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Old 11-22-2008, 05:49 PM   #106
In a state of equilibrium
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Keep 'em comin'! This is wonderful! And thanks for the videos.

Originally Posted by viola-tor
Thanks guys, it's good to know someone out there is reading my report!
Never fear! I check in every day!
'05 R1200GS

The following statement is true.

The above statement is false.
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Old 11-22-2008, 11:18 PM   #107
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It’s that special time again... 14er time, my favorite! Tarren and I set our alarms for ridiculously early, so we tried to be as quiet as possible breaking down camp on the porch. I’m not sure how successful we were. At least we weren’t the first people to start up our bikes!

We’re shooting for Uncompahgre Peak and the trail head is only 10-15 miles from Lake City towards Engineer’s Pass. The last four miles are a 4WD/ATV trail, so we’ve got some decisions to make. Do we park our bikes at the bottom of the road and hike in four miles (before the actual hike even begins)? The first thirty yards of the trail are gnarly enough to ward of Tarren’s BMW, so the only other option is that we ride my orange devil two-up to the trail head. Which option do you think we picked?

I wasn’t about to let this chance slip by, since part of the reason I bought this bike is for it’s ability to access these trail heads, so up we go! I off loaded my top box and shackled it to Tarren’s bike to make room for him wearing the viola pack while riding pillion.

I have Tarren hop off for the scary parts. I have very limited off-pavement experience at this point, and Tarren has next-to-none. Good times. To add the drama we’re flagged over by some hikers who ask us if we know how bad the flooding is up the trail. Uh-Oh! Flooding?!?

The first obstacle. Flooding doesn’t seem too bad...

It’s my first stream crossing, and I’m pretty nervous for sure! There are some big rocks under there (and a log!), even though it doesn’t look deep.

Total n00b! Intellectually I know I should gas it and zoom across, but my nerves won’t let me so instead I pick my way across each rock with my feet firmly planted...

There were a couple hills where I felt it’d be better for both of us if I rode solo. Bugman playing catch up:

I start getting in the groove and begin to open the throttle a little more. This is the part where I’m supposed to NOT mention that Tarren was screaming like a little girl as I torqued over rocks, roots, and mud... So I won’t mention it. I’ll just say that this bike is RIDICULOUS. So much freaking torque! I’m laughing like a madman accelerating up grades that would’ve sent me packing a month ago, meanwhile Tarren is hanging on for dear life... Even if he was screaming like a little girl (hypothetically) I would’ve had a hard time hearing him over the howling FMF exhaust pipes. The bike is fully-loaded (minus the top-box) and two-up, and it’s calling ME a wuss for not pushing harder! Holy hell, this thing is a terror, and I love it...


The next stream crossing. The flooding turns out to be a rumor. Planning my strategy:

As we get near to what must be the trail head there are these big whoop things, water-shed humps perhaps. We’re damn near catching air going over these things, and Bugman and I both shout hysterically during each one. Crazy fun. When we finally reach the trail head we both dismount and sit in the grass to catch our breath and worship the mighty Orange Behemoth. What a bad-friggin-ass bike. I’m so thrilled and proud of my new ride, and I can’t believe I’m here NOW riding trails in the Colorado Rockies on a KTM 990 Adventure. If you would’ve told me I’d be doing this a month ago I wouldn’t have believed you.

It’s time to get my hike on! Here we go...

There’s the peak (it’s quite a long ways away, this pic is kinda deceiving), and it looks like we’re gonna have this spotty visibility thing again for this hike. Tarren appears to be hiking away from the peak, but it’s a big switchback thing that takes us over to a saddle on the left.

Another peak in the area, I like this shot, kinda “Night on Bald Mountain!”

We finally reach the saddle which we’ve set as a goal for our snack break. Oh my god, it’s gorgeous! Jo told us this is one of the prettiest 14er hikes (and she should know!), and now I believe her. The peak appears to be stubbornly shrouded in clouds, so with this amazing backdrop I decide to go for a premature installment of...

PEAK PERFORMANCE!!! -ormance, -ormance, -ormance

It’s significantly warmer than the Quandary Peak hike, so I’m actually sounding pretty good! Too bad there’s no one around, oh well, I’ve GOTTA get this photo!

Enough horsing around, we still need to bag the peak. MUSH! Pretty soon we’re in those clouds, scrambling up some loose, steep terrain.

Occasionally there’s a break in the clouds so I try to get a firm footing and bust out the camera in a hurry. Some of these holes literally only last for seconds...

The final push is up a dome, and there’s some folks working on a radio experiment who are using pack goats to haul their gear. Cool!

Good fortune smiles on us as we reach the peak. The clouds leave almost the minute we get there, which blesses us with warm sunshine for our break at the top, not to mention the incredible view(s).

There’s a family from Texas chilling out up there, so they get a...

PEAK PERFORMANCE!!! -ormance, -ormance, -ormance

Now I’m really warmed up! These guys get a twenty minute recital, solo Bach and all. After I pack up the Black Death the mom offers us some peanut M&M’s, so apparently I work for peanuts... I’m not sure how I feel about that.

Uncompahgre Peak just got VIOLATED!!! Let’s roll.
The descent (which is just as pretty as the climb!):

As we’re suiting up to ride down the trail (uh-oh! Down is scary!), we hear the now familiar sound of a LC8 approaching, and soon we see a silver KTM 950 launching over the watershed humps, totally airborne. It’s impressive, like a dolphin breeching the waves... The rider skids to a stop next to us as we pick our jaws up off the ground. Following him is a small gang of ADVriders from the rally, so we chat them up for a bit.

