Evel who? Meet Montana’s unsung motorcycle hero

Honda

This photo from Gregory Frazier’s new book shows him in Thailand with a 250cc Honda.

If there were any justice in this world, Gregory Frazier would be as famous as that other Montana motorcyclist, the late Robert Knievel.

Frazier, who lives in Fort Smith when he’s not on his motorcycle, is not a daredevil in the traditional sense of the term, meaning he doesn’t jump over cars, buses or gorges. But it takes a different kind of guts, and incredible doggedness, to do what Frazier has done on a motorcycle.

When I first wrote about him for the Billings Gazette eight years ago, he was the only person to have been around the world four times on a motorcycle by himself, and he made a fifth circumnavigation with a passenger. I don’t think anybody has broken his record yet.

He has also written at least a dozen books on motorcycle touring. An editor with one of the biggest publishers of automotive and motorcycle books told me Frazier almost singlehandedly sparked the craze for global motorcycling.

And now he has written a book that chronicles his entire motorcycling career, from his early years in Billings to that most recent round-the-world voyage. “Down and Out in Patagonia, Kamchatka and Timbuktu” is a big, glossy book, full of photographs, published by Motorbooks and priced at $35.

There is a lot in this book, but what it does not contain is almost as interesting. There is hardly any mooning over exotic cultures or beautiful landscapes, few stories about profound lessons learned from spending so much time exploring other countries.

For Frazier, motion is the thing, just being on a motorcycle and logging miles, riding new stretches of road and “tagging” geographical touch points around the globe. That explains this caption under a photo of a spectacular series of cataracts: “Iguazu Falls in Brazil merited a stop long enough to take this photograph.” On the very next page, under a photo of the statue of Christ towering over Rio, he writes, “I stopped in Rio de Janeiro only long enough to take this photo.”

He makes the point explicitly in a list of lessons he calls Rules of the Road: “While some travelers claimed it was the journey, for me it had become how long I could keep going on journeys and how many miles I would eventually cover.”

That also helps explain why two of his trips around the world weren’t just straight-line circumnavigations. They involved tracing two enormous W’s on the map, cycling to the southern- and northernmost points of North and South America, Europe and Africa.

BookAnd when Frazier is not traveling around the world he is making adventure trips to places like Myanmar, Cambodia and the remotest corners of Alaska. In addition to his books, he has produced nine documentaries about particular adventures or the best roads to ride on several continents.

I think that’s why he never achieved Knievel’s notoriety. It’s hard to be a showman, to engage in events that people can actually see, when you’re almost constantly tooling around some obscure locale multiple time zones away from home. His primary audience has always been other adventure motorcyclists, or at least those who want to experience adventure cycling vicariously.

I’ll never forget when I first heard about Frazier. Photographer David Grubbs and I were interviewing Joe Whalen, then mayor of Miles City, about some civic dustup when he and Grubbs somehow got on the subject of motorcycles. Whalen told us he had done some long-distance touring, but he dismissed his adventures and told us that we really needed to meet Gregory Frazier.

He mentioned what Frazier had done and told us he lived in Fort Smith. We actually thought maybe Whalen had his facts wrong or that Frazier didn’t really live in Fort Smith. How could such a marvel, residing in the Gazette circulation area, be unknown to both of us?

We were stunned when we later found out that everything Whalen told us was true and that somehow Frazier had escaped the notice of the Gazette and every other newspaper, magazine and news outlet in the state. I got in touch with him shortly thereafter and Grubbs and I soon spent a fantastic day in Fort Smith, where Frazier regaled us with yarns and grilled us big, fat steaks. (If that was payola, I plead guilty.)

“Down and Out” is his first attempt at real biography, appealing not just to motorcyclists, and some of the best parts of it take place in Billings, where his parents moved in the early 1960s, when Frazier was a teenager. He was introduced to two-wheeled rebellion by a school friend who owned a 50cc Allstate moped.

His parents were Quakers and both were dead-set against motorcycles. His father was half-Crow, half-Sioux and a rigid disciplinarian. Frazier never comes right out and says it, but it appears that his love of motorcycles (and of long hair and rebellion in general) was a reaction to his strict upbringing.

Fourteen

Frazier at 14, when he was sent from Billings to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania.

At 14, he was sent off to a Quaker boarding school in Pennsylvania, where motorcycles were on a long list of things the students were not permitted to have. He finally bought his first motorcycle—a Honda 305cc Super Hawk— in 1966 while attending a small college in Indiana.

His second bike was a 1945 Indian he found leaning against the back wall of a gas station in Cody, Wyoming. My favorite photo from the book shows Frazier arriving at his parents’ house in Billings with the Indian loosely strapped to the top of the trunk of his four-door Ford sedan. There were long periods when his parents wouldn’t speak to him.

He went through several more motorcycles in college, picking up mechanical and riding skills all the while. Many of his earliest adventures took place during summer visits back home. He liked fishing almost as much as he liked motorcycles, so he spent a lot of time getting to remote lakes in Montana and Wyoming aboard whatever bike he had at the time.

Soon there were longer trips to Canada and Mexico and then a month-long trip to Europe, followed by a long and successful infatuation with motorcycle racing. But in time all he wanted to do was tour the world on a succession of motorcycles.

Eventually he would quit pursuing regular employment, which required him to take extended leaves while traveling. Instead—and this was his real accomplishment—he figured out a way to make motorcycling his career. He made himself into a writer, photographer, filmmaker, lecturer and tour guide, and he has spent the past 40 years either traveling or documenting his travels.

Now in his late 60s, he shows no signs of slowing down. I last heard from him on New Year’s Day, when he dropped me a line from Thailand. He had been traveling there and was just planning a short jaunt into Vietnam.

He also said he plans to be in Billings this July to give a few presentations at a BMW rally. I’ll publish the details on that visit when they are available.

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