Del Lonnquist is one gent who is not going gently into his 80s any time soon.
Instead, he’s roarin’ down the open highway astride his Honda VTX 1300 CC this coming week heading into his newest adventure.
A sign on the back of his bike seat proclaims “80 Year Old Iron Butt Challenge Rider -- 1,000 miles in 24 hours.”
From March 2014 to March 2015, he rode 26,240 miles on his earlier bike, a Yamaha V Star 1100.
Part of it was an “Iron Butt,” long-distance endurance ride from his home in Helena to his brother’s house in Minnesota.
“I met so many people that way,” he said of his journey. “How cool is that? I’m putting a smile on the face of a stranger.”
And what makes them smile even wider is his little sidecar and a miniscule fold-up trailer for sleeping that he pulls behind.
“The sidecar is a hoot,” he said. He calls it his "babe magnet.”
“It’s such a cool way to travel,” he said. “You meet so many people.”
And he’s happy to offer a hitchhiking reporter and a photographer turns to hop in for a ride.
Last week it was a big sky Montana morning as we headed off with a gentle putter and roar for a spin to Montana City -- a soft, cool breeze in our faces, feeling the summer sun on our skin and the texture of the road beneath the wheels.
Green fields with flowering flax slip by. Then a bicyclist on a frontage road. Then the still-snow-edged Elkhorn Mountains approach. All too soon, it’s time to turn back.
When it comes to the joys of the ride, “it’s almost impossible explaining the thrill,” he said, “trying to put in words the euphoria of riding in the environment -- the smells and breeze.”
Lonnquist likes feeling the road and hearing the rumble of the muffler as he rides. It’s a thrill that just doesn’t come when he’s enclosed in a little box of a car.
No day on his motorcycle is a bad one, Lonquist said, not even the one he spent riding in driving rain before pulling into Hammond, Louisiana, with his boots full of rainwater.
It was just one more day he didn’t want to end.
Lonnquist’s journey is just the latest chapter in a love story that started one bitterly cold night in Fargo, North Dakota.
It was Jan. 25, 1954, when Del Lonnquist, who was 19, met an 18-year-old waitress, Lois, in a little diner near the club where he was performing with his band, The Dakota Ramblers.
A few short months later they were married, and would raise six children. Del and Lois continued making music for years as The Lonnquist Family Band, when they lived in Wisconsin.
At the time, Del indulged in his lifelong joy of riding motorcycles through his 100-mile, round-trip commute each work day.
But the Lois and Del love story took a sad turn in November 2011, when Lois was diagnosed with late-stage Alzheimer’s disease. It robbed her of her music, her memories and her personality.
Nursed at home by Del and other family members, she died in March 2014.
After the funeral, he decided he would “go for a little ride.”
In April 2014, he set out on his Yamaha for a 3,500 mile road trip.
When he’s on the road, he's also on Facebook with his family at least twice a day on his page titled “Where in the World is Grandpa?”
Readers can follow his adventures on his blog: rightlaneamerica.com. It’s subtitled: “1 Motorcycle + 1 Sidecar + 1 Eighty Year Old Man = Right Lane America.”
Here’s where he celebrates the joys of riding his little “barebones” Honda that he bought this spring. “You actually have to listen to the engine sound to know when to shift. It’s called riding a motorcycle … (and) fits just right for an old guy.”
He’s had his thrilling, hair-raising moments.
The hairiest was on I-270 coming out of St. Louis, riding in four lanes of traffic at 70 miles per hour, when a young driver hit the construction barricade and three barrels of sand sprayed into the air and across the highway.
“When I slammed on the brakes, I was skidding sideways on the Interstate,” he said. He almost got wiped out by the driver who started the whole collision, but at the last moment that car was T-boned by another vehicle and shoved down the highway.
When Lonnquist finally came to a halt, a young man in a pickup jumped out of his truck and ran over, yelling, “Are you OK? Are you OK?”
When he saw Lonnquist’s sign, he said, “Mister, ... I don’t care how old you are, that was one helluva piece of riding you just did.”
This week the adventures will continue.
Lonnquist rides off to Sturgis, South Dakota, for the United Sidecar Association Rally, and then on to Monticello, Minnesota, to visit his twin brother.
He’s also planning various trips to see friends and a few of his kids.
But by the end of September he plans to launch his 50 CC Ride, which is a 2,400 mile coast-to-coast endurance ride done in less than 50 hours from San Diego to Jacksonville, Florida.
No doubt, he’ll have a sign on the back of his bike as he goes.
“It’s a wonderful way to ride!” said the happy Helenan.
You can also read about his adventures in his new book, “Discovering Life After Alzheimer’s,” which you can purchase online.
Making Your Mark is a weekly series that profiles everyday folks doing extraordinary things.