They’re just riding the road, which is cool, but they think we’re kinda crazy for hiking up the mountain and we think they’re kinda crazy for NOT doing it. It’s all good, there’s so many great ways to enjoy the mountains! They tease us for being “gay” riding two-up, so naturally we ham it up, which appears to make them slightly uncomfortable. Seriously, lighten up fellas! I guess from being in the arts I’m not bothered by people with alternative lifestyles (or joking about it! ); to each his/her/it’s own, I always say!


I’m worn out, and now I have to navigate this beast down the trail. Uhhhg. Honestly I’m not having very much fun wrestling this beast down, and I’m really tired from the hike and have a bit of an altitude headache, so taking pictures of the descent falls down the list of priorities beneath items such as “Don’t crash bike” and “Seriously, don’t crash bike.” Eventually we make it back to Bugman’s bike and head into Lake City for some Dr. Peppers and fries, just enough fuel for us to make it over to Ouray. I try to talk Tarren into going over Engineer’s Pass on his BMW (“There was a girl at the rally that did it with street tires. A GIRL!!!”), but thankfully for both of us he declined, so we headed out on the pavement for the next stop on the adventure. It’s getting good...

viola-tor screwed with this post 11-23-2008 at 09:26 PM
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Old 11-23-2008, 01:39 AM   #108
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I've got the same tent, a sport tourer with too many gravel miles, and a strong desire for a KTM 990! I'm enjoying your excellent RR. I'm jealous you got your dream bike. I'll just read your RR and dream of the day I get mine. Keep it coming.
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Old 11-23-2008, 08:30 AM   #109
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Originally Posted by dave6253

I've got the same tent, a sport tourer with too many gravel miles, and a strong desire for a KTM 990! I'm enjoying your excellent RR. I'm jealous you got your dream bike. I'll just read your RR and dream of the day I get mine. Keep it coming.
Thanks Dave! Your Utah report is awesome, BTW. That Aprilia is a sweet machine. Like you I want a bike that can still shred in the twisties, cover 600+ miles per day, is FAST, AND can open up some new off-road terrain. ABS is important to me, so that means the BMW GS or the KTM 990 are the only real options, and from spending time here on advrider the KTM called to me, and is a few thousand cheaper than the GS. I'm (obviously) thrilled with it!

I love that tent, it sleeps two six-footers no problem, packs reasonably small and has protected me from MANY insane rainstorms, nary a drop inside, and is still going strong.

Much more to come...
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Old 11-23-2008, 10:36 AM   #110
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Hats Off!

Awesome vision and RR!!-- and bike!!
Keep it up!!

I grew up being a 3 sport high school athlete, continuing to compete in college and playing the trumpet in jazz bands, concert bands and orchestras. I understand that desire to bridge the gaps between the musician community and the other parts of your life. Way to make it happen--and all the while sharing your talent and the gift of beautiful music with unsuspecting victims!!

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Old 11-23-2008, 06:43 PM   #111
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Originally Posted by viola-tor
Much more to come...
I'll be following along!
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Old 11-23-2008, 08:25 PM   #112
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Originally Posted by Chico
Awesome vision and RR!!-- and bike!!
Keep it up!!

I grew up being a 3 sport high school athlete, continuing to compete in college and playing the trumpet in jazz bands, concert bands and orchestras. I understand that desire to bridge the gaps between the musician community and the other parts of your life. Way to make it happen--and all the while sharing your talent and the gift of beautiful music with unsuspecting victims!!
Wow! Chico, you said that very well, I've been trying to come up with a concise "mission statement," and you put it into words very well. My "vision," I like that! It's definitely cool to bring music to places where nobody expects it. You know those people on the mountain tops are gonna remember that for years, so I guess I've made the world a better place in some small way. Yeah, random acts of VIOLAnce. Muh-ha-ha...
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Old 11-23-2008, 09:16 PM   #113
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Tarrenís dad and step-mother make an annual trip to Ouray for camping and driving jeeps through the mountains. We joined them last summer and had a great time, and thereís no reason not to expect otherwise for this summer!

After some phone tag we finally meet the folks at the Ouray hot springs. Oh man, what a great way to unwind after a long day of riding and hiking...

This waterproof camera is awesome! To use this power for good, or for evil...

Weíve got two days here in Ouray, so we spend one in the jeeps. Tarrenís step-mom Skye has a sweet silver Rubicon that the four of us pile into, and a friend of hers with two sons rented a second jeep for the three of them. I badly want to try some trails with the 990, but the vote is passed down for Black Bear Pass, and Iím not ready for that. Someday soon. We rode over Black Bear last summer in the jeep and there were some terrifying moments, and pretty much everyone who knows about mountain passes in the area has told me the 990 has no business up there. Iím not sure about ďno business,Ē but I need some more experience before tackling a trail like that. Sooooo, in the jeep we go!

Thereís some shepherding going on up there, it's amazing to see the little puffs of wool scattered across such a picturesque landscape.

Part of the game is a snowball fight between vehicles. Skye is supposedly the expert, but we always seem to be downhill from the red jeep. Way to drive! Sheesh... The teenage boys definitely score more head shots than Tarren and I, but it's fun to try.

Coming down ďThe Steps:Ē

Cool waterfall:

I hiked down to the edge of the 2nd waterfall below that last one and was surprised to find much of the spray being blown back up at me! Not mist either, it was almost like the waterfall was defying gravity. The wind was howling and the water was quite loud too, so it was a powerful experience being on the edge getting soaked.

While I was on foot I clamored around for a few more pics. Thatís Telluride waaaaay down there. Itís all switchbacks from here.

