After a much-too-short sleep cycle, the alarm got me up and kicking around 03:15. I went out to uncover the bike and fill my hydration jug, then hit the breakfast room for some much needed coffee, a banana, and a wrapped breakfast sandwich. I sat down with some familiar faces, all bright-eyed and bushy-tailed.
At 04:00, the meeting began and Jeff schooled us on rally pack changes regarding some national parks locations. He called our attention to a bonus that would be right next door at the Space Center, but wouldn’t be available until 12 noon (that drew chuckles and groans). Then, the envelopes containing the final Leg 3 section of the rally book (click for PDF) were split amongst several staff members.
We were about to be released to retrieve them, when Jeff remembered to update us on the top ten standings, which he ran through quickly. I was thrilled to still be in the hunt at third place for the moment, but only barely as the leaderboard was still pretty bunched up. Nobody was surprised to see Jim Owen extending his advantage over the field by a few thousand points, but holy shit – lookit Mike Brooke still killing it on that Hayabusa!
What. The fuck. Is going on? I remember mentioning to someone at the time, ‘OK this guy is doing something really different here. Not only is he on a different gameboard, but it seems like he’s playing a whole new game.” It seemed that if Mike was able to keep whatever he was doing on track, and Lady Luck continued to favor him over the next four days, the rest of the contenders could only hope for second place at best. At this point, I didn’t yet know that Ben Ernst had the big FLIGHT combo sitting in his pocket and hadn’t claimed it yet… that put him squarely in contention as virtual second.
Anyway, now we were given the go to grab our envelopes and head back to our rooms for routing. Controlled chaos ensued and was overcome. Back in my room, I got to work and here is where my rally began going to pot.
It often takes me the better part of an hour to process a set of rally files into my spreadsheets, tweak the data, and import to Basecamp. It depends on how many manual steps are needed to enter things like Availability, or if the rally book isn’t alphabetical. Both of which were the case in this rally. And in contrast to the first two legs, which had 20-30 bonuses each, there were 68 bonuses in the Leg 3 rally pack!
I was on the final steps in my process, when I saw a couple errors in my data and realized that I had screwed up somewhere along the line and mis-copied something or other. After a minute or two, I decided I had better start over rather than try to untangle where I had erred. And so it was, that almost two hours after receiving the bonus packet, I finally got the bonus scatter up in Basecamp just to begin routing. That was a huge loss of time before I’d even left the gate, so I was feeling frustrated and even more pressure than usual when routing on the clock, knowing that riders are starting up their bikes right now and heading out on what could possibly be a winning route, etc.
OK deep breath, focus. So now I’m finally looking at Jeff’s evil master plan revealed – the spread of bonus locations all over the country with six hefty combination bonus strings to choose from. This is usually one of the most enjoyable moments for me during a rally – the puzzle is revealed and the world is my oyster! But after the cumulative lack of sleep, messing up the spreadsheets, already feeling behind and frustrated…I’m like – H-O-L-Y S-H-I-T, where the hell am I gonna go? There appeared to be big points in almost every direction. I was choice-paralyzed at this point, and I had a hard time getting my head back into the game to focus.
My first route attempt focused on the ORBIT combo (7612 pts) along the Gulf coast for a baseline route. However, after taking another look at the clock and the timing of when I could realistically leave the hotel, I quickly abandoned it. I decided to focus on the big PARKS combo (16,452 pts), in a clockwise direction, hitting Glacier Park last. While most of the other combos required at least one bonus east or south of Huntsville, but both NIRVANA combo bonuses (4680 pts) were both out west and looked doable if I got moving soon.
I quickly strung together a pretty aggressive route circling a short distance east first, down to Atlanta for decent points, then crossing the middle of the southern tier states, sweeping up the state bonuses along I-20 to Shreveport. The rally-wide state bonuses were a successful distraction, I know this now, especially with the kind of points now available for the combos and big rocks of Leg 3 (just like Jeff had said). I feel like I wasted many minutes still thinking and planning around chalking up a few more damn states.
