Behind Handlebar and Steering Wheel: Across America

Reserved motorcycle parking in our Connecticut drivewayMy love affair with motorcycling began as a coerced blind date.  I used to think bikers were a bunch of self-absorbed douche bags who cut you off on the highway riding a direct extension of their dicks.  Sarah’s brother (not a douche bag) has anywhere between 6 and 11 motorcycles in various states of repair, and he prodded me years ago to “just give riding a try”.  Half-hearted promises put me one evening at the local community college for the motorcycle safety course.  The first day was like an out-of-body experience, detached from the goings on as I wondered what the hell I was doing there.  It was in the parking lot, when the instructors put down cones for us to weave between, that I felt it.  I can’t quite describe the ‘it’- bike and body melding together, leaning into turns over the moving road, defying gravity- ‘it’ made the blood drain from my face in exhilaration.  At the end of the exercise, I ripped my helmet off and looked in astonishment at my instructor.  A trained motorcycle racer who noticed my previous scepticism, she nodded at me knowingly.  I bought myself a Suzuki V-Strom soon after and began commuting, touring New England, and riding through all four seasons while my truck stayed parked and abandoned in the driveway.

First plan sketches, now immortalised on my bulletin board

Living abroad, however, makes motorcycle ownership difficult.  My beloved Strom had become a wayward orphan, moving from one person’s garage to another, plugged into a trickle charger ten months of the year like an IV hooked to a coma patient.  It was impractical to keep, and Sarah repeatedly asked me to decide my bike’s fate.  Meanwhile, Adrian and I had been concocting motorcycle trips on rentals in the Northwest, coinciding with the professional developments in the area.  Then, a bizarre twist.  Adrian’s brother in England accidentally forwarded some Amazon purchases instead of necessary education documentation to Milwaukee, and they were stashed beneath a secretary’s desk awaiting recovery.  Sarah graciously gave trip clearance last fall and we began to scheme a plan while vacationing in Cape Town.  I would ride my own bike and Adrian would rent in New England, we’d pick up the t-shirts and cufflinks in Milwaukee, then continue to Portland, Oregon in time for his conference.  There, I would sell my bike before flying home, making our cross-country adventure a grand motorcycle send-off.

But why think about that when all the golden lands ahead of you and all kinds of unforeseen events wait lurking to surprise you and make you glad you’re alive to see?

– Jack Kerouac

USAAdrian chose a 2016 Indian Scout out of Boston, and I left as the sun rose from the salt marsh cottage in Guilford for our unpoetic rendezvous point, the Westbound Charlton Service Plaza on the Mass Pike.  Together, the disparate bikes looked as though James Dean was riding with Batman.  The turnpike tolls are a juggling act on a motorcycle, even after Adrian realized he should be taking the toll tickets from the booth operators rather than waving politely at them as he rode through.  Our best laid cross-country plans were fortunately left on a laptop in Nigeria, allowing us to stitch together a route as our journey unfolded.  Wanting to get out of the Northeast, we quickly rode through New York, then across the Niagra Peninsula for a brief stint in Southern Ontario to avoid the barrage of Great Lakes coastal cities.  We drifted through the New England forest green of the Berkshires and watched the traffic peel away over the hours.  Merging onto the Thruway, we stayed in Utica for the night, popping quickly into the Harley Davidson shop the next morning so Adrian could get riding goggles, making him look even more like a Limey Brit.  Ontario’s southern peninsula, squeezed between the Great Lakes, was a beige and emerald mosaic of gently rolling hay fields, and the first season’s harvest was freshly cut.

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IMG_7079We raced back into the States, cut through Michigan’s mitten to make the The Lake Express ferry from Muskegon and missed it by fifteen minutes, so we bought ferry reservations for the next day.  Even when speeding at 34 knots, it still takes two and a half hours to get across the width of the lake.  We strapped our bikes down below deck and went upstairs to marvel at the expanse of Lake Michigan.  Our destination port was Milwaukee.  I had thought it would be a filthy, mid-American factory city (like Muskegon), but it was surprisingly neat and well kept.  Suddenly, the initial excuse for purpose of our trip was at hand.  We navigated Milwaukee’s streets trying to locate the random office harboring Adrian’s online purchases.  This was a symbolic moment, one that we have laughed over and imagined for months, as did the secretary who held his things, wondering when the mystery man would show up for his possessions.  By the time we were on the road again it was the afternoon, so we rode a bit farther to Madison, Wisconsin, a city that became one of our favorites.  We strolled around the scenic college town and ate at The Old Fashioned, a landmark restaurant with 150 types of beer.  “Challenge accepted,” Adrian said.