Last summer there was a huge rock slide that destroyed much of this part of the road, and we got to witness two guys in a CAT bulldozer re-carve it from scratch. Impressive! The leader guy was quite an artist. As we were watching him move tons of earth I couldnít help but think how much effort building a road like this would be with hand tools, like back in the day... It was neat to see how the road had aged over the year since we last saw it. We didnít see anyone else on Black Bear Pass this time around. Apparently itís ďoff limitsĒ in a rented Jeep because of the technical difficulty, so donít tell about the red jeep going up there, okay?

Burgers and Cokes in Telluride, and then we decide to head back to Ouray via Imogene Pass, which Iíve not seen. Imogene isnít off limits for rentals, and we saw plenty of vehicles up there, including four-wheel-drive ďtour busesĒ with eight or ten people on benches in the back. Weird.

As we were climbing Tarren and I spot a motorcycle coming up behind us. Thereís a strange pole sticking up behind the riderís head, and at first we think it may be a video camera mount. As he zooms past us in a turn we whoop and holler and flash him the thumbs up which gets us a big fat smile from under the helmet. Itís not a pole, itís a pair of skis, and heís riding in ski boots! Itís early August; there canít be much snow and what there is canít be that good for skiing, so this guy must want it bad...

Another teeny-tiny bike passes us with what appears to be a father and daughter. What a fun way to spend a day! The bike looks almost comically small, but seems to be getting the job done just fine. Perhaps my perspective is a bit skewed... KTM 990 = BIG!

This coyote was toying with us, he kept popping up out in front.

Oh my god... I think those are ski tracks!

What a bad ass! That guy rode up here, hiked up there, skied down, and rode away before we got there, apparently. Now THATíS what I call Dual-Sporting!

Nice view from the top!

Hmmmm, I sense that ADVriders have been here... Just a hunch. Also that Arlen Sucks, I guess.

Skye and her sweet machine:

Last summer I made a little promise to myself that I would see some of these places again, but from a motorcycle, somehow, someday. As we enjoy the top of Imogene Pass I again make that promise to myself. I will be back, and with my 990...

So Iíve been making these promises to myself for a while, I think itís high time I start making good on them!
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Old 11-25-2008, 12:53 AM   #114
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Warning: This episode has a lot of pics!!!

The democracy in the campsite is working well, unfortunately for me. I keep dropping hints that I’d like to try a modest 4WD trail on the 990 with the jeeps running support for me, but my subtle suggestions fall on deaf ears, all the Jeepers want to do some “real” Colorado stuff, and I can’t say I blame them, but dammit, I’ve got to ride this thing! Fine, all in...

The decision is made to head for Yankee Boy Basin, also known as Governor Basin/Sydney Basin, depending on who you ask and which fork you take. This is also a route that we jeeped last year, so I kinda remember how tough it is. It’s not on the level of Black Bear Pass, but I remember being plenty awed by the whole thing.

How many chances am I going to get to try a trail like this with a convoy of jeeps in support? There will be three licensed motorcyclists following me, so chances are no matter what happens me and my bike will be returning down the mountain, one way or another...

Everyone is kinda shocked when I start suiting up after the announcement of the day’s plans. “Are you gonna ride up there?!?” Yes. Yes I am.

The tools for the day:

I decide to travel as light as possible since this will surely be the most “technical” off-pavement riding I’ve done to date. No tank bag, no top box, no Black Death, and only a few pieces of clothing and some emergency tools in the saddle bags. Lunch is in the Rubicon, so we’re set. Roll out.

It starts out pretty mild. I remember coming up this in the jeep a year ago and saying to Tarren “I don’t think I’d ever want to ride my bike up something like this.” Well Viola-tor, the times they are a changing! This is actually easy, the first couple of switchbacks fly by without any stress at all; that training run I took in Utah is paying off.

Oooo, pretty! I remember this, just mind the drop on the left...

It becomes obvious that I should take the lead. Despite my “novice” ranking I’m much faster than the two jeeps which crawl along at an uncomfortable and unstable pace for me, and they kick up dust which is annoying. I zoom ahead for a few minutes at a time and then pull over until I see them coming up behind me, which also gives me a chance to shake out my wrists. Again, I know intellectually that I should be loose and poised, but the mind and body are not totally agreeing yet. Fear is a strong opponent!

After crossing a little stream the angle of ascent gets significantly steeper. I go ahead and tackle a hill full of “boulders” (in my mind, anyway) and reach a flat spot that has a bit of a turnout, just enough for a bike. The next section is VERY steep (to me) and rocky...

Finally the jeeps pull up along side. (this is my worried face!)

Skye: “How’re you doing?”

Me: “Okaaay...”

Skye: “Do you want to keep going? I don’t think it gets much worse than that (motioning ahead), but there’s a ways to go.”


The trail is wide enough at this spot that I could park the bike here and leave room for other vehicles to pass, but if I continue I have to at least get up this next hill before there will be another suitable spot. Going up is scary enough, but I'm truly worried about coming down this loose stuff, especially after the decent of the OHV trail after the 14er the other day that I felt so exhausted by.

Me: “Well, we’re here, right now, SO LET’S DO IT!”


I rev my engine in defiance (defiance of my fear, I suppose) and charge up the next section.

Again, totally n00b. Check out my feet sticking out. I KNOW I should put the weight on the pegs, but damn it’s scary!

(They always say it never looks as steep in the pics, and it's true! Cameras DO lie!)

As I’m climbing I hear the voice of Neduro from the Dual Sport Riding DVD narrating my experience. Yes, it’s come to this, I’m starting to hear voices...

“Keep your elbows out! Hold the throttle across your hand so you turn it like a door knob.” Yeah, yeah, this is better, now the throttle won’t get away from me as easily, and I can use my arms to absorb some of the bumps.

