September 8, 2005
John Cook Completes Motorcycle ‘Tour de Capitals’
It took the Memphis motorcycle enthusiast approximately two years to travel by bike to 49 of the United States’ state capitals, lacking only a motorcycle boat to get to Hawaii.
Lance Armstrong has made the Tour de France famous. A “bike” tour of a different variety has gained a Memphis man some notoriety of his own.
It’s not like John Cook needs his love of motorcycles to make him known in this community. John and his wife Maxine have owned and operated Cook’s Mens Store, a well-known western apparel store for 40 years.
But those in the community that didn’t encounter John in the store or via his various other community service projects such as Rotary, surely saw the man riding his motorcycle in the parades.
He wasn’t showing off. John simply found the love of riding and is more than willing to take advantage of just about any excuse to fire up his ride and head down the road.
Cook blames his love of riding on the fact that he started so late in life. John was 40 years old before he owned his first ride.
“I just finally got exposed to the sport then,” he said. “I had a pretty large group of friends who all had motorcycles at this time and they all kept coming by and trying to get me revved up.”
So John finally took the plunge. But it was a relatively small leap, as he shelled out $50 bucks to buy a small size 50 motorcycle.
He rode that for a couple of weeks and was hooked. The industry reeled in their newest catch, as Cook began upgrading, moving up to a 100 c.c. engine, then on to a 125, a 175, a 350, a 550, a 1000, a 1100 and then his 1200 10th Anniversary American Gold Wing.
“It’s just like any other hobby, fishing, hunting, golfing…” Cook said. “We all have our interests, and for me it’s definitely riding a motorcycle.”
In 1974 he started touring on his 550 Honda, traveling with his brother Charles to Arkansas, Kansas, Oklahoma, New Mexico and Colorado. They even traveled to the little known town of Sturgis, South Dakota where Cook joined with some 5,000 other motorcycle enthusiasts. Last year, the 63rd annual Sturgis rally drew nearly half a million bikers.
John enjoyed the sport so much he decided to share the fun with Maxine. Together the couple rode across the United States, Canada and even in Mexico.
“The riding around all over our great country, that’s simply the best,” John said. “We have seen some many different places thanks to riding, yet we are so thankful that we still live in the best part. Still, I love to ride.”
Cook doesn’t use the term love, loosely when he refers to riding his motorcycle. How else could one explain a man celebrating his 65th birthday by departing on a two-year quest to ride his bike to all of the state capitals in the United States?
The marathon began innocently enough back in 1998. On May 17, John departed from Memphis heading west. His first stop was Topeka, KS. He went on to Oklahoma City. Stop two on the 49 capital tour was made more memorable by his viewing of the bombed-out Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building.
While the site of the terrorist bombing dampened Cook’s spirits some, he was reinvigorated by what he called the beautiful scenery on the road to Santa Fe, NM. Phoenix, AZ, was the next stop before John departed on one of the longest rides of his adventure, the 1,020 miles to Austin, TX.
“That ride was hard on me,” Cook said. “It was kind of funny because it bugged me, until I finally told myself that it was a thousand miles, and I really didn’t have to do it all in one day.”
Between Texas and Louisianna, John experienced his first setback. He miscalculated on his fuel, and actually ran out of gasoline. Fortunately he was rescued by a passerby.
“A nice young man stopped and brought me some gas,” Cook said. “We got to talking, and the fellow related what his father had told him, that anytime you go someplace new, you always learn something. That’s stuck with me on my trips.”
Refueled, Cook pressed on to Baton Rouge and then turned north for the return trip, stopping in Little Rock, AR, before hitting Jefferson City, MO.
It was in his own state capital that Cook came across the book that became his guide on the quest. He was visiting with the folks in the souvenir shop, when one pointed out a book, “The Capitals of the United States”. John purchased a copy, which highlighted each state’s capital building. Now the book includes John’s own additions, as it has become somewhat of a scrapbook with photos taken by Cook at each of his stops.
On May 25, John’s 1500 Honda crossed the city limits of Memphis. In eight and a half days he had ridden 4,302 miles and visited nine state capitals on stage one of his tour.
After his visit to the southwest, John next mapped out the second leg of his journey, this time heading northeast.
On June 21, Cook departed from Memphis heading east. Springfield, IL was the first stop. Then it was on to Indianapolis, IN, followed by Columbus, OH. Cook made a pit stop in Brookville, PA, where he stayed at a friend’s home. He resumed the quest as he made it to Harrisburg before journeying into our nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.
“That was definitely a challenge because of the road designs,” Cook said. It’s shaped like a wagon wheel with all kinds of one-way streets. But still I got to see all the national monuments and all of the history.”
The history lesson continued as John made his way to Annapolis, MD, the site of the oldest state capital in the U.S., Dover, DE and Trenton, NJ, were two more stops as Cook said he found himself amazed that he was wandering among buildings with such history, like in Maryland, where George Washington had actually resigned his post as Commander and Chief of the Continental army back in 1783. He marveled at the four towers of marble and granite that comprised the Hartford, CT, capital building.
