While riding across the nation on a series of bikes to write a motorcycle guidebook (Great American Motorcycle Tours), for companionship and support my wife Nancy followed behind me in a car that was packed with the extra gear, cameras and tools I needed.
En route from Yellowstone National Park to Deadwood, S.D., we traveled across a huge swath of Wyoming. On a back road I was floored when we entered a canyon bordered by towering walls, a rushing river and majestic pines. The road skipped like a stone with pitches and drops that lasted for about 10 or more miles and, after being spat out on the eastern edge, I pulled over, ran to where Nancy had parked, and flipped up my visor. She lowered the window and turned down the radio.
“Did you see those cliffs?” I asked. “That river sounded like a cannon. And the scent of those pines was incredible.”
“What?” she asked blankly. It turns out that even though we had traveled the exact same road at the exact same time, she had missed it all. The car’s roof blocked her view of the high cliffs, the radio drowned out the sound of the river, and with the windows up and air conditioning on, she never smelled the perfume of the pines.
Becoming part of nature is just one reason why I love motorcycle vacations. Based on my 40 years of riding, here are five more.
Aside from a brief instant at a particular wonderful college keg party, I’ve only had one true out-of-body experience in my life. It came when I was riding across Death Valley.
I’d left Las Vegas a few hours earlier and was approaching the middle of the no-man’s land between Furnace Creek and Stovepipe Wells. In a massive stretch of emptiness, suddenly the bike was on its own. I was floating above the desert watching myself riding across a landscape that stretched unbroken from horizon to horizon. Seconds later I was back on the bike, still riding but wondering where I had been.
It was an incredible experience to add to decades of others: riding through a blizzard that whipped up in my path and then coated me in ice and snow, adopting an angle known as the “Kansas Lean” as fierce winds tried to turn me into tumbleweed outside Dodge City, riding through Yellowstone National Park and wishing I was in a car when a mother grizzly and her cubs sauntered along the roadside.
Road travel can be mundane. Motorcycling is not.
Shared among experienced travelers is the well-worn cliché that traveling is the journey, not the destination. Perhaps no other mode of transportation gives that quote more of a boost than motorcycles.
On a motorcycle, the idea of traveling from Point A to Point B is anathema. An average rider could rack up 400-plus miles in a day, but most will keep it down to around 200. Why? Because they’re reserving extra hours to actually see where they are.
Sometimes I forget that lesson. It happened once in Oregon when I was determined to ride straight through from Cannon Beach to Florence. When Nancy asked to stop in Tillamook to visit their famous cheese factory, I was furious to think my schedule would be thrown off.
Minutes later, though, I was fully absorbed in the mechanics of manufacturing cheese and ice cream and we lingered for well over an hour. That was the reminder I needed to return to the journey. Rather than racing the clock, the rest of the day unfolded like a dream. I scrapped my map and switched to a longer route that took me to an enchanting peninsula, a historic lighthouse, an airship hangar, spellbinding waterfalls and a cave filled with sea lions. Any time I find I’m focused on the destination, I recall this day and return to the journey.
For the life of me, I can’t recall ever pulling up at a service station and sparking a conversation with someone driving the same minivan as me. It’s different on a motorcycle.
Pull up at a general store, a diner or scenic overlook and if there’s someone else on a motorcycle, odds are you’ve found a friend who’d like to discuss your bike, where you’ve been, and where you’re going.
Depending on where you’re traveling, the farther you are from home the more intrigued others are by your journey. Sure, no one’s impressed by my Florida tags in Orlando — but if I’m riding through Colorado, it seems everyone (and not just motorcyclists) want to chat and live vicariously through my travels.
For many riders, sometimes nothing is really something. On a motorcycle, nature pulls you into the countryside to help escape dense city traffic and clogged interstates. Soon you’ll find yourself beside a meandering river, in a valley or speeding past farms where the aroma of pastures is oddly invigorating.
One of my favorite rides is in the middle of America. Namely, Kansas. Riding along US 24 in the northern section of the state, I was about 20 miles from the last town and about 20 miles to the next. Where there was a gentle rise in the otherwise flat landscape, I stopped. With the bike shut off, I was cloaked in pure silence. I turned in a slow circle and saw there was no one in this picture but me. Calculating the distance to each horizon, I was alone in 1,600 square miles of America.
It’s good to get away.
Years ago, three riders — each from considerably different backgrounds — shared with me what they get out of motorcycling. It was nice to find they each held similar perspectives.
Thomas Wenski — well, make that Bishop Thomas Wenski of the Orlando Catholic Diocese — told me he bought a motorcycle to ride to each of his parishes.
“There is that spiritual pleasure in riding a motorcycle,” he said. “You can smell the countryside and experience things that you don’t get inside of a car. And it gives you time to center yourself and to think. It’s a way to set aside problems and relax. It’s a healing experience that makes you better able to tackle your problems when the ride is finished.”
My friend Steve Goldman had done quite well as technological entrepreneur. He never forgot a six-week, 2,000-mile Pacific Coast motorcycle vacation that required nearly nothing.
“There was hardly any planning and definitely no schedule,” he told me. “We planned on riding for six weeks so we could do whatever we wanted when we wanted.
“When you’re riding through the countryside in a car, your reference point is the car. On a motorcycle, you can smell nature and you can feel it and you can hear it. It’s like flying low. It’s nature. It’s total exhilaration.”
I also heard from actor Peter Fonda who, in a foreword written for my book, put it this way:
“A motorcycle is the only way to see America. If you ride, you already understand how the feelings of freedom and nature are enhanced. When traveling by car or plane these feelings are missing. Gone.
“When I travel by motorcycle, I feel the wind and see the endless skies and stop when I want and where I want, fetching my rod from the saddlebag and fly-fishing for an hour or two. Hours don’t matter, really, because on the road I develop a more natural use of time and never feel as if I have to be anywhere.
“I have a friend who joins me each year on a long run from Los Angeles to Montana. While a motorcycle may be just a vehicle, it is also the instrument we use to experience life, to explore, to discover new people and places, and to affirm our friendship.”