“Sometimes it’s better to take the rougher line over larger rocks with better traction and letting your suspension do it’s job instead of taking the smoother line with lots of loose material where traction is compromised.” Oh, right. This bike has eight inches of suspension travel and a foot of ground clearance, so why not use it? The big half-buried rocks aren’t going anywhere, I can get better traction there.

I’m settling into my groove, and before I know it I’ve cleared four more switchbacks, pretty steep suckers too. One hill almost gets me stalled, but I get on the gas up to 7K RPM, feather the clutch and let those knobbies grapple with some jagged stones and up I go! I’m cursing and sputtering the whole time, but loving it.

Catching my breath:

Pretty soon the rocks give way to some hard-packed dirt. There are some ruts and erosion, but this seems tame compared to what I’ve just come through. I roll on the throttle and zoom around a couple of banked turns kicking up little rooster tails of dirt, actually shifting into 2nd gear (which feels really fast up there!). I crest a small hill and it takes me a moment to realize where I am: I made it! I rode my bike to Sydney Basin!
I’m sitting there in awe of the situation as the Jeeps top the hill behind me. Without even thinking about it I throw my arms up triumphantly.

It’s like the museum stairs scene from Rocky. In retrospect it’s almost silly how excited I was, but damn that was fun! The wild flowers are still blooming big time, so we stopped to take pictures before tooling around the basin to find a picnic spot. It’s so nice to be up here in such a picturesque setting, and both times I’ve been the weather has been just perfect. Nothing can come close to hiking a 14er, but this is somehow a much more relaxing way to experience the mountains (after you get off the bike, there wasn’t much relaxing about the riding part! ). This meadow has a special significance for Terry and Skye; it’s where he proposed to her!

I unplugged the rear ABS sensor and zip-tied it off, I got tired of messing with the push-hold button routine, especially when I want both hands on the handlebars!

picnic spot:

As nice as this is, I’m building up some anxiety about the ride down. I’m ready to get on with it so it can be over sooner.

Staring down the first scary section of loose rocks:

I yell back to Tarren that I’d like to some help. He gets out of the jeep, comes up next to the bike and asks, “What do you want me to do?"

“Uhhh, I dunno, just HELP!”

I guess there really isn’t anything he could realistically do to help me, but I wanted someone standing there to maybe help catch the bike if it starts going down, or to help pick the bike up off me if it does approach horizontal. The first hill isn’t pretty, I stall and clutch down with the bike off... kind of embarrassing actually. Well, I survived, so let’s do another (like I have a choice... ).

At this point suddenly everything comes together. Neduro’s voice is still talking to me, but now my body is listening too. I’m poised but relaxed, my arms and legs are doing their jobs, and I’m rolling down this terrain, no issues at all! I’m even having fun. To my surprise I start to choose more creative lines, not just the “easy” one, and I’m liking the feeling of the shocks compressing after I go over some wicked drop off. This isn’t so bad after all!

I wave the jeeps ahead at the stream crossing so Tarren can document my progress.

The difference is night and day! Look at me now, standing on the pegs, slightly crouched, eyes forward and rolling on the throttle. Now we’re talkin’!

I’m kind of beside myself. No way did I think I would be doing something like this so soon, and on a freakin’ KTM 990 Adventure. I’m so excited and, uhhhh, proud. I think proud is the word I’m looking for. I’m proud of the bike, proud of myself, and proud of all of the events that have transpired over the last month/year/years/lifetime(???) that have lead me to a moment like this. I’m not trying to say this is the greatest moment of my life, but it’s up there, and it’s completely MY moment. Today was the climax of the summer, and the crescendo to this moment has been amazing. I know that the recapitulation (if we use the sonata form to describe the summer) won’t be as action packed, but it will be full of much more adventure of a different kind, and I’m ready for that too.

Never fear, viola fans, there’s loads more adventure to share!
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Old 11-25-2008, 07:30 AM   #115
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Thoroughly enjoying the RR. am dreaming of getting rid of my gsxr and getting a 990, next year for sure!
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Old 11-25-2008, 08:03 AM   #116
Wait.... what?
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Excellent writing, I think most of us can identify strongly with your emotions and pride at doing something challenging and fun. Steep rocky grades? Capable bike? Nervous rider? been there done that, have the scars to prove it, smile.

Looking forward to more - want to hear the music in the mountains...
If it's tourist season, why can't we shoot them?

Life is too short for regrets, I want to come to the end of this life bruised, battered, scratched and bleeding, holding a broken bone or two, and yelling "WOW WHAT A RIDE!! LETS DO IT AGAIN!!!!!"
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Old 11-25-2008, 07:34 PM   #117
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This is an amazing report. I have to say ... I'm jealous.
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Old 11-30-2008, 12:04 PM   #118
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Whew! Now I’m powered by four consecutive days of turkey meals, so I can get back to the report.

The next morning as camp is being disassembled Tarren and I take the Polaris ATV that the other family brought for a spin. As I recall it’s 800cc!!!

I’ve driven ATV’s before, but it’s been a few years and was before I was so heavily into motorcycles. They’re so silly! There’s no skill, no challenge! I’m sure it’d be easy enough to flip one if you tried, but as we take turns driving we both agree that the thrill factor is mild and the “technique” required to operate it could be learned in minutes, instead of the years it takes to become proficient on a motorcycle on the same terrain (apparently). After the events of the last few days I’m inspired to explore and refine my comfort level in varied terrain on motorcycles, the 990 in particular (oh yeah! ). Not that we’re not having any fun on that ATV, mind you! Heh-heh.

All the camp gear in a pile before being loaded on the jeep:

After: Impressive!

