Cannon Ball’s Trail

One hundred years to the day later, we retrace Erwin “Cannon Ball” Baker’s record-setting cross-country ride.

2014 Cannon Ball

Back in 2010, AMA Hall of Famer Don Emde took note of the Motorcycle Cannonball, a cross-country ride for pre-1916 motorcycles that started in Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, and ended up in Santa Monica, California, 16 days later. As much as Emde approved of this event, which celebrated Erwin G. Baker’s 1914 transcontinental motorcycle record, he wondered why didn’t they traverse the country in the same time (11 days, 12 hours, 10 minutes) as Baker had on his Indian. Which led to other questions: What had been Baker’s exact route? Could it even be determined? If so, he mused, that would be a fun ride.

A plan took shape. Emde, aware that the centennial of Baker’s famous ride was fast approaching, figured that he and buddy Joe Columbero would enjoy such a ride, so the two began investigating Baker’s route. As their curiosity and enthusiasm grew, they traveled to libraries in Kansas City, Columbus, and Indianapolis, where they spent days poring over old maps and records. As Cannon Ball’s route began to emerge from the dusty clippings, Emde and Columbero set out across the country several times to find the exact roads and trails where Baker put his tires in 1914. Friends and colleagues began to take notice, and Emde’s idea started turning into a big deal.

"To me, Baker's 1914 run was one of the greatest motorcycle rides in history," Emde says. "I think of Cannon Ball as the first real adventure rider. He was ahead of his time." Emde, who has an extensive collection of documents and memorabilia, knows his motorcycle history. He was also an active participant in this history. Emde's father Floyd won the Daytona 200 in 1948 on an Indian, and then Don repeated the feat in 1972 with Yamaha. A photo from the winner's circle on Daytona sand in 1948 shows Cannon Ball standing at Floyd's side.

vintage photo of Erwin Cannon Ball Baker

Floyd's father, Louis "Joe" Emde, owned a motorcycle repair shop in El Centro, California, in 1914, and Don has a fantastic photograph of Joe in his shop astride an Indian Twin nearly identical to Baker's. Emde discovered that El Centro was on the 1914 route, so he figures Cannon Ball rode right past the Emde Garage. Images like these stir the imagination of those of us with a soft spot for history, and Emde's zeal for a centennial ride called Cannon Ball's Trail continued to grow. Realizing the ride was developing beyond his means, he approached Yamaha for support, and the manufacturer enthusiastically agreed, supplying several Super Ténéré adventure bikes for Don and a few fortunate journalists, including yours truly.

A quick look at the scope of Baker's racing and speed-record achievements underscores the talent of the man. In addition to 143 speed and fuel economy records, he has 5.5 million miles of documented motorized travel. At just 32, Baker was recognized as America's greatest motorcyclist, thanks largely to that San Diego-to-New York record. Baker broke at least 15 national and international speed records on motorcycles, including another transcontinental run in September of 1922 on an Ace, where he nearly halved his 1914 record time, going from Los Angeles to Staten Island in only six days, 22 hours, 52 minutes. He was 6-foot-2 and 225 pounds in his prime, and although he had some success in track racing—even winning the first motorcycle race at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, in 1909—he must have known he'd be more successful in endurance events. He broke the automotive transcontinental record 11 times; his fastest run was in 1933 when he drove a Graham-Paige from New York to Los Angeles in two days, five hours, 30 minutes, a record that stood some 40 years. His last transcontinental crossing was on a motorcycle in 1941, age 59.

Fortunately, Baker left behind a detailed journal of his 1914 record run, a fascinating read that was a huge help in recreating the route. To say that our country and road system has changed in the past 100 years is a huge understatement. But by May 3 of this year, Emde and Columbero, with Butler Maps, had plotted the famous route as closely as possible. And at exactly 9 a.m., Emde led a 30-rider group east from the San Diego shore, 100 years to the minute after Baker’s departure.

Super T with sponsor stickers

The weight of that centennial moment was not lost on us and proved to be the first of many special realizations as we traversed the nation, placing our wheels as often as possible exactly where Baker did, 100 years later to the day. Emde provided each of us with a route book that contained Cannon Ball’s fascinating words about his ride, and to read them daily as we followed in his tracks added a great deal to the experience.

We didn’t get through the first day without marveling at Baker’s ability and tenacity on his 7-hp Indian Twin, as we rode the same desert trails that he described as being “knee deep with sand, cactus, sage brush and mesquite bushes” and full of “axle deep silt.” My 2014 Super Ténéré, packed with power and technology, shared little but two wheels and a gas tank with Baker’s Indian, and I certainly wouldn’t have wanted to push it in sand for 4 miles as he did after running out of fuel on day two in 119-degree heat. (We had a kinder 106 degrees.)

ISDT Gold Medal winner and Motion Pro founder Chris Carter put things in perspective after a long day in the desert: "At home I ride a 1915 Harley-Davidson, so I have a real appreciation for what Baker did out there with 60 pounds of pressure in those clincher tires. And he must've been a heck of a mechanic to keep that thing going. He couldn't have been going more than 20 or 30 mph on that terrain. And here we are with GPS, fuel injection, and 10 inches of suspension travel, and we're whooped at the end of the day." Clearly, Baker was a gifted rider with almost supernatural endurance, but he also had a profound understanding of engine tuning, which he spoke about later in life. "The only way to handle a carburetor is here," he'd say, pointing to his ear. "I learned that and became a motorcycle champion because I was better tuned than the others. The carburetor sings a song, and you'd better listen."

at the grave of Cannon Ball Baker

From the sand of the dramatic Apache Trail near Phoenix to the expansive battlefields of Gettysburg on the Lincoln Highway, our eyes saw what Cannon Ball saw all those years ago, and our appreciation for him grew. We marveled daily at Baker’s pace, after putting in what seemed like a full day’s ride, often 300-plus miles and at speeds mostly above 70 mph.

Communities across the country welcomed us and fed us, and some even issued official proclamations in Baker’s honor. In the Midwest, eyes would get wide when people learned we were riding from San Diego to NYC. “A hundred years ago today, Cannon Ball Baker rode right down this street,” I’d say, as much to relish the idea of it myself as to paint a picture for them. In one poignant moment, Emde led us on a wet, overcast morning to Baker's gravesite in his native Indianapolis, where we again felt the touch of history’s hand. Just outside Columbus, Ohio, after visiting the AMA museum, we stopped at K&C Cycle, owned and operated by Dick Klamfoth, a three-time Daytona 200 winner. I asked Dick if he ever met Baker. “Oh, yes,” he said, “Many times. He’d come to my pit and say hello and kind of pay his respects from one fast guy to another, I suppose.” As I shook Klamfoth’s hand, it dawned on me that I was speaking with a man who had met Cannon Ball Baker—a personal, human connection to the amazing man we were honoring on this ride.

I think we proved there’s no wrong way to honor Mr. Baker by riding a motorcycle across our great land. The most memorable moment of our journey for Emde was exiting the Holland Tunnel into the bright sunshine that greeted us in New York City. Three years of planning and preparation had paid off, and he uttered these three simple words inside his helmet: “We did it!” The next morning, Emde said he hadn’t felt that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction since winning at Daytona in 1972. Thanks for sharing your dream with us.

Erwin "Cannon Ball" Baker.

From the Don Emde Collection

A picture from the Dodge City 300 race in 1914. That's Erwin ?Cannon Ball? Baker at far left.

From the Don Emde Collection

Erwin "Cannon Ball" Baker.

From the Don Emde Collection

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