No one in the family calls him daredevil. Adventurer, maybe. His wife, Priscilla, prefers to characterize Jack Dodds's passions as projects.
"He's always got a project," she says, sounding both resigned to and admiring of the fact.
In a less guarded moment, she good-naturedly says, "I think he's a little nuts . . . but I think it's terrific that he wants to do it and is doing it."
What the 73-year-old Fort Lauderdale retiree just accomplished is an "extreme" motorcycle ride from Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, to Key West, Fla. -- a trip of 5,9781/2 rumbling miles in nine road days. The Iron Butt Association (an endurance motorcycle club that refers to members as the "World's Toughest Motorcycle Riders") dubs the ride, from the Arctic coast of the northernmost state to the southernmost city, the "Ultimate Coast to Coast."
June 23: under a 2 a.m. rising sun, goodbye, Prudhoe Bay.
July 2: under a 10 a.m. sun (and after a two-night rest in Fort Lauderdale), hello, Key West.
Earlier in June, three weeks before Dodds began his grand expedition, the great-granddad biker logged 4,500 miles riding from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Vancouver, B.C., followed by 3,000 miles from Vancouver to Wasilla, Alaska. Fairbanks to Prudhoe Bay loaded an additional 1,000 miles on the odometer.
Dodds's goal is to rack up 100,000 miles or more this year, which would place him in the exclusive company of the Iron Butt Association's 100K Club, a club, mind you, that boasts only six members. "For my age," says Old Hog Rider (Dodds's biker name), "it would be a record."
(Though Iron Butt doesn't list ages on its membership roster, a spokesman responded in an e-mail, "I believe Jack is probably correct.")
Dodds, who rides alone and in groups, already is more than halfway to his goal.
Why undertake such a grueling venture?
"Like Hillary [Sir Edmund Hillary, who scaled Mount Everest] said, 'Because it's there.' I love riding. I like the challenge."
Did we mention Dodds is fiercely competitive?
His son Andrew, a corporate executive living in Castle Pines, Colo., says, "He's a high-energy dad. He's not good at just sitting around. He's always had a bug to go and see new places, to have new adventures."
Over the years, various sports, including tennis and golf, have engaged Dodds's time and resources. "I went skiing for eight years, and sailing for eight years," says Dodds, who moved with his wife from St. Croix, in the U.S. Virgin Islands, to Fort Lauderdale 10 years ago.
He raced his own 42-foot catamaran for several years throughout the Caribbean. "I won quite a few single-handed races," he says. He loves sailing, "but the lifting and pulling are too much for my aging joints."
These days, he says, "I do what my body can do. It doesn't like to run, jump, ski or walk on concrete for long periods. I realized riding a motorcycle doesn't bother [the body] at all."
At least not in the usual ways. "Yes, I get sore all over," Dodds admits. "Mostly the seat."
Dodds, a retired builder-developer originally from Southern California, has been biking most of his life.
He got his first bike during World War II when the family doctor, faced with gas rationing, bought a motorcycle to make his rounds.
Problem was the bike kept breaking down. Frustrated, the doctor gave his recalcitrant machine to 13-year-old Dodds, who, in no time, had the bike thundering up and down neighborhood streets. "For about five or six years, I did dirt bike racing," he says.
Adulthood didn't dampen his passion for the roaring machines. "At one time," says the father of five, "we had eight bikes in the garage."
Son Andrew recalls, "As a family, we used to go on camping trips and ride motorcycles in the desert of California."
Now Dodds leaves deserts behind, chasing epic dreams coast to coast. Along the way, he stops to fly-fish or to visit children, grandchildren or great-grandkids, who know Grandpa isn't your usual septuagenarian. "I think their feeling is: 'Most grandfathers sit and stare out the window. We're glad you don't do that.' "
And his kids? "They think I'm a juvenile delinquent. They just hope their father grows up someday."
The Gear for the Goal
To launch his 100,000-mile quest, Dodds bought two 2004 bikes -- a Harley-Davidson FLHTCUI Ultra Classic Electra Glide with cruise control and a BMW R1150GS Adventure, both black. "They cost me about $25,000 each by the time I equipped them," he says.
Equipment includes radar detector, CB radio, Global Positioning System device, multiple halogen lights, satellite radio and cell phone. He also lugs along a digital camera and a laptop computer.