After getting that far, I’d target both western combos as well as some of the large bonuses in the Pacific Northwest like the huge lighthouse bonus in Crescent Beach CA. I didn’t know how much of it was realistic, but now I had a plan, even if I wasn’t completely in love with it. It was time to get on the bike and just GO already!
I got data transferred to my devices, packed up, then finally headed down to my bike around 08:00, some four hours after receiving the rally pack. How many points and opportunities ahead had I just squandered? Despite being so late, I was literally forcing myself to take each step towards the bike, because down in my gut, I really didn’t like the beginning of my route at all. I was feeling a bit lost, and unsure of where I should point my front wheel out of the parking lot. Part of me was saying I should skip Atlanta completely due to my late start and the likely amount of traffic at this hour. In short, I was a bit of a mess.
There were still some other bikes out in the lot, but most were gone by now. I tried to be very deliberate in packing up my bike to try to achieve some inner calm, and just start dealing with the situation. As I started off, I noticed that the GPS was planning to take me back up north through Chattanooga before circling down to Atlanta and that just seemed like an awful waste of miles and time to me. Argh! I pulled over before even getting on the highway, and punched it in to Google Maps. That gave me a more direct route following state highways that should save about 20 minutes. Once again, match point to Google, and away I go.
Backtracking from yesterday, I followed US 72 east to Scottsboro and turned on AL 35. I crossed Lake Guntersville and turned immediately onto AL 40, which turned out to be a really enjoyable motorcycling road through the hilly corner of Alabama where the Appalachian foothills finally peter out. I merged onto SR 117, crossing I-59, and continued east through Hammondville, enjoying more great curves and rural scenery while making some decent time outside of the small towns and villages. AL 117 changed to GA 48 in name at the state line, but the riding was just as good, especially running through part of Chattahoochee National Forest.
I was a bit more centered by the time I stopped for fuel in Adairsville GA, before running the interstate down to Atlanta. I’d been thinking more and more about that SATURN bonus back in Huntsville, big points for snapping a shot of the big Saturn rocket by the hotel. I figured at least some of the bikes left in the hotel lot might be waiting around to pick up those points when they became available at noon. I wondered if I headed back there after Atlanta how the points and mileage would compare with my current plan. With more time to think on the bike, I’d finally accepted that the rally-wide bonuses were simply a distraction at this point. I’d collected 21 so far, so I’d try to nab another four, but beyond that the progressive bonuses would no longer factor in.
After filling up, I pulled the bike over under some shade, as it was starting to get a bit sticky out now, the southern humidity a few notches down in comfort from the hot and dry exposure of the western states. I broke out the laptop and built an alternate route or three in Basecamp. I was feeling more centered now after riding a bit, and could see that heading back through Huntsville would be a viable option, especially in combination with another large bonus I hadn’t noticed before in eastern Arkansas. More points and less miles, sign me up!
Feeling much better about this new plan, I packed up and got on I-75 southbound. Traffic was pretty heavy, with some bad slowdowns, so I used whatever maneuvers I could to keep rolling and making forward progress. As I drew near the Atlanta area, I took the I-285 loop over to the eastern suburb of Decatur. Once off the interstate, traffic wasn’t actually that bad, cruising through the local streets. I arrived around 13:00 at the Waffle House Museum, where I came across my pal Gerry already there to nab the WAFFLE bonus. I was too zonked to figure out how he’d gotten his bike into the small parking lot, so I just parked at the curb. We waved as I dismounted and he rode off.
The first Waffle House was opened here in 1955 by Joe Rogers, Sr. and Tom Forkner. Of course this bonus is available 24 hours!
Now, I followed Google as it guided me through the outer city via a couple quick parkway roads paralleling the railroad tracks into the heart of Atlanta. There were some weird disappearing lanes along this section that caught me off-guard and heading toward oncoming traffic before I learned what signs to look for! I turned into a quieter residential area and entered the Martin Luther King National Historical Site area. Pulling up to Dr. King’s boyhood home, I captured the GA bonus.