We say our goodbye’s to Terry and Skye, but I’ll be damned if we don’t keep running into them all day as head south out of Colorado into New Mexico. Finally we give up trying to avoid each other and decide to have a late lunch together in Taos. Terry and Skye were planning to push on through to home in Oklahoma, but Tarren and I want to camp one more night in the cool mountains before accepting the torturous heat of Texas and Oklahoma. We find a sweet campground outside of Taos after hunting for a bit.

The business part of my trip is fast approaching, so I ask if Tarren if he minds setting up camp while I take the opportunity to practice my viola while there still some light and before it gets cold. He agrees and busies himself with the tent and gathering firewood while I begin my extended warm up routine. I haven’t played for days, other than giving a short carbon fiber viola demo at camp a couple nights ago. I know it’ll take me a good half hour to get my fingers back, at least...

The top box works pretty well as a music stand!

Our campsite is on a mountain side facing a valley. Occasionally we can hear a dog, car, or even a person’s distant voice from time to time, so I imagine that my music is echoing through the valley for great distances. I have no way to know how far the sound carries, but it’s fun to “stretch” my tone out and project as far as possible. Musicians want to be heard as much as anything, so I hope that my sound carries through someone’s window and makes them smile and wonder what crazy person is practicing viola in the woods...

I manage to squeeze in about an hour and a half of practice which is enough to make me feel moderately proficient again. Practicing and performing are two different things. Sure, busting out the Black Death on mountain tops is good for my performing, but it’s no substitute for the hours of repetitive motions that we classical musicians require to keep our chops up. That’s practice, maintenance. This is the part of my grand experiment that will be the most challenging: keeping up a consistent level of professional practice outside, camping from a motorcycle... Even Tarren, who’s heard many of my performances, comments on how much better I sound after playing for a while, and he says he’s even more impressed with the carbon fiber viola after hearing me go through my scales and etudes. Cool! Tarren has quite a bit of musical experience himself: he’s active in choir, plays the guitar pretty well, learned the cello in school, and was a professional D.J. for time, so I respect his musical opinions.

As day turns to night I’ve covered all my etudes and have gone through most of my audition material too, so as Tarren is heating up some vanilla pudding on the fire I pack up the viola for the day. It seems that a real campfire is one of the first things that comes to mind when people think of “camping,” but so often on the motorcycle I do without one. Hauling and/or finding wood is a pain (especially in the dark), and a lot of the time there’s no apparent fire ring while stealth camping, in which case a fire would probably draw unwanted attention anyway. So, when I get to have a real campfire it’s a big treat!

About midnight a wicked thunderstorm swooped down upon us with lightning like a strobe light and thunder that we could feel in our chests. It was intense! It was pretty scary, but I have faith in my tent and know we’ll at least be dry and comfy even if the storm keeps us awake for a while, which it does.

Tomorrow I’ll be back in Texas to face some musical challenges. I’ve tested the bike and the viola in some rugged outdoor environments, but now it’s time to see how my rig holds up on classical music’s own turf: AUDITIONS!

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Old 11-30-2008, 07:07 PM   #119
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Warning! NOT many pics in this episode! (which means lots of words...)

This morning is when I say goodbye to my best friend as he heads back home to Oklahoma and I continue into the Texas Panhandle. It’s COLD this morning, so I plug in the heated vest for one last chilly mountain morning before things inevitably heat up. Not Texas Not Texas Not Texas...

In order for me to proclaim the carbon fiber viola a complete success I would have to not only play it (and sound good!) in a variety of professional settings (symphony, opera, chamber music... CHECK, CHECK, and CHECK!), but I would also have to take and hopefully win some auditions with it. As if that's not difficult enough, some additional variables of the experiment are to throw in a motorcycle to get me there, and camping instead of lodging. Oh, and one more thing: I'll take a three week cross-country motorcycle/hiking trip just prior to a couple auditions so my playing is really in top shape (ha ha ).

I want to talk about the symphony employment scene for a moment, it’s quite a unique scenario, I can’t think of anything comparable in any other profession. As with other performance arts such as drama and dance the usual way to choose someone for the job is to hold and audition. Many hopefuls take a shot at fame and try to put their best out there for a panel of judges who evaluate the performances and choose the person that they deem most fit for the position, like “American Idol,” but hopefully the talent pool is a little more consistent. This is true for symphony orchestras too, but there are two catches: the first being that most of the time the judges can’t SEE the candidate for at least part if not all of the audition process. That’s right, the auditions are held behind a screen, in the interest of fairness. It’s all about the music, right? This way there supposedly is no bias as to gender, race, height, choice of shoes, or any other little thing. Unlike “American Idol” there is no verbal contact between the judges and the candidate. This is not a perfect system, which I’ll discuss in a minute. The second catch is the material that is typically asked of the auditionees is what are called “orchestral excerpts,” which are just what they sound like, little challenging snippets of orchestra music for the specific instrument or position being chosen. Of course the committee usually wants to hear you play a solo too, most often a movement of a concerto (which is a piece written for one solo player with an orchestra playing backup). It’s rare that a musician can move to or already be living in city with a full time orchestra and win a position after arrival, most employed musicians have to relocate for their jobs after winning an audition; we have to go where the work is, unlike many other professions.