Which bike he takes on road trips depends on the terrain and the distances to be traveled. "The BMW has a range of 350 miles," he notes, referring to fuel consumption. "compared to the Harley's 180."
For long hauls, Dodds packs three changes of clothes. When they're dirty, he stops at a Wal-Mart to replenish his wardrobe. The dirty laundry is either ditched or shipped home. His travel gear includes a full helmet, Gore-Tex jumpsuit with protective armor (in case he takes a spill), and special weather vest and chaps, featuring thermostat and electric heater.
Weather, regardless of the season, can be unpredictable and extreme.
On his June trans-Canada trip, Dodds left Halifax and traveled 1,000 miles in pouring rain and near-freezing temperatures. Yet, when he got to Alaska, "It was in the 90s."
In Arizona in September, he was baked by a 112-degree heat wave. "I was drinking two quarts of water every 50 miles," he says.
He always travels with water, Gatorade, coffee, power bars, peanut butter crackers and other snack food. On long-distance runs, his only real meals come when he stops for lodging. He fuels the bike and himself, sleeps five or six hours, then hits the road for another numbing marathon haul.
Although he's speeding through the country, the sights are part of the thrill. He saw caribou and bears lingering along the roadway in Alaska. He saw majestic Mount McKinley rising on the horizon at dawn. He's captured on his digital camera painterly impressions of the Yarmouth lighthouse at Cape Forchu in Nova Scotia, of wildflowers, of sunrises and sunsets from vantage points north, east, south and west.
Risk and Reward
Dodds's safety is a concern for his wife and children, who look forward to the e-mails and photos he sends while traveling. "We all worry about him getting tired or hurt on the road," says Andrew. "He's riding thousands of miles, and you do get tired."
Dodds is not unmindful of the risks. Three bikers in groups he met up with in Alaska were hospitalized with injuries suffered en route. "You have to ride very smart, very defensively and very conservatively," he says. "Like everything else in life, there's nothing like experience."
And, he reminds you, he has 60 years of that.
"I'm a good rider. I always think everyone else on the road is crazy, drunk, stoned or all of the above."
There are natural dangers such as ice or snow. On the gravelly Alaskan roads, he saw bikers skid out. But the greatest danger, he says, is "drivers who are nuts."
You not only have to be alert, he says, "you have to be lucky."
On a highway in Indianapolis during Dodds's coast-to-coast, a car slammed into a temporary divider at high speed just as Dodds was passing in the opposite direction. Parts of the vehicle flew through the air into Dodds's lane, hitting cars behind him. He slipped through without collision or injury.
"You just thank the Lord and keep on going," he says.
That's exactly what he'll be doing the rest of the year, going flat-out chasing a title.
Last week, he did a four-day ride that took in Tennessee and North Carolina. That kicked his odometer ahead 3,000 miles. Wednesday he took off for what's known as a Four Corners challenge, a 10,000-mile excursion that takes in Key West; Madawaska, Maine; Blaine, Wash.; and San Ysidro, Calif. He's allowing 12 days for this grand sweep, though the rules allow 21.
Mid-August he plans to do the five-day, 5,000-mile Poker Run from Hell, which involves circling each of the Great Lakes in 24 hours or less. The trip to and from the starting point in Dundee, Mich., will put him 3,000 more miles closer to his wished-for tally.
And on and on and on.
For endurance ride certification and recognition by the Iron Butt Association, riders must maintain a travel log and retain all gas, toll and other travel receipts. As further documentation, riders must have a photo taken at an official landmark or marker at the beginning and the end of the ride. They also have to collect the signatures of independent witnesses at the start and finish.
"I have no doubt he'll do it," Priscilla Dodds says of her husband's goal.
Says Andrew: "I think he likes to have the reputation of being the oldest Iron Butt to do this. I think that's kind of fun for him. He's very, very focused on doing something to the max."
Securing the 100K membership won't, however, be the last flight of fancy for this hearty road runner. In fact, Dodds has begun investigating his next big venture -- a ride from Prudhoe Bay to the tip of South America, 15,000 rugged miles. He won't attempt that until 2006. "That would be the trip of a lifetime," he says, grinning like a kid who can't wait for Christmas, "the ultimate experience."