My father, Bart, and wife were PADI certified a long time ago. Give that I already had plenty of expensive hobbies that also require vacation time and weekends, and that I didn’t “feel called” to dive I left it alone for a good 12+ years.
As time went on, and I realized how many divers I knew, and I wondered how many x-country motorcycle trips I’d really be able to get Mrs. Roadrunner on, I decided to get my Open Water certification this summer. After all, The Ocean is Nature and I’m pretty much always up for new experiences. “Blue spaces” appear to be as good for your mental health as “green spaces” and connections with like-minded people are important.
Jamaica is a great place to learn to dive.
Not everyone can dive: you need to be able to equalize your ears every few feet and not panic if something goes wrong underwater. The latter is particularly important: there are several nothing-burger occurrences that could ruin your day if you panic. You must breathe deeply and slowly through your mouth at all time. You must regularly check your remaining air and depth, and you should safely ascend in a controlled fashion including a 3minute stop at 15′ if you’ve been down for a while.
Diving is Mindfulness. The attention to the current moment and the need to be Skillful puts diving right next to meditation and motorcycling. The feeling of weightlessness and the visceral motion through space belongs next to sailing, riding a motorcycle, and flying – these experiences are first cousins.
The community is similar too. Just as I can walk into a bar with my vest on and have strangers ask me about my patches, where I’m riding from and to, on the way to and on the dive boat everyone is a kindred spirit. You make assumptions about people carrying their own dive gear or wearing rented gear just as you might think about someone with out of state plates on their touring bike – everyone as at a different spot on this journey.
There’s no politics on the dive boat.
And now, I look forward and realize that just as I must have one Big and several smaller motorcycle trips every year, I also need to get underwater here & there.
You get underwater, you are forced to be alone with your own thoughts. You are in a situation that is not particularly dangerous as long as your are skillful, but this is an activity that isn’t for everyone. You must be appropriately equipped. You get to see & feel things that can only really be understood by the people who share this skill. Yea, diving is mindfulness in a way that should make perfect sense to bikers.
For two years, the ‘rona fucked over a dream trip to a cabin on an island in Alaska for dad and I. It seems like it would have worked out in 2021, but at the time we had to make a decision it was still sketchy. Shake hands with the wrong person and all the sudden I’m stuck in Alaska for a couple weeks of quarantine while my wife has to deal with the kids without me: no thanks. A canoe trip through a truly off the grid wilderness in Missouri was our consolation prize.
Meanwhile, I got the trunk & backrest on The Crow:
Due to the cost of an OEM color-matched trunk, I resisted this for YEARS. The ThunderTrunk was pretty good for $900, but of course you do get what you paid for. I finally bit the bullet here and I couldn’t be happier: the storage and the look and the quality of the OEM trunk is really fantastic.
And then I loaded it up for fishing!
If you’ve read anything else I’ve ever written, you know how much I appreciate The Ritual of Packing. Going over your gear. What’s needed, what’s not. What are your companions bringing? Is everything still usable or does something need to be replaced? Living in a house surrounded by crap and being forced to make your whole world fit in a few cubic feet is an instructional exercise.
My only “splurge” was making some bacon-wrapped chicken thighs with mushrooms and freezing them solid for the trip down: this will become important later. I got a small tacklebox, picked my smallest fishing pole, and all the gear I’d need for off the grid camping on a gravel bar. My new drybag was for the fire starting gear and the metal tools I didn’t want to get wet in the case of a turnover, and the sleeping gear went in a garbage bag.
Day 1: Doniphan
My parents are from a tiny town near the boot heel of Missouri called Doniphan. We actually all lived there for a few years way back when, when we bought some land on the Current River and built a log cabin there. That’s a whole other story. Anyhoo, this area will always be “home” for Dad and there is some damned nice wilderness around.
I had not done a test run with my new trunk fully loaded up, my drybag tied in with Rock Straps, and my fishing pole on the bike, but everything shook out OK. I got up somewhat early on a Monday morning and set my GPS for a combination for highway and two-lane riding, winding up in small town MO 600mi away at the end of the day. Several times on I-39 and I-55 I saw unreal freeway backups going north & east due to construction. Little did I know how much this was going to hurt on the way home…
I rolled into the Motel known as the Rocky River Inn and met up with dad.
Motel is short for “Motor Hotel” , a hotel for people traveling by motorized vehicles, where they have direct access to their rooms from their vehicles. A lost word discarded after the golden age of American Freedom via road trip.
My favorite Mark Twain quote of all time:
Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.
So I’m sitting at the bar in this pool hall next to the Motel and the bartender lights a cigarette inside. I used to love smoking in bars, but just to give you an idea of the timeline we’re talking about, a carton of Camels cost like $12.00 when I quit – a pack was currently $6.85 there they informed me.