Holding auditions behind a screen solves a lot of the old problems that developed from tyrannical conductors of the past who liked to choose a person that they liked because they recognized them at the audition and would insist that they be hired, usually over-riding the orchestra members that were on the audition committee. Obviously that system had flaws and since then the power sharing arrangement has changed with the implementation of the AFM (American Musician’s Union). Now there are rules that everyone, including the conductor, has to follow about the audition process (and many other working conditions), and this is where the blind audition started to become the standard means of auditioning. The AFM has done much to protect and enhance the profession of the classical musician, but here are the downsides that I see: as a performance artist part of the my job is to form a musical connection to my audience. That connection is (to me at least) partly visual. Imagine going to a rock concert of your favorite band and having a them perform behind a black curtain. Sure you could still hear the sound through the loud speakers (and really, isn’t that all that music is, sound?), but wouldn’t you feel a little cheated? How about the performers? Imagine performing for a sold out house but all you can see is that curtain only a few feet away. Now imagine performing behind that curtain but instead of an audience on the other side there are an unknown number of people silently taking notes about every nuance you may or may not convey. Zero feedback, you play, they listen. It’s not a conversation like a performance at all because there’s no “vibe” or feeding off the energy of the audience. I’m a little jealous of people who go to job interviews and get to speak with a real person, shake hands and look the interviewer in the eye before, during and after the interview. I then imagine them trying to interview for a job behind a door, not knowing who, if anyone, is on the other side because no one is speaking, they just have to talk and talk, hoping not say something wrong, and if they stutter or stumble over even one word they will be dismissed. I don’t believe that a screened audition brings out the best in the majority performers, and for people that excel in this environment (of which there are some), is that really a skill that is relevant to the job? Doesn’t it seem a little crazy to hire someone that you’ve never laid eyes on or met in person?!? It is acknowledged by many musicians that this is not the best way to hire anybody, but it’s all we have, and it’s “better” than any other way that’s been come up with. I may have a better way, but it’s unlikely I could ever be in a position to make it happen...

It may sound odd, but auditioning for professional orchestras is kind of it’s own weird world. The business is so competitive that being hired is no sure thing so players like me have to make auditioning a kind of lifestyle. We keep on taking auditions, year after year, hoping to have our good day at the right place at the right time. As for me, I’m still a self-proclaimed student of the process of auditioning, so I try to take every audition I can fit into my calendar, even if it’s a job I don’t particularly want. Did I mention that auditioning is odd? In what other kind of career would you bother to apply/interview for a position (at considerable personal expense) that you’re not even interested in?

The first audition on the list is a principal viola position with the Midland-Odessa Symphony (in Texas) which includes being in a string quartet and teaching as well. I literally ride to the audition in a giant Texas-sized thunderstorm on my KTM with the Black Death on my back, dripping water from my helmet onto the sign-in sheet as I arrive. I rule. As far as I know I’m the only person out there auditioning using a motorcycle as transportation, and certainly the only string player. I may or may not be successful at winning, but I guarantee I’m having a blast trying! And I’ll have good stories...

The other real drag about orchestral auditions is the cost. There is no business travel account, and no stipend. Most tax professionals are at a loss of how to deduct the cost of auditions because rarely is a profit made. The cost is entirely on the auditioning individual’s shoulders. Let’s say that a major metropolitan American city has a long running (100 years or more), full time, salaried symphony orchestra. The fifth chair violist retires after a long service, and a position is announced that will be filled by audition. Many, many violists that have formal educations will obviously be interested in this position, and most of them don’t have full time jobs already (if they do, they’ll only audition if the gig is better than the one they have, unless of course they are “students of the process” like me! ). You gotta play to win, so all those folks (as many as 200) will buy plane tickets for this city from all over the country, and will plan to stay probably two to four nights in a downtown hotel so that they can be close to the location of the audition, which is usually in the symphony hall or convention center downtown (auditions usually take at least two days, sometimes more. Most people arrive at least a day before to rest, acclimate, practice and warm up). Let’s be a little generous and say that the plane fare is about $350, and the hotel is $100 per night (seems about right for metro downtown location from my experience). So the auditionee is out of pocket up to $550-$750 dollars so far, and there’s still food, taxi/bus, and the after audition beer(s) to tally. Of course the odds are that the candidate will be cut after the first round, so that means they have two or more days to kill in a city that just rejected them (wow, fun. ), so they’ll find some museums and/or something entertaining to do, which will of course cost more money. But wait! There’s more! In order to attend the audition the candidate had to decline a string quartet wedding gig (would’ve paid $100), cancel six students (at $35-$50 each), and backed out of a regional orchestra week of services (which isn’t salaried; $350-$500). So let’s see... [calculator churning...] So it cost them between $600 and $1000 dollars AND they didn’t get to make their usual $750 during that time... And that’s if the violist is working!!! What about students? They aren’t making ANY money, so they finance the auditions from their already astronomical student loans. It costs as much (or maybe more) to educate a classical musician as it does a doctor. Where’s the return? Who planned all this??? In 2007 I personally attended seven auditions. For 2008 I’m likely going to attend over ten. Part of my justification for this whole experiment is that if I’m going to have to PAY for the “privilege” of auditioning for Orchestra So-’n-So I may as well enjoy it. I hate sitting in airplanes and I hate spending money on hotels in places I don’t particularly want to be and I hate jumping through other peoples circus hoops, so why not ride my motorcycle across the country and have some amazing memories/stories/pictures to show for all my effort? This is my “vision” as someone here put it, and I may just win over some new classical music fans along the way...

The Midland/Odessa gig is small potatoes, but this is a great way to break in my hot new audition style. You know, the orange & black style! I’m VERY qualified for this job as I have loads of symphony experience, lots of time in the principal viola seat, a ton of professional chamber music experience INCLUDING a full time string quartet, I’m a dedicated teacher AND I'm known for my skills in regards to outreach (taking music to the people!). I should be a shoo-in!

