiing. They didn’t have any but in the fishing section they had foot warmers. So I bought all of them. In the parking lot out front, I quickly took off my top layer of clothes and wrapped my arms and legs in them. It helped quite a bit. Back headed north, I stopped at Roseburg, Oregon and had some breakfast at a nice establishment. There were more interesting people here. A lot of t-shirts with American flags and eagles or both. Which is cool. The ride from the motel I left that morning to Seattle was 650 miles. I didn’t know if I could make it the whole way and tentatively planned on passing out in a motel somewhere near Portland. It was a long hard ride. I passed Portland and got gas in Vancouver, Washington. Took a short break at a Tully’s where I sipped on a carmel machiatto or maybe it was white chocolate mocha. I don’t remember, but it was delirious. The rest of the ride was pretty easy actually. I was a bit tired. For a while I would close one eye and let it rest while I had the other open. I might of taken a nap from Chehalis to Tacoma because I don’t remember passing Olympia. But, I finally made it back. Almost 3000 miles total. If only the weather had been better I would of done another week or two enjoying the coast but that wasn’t the case. It was a nice adventure and I hope to get on the bike and have another one soon. With no lightning, and no snow, and stuff….