I plan to write more about this in the future, with more profound examples, but this simple thing was a reminder that people in different corners of America have different rules & expectations. Despite my crisscrossing the USA from Georgia to The Carolinas to Michigan to Idaho, it had been a long damn time before I was somewhere you could smoke in a bar; I think Arkansas in 2008 or so.
Day 2: The Eleven Point River
We had chosen a lesser known destination for this trip: the Eleven Point river. While the Black River, Buffalo River, and Current River are all well known in this area they’re also … well known. They have homes & businesses and boat ramps and tourists in inner tubes and cattle.
The Eleven Point River, on the other hand, is a National Scenic Riverway inside the Mark Twain National Forrest. Not a goddamned building or billboard did we see. Tons of stretches of the river do not allow motors. Nor live bait, nor certain kids of plastic lures. There are real rapids. Surely, this would be a place where we were fishing in a barrel. So while I brought oil and batter to fry up a rock bass or southern pike or smallmouth for dinner, I brought cliff bars and my frozen chicken kabobs just in case.
We put a 17′ canoe in at Greer with the plan being to camp wherever looked good on night 1 and float the rest of the way down to Riverton, MO on day 2. We had beer in the cooler and plenty of sunscreen and the kind of smile on your face you can only have when life is good and there’s no one around to bother you.
Only two small fish were caught the 1st day. When the weather is great, you’re not seeing other humans, and in you’re in a remote and protected wilderness you just sort of assume you’re going to catch fish. Furthermore, we realized only after we were WAY downstream that dad’s gallon-o-snacks was left in the truck. This meant just my small assortment of snacks and the “hope we won’t need it” chicken was all we had for two hard days.
Lots of tremendous bluffs you don’t see on the bigger, more popular rivers.
We went WAY over half our intended float on Day 1, finally settling on a nice gravel bar: flat ground and plenty of deadfall to build a fire with. We were practically glamping: we had a tent, sleeping pads, sleeping bags, fold-up chairs, all my survival gear, and lots of beer and bacon wrapped chicken thighs with mushrooms. Between my folding saw and hand chainsaw we had a hell of a fire.
As we went about cutting wood and starting the fire, some deer came down across the river to eat watercress.
This, truly, is what it’s all about for me. No light pollution. No sound of other humans. Having to work a little bit to have a warm supper. Only the food that I carried in or caught along the way. Somewhere, miles away, my motorcycle waiting to carry me home. Cold brews, good company, talking about old memories while we’re making new ones.
I finally spoke aloud the words I’d been thinking all day: I wish Jason (Bart) was here. This was Tuesday, June 22nd, and in a different setting I’d be gearing up to write a letter to Bart. This is the letter this year.
Day 2: Back to Riverton
Bad luck fishing persisted today, and this unimpressive 14″ or so southern pike caught by me on a beetle spin was the crowning achievement of angling skills this trip:
We had some challenges, and found some reasons to come back and do this again.
Years ago, before this was a national scenic riverway, there were a couple of towns on this section of river. When the gov’t came in and said “Sell us your land cuz eminent domain”, some things were left behind including a couple of mills powered by the springs that feed into the river. We’ll have to come back for that. The challenges were the rapids. There were a couple of times were we both said “Welp, guess we’re going down” and somehow pulled it out. It was pretty challenging to do the amount of paddling we did without so much as a cracker on day 2. But we did it, and by 2pm that day we were back in town eating cheeseburgers.
Day 3: Wrapping up
After an early retirement at the Motor Hotel, we had some family to visit and one special trip the next day. We got one of my uncles to run us down the river to take some footage of the log cabin we’d built and lived in more than 30 years ago. It’s still there. It’s hard to see, but this is still something that animates my imagination.
Then, we did what people do in small towns: drank some beer, shot some pool, packed up to go home.
And then I headed home. 600mi, not my longest solo trip but long enough when waiting out tornado warnings south of St. Louis and all the construction on I-55 and I-39 through Missouri and Illinois. The Ozarks are beautiful, but don’t tell anyone about the Eleven Point River, that’s between us.
I’m sitting here with a wood wick candle going, one of my sources of hygge during the shitty Wisconsin winters.
I’m avoiding writing about two adventures from 2020. First was a great trip to Georgia, and second was a weekend trip through North-Central Wisconsin. I think I’m avoiding writing these things up because there’s an uncomfortable note of finality that’s unique to this winter. The US COVID-19 cases are spiking up like crazy: far more dead, hospitalizations, and active cases than when we shut down the country earlier in 2020. I don’t know what 2021 is going to look like.
The mindful nature of motorcycling is such that you are less likely to ruminate because the motorcycle demands constant attention. This is only part of the benefit of traveling by motorcycle. You also find yourself in beautiful country with very little between you and the world.