I scatter my rain suit and motorcycle gear around my warm-up room and pull out the viola case which had water running down the outside. Normally this would be cause for concern, but not with carbon fiber! My warm-up is strong, and the first round (screened) goes really quite well for me. I feel confident and poised in the moment, how it's supposed to be! There were two finalists for a second round which was un-screened and included more playing and an interview with the audition committee. Like everyone else who's seen the Black Death I assume they’re wondering about it, so I started into my schtick about how it's made, why I chose it, what the pros and cons are, blah blah... all the usual. They ask me some questions about my teaching philosophy and if I was willing to live in Midland-Odessa (ummmmmm, probably NOT! But I didn't say that). Interestingly there was only one member of the string quartet in attendance on the committee, which I thought was odd. It was also strange that there wasn't a round of the audition that included reading chamber music with members of the quartet. Why on earth would you hire someone for a string quartet without ever having played with them?!?! Amateurs... (A string quartet is historically very difficult on the players emotionally, kinda like the famous feuds between members of bands like The Police or The Eagles with hell-feezing-over and all that. For a quartet position choosing the personality is just as important as choosing the musicianship, in my opinion.)

Anyway, they didn't hire me for some reason. I ripped the playing portion, and I thought the interview went well since I'm well spoken and have loads of experience for all three of the jobs that they're looking for (principal viola, quartet, and teaching), so I figure they must have either been intimidated by me ('cause I was interviewing THEM too, rightfully so!), or they had a beef with the Black Death (which does admittedly have a scary name), or they had someone they already knew lined up who had agreed to live there unconditionally, or a combination of those factors. Maybe they could sense that I wasn't actually interested in taking the job, but I did want the satisfaction of telling them "No thanks." At any rate, I feel the audition was a success for me and my cutting edge instrument, so I'm chalking this one up as a victory, since I didn't want that shady job in an ugly town anyway. I'm just getting warmed up...


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Old 12-01-2008, 10:22 AM   #120
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After all this ridiní and viola-playiní I sure am hungry! I think Iíll zoom over to Llano Texas for Cooperís famous BBQ. Hot damn, thatís some good eatiní. Iíve tried many (but not all, yet!) of Texasí most famous BBQ joints, and in my humble opinion Cooperís is holding onto the Gold Medal. Every dish is outstanding, but I particularly like the pork loin and the beef ribs dipped in that amazing sauce... Carnivore. If itís your first time to Cooperís beware, it looks smaller when you order it outside out of the ENORMOUS smoker! Even as a Cooperís veteran I always end up with a ridiculous amount of meat on my platter. There are usually a few bikes coming and going (of the HOG variety, get it?! HOG, at a BBQ place?! Hardy-Har-Har...), and Iíve spoken with riders who brag about the fact that they willingly detour two hundred miles for a meal at Cooperís. I know I do!

The next victim about to get violated is El Paso Texas. The El Paso Symphony is a part time (per service) orchestra, so itís doubtful I would want to relocate in the event of winning the audition, but itís another opportunity for me to ride/camp to an event and test my viola ďin the heat of battle.Ē Auditions are incredibly stressful and, for me at least, it seems that the only way to practice auditions is to take them, sink or swim.

Because of the timing I slab it out to El Paso, I-10 the whole way. Uhhhhhhhg. In this part of Texas one has to try really hard to avoid the slab, there arenít many roads that will cover these distances in a reasonable amount of time, and the few that there are happen to be just as flat and straight as the Interstate and take longer. A little piece of me dies after the SIX-FREAKINí-HUNDRED MILES on the Interstate, but it still beats caginí! What a waste of knobbie tires, cíest la vie. Texas big.

How many ways are possible to ride straight line? I don't see how those guys riding east to Strugis on I-40/70/80 do it, my gawd! It's numbing in a dangerous way. I feel my mind wandering as I start to gaze at the rolling desert scrub to the sides of the yellow lines... How lucky am I to have had a trip like this summer's? Sure, I don't have a job, but that's a formality that's hopefully temporary. I performed well in Midland-Odessa, and El Paso is about to get the shocker, and that's just the beginning. Something will work out, and I have several back-up plans... Where'd that car come from? I need to watch my mirrors better. That reminds me, I'm probably due for some new safety gear, I wonder which helmet I'll get? I suppose I'll start buying all orange stuff now, that'd be sweet! That sure was fun riding in Colorado, I definitely need to do more of that, and more hiking come to think of it. Mmmm, need new hiking boots too. When am I going to do all this with my crazy performing schedule? Whoa, how fast am I going?! 92!! Relax that throttle, buddy. I should watch the road and ride my bike, not day dream about watching the road and riding my bike. Straight roads...

El Paso has great camping that is under appreciated it seems. Franklin State Park is just a few miles west of downtown and is quite beautiful. The campsites are between the mountains, so it feels like being far from the city, and both times I've been one of the only campers here. The rangers confirm that not many camp here, but it's more popular for day-hikers from the city. Even so, there are only a handful of people around all weekend, and the weather is unusually cool for Texas. I win! In fact, I don't think I could've picked better weather for motorcycle auditioning. Practicing outside is a joy with the pleasant temperature, scenery and colorful sunset. There's a neat cave to hike to, but I'm here to work.

Thereís a little dual-sport path up to the tent and picnic table in my preferred camp site. I like riding all the way in!

I went to town for dinner and decided to leave my viola at camp... Hidden in the bushes! This really is string instrument blasphemy. Never would you do this with a string instrument, NEVER! The Black Death is powerful indeed.

My audition check in time was at 2:00, so I had plenty of time to practice at the campsite before lunch, then cruise over to the UTEP campus music department for the audition. I arrived on time and eventually found the audition venue deep underground. As expected most of the auditionees were young college students and local hopefuls, 'cause who's crazy enough drive (or ride) 1,200 miles round trip for a part time gig?!? Who, I ask? Anyway, I looked around for a sign in desk (which is pretty standard at auditions), but didn't see anything apparent. I asked a waiting musician who said the proctor was also the sign in person, so I crouched down in the hall (no chairs) wearing my motorcycle gear with my viola-rocket-pack to wait. About 2:10 the slightly-too-perky personnel manager appeared and motioned for the viola candidates to gather near. After drawing numbers (I draw #2) she announces: "Just to let you know, the committee has decided that this audition will not be for a contract section position as advertised, it will actually be for first-call substitute viola."

