(Editor’s Note: In this series of reports, we are recounting the daily exploits of Erwin G. “Cannon Ball” Baker, and his record-setting motorcycle run from San Diego to New York City of 11 days in 1914. A group of enthusiasts is re-creating his ride in 2014, and I am trying to keep up with them.)
SANTA FE, New Mexico
Erwin Baker had done two years of advance planning for his trans-continental record attempt in May 1914. The plan called for traveling about 300 miles per day, for 11 days.
The first few days of the trip, which had started May 3 in downtown San Diego, were more challenging than Baker had expected, and had put his schedule under stress.
The first day, en route to Yuma, Ariz., he had experienced extreme heat in crossing the Sonoran Desert, a sandstorm, and trails so impassable he had to ride 65 miles on railroad tracks. The second day, he had become stuck in quicksand-like pits that caused him to run out of gas; he had to push his motorcycle in 119-degree heat four miles to the nearest refueling spot. He was only averaging 220 miles per day at this point – and only about 170, as the crow flies.
At the end of the third day, he was still in Arizona – exhausted from the furnace-like heat of Phoenix, and then shivering from the chill of the snow-packed White Mountains. He braved steep cliffs on a narrow trail through Apache Indian country, he had to have gas for refueling transported to him via a burro, and he was attacked by wild dogs (two of which he had to shoot with the .38-caliber Smith & Wesson revolver he carried).
Baker spent the night in Springerville, and planned to rally his stamina for the fourth day – 350 miles to Santa Fe. He would pass through 90 miles of alkali desert near Albuquerque, where he was sweating not only physicially, but also his fuel mileage; a tankful of gas in his Indian twin would normally last only about 80 miles.
(The 2014 group of riders who were attempting to find Cannon Ball’s trail overnighted in Socorro, New Mexico, instead of tiny Springerville, because of a lack of facilities there. From there, they headed all the way to Trinidad, Colorado – a destination that Baker wished he could have made the next day.)
On his fifth day of travel, Baker would pick up the old Santa Fe Trail; he hoped that well-established route would guide his travels all the way to Missouri. But he couldn’t stay on that trail for long.
“I left Santa Fe about 5:45 the next morning,” he wrote in his logbook, “with the intention of making another record day’s ride.”
Fourteen hours later, he collapsed from exhaustion – having traveled only 94.8 miles. (His new-for-1914 Indian featured a fancy speedometer with mileage counter!) What went wrong?
“Eight-six miles of mountain climbing,” he wrote, “and then my road through these mountains brought me to a mountain stream on which I had not figured.”
The stream was so swollen with rain water from a recent storm, and snow melt from the Taos Mountains, that he could not cross. He searched for hours, up and down the river, trying to find a place to ford it. Many times he was ready to give up, and turn back, which would surely mean the end of his record attempt.
But near sunset he finally located a point he thought was shallow enough.
He didn’t dare submerge the engine, so he had to make many attempts – back and forth – to find the shallowest parts, while almost carrying the heavy motorcycle. When he finally got to the other side, he was so completely soaked, he had to stop and build a fire to dry his clothes and his waterlogged motorcycle.
Baker spent a fitful night in a tiny hamlet he found nearby called Watrous – still in northern New Mexico – where he wondered whether his record attempt was now doomed to failure. The task ahead seemed almost hopeless. He had burned through nearly half the time he had allotted for his entire run – yet, he had traveled barely 1,000 miles from where he had started in San Diego. He still had more than 2,300 miles to go to his destination in New York City.
And more calamities awaited him on the road ahead.
May 7, 2014