THE QUEST
by Bob Higdon

As in most of the tragedies that have befallen me in the last ten years, I blame Mike Knee-bone for this one. With one telephone call in the spring of 1990, he took from me what had been a simple, pleasant way of passing time --- visiting the occasional national park, monument, or historic site --- and reduced it to post-nuclear rubble.

"If you go to a national park these days," he said, "you can get a passport book. At the visitor's center in the park you can rubber stamp the date of your arrival in the book. Pretty neat, huh?"

"I wonder how many parks and other sites there are," I said.

"A lot. More than there are stars in the sky, from American Samoa to Maine."

"Wow," I said. "We have to think up some rules for this." That Mike was proposing a contest didn't need to be spoken; we've bet on which raindrop would run to the bottom of a window pane first. The gauntlet had been thrown down and we were scrambling for it simultaneously.

He took an early lead, since he already had the passport book. But Chicago, where he lives, is not a passport-rich environment, so I knew his initial advantage was temporary. The Washington, D.C. area is the mother lode of passport stamps. I ordered my book and was soon plotting victory with a road atlas and a map of national park sites.

That summer the MOA rally was in Rapid City. I flew out to Los Angeles, where I was then storing my K75T, and headed north to Salt Lake to rendezvous with the long-suffering Susan. The next day we rolled north into the foothills of the magnificent Tetons. Susan was stunned by the grandeur of the scene. I was looking for the visitor's center. I wanted my first passport stamp.

That was a fateful day, the 16th of July, 1990. I rubber stamped the book, grabbed a second stamp there for the Rockefeller Parkway --- my first experience with a two- for-one stop --- and got back on the bike. Susan wanted to picnic by a lake. I insisted that we continue on to Yellowstone before the visitor's center closed. The fever was upon me, like a hot, red fist.

The next day I roped in the Custer battlefield stamp. The day after that Devil's Tower was in hand. I wasted an hour because Susan wanted to hike around the base of the mountain. Then we met Mike in Rapid City. He was chuckling at my lack of progress. I smiled grimly.

"The race is not always to the swift," I snarled, quoting Ecclesiastes. When in doubt, you can always find something of comfort in the Book of Ecclesiastes.

While the rally was going on, Mike and I were whacking stamps in the area. Mount Rushmore and the Badlands fell quickly, then we headed to the caves.

"Caves?" the terminally claustrophobic Susan groaned. "I'm not sure I want to go into any cave."

"You don't think we're going in them, do you?" I asked. "Not a chance. We get the stamp and bolt. Case closed." And that day Wind Cave and Jewel Cave were thoroughly explored by our party for about five minutes each.

Thus it continued. Within the month I'd taken in 19 stamps. By the end of 1990 I'd bagged 124 stamps in 25 states. Mike was protesting a few that I hadn't gotten by motorcycle; I laughed at him as only a contemptuous lawyer can, one who knows the difference between the letter and the spirit of the law. He wrote a new rule.

In 1991 the stamp haul fell off to a total of 118, and they were getting harder to nab. I'd looted most of the easy ones on the east coast. Now I'd find myself riding down 25 miles of bad dirt in Utah, beating the living crap out of an innocent motorcycle, to pick up a stamp at a national monument that the next day I couldn't even remember having seen. How big an impression can a place make on you when you're not there for more than three minutes, or if it's just one of eight places that you've seen, more or less, that day alone? Not much, that's how much.

Another 79 stamps fell by the wayside in 1992. But I could feel the end drawing near, not because I'd vacuumed all of the stamps but because I'd been to too many parks too quickly. I'd grown weary of thinking up excuses to tell the park attendants why I couldn't spend five minutes watching a video tape of their pride and joy. Their looks of disappointment were crushing me. I began to think of myself as a specialist in telling mothers that their children were uglier than wet rats.

I logged seven stamps in 1993, the last at Pipestone national monument in Minnesota where I argued with the receptionist about whether the place should even exist. Clearly I was beyond burned out. I wasn't even a cinder.

In 1994 I walked into the Herbert Hoover site in West Branch, Iowa on July 18, stamped the book, and sat down. A ranger came over. "You look sad," she said.

"Do I? Then why don't you tell me about Mr. Hoover. I bet you know more about him than his own mother did." And she smiled. I hadn't seen one of those on a park ranger's face for a long, long time. After an hour I left. It was the first and only passport stamp I took in that year. Nearly three more years would pass before I'd nail another.

But by then Mike had created a cottage industry in his Iron Butt Association, a contest for stamp hunters. Avid collectors emerge from their cocoons each spring, crank up their bikes, and head for the nearest National Park Service logo. Some of them are much worse than I ever was, the poor bastards. Greg Pink recently banged 39 stamps in one day. There's nothing sadder than watching an addict in mid-habit. I come from a family of addicts. I know.


John McKibbin and I were riding back from Texas in a U-Haul truck after my wreck in Mexico last December. He was kidding me about my insisting that we stay in a Motel 6 each night. John's a Holiday Inn kind of guy.

"I wonder how many Motel 6s you've stayed in over the years," he said. "There must be a lot of them."

"More than there are stars in the sky," I said wearily. "There are two in Farmington, New Mexico alone. There's nothing else in Farmington --- just two Motel 6s."

"Do you think you could hit them all in one year?"

"Maybe," I said. I reached for the Motel 6 guide and began looking at their map.

Bob Higdon can be contacted at Higdon@IronButt.com

CopyrightŠ1997 Bob Higdon
Last Updated: September 30, 1997
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