Whaaaa? That is not cool in the music world. The whole idea of auditions is that they are "fair" and "honest" (to a fault, in my opinion), and people go through considerable time and expense (excessive, actually) to prepare and attend auditions, so misrepresenting what position the audition is for is very, very bad form. Substitute musicians have no rights, and no guarantees for work, they are only called if they're needed and/or wanted, and can be bumped off the sub list at anytime by the conductor or section leader. There is no tenure for a sub. Time for the viola-tor to speak up.

"This is shady. Now is not the time to be announcing this, after some of us (me!) have traveled a long way. Not cool."

"You know, you're right,Ē she says without hesitation, ďI'll go talk to the committee and see what they can do."

Whaaaaa? What's going on here? Do they have a position or don't they? It seems that the smaller the organization is the bigger the percentage of B.S. it has. She retreats into the audition room, and we wait. And wait (I'm still in my motorcycle gear, and have yet to play my instrument since arriving). Fifteen minutes later she returns and happily says, "There're going to offer a contract position after all. Where's candidate No. 1?"

Yikes! No warm-up? No assigned rooms? This is bad, I've got ten minutes max to get my game face on, and I'm still in my motorcycle gear and haven't played my instrument in over an hour, not good. I find an empty practice room and fling off cordura and leather in all directions as I wrestle the Black Death out of it's sheath. Oh no! My music folder is still on the bike, up three floors and down the street! Okay, this is obviously another amateur hour, so they can just wait. I'm here for the experience only, and I want to play well for me so I'm going to WALK, not run, to get my music, walk back, and at least play a scale before I go in. This is no time to get my heart rate elevated. If they don't like it, then they can, uhhh, just not like it (I'm trying to keep this suitable for all audiences!). Sure enough, they're waiting for me when I finally come around the corner, and I go in to face the music.

Auditions are strange situations, no doubt about it. (Sorry no pics, I have enough other things to think about at an audition!) It's taking an art form that is supposed to be a natural extension of human emotion and putting it in one of the most artificial and awkward environments I can think of. Making music is communicating through sound, hopefully communicating to an appreciating audience. An audition committee is like the Wizard of Oz, hiding behind a curtain ominously and anonymously deciding your fate. The screen robs the performer (and the audience/committee) of the visual channel of communication, and knowing that the mysterious audience is there to critique and eliminate certainly doesn't inspire the "joy" and "passion" in music making, at least for me. Some people thrive in this environment, and I'm trying to figure out how they do it, but I'm not sure it will ever be as fun as real, live performing. How could it? Don't you think orchestras should hire good performers?

I am getting better at it. My concerto went well, and my first couple excerpts were fine too, not my best playing, but given the stress of negotiating with the personnel manager and not getting a proper warm-up I'd say it was going pretty well. The last excerpt asked of me was Mendelssohn's Scherzo, which is on almost every viola audition in the world and is a real bear in nervous situations because of the delicate bow control required. This one didn't go so great, my right and left hands seemed to be on different schedules, and I'm pretty sure my right hand won the race by a length, with the left coming in a disappointing second.

"Okay everyone, gather around. We'd like to thank you for coming to the audition, and we appreciate all the hard work you've done in preparing and effort for coming here today." Yeah, yeah, they all say that. Like they feel bad for wasting our time and money. If you feel so bad, why don't you do the whole process differently, eh?

"The committee has decided NOT to award the contract to anyone this time, but I'd like to talk to you about your situation," she says, motioning to me.

Auditions mess with your head. Such intense concentration, all this hard work boiling down to seven minutes. It's hard to think straight, it's hard not to second guess yourself. What'd I do wrong? What'd I do right? I sound terrible, or was it passable? AAAAAAAAAH!!! I'm still trying to asses what's happened in my audition as perky-personnel lady is asking me questions. "You don't live in El Paso, right? Would you be available to play here? Would it even be worth your while?" We visit a bit and agree that I probably won't be coming anytime soon, but that she'll keep me on the sub list just in case...

Wait a minute, the sub list?!? I just got hood-winked! Bam-boosled! They told us there was a contract position available just to shut me up, and then promptly hired me to be first-call-sub, exactly what they wanted. I gotta get a real viola job, this petty small-time stuff is ridiculous.

So I should've won the Midland-Odessa gig, but didn't , and I sorta-kinda won the El Paso position that isn't really a position (even though it was advertised that way) without a warm-up all on a carbon fiber viola via tent and motorcycle. Sheesh! Since I'm a glass-half-full kinda guy, I'm putting El Paso in the "WIN" category too, since I did play decently, and was invited to perform with the group. One good thing is that they never saw the carbon fiber viola, so they didn't get a chance not like it because "it doesn't look like it should sound good." Or maybe that's not a good thing...

On the way back to camp I do a little off-road exploring and feel much better about life. Wouldn't you with such a nice backdrop? Actually, I think the foreground is great too. Mmmmmmm, KTM...

Everything is bigger in Texas, and the wildlife is often surprising. Insects can reach Jurassic proportions and snakes sometimes like to get cozy. Despite my best efforts sometimes some local critters manage to infiltrate my tent. I woke up and found this spotted beast in the tent:

Iím not sure if itís a local species, but it seems harmless to humans...

Iím ready to head home.
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