Humans have only lived in cities for a few hundred years. I’m talking about our huge/crowded/unnatural/modern cities, so don’t put something about the Mayan civilization or Gobekli Tepe in the comments. We still seek connections with nature. We feel at peace in nature. We are so used to light pollution that regular kids who grew up in the city think they’re the subject of some elaborate prank when they see a starry night for the first time. This separate, but adjacent, idea is something I’m going to be digging into a lot more in 2021.
So, I’m going to spend some more time outside, way out away from concrete and drywall. I’ve been walking the dog wearing a 40lb weight vest to get myself ready for real backpacking. There’s tons of state & federal land around where I can do dispersed camping: I’m going to walk out into the woods with a tent on my back carrying some basic survival gear and see what’s what.
I’ve also been thinking about the state of political & social polarization in the USA. The chance that I can do anything about that is hilariously small, but I’ve been thinking about a “Political Biker” essay channel of some kind.
And, of course, I’m going to do a lot of riding in 2021: pandemic or no. I’m going to hopefully be getting an Indian Challenger early in the spring. I’m going to take said Challenger down to Kentucky for a break-in weekend. I’m going to ride from Milwaukee to Key West, and I’m going to do a lot of motorcycle camping.
As you know, I’ve been writing for a long time about how Motorcycling is Mindfulness. I’ve been enjoying this podcast for quite a while, and in fact I had a brief email conversation with the host about my idea that motorcycling is a mindful activity. When the host mentioned that he was prompted to interview a Buddhist monk due to “a conversation with a listener”, I foolishly thought I might be about to get a big ole shout out. Nonetheless, it was nice to hear that I’m not crazy (at least not for this reason).
There are a lot of germs that make people sick that we’re basically always swimming in. The common cold or strep throat is basically always around, but they catch us in a moment of weakness. You’re like that, always in the back of my mind but on a bad day or a particularly great day you’re suddenly there in full force, and I lose my shit.
Speaking of germs, we’re in lockdown due to a new virus that is very deadly and very transmissible. The US has nearly 1/3 of all worldwide cases and over 120,000 Americans are dead from it in about 12 weeks as I write this. I can picture you and some of your friends digging deep into the conspiracy theories on this one. You were never a fan of the science you were so good at. Your wife & son had it, but they got over it. I was scared for a while there.
Our sister lives in Idaho now, and man is there great riding out there. I went West this past year, over Beartooth Pass and through Yellowstone down into Idaho to visit her. She’s finally done having kids at 6, and man the young ones are cute – my totally biased opinion based on who wanted to hang out with their uncle.
This year, though, with the Coronavirus “shelter in place” rules different in every major city & state, it’s hard to say what a cross-country motorcycle trip looks like. I spent a lot of time planning a route through all the New England states, but that part of America has been hit the hardest. I don’t want to get stopped at the Vermont state border or some crap like that, and I’m not sure I want to eat out of gas stations for a week either. We think Georgia is unlikely to close no matter what the danger is, so we might head down to Wingnut Dave’s instead. Local bars, restaurants, hotels is a part of the joy of travel, I can’t imagine what this is going to be like.
After the last time Mrs. Roadrunner found me mid-meltdown, I thought I’d give talking to a shrink another try. It’s been pretty good for getting me through the winter months. It’s a colder than usual May right now, I’ve only been able to ride a few hundred miles so far this year. Speaking of the winter months, the shrink I mentioned told me I have PTSD from finding you dead. That sounds insane: PTSD is what happens to people who go off to war, not well off people in the suburbs just living their lives.
I probably said this last year, but missing you is hardest when things are good. Some of my crazy plans get a little more real every week. I can see how it might not be too many more years before I can buy some land and do some real bushcraft, maybe build a cabin with the boys or something. You would have really liked that.
I had, for a while, struggled to add anything new compared to last year. I thought about what I’m grateful for, and that includes a small but loyal and awesome group of riders that I have, that you used to be a part of in fact. I think about expanding this group, and I realize that I can never replace you. That’s the hard thing: some things are permanent. Time does not heal all wounds. This will not pass.
I might as well get a tattoo that says “Bart’s gone forever”, because that’s a thing that’s already a scar.
Huh? What the hell is this?
About once a year so far, I write a letter to my dead brother as a form of therapy.
I have known far too many men now who have taken their own lives. Every time a friend is going through a hard time that’s more than a parking ticket, I have a sudden panic that they are next. I recently got spooked and called a friend and pleaded with him:
Please, don’t make me give your eulogy. I will if that’s what it comes to, but don’t make me stand in front of your family and try to make sense of your life. There’s a fucked up sense of honor in it for me; it’s a really hard thing that no one wants to do and I force myself to do it. I’ve forced myself to do it too many times, though, and I need you to hang out for a while.