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West through Wisconsin, we rode more backroads towards the headwaters of the Mississippi River.  I had stood on the shores of the Mississippi once before and years ago outside of Memphis, Tennessee, just off a sketchy dead end dirt road.  My college roommate and I on a sudden whim decided to cut classes for a few days, rent a car and drive to the river and back, and I remember being awestruck by its immensity.  Here, farther north and flanked by Minnesota’s soaring bluffs, the great river is disrupted, pouring its way around numerous forested islands and spreading through the graceful landscape, trying to keep itself together.  We followed the bank of the river northwest and stopped in charming Winona, Minnesota for the night, then continued west along backcountry route 14 into America’s interior.

There’s no way to divide the beauty of the sky from the wild western plains,

Where a man could drift, in legendary myth, by roaming over spaces.

The land was free, and the price was right.

-10,000 Maniacs

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USAOnce over the Mississippi, we slowly made our way across the vast, flat grasslands; through Minnesota, a brief dip into Iowa, then on to South Dakota.  The landscape stretched to the horizon as far as the eye could see, as if the sky was a great glass dome over us.  The wind was constant and strong, creating lapping, ocean-like waves in the fields of corn, wheat and wild sagebrush.  Herds of cattle and horses, seemingly abandoned in the miles of uninhabited lands, wandered freely through the endless acres of pasture.  Occasionally, pronghorn antelope would pause their grazing just long enough to glance at us as we rode through.  The only sporadic traffic were John Deeres, large trucks transporting hay, and a random vehicle moving from town to town.

USAAs we passed through Mankato, crossing the Missouri River in Chamberlain, there was something unspoken but present between Adrian and me.  Because I was on my own bike, personally farkled for long distances and changes in weather, I was happily zooming along, swerving around potholes and singing into the solitude of my helmet.  Adrian, however, with minimal equipment and lack of wind protection from his rental, was battered by hurricane-like air resistance and prairie winds for hours on end as we moved through the plains.  Drafts from oncoming mack trucks pulled him across the road as they blew by.  If Adrian was suffering, then the conditions were rough.  I respectfully did not want to question his endurance to continue, and Adrian did not want to be responsible for cutting our motorcycle trip short, but we know each other far well enough to know what the other is thinking.  Our ride to Interior, South Dakota, the gateway of Badlands National Park, was brutal- we had difficulty finding a good route, there was nowhere to spend the night until we reached the park, and we raced against the setting sun while a fierce, dark thunderstorm headed directly for us.  We made the park and our accommodation just as the clouds opened up, and as we crashed on our beds in the hotel room, Adrian sore and exhausted from the day’s ride, we silently knew something had to change.  But first, a morning ride through Badlands National Park the next day.

We all believe we are about to enter the most perilous and difficult part of our voyage, yet I see no one repining.

-William Clark, June 20, 1805

IMG_7092As the American of the duo, I was culturally aware of the place where all crucial road trip decisions occur- Denny’s.  We sat in the restaurant booth with those thick, white porcelain, trademark mugs and piles of breakfast food, and it came to pass that we were to ditch the bikes.  For a moment, my stomach lurched as the last day with my V-Strom became a premature reality, but as I looked across the table at Adrian, ridiculously sipping his English breakfast tea and trying to adjust his aching muscles and find some comfort in the booth from the last 2,200 miles and 7 days, the true spirit of our journey revealed itself.  It was not the fabricated achievement of getting to the Pacific Ocean on a motorcycle, but the opportunity for us to experience this adventure together, in whatever form it takes, through America.  With that settled, we now needed to make it to Sturgis, the motorcycle capital of the Midwest, where Adrian could return his bike.  As punishment for our choice to give up, the Gods smote us with 20 miles of loose gravel dirt roads, slowing our progress from Rapid City.  The rest of the afternoon was a blur, as we unloaded gear and sorted out our lives.  While Adrian organized a rental car, I raced at speeds my mother will never know about on I-90 back to Rapid City from Sturgis to sell my bike before the dealer closed.  When the deal was done, I was forced to watch someone else mount my bike and slowly ride it to a garage and disappear.