Across the street from this marker is the childhood home of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Now, as counter-productive as it felt, I had to backtrack my entire morning’s route back to the Huntsville Marriott where I started! I experienced on-ramp metering for the first time to get back on I-75. Basically, the two on-ramp lanes come to a stop, with timed traffic lights letting one vehicle go at a time, alternating between the two lanes, which apparently allows better merging into the highway traffic. It was a bit weird, but sorta made sense, keeping the backup off the actual highway. After covering the interstate miles back north to Adairsville (a bit less busy in this direction), I again enjoyed those rural state highways headed west.
I arrived back in Huntsville around 15:30, scooting past the hotel to pull into the huge empty parking lot of the US Rocket and Space Center and claim the SATURN bonus for beaucoup points. This is the first time I’ve stood close to a Saturn rocket and it sure was impressive. Imagining sitting up atop that thing while it blasts you miles into the sky? Fugettaboudit.
We wouldn’t want you to leave Huntsville without paying tribute to the Apollo program.
OK now, let’s keep it moving, I have to make it to a date in an Arkansas swamp before 21:00! I continued west on I-565, to US 72-ALT at Mooresville, crossing the Tennessee River once again, into another Decatur. Outside of town, 72-ALT became a nice divided four-lane that eventually merged back with US 72 at Muscle Shoals and moved me quickly across the states of Alabama and Mississippi, with a quick fuel stop in Iuka MS. It was a hot, sticky, and energy-sucking ride, despite the decent speeds I was setting and nice rural scenery. I would have seriously considered a trade to be back in the dry 108 degree heat of Nebraska two weeks ago!
To skirt around Memphis to the south, I took I-269 which makes a nice wide loop far away from any real signs of the city itself. US 61 took me a bit further south past several big casinos in the Robinsonville/North Tunica area along the Mississippi floodplains and oxbows. I turned west on US 49 and pulled in to a nice little wayside rest area for a quick stretch and nature break. Soon after, I came upon a jackknifed tractor trailer blocking the road at the intersection with MS 1 but the state troopers were managing the scene and had an efficient little detour in place, so I passed through without delay and finally crossed Old Man River once again, into Arkansas.
49 took me through West Helena on divided four-lane before becoming rural two-lane once more. I passed through the small town of Marvell (cool name) as dusk was approaching, and headed on out into the countryside in the middle-of-nowhere. I was going to make it to the bonus with about an hour to spare.
Then the Garmin tells me to turn off the perfectly good road onto an evil-looking double-track dirt path. I knew I was headed for a swamp, so it sorta made sense at first… I proceeded slowly with much distrust. Wait, wasn’t there supposed to be an actual park at this location? This road was taking me off into the weeds!
After about 100 yards of awful rutted mud and sand, I stopped, pulled out the rally book for the name of the park, and plugged it into Google. Voila, the actual paved turnoff was another half mile up the road!
I slowly got the ST turned around and back out to pavement, then continued up the road to AR 362, a narrow mile-long entrance road which dead-ended in a small tidy parking area a half-mile or so past the gates of the (unattended) Louisiana Purchase Historic State Park.
It was past sunset now, growing darker by the minute, and I was the only vehicle here in the lot. It was just past 20:00 – less than an hour to go before the gates were shut – better figure things out. I killed the engine and all I could hear were the insect and birds of the swampland surrounding me on all sides. OK um, just a bit spooky here. Beautiful, but spooky.
Doffing my helmet and jacket and grabbing flashlight, flag and camera, I hoofed it down the boardwalk into the even darker swamp with heavy tree cover, heart rate a bit elevated by more than just the exercise. 🧛♂️🐊🦇👻
This place was cool! NOT temperature-wise! Just the stillness of the swamp, with the bottle-based trees plunging up through the water to the hidden sky above, vines hanging…I wondered idly if there were any gators this far north.
After following the winding boardwalk some 200 yards, I arrived at the end platform and spotted the tombstone-like granite marker, rising up out of the water in the twilight. It took me a few minutes to set up a decent shot where I’d be able to illuminate both the marker and my flag, without dropping anything below as I leaned out over the dark algae-encrusted water to get a good shot of the LP bonus. The bugs were loving my bright LED flashlight (and me indirectly).
