What did you do in your third year of riding motorcycles? Maybe that was when you stepped up to a bigger bike, or decided you were ready for that weeklong trip. Kate Johnston marked her third year on two wheels by riding coast to coast. And back. And it’s not the two coasts you think.
In July, Johnston became the first woman ever to complete one of the Iron Butt Association’s toughest North American rides, the Ultimate Coast to Coast to Coast Insanity, which requires the rider to go from Key West, Florida, to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and back to Key West, all within 30 days.
That’s right. A little more than three years after she took the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse and bought a Honda Rebel 250 beginner bike, Johnston, of Riegelsville, Pennsylvania, threw a leg over her 2013 BMW F 700 GS and didn’t get off until she put her name in the Iron Butt record books.
The numbers alone are impressive: rode 10,767 miles in 24 days for the CCC Insanity ride; saw rain approximately 20 of those 24 days; rode a total of 13,560 miles from home to home; felt temperatures ranging from 101 degrees in Tennessee to 40 degrees and snowing on the Dalton Highway, heading north to Deadhorse; used three sets of tires; and crashed one time, on a notorious section of the Dalton, but with no serious repercussions.
Just to add another twist to Johnston’s story, she is also diabetic. Not that her health issues slow her down, obviously, but it did mean she had to carry medical supplies, monitor her blood sugar levels and predict when she needed to adjust her insulin dosage due to the exertion of the long ride.
So what motivates a woman to go from rank newbie to Iron Butt record-setter in a little more than three years?
“When you really love something, you go into it no holds barred,” said Johnston, explaining her outlook. She did her first Iron Butt ride two years ago, and that only heightened her interest.
“You read and see all these people going on grand adventures,” Johnston explained. “I wanted to go on a great adventure, and this is kind of the ultimate adventure. It just happened that I was the first woman to do that, but that was like a little cherry on the cake.”
The IBA has already certified Johnston’s ride. In 2012, the entire Boge family—Michael, Anavel and their 7-year-old daughter, Laura—completed the CCC trip in a sidecar rig. That’s impressive enough. But Johnston, at age 35, is the first woman to do the CCC as a rider, not a passenger. Johnston rode most of her epic ride alone, and she was fine with that.
“I think everyone should take a trip by themselves at some point,” she said. “You get to know yourself when all the things that revolve around us in life disappear.”
For the final leg north on the Dalton Highway, however, she had company. Anthony Mills introduced Johnston to motorcycles when she began riding as a passenger with him, before quickly deciding to move to the front seat. Mills flew to Alaska and rented a motorcycle so she wouldn’t ride the Dalton alone.
They encountered rain three of their four days on the Dalton, with visibility sometimes measured in feet. They crossed Atigun Pass, the highest point on the Dalton, without knowing it, because fog obscured the roadside sign. The rain, dirt and calcium chloride used to treat the unpaved sections chewed up her chain, forcing her to seek a replacement.
But it was their first day on the Dalton when Johnston had her most bizarre incident of the trip. She was riding ahead of Mills when she saw a wolf by the side of the road, watching her. She expected to see it run off as she approached.
“As I’m getting closer, it runs at me,” Johnston recalled. “I’m like, ‘Holy crap!’ The wolf charged me! I was not expecting that.”
Aside from the chewed-up chain, one crash, tire replacement, and a 4 x 10-foot sheet of plastic that flew out of a truck and almost wrapped her up in the middle of Atlanta traffic, the journey was trouble-free. Johnston says she will remember the peacefulness of the hours of riding in solitude and the glorious beauty of Canada.
“I’ve never seen purple mountains before,” she said. “You read about that, but I’d never seen it before. They really are purple.”
Having gone from zero to the record books in three years, it will be interesting to see where Kate Johnston goes next.
(This article Quick Study was published in the February 2015 issue of Rider magazine.)