After hitting Providence, RI, and Boston, MA, John finally began to ride out of the urban sprawl of the east coast. He still couldn’t avoid the crowds though, as his misfortunate timing placed him in Concord, New Hampshire at the same time as a big NASCAR race, making it impossible to find a hotel room.
John continued north and hit Augusta, ME, and then stopped at Montpelier Vermont.
“This was the only one of the 49 state capitals that I didn’t either walk around or ride around,” Cook said. “I couldn’t, because the building is actually built into the side of a mountain.”
From there the journey turned to Albany, NY, before John headed to Buffalo, NY, and got to see Niagara Falls. He continued through Canada on a straight line for Lansing, MI. He then turned back south and traveled through Chicago on the return to Memphis where he arrived July 3.
“The East Coast was amazing with its history, its huge ports and giant ships,” Cook said. “The ocean and the mountains made it a very nice trip that I would have enjoyed much more without my mishap in Pennsylvania.”
An accident in the Keystone state left Cook with broken ribs, making the last 3,000 miles of the ride a little uncomfortable.
Still he completed the 12-day trek, covering 3,967 miles and 15 more state capitals.
Leg three of the five-stage trip started August 2 when Cook again departed Memphis, this time heading north to Des Moines, IA. He learned a little about politics in the gold-domed capital building where an engraved sign reads “Nothing is politically correct that is morally wrong.”
The northern tour went on to Madison, WI, and St. Paul, MN. Bismark, ND, presented an enjoyable ride across the northern plains. Cook admired the capital building as he approached the city, noting it is the tallest of all state capitals, standing 19 stories tall.
Cook was able to admire the length of the Missouri River as he paralleled the massive body of water on his way to Pierre, SD. Of course, it was August, so John made a detour to Sturgis to check out the biker rally before heading on to Lincoln, NE.
Cook covered 2,402 miles on the five-day excursion and will tell you that the midwest ride is definitely his favorite.
Stage four was the most ambitious thus far. Cook took off April 19, 1999 and headed southeast for what would be more than 4,000 miles on his motorcycle.
Nashville, TN, was stop #1 followed by Atlanta, GA, and Montgomery, AL.
Cook got to view two state capitals in Tallahassee, as Florida not only has a new modern building but also maintains the original capital building, restored to its original condition.
A strong desire to see Key West sent Cook on a detour across “Alligator Alley” and down the state’s west coast to his farthest southern stop. He returned up the east coast and on to Savannah, GA and then Columbia, SC. Here Cook saw the brass markers that represented canon shells that had hit the building during the Civil War.
Raleigh, NC, and Richmond, VA, had Cook two more stops closer to his goal.
But the cyclist found his trip soured by a call from home. He received word that his mother had passed away. That cut short his visit with friends in Lynchburg, VA, as he jumped on his bike that evening and rode until he had to stop for sleep. He made it back through Charleston, WV and Frankfurt, KY, before getting back home May 26. He covered 4,158 miles in eight days.
But that proved to be nothing compared to the final leg of the quest. A week later, John and a friend, Jerry Speer, departed Memphis to hit the remaining spots in the northwest.
Cook questioned if he was not getting a little soft as the first day on the road the duo hit rain. It was not the only roadblock Mother Nature would provide.
They made it to Cheyenne, WY, but hit a huge windstorm that nearly blew them off course on the way to Boise, ID. It turned cold as they crossed the narrow mountain roads en route to Helena, MT.
They kept going north, crossing into Canada on the way to Alaska. They headed for Calgary, riding along the Columbia Ice Field.
They took a break at Pink Mountain and awoke from a night’s sleep at a motel to 18 inches of snow. They were stalled for nearly three days by more than 20 inches of snow.
They made up for the layover with a hard day of riding.
“When we pulled into the motel, I was cleaning bugs off my windshield and kept wondering why I was so tired,” Then I looked at my watch and saw it was 10:30 p.m., but the sun was still up. That’s the first time I’ve ever went to bed with the sun still up.”
The two bikers finally made it to Juneau, AK, and then turned around and headed back to the good old USA.
“It was kind of interesting as I was sitting there in Alaska to stop and think, just a month or so before that I had been all the way across the nation down in the Florida Keys,” Cook said.
The next stop was Olympia, WA, before hitting Salem, OR, and Sacramento, CA. Carson City, NV, and Salt Lake City, UT, were stops 47 and 48 before the final destination of Denver, CO. was reached.
Twenty days later the two men returned home after covering more than 7,700 miles on their motorcycles.
“I always get asked, which one is the prettiest,” Cook said. “Well, that’s sort of like judging a queen contest, I mean you just can’t pick one over another as they are all so amazing.”
Regardless of all of his stops on the 59-day, 23,000 miles adventure, Cook never had any doubt what his favorite sight was.
“I saw so many beautiful things on my trips, but none compares to getting that first look at home when you finally get back,” he said.
With his obvious love for home, one might wonder why Cook undertook the massive trip.
“It was a challenge- and I won,” Cook said. “As a kid, I always wished my horse could have wings so that I could ride every place. On the highway, I realized God had given me my Gold Wing… very humbling.”