Finally satisfied that I’d captured at least one decent shot where everything would be readable, I re-traced my steps back out the length of the boardwalk, feeling like there were eyes on my back. Back at the bike, I had a nice “small victory” moment, feeling very relieved I’d met my first goal for this leg in claiming this bonus on time. But as I learned from my time on the Gaspe peninsula, gotta keep these moments short and sweet!
I needed a break from the oppressive humidity, and decided that I would look for a place to sit down and grab a quick bite along the way, and take another look at my route. After my late start, I was not planning on a hotel stay tonight, just napping at the Iron Butt Motel as needed. I geared back up and headed out of the park, turning north on US 49 again for several miles up to Brinkley AR, right off I-40, where there appeared to be plenty of roadside amenities.
I spotted a Subway and pulled in there, but when I went inside they were just closing. I headed to the McDonalds across the street, but the doors were locked – no indoor dining still, apparently. What the hell! It was still hot and sticky outside, and I really needed to get into some AC and get some food in mah belly. Then the curtain of night parted, a choir rang out, and a beam of light shone over on ….oh, a Waffle House! A shining yellow-and-black beacon in the night of my despair! Believe it or not, despite all the miles I’ve ridden, this would be my first experience dining at good ole WH (in keeping with the rally theme), and I felt a nice symmetry at work after visiting the site of the first WH this morning.
I pulled in to the lot and dismounted a third time. Poking my head inside, I confirmed the AC was on (ice cold!). There were only a couple tables taken, so I asked the staff if they were planning to remain open for a while, as I needed somewhere to sit and rest. These friendly Arkansans welcomed me in like an old friend they’d been waiting all night to arrive. I grabbed my laptop from the bike and went inside to cool down while I figured my route and ate a hot meal. I picked out a corner booth and ordered some coffee and a breakfast bowl. I broke out my laptop and settled in to work, running scenarios while listening with half and ear to the idle banter of the staff.
I immediately tossed out heading south to Shreveport, which would be a waste of time/miles since I couldn’t also grab both Texas bonuses. Timing was going to be tight to complete the route I had created back at the hotel, and I was concerned with getting to Tuscon on time to complete the NIRVANA combo, while still grabbing the other NM bonuses on the way. I thought maybe if I got there too late in the evening, I’d take my full rest bonus there, so I could nab the CHIMI bonus in the morning before continuing on.
I was still intent on getting to the big famous lighthouse bonus in norCal and completing the PARKS combo, so I took a few minutes to check a route that eliminated the southern New Mexico swing and NIRVANA combo from the equation. That definitely gave me a nicer time cushion, however at the time, I really felt I’d be able to manage the original route, assuming no major issues. I had become too attached to the idea of securing two combos, and especially NIRVANA (maybe because I love Mexican food so much). So, without running any points comparisons, I dismissed the direct route that I should have taken, across Arizona on I-40 – a decision that has since come back to torment me as my single biggest mistake of the rally.
About an hour later, I bade the small WH crew so long and got back on the road. I’d stopped longer than intended, but my stressful start to the leg followed up by the humidity of the south had sucked a lot out of me today. Gotta stop to go further, as they say.
100 miles passed rather quickly to Hot Springs, where I cruised through mostly silent, late-night avenues on the north end of town to the AR bonus.
Freeman Harrison Owens of Pine Bluff filed for the first patent for “Phonofilm”, which was the first synchronized sound and film apparatus. Unfortunately his employer filed for the same patent. The resulting legal battle ended in a landmark decision that a company owned the rights to a patent created by an inventor in its employ. The effects of that decision are still felt today.
I fueled up on my way out of town before continuing west on US 270, into the heart of the Ouachita National Forest. It was a dark windy road, and I was really starting to feel sleepy. I’d budgeted time in my route for some naps tonight, though it was tough to spot any likely spots along this isolated road. Finally, around 01:00 I spied a gravel pullout for a scenic overlook just before Pencil Bluff, pulled in and shut off the bike. I spotted a hewn-rock bench, from which there must be a nice view during the day. For now, it was my bed. I settled down, helmet on with my alarm set for a half hour and closed my eyes.