USAAdrian picked me up at the dealer, and when I got into the car, he already had his seat adjusted to relieve his aches and had turned the climate control to perfect.  We left Rapid City, drove by Mount Rushmore without paying the laughably exorbitant entrance fee, and slept in Newcastle, Wyoming before hauling across the state the next day to Jackson Hole.  Despite my initial fears, the car didn’t change the soul of our trip, just the aspect from which we experienced it.  And it’s pretty damn comfortable, I thought as I carelessly tossed an empty drink bottle into the back and nestled into the seat.  Adrian insisted on driving, so I assumed the role of navigator and interpreter for the second half of our journey.  Lunches were still Subway roast beef grinders with Vitamin Water, we still stayed in cheap Holiday Inn Expresses, and we still routed out the most common and dingy of bars to play pool and mix with the natives.  The locals found us fascinating; a Brit (at the time of Brexit, no less) and a Yankee, teaching in Nigeria and trying to find their way to Portland, Oregon make for some great conversation starters.  We found the Americans we encountered invariably friendly and helpful, which was a surprising relief.  Jackson Hole, where we spent a rousing evening in a rootin tootin saloon, was our launching point for The Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks, and we toured both the following day.

Far away in Montana, hidden from view by clustering mountain-peaks, lies an unmapped northwestern corner- the Crown of the Continent… Here is a land of striking scenery.

-George Bird Grinnell

USAWe entered Montana from Yellowstone, and it wasn’t a couple miles past the border when we saw a small commotion on the side of the road.  Someone had hit an elk, and as we drove by, a local pulled a pistol from his belt holster and shot the animal point blank in the head to put it out of its misery.  “Holy shit!  Welcome to Montana!” Adrian said in his best Amurika accent.  We spent the night in Bozeman, then toured the Lewis and Clark Caverns before making our way to Kalispell.  We spent the next day in Glacier National Park hiking among the peaks, desperate to bump into a bear.  We came close.  Traveling further west later that evening, we dropped into beautiful Kellogg, Idaho for the night, a pleasant surprise of a town and it quickly became another of our favorites.  We enjoyed an evening at a bar situated at the base of North American’s longest gondola ride, entertaining the locals as usual.

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Our first stop on the west coast was Olympia, Washington and Kim and Greg Rayl’s for a fourth of July barbecue.  As we saw familiar faces once again, we knew our journey was winding down, and we started to wonder what it would be like to re-enter normal life.  On the way to Portland, Oregon, we stopped briefly in Astoria and put our feet in the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean, symbolically completing our quest to cross the country not far from where Lewis and Clark did the same.  We arrived in Portland that afternoon with enough time to clean out the car of wrappers and empty drink bottles, repack, and walk to the hotel downtown for dinner.  We joined some friends also participating in the conference that evening, who anxiously awaited a full report.  Adrian and I looked at each other, trying to rewire our brains stuck in road trip mode, searching for words that could possibly express our 4,400 mile epic adventure and all its stories, but all we could come up with was a lame “it was great”.

With my motorcycle helmet as a carry-on, I flew home in mere hours over the same terrain we trekked across those two weeks.  I was quiet on the plane, watching the land we had come to know pass beneath, reflecting and processing the experiences too numerous to record, the sights we witnessed, and the people we encountered.  More importantly, woven into this journey was the art of living life fully, the rarity and value of unfaltering friendship, and the recollection that despite my pursuit to travel and live everywhere else in the world, America is truly a stunning and majestic country.

6 thoughts on “Behind Handlebar and Steering Wheel: Across America

  1. Loved it… read it with a tear and smile… Great photos…. Noticed you left one photo out…hmmm.. So glad you had a good and safe trip, and pleased that Adrian got to see our Northwest – much of which you saw in your youth (and you both got to see our northern mid-west which Dad and I have done only a part)… So (Sarah, do not hurt me) would you consider the southwest trip (Adrian would have to have a windshield on his bike.. but maybe a car would be best..)???
    Mom

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    • The Badlands was a place I had never seen and we were glad to have done it on bikes. Its impressive. Mount Rushmore reminds me of a “largest ball of twine in the US” exhibit.
      I didn’t leave that photo out 😉

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  2. What an amazing trip John G! I loved Sons of Anarchy and can totally see you later in life in a motorcycle gain. Makes complete sense. The PC girls are all getting together in Jan in Nashville, TN. Maybe we could try to arrange a Skype. I owe you a letter so be waiting. You are a talented writer my friend.

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    • Thanks, Erin, and great to hear from you!
      If the Peace Corps Malawi girls are getting together, it might be good to give Nashville a warning first 🙂 I know what happens when you ladies get together!

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