Story and photos by Erin Mathews
[COLBY] It’s been 18 years, but Jim Oliver still thinks every day about his 60-day trip around the world on a motorcycle – especially the lengthy getting-across-Russia part. He says the experience changed him.
“I just have a better appreciation for what people are going through,” said Oliver, 79. “Even in Thomas County, people struggle. I can appreciate that. It’s not always easy for everybody.”
The Colby man’s trip was a long time in the making. You could argue that it started when Oliver was just 8 years old, and his teacher assigned him to do a book report on Around the World in 80 Days by Jules Verne.
“I took that book home and started reading it that night, and I fell in love with adventure and going around the world, and all the cultures,” he said. “It really soaked into me that I’d love to do that some time.”
Skip ahead about three decades, and Oliver was taking up long-distance motorcycling. Professionally, he was a financial planner.
“In planning, if you write down a goal and make it time specific, you will hit it and you’ll hit it on time,” he said.
By the time he turned 55, Oliver had written down his goal to go around the world on a motorcycle by age 60.
“And then I added ‘and do it fast,’” he said. “I still had a wife at home, a business at home and all that.”
About two years before that birthday milestone, he started planning in earnest.
And it happened. In 2004, on his 61st birthday, Oliver used his satellite phone to call in to KLOE Radio in Colby from Prague, Czech Republic. He’d been calling in daily reports to the radio station as he made the long trek across Russia, and on his birthday, he was about halfway back home.
Oliver enjoys sharing the many stories of his 15,000-mile trip. He has more opportunities to do that since he converted the former doughnut shop in downtown Colby into a small motorcycle museum earlier this year.
At the B.R.O. Motorcycle Museum at 300 N. Franklin, Lucille – Oliver’s world-traveling 2001 BMW – is showcased among the 25 motorcycles in his collection. Oliver said he started thinking about creating a museum when he and his wife, Molly, began constructing a new house that won’t have as much room for his motorcycles.
“Initially, I was going to leave Lucille at the Kansas Motorcycle Museum in Marquette because she’s been a showstopper there, and they had a nice display and it was working out,” he said. “But I had enough town people asking if I was going to bring Lucille home that I finally decided I would.”
The museum in Colby, which Oliver opens by appointment when people call him at (785) 462-0040, has a back room where various maps of his route are displayed. A black Sharpie line traces the miles he and companion Dennis O’Neil, of Golden, Colo., rode across Asia, Europe, Canada and the United States between May and July 2004.
During the first eight-day leg of the trip, the two men rode to Seattle, Wash., where they put their motorcycles on a ship to the port in Vladivostok, Russia. They knew the motorcycles’ sea voyage would take three weeks, so they returned home. Once the ship had arrived, Oliver and O’Neil left family in a tearful departure at Denver International Airport for the final 52-day leg of their journey. They flew to Los Angeles, Calif., then to Incheon, South Korea, before finally landing in Vladivostok.
“None of us knew what we were getting into, so we just hoped it would work,” he said. “You really can’t get as much information off the web as you want. You want somebody to say, ‘Just dodge the potholes and ride every day, and you’ll be OK.’ Nobody’s going to say that because they don’t know whether you’re going to be OK or not.”
Upon arrival in Russia, the men and a third acquaintance, who had shipped his motorcycle along with theirs, found themselves facing a problem. They had failed to fill out declaration forms about their motorcycles. Turns out a U.S. Embassy representative who told them not to worry had given them poor advice. Russian government officials refused to allow them to have the motorcycles.
“It took four days to work through the problem,” Oliver said. He said the third man, who planned to take a slower paced ride and wasn’t going to travel with them, had contacts in Russia who were helpful. Through him, they secured a translator and driver, who took them to various Russian government officials to make their apologies for not filing the paperwork. Finally, they were able to get their bikes.
The first long, grueling day of riding set the pace. Oliver and O’Neil rode about 800 miles in rain because they couldn’t find a hotel or a good camping spot. Exhausted, they sat on the ground and leaned against the wall of a gas station and tried to sleep. However, they were soon awakened by several men, who appeared to be drunk. The men left, but came back shortly. One man distracted Oliver and O’Neil while others stole O’Neil’s helmet. Oliver and O’Neil got back on their motorcycles before the men returned again.
