Motorcycle historians left San Diego 100 years to the minute after "Cannonball" Baker set out on his record-setting transcontinental run.
Leaving Syracuse on the morning of May 9, 1914, Erwin "Cannonball" Baker had hoped to reach Kansas City by the end of the seventh day of his San Diego to New York transcontinental record attempt, according to his journal.
Baker's route through Dodge City along the Santa Fe Trail on his seven horsepower, no-suspension Indian motorcycle was little more than a cattle trail at the time. A half-dozen horseshoe nails and a run-in with a dog cut miles from the day's goal, but he was well received by about 25 Dodge Citians that met him and fixed him with fuel, lubricant, food and rode with him for 10 more miles on his way to Ellsworth.
"They wanted me to stop over and look at their new racetrack, but they forgot I was out knocking minutes off a record. However, this track was on my way out of the city going east and I managed to get a good view of it," Baker wrote in his account published in Motorcycle Illustrated. That track would host the Dodge City 300 later that summer, a race that is being recreated this year.
A century later, a group of bikers are retracing the journey on an act of "motorcycle archaeology," having left San Diego one hundred years to the minute after the prince of motor-Americana set out across the desert to break the record.
"We're on paved roads on modern motorcycles and we're barely keeping to his schedule," said Don Emde at the Dodge House Wednesday evening.
Emde, winner of the Daytona 200 motorcycle race in 1972 and publisher Parts Magazine is a motorcycle historian. He bought a copy of Baker's journal 15 to 20 years ago, he said, and through those loose notes has sought to find the exact route taken by the motorcycling pioneer.
The previous record was 20 days. Baker had hoped to beat it by three. He arrived in New York 11 days and seven hours after leaving San Diego.
The 100th anniversary ride has been three years in the making, said "Finding Cannonball Trail" team member Joe Colombero, a dirt bike racer and freelance journalist.
"It was just kind of an idea Don had," Colombero said, and that idea became a "passion project." He and Emde scouted the route last year which is "surprisingly pretty close most of the time."
In Kansas, at about the half-way point of the 3,350 mile trip, the caravan of more than 25 riders is past the hardest part of the trip, and aside from a couple flat tires, has avoided any serious problems.
On the vanguard journey the weather was bad, "almost comical" Colombero said. While crossing the continental divide they got snow, later rain. Only when surrounded by lightning in Pennsylvania while riding several hundred pounds of conductor did they figure they needed to stop.
On this trip, aside from triple-digit temperatures and west Kansas's convection oven winds, everything has gone smoothly. Running along with the group is a support truck and trailer and a certified EMT, just in case.
Most of the riders are making the trip on "adventure bikes," a sort of hybrid between a big road bike and a nimble dirt bike with knobby tires, beefy suspensions and liter-displacement motors, allowing the group to leave pavement as Baker's route required while equipped with saddle bags and large gas tanks.
One of the trickier sections of Baker's route was a 75 mile detour south of the Glamis Sand Dunes, along the Mexican border.
Baker's route was essentially a path from one water hole to another, Colombero said, where he would have had to scrounge for fuel and supplies in an era where horses and wagons were more common than gasoline engines.
Traveling from Coyote Wells, Calif., to Yuma, Ariz., included "15 miles knee-deep with sand, cactus, sage brush and mesquite bushes," Baker wrote. He placed a pebble under his tongue, "same as the desert Indians do," to help with the "demon thirst" as he looked to connect with the rail line into Yuma.
"Had I not carried the little pebble in my mouth my stops for water would have been multiplied many times," he wrote.
On Baker's Indian motorcycle running ragged, it would do about 45 miles per hour, Colombero said. Based on more realistic speeds across the pre-industrial west, Baker would have had to spend 12 to 15 hours each day, mostly alone, to make his time.
Since the record-attempt was taken to promote Indian motorcycles, dealers along the route telegrammed ahead Baker's progress so he could be met with crowds like the one in Dodge City.
Likewise, as the anniversary riders are making their way across the country, they are being met by day riders and short-trippers. About 80 riders joined then out of San Diego, Emde said.
Some diehards have joined he run: one rider traveled from Kentucky to start the trip in San Diego, also on the trip is fellow Daytona 200 winner Ralph White, who took the winner's circle in 1963.
"History is volumes of minutiae," he said, each little detail helping him place the route between landmarks.
Unraveling Baker's route and mapping it on GPS has been rewarding both as a motorcycle true believer and historian, Emde said.
The trip is a culmination of that fascination. "I wanted to find out how much of it is still ride-able."
During his career Baker would make 143 more cross-country record attempts, including a north to south "three flags" trip. Later, a "Cannonball Run" would also become kind of a generic term for any coast-to-coast trip, culminating in more cross-country stunts, races and a few kitschy movies, Emde said.
But that's not what it was originally about. Baker was a performer and a pitch man, to be sure, but he thinks he just wanted to break records and push himself and his machine.
"It's the same reason people climb mountains."