Another memorable moment was the first time they encountered a checkpoint.
“There were about six military guys there with submachine guns at the ready position, and we were like, ‘Oh my God, what are we getting into?’” Oliver said. “I was paranoid; they were paranoid, but we all got through it.”
In the eastern part of Russia, Oliver said they encountered checkpoints about every 30 miles. After getting through four or five, they became more relaxed.
“It was all pantomime because we didn’t know their language, and they didn’t know ours,” he said. In most cases, the soldiers just looked at their international driver’s licenses and let them pass.
“If somebody tells you that they’ve been to Russia, they’ve been to Moscow or St. Petersburg, clear over in the west,” he said. “Nobody goes 100 miles east of Moscow, and that’s where all the fun is – out there in Siberia. I could tell story after story after story. That’s adventure.”
He said they didn’t see any Siberian tigers or evidence of gulags, but even though it wasn’t winter, temperatures would dip below freezing overnight. To stay warm, he wore an electric vest that could be charged on his motorcycle.
“In the morning, there’d be frost on the windshield, and you hoped the motorcycles would start,” he said. “They always did.”
He said during the daytime, temperatures would reach 60 or 70 degrees. Many days it rained.
The real challenge was the road itself. Just a couple months before they began their trip, President Vladimir Putin had announced that the Trans-Siberian Highway was open all the way to Moscow. Previously, travelers had skipped the 1,300-mile Amur River section by loading their vehicles onto railroad cars and riding the Trans-Siberian Railway through the area.
“I thought if it was open, we should just take it,” Oliver said. With the benefit of hindsight, he added, “Putin didn’t say it was done. He just said, ‘It’s open.’”
Oliver soon had reason to regret that choice. He came up with his own nickname for the road, calling it “the XXX Road” because it was “the pornography of all highways,” he said. He said the road through the marshy area was largely unpaved, consisting of jagged rocks about the size of baseballs, mud and potholes the size of small cars.
“We were really fighting it,” he said. “We were riding 15 hours a day on average, and at the end of the day we’d have gone 150 miles, working hard, with no real time off. That’s a 10-mph average. We did that for eight days straight.”
Oliver said the only other travelers they encountered in Siberia were professional drivers hired to deliver cars imported from Japan to Moscow and St. Petersburg for resale.
“We called them car jockeys, and they drove like crazy,” he said. “They could traverse some of the road faster than we could, and we were faster on other parts. We would leapfrog each other all day long. When we got to Chita, which was the end of the real difficult part, they all pulled over and were waiting for us to go by. They were our cheerleaders. They were whooping and hollering.”
Oliver said about every 30 miles there was a gas station and a restaurant. All they knew how to order was borscht and coffee. One night, Oliver said they stopped at a hotel and were told two riders from Australia were there. One of them was injured. Oliver said the man had lost control of his motorcycle on the sharp rocks and they “just shredded him.”
“For an afternoon, they were stitching him up at the hospital,” he said. Eventually, Oliver heard that the Australians had put their motorcycles on the railroad and flown home. He said he and O’Neil were fortunate that their ride hadn’t ended that way.
After 28 days, he and O’Neil rode out of Russia. In Spain, they parted ways. O’Neil was going to do some more sight-seeing, but Oliver was ready to go home. He headed for France, where he and Lucille boarded an airplane in Paris to fly to Montreal, Canada. He rode home from there.
Once home, Oliver said it took him about two weeks to fully recover from the trip. Three years later, he self-published a book about the adventure called Lucille and the XXX Road: Around the World Man & Motorcycle. He started riding Lucille to motorcycle rallies and other events across the United States, where he could sell copies of his book. Sometimes he was invited to speak about his trip.
Oliver said he’s glad he made the trip when he did because a trip through Russia today is out of the question. The COVID-19 pandemic and then Russia’s attack on Ukraine have caused the U.S. Department of State to advise against travel to Russia.
While motorcycle riding opened the world to him, Oliver acknowledged it isn’t for everyone. He encourages people who are thinking about learning to ride to start with a weekend Motorcycle Safety Foundation course.
“They teach you all about how to ride, how to stop quickly, how to avoid collisions, and by the time you get done with that weekend, you will know whether you want to continue,” he said. “Some people don’t. That’s fine. It’s not for everyone.”