I guess this is my main point this year. Don’t be the next Bart. “Get help” is such a bullshit phrase, it has no meaning. Call a hotline? Talk to a friend? Who can appreciate the depth of what you’re feeling enough to really talk to you? Sometimes losing a job is just losing a job, and sometimes it’s the last thing a man can take. If you find yourself having thoughts of self harm, think about what you would be putting your friends and family through.
I’ve been “sheltering at home” with my family for over two months now. This is not a real hardship. This is not a generation that sent their sons to war, or endured the dust bowl, or the possibility of a nuclear attack on US soil. Still though, for a loner like me this has been surprisingly difficult. Ordinarily I’d have a commute to work, or a lunch out to get some me time. Not with COVID19 – they’re always there.
I figured motorcycle camping would be a great way to “social distance” while getting away – buy groceries at home, ride, pay at the pump, camp, eat over a fire, talk to no one. It seems like I got a different answer every time I talked to someone at a state or county park though. Yes we’re open. We’re open but not for camping. We’re open for camping but only if you already had a reservation in February. I’m down for adventure but I’m not going to risk showing up to park to be turned away, and then a campfire on random land in Northern WI.
Luckily ABATE of Wisconsin owns 80-100 acres in Greenwood. I was told there would be wood there and otherwise didn’t know what to expect since I’d never been to “Abate Acres”. This is private land I couldn’t be turned away from. Despite the prediction of severe storms all over the state, I packed a ribeye and all my camping gear and hit the road.
My plan was to visit Sturgeon Bay in the “thumb” of Wisconsin, but I had packed for warm weather and it was wicked foggy and cold in Two Rivers which is still quite a ways south. After checking the radar again I decided flexibility would be key and cut off the thumb to head for Abate Acres.
Despite severe storms all over the state, I was pretty lucky with sunny weather in the 80s until after lunch. Keeping with my social distancing theme, I’d packed couple PB&J along with my prized ribeye for dinner by a campfire.
Oddly enough one of the brackets for my windshield had rattled out, yet not fallen on the ground somewhere on the road, so I got very lucky and was able to make a field repair at a gas station. Thread lock and torque wrenches are your friends, folks.
I stopped and had lunch in a rest area in some tiny central-WI town I’ll never remember the name of and then proceeded to get rained on like crazy. I’ve been caught in the rain dozens of times, and it seems I’ll never get used to it. If there’s rain gear that’s not a huge pain to put on and wear I have yet to find it.
Arriving and Camping
There’s maybe 1/2 mile of gravel to get to Abate Acres. Wow. The land is 80-100 acres, and because I only had a cell phone and GoPro with me I wasn’t able to take a picture that really shows it off. Despite being in the middle of nowhere, I miraculously had a cell signal and a little bit of data so I could keep an eye on the weather. I had the whole place to myself.
There was wood, as I was promised, but it was all insanely wet. Part of my camping kit includes a hand axe (I own several) and a 13″ knife along with my pocket knife. My secret ingredient for fire is dryer lint. I carry a bag with a couple of handfuls in it to help with fire. I also have hand sanitizer and Gorilla Tape (burns like crazy) but I’ve never had to move beyond dryer lint.
I also had a good length of aluminum foil to try to preserve some fire when it started pouring.
I post a lot of food pics on Instagram, but very few steaks as my family just doesn’t like steak all that much. My go-to campfire meal is a ribeye and mushrooms. This was as good or better as nearly anything I’ve ever made at home.
Just as my steak was nearing medium rare, the sky OPENED UP. I’ve been caught out on the bike in storms, and I’ve camped in the rain, but I was totally surprised that my rain fly actually kept my tent dry inside: this was some green & black movie storm shit.
Thanks to the power of my aforementioned cheats, I was able to get a fire going again after that storm passed. I was able to sit by the fire, have a couple of cold beers, and enjoy hours of solo mindful time. Mercifully the bugs mostly respected my fire smoke and my Cutter insect spray.
Cold beers? Yes, I added a Bison cooler to my gear. It’s great, but it takes up a ton of space. I continue to tweak my load-out.
It stormed again at 1am and 3am, and I was warm & dry.
Mother nature woke me up at 5am with sunlight, which in addition to being woken up super early by The World’s Most Mistreated Dog the day before left me in rough shape for the ride home. It looked like the Great River Road was going to be partially flooded again due to the storms, so I went home sooner than I thought and only did 400mi the second day.
It’s not clear what the rest of the 2020 riding season holds, but this was some much needed solo time. Luckily all ABATE of WI members have a place to hide in Greenwood.
Here in April of 2020, we are on a government mandated “Safer at Home” order. Riding a bike is a great way of “socially distancing”, and we have many county parks nearby that are still open, so I’ve been able to pack a lunch and sit by myself during what little good weather we’ve had.
I have a trip booked with my father and other close family for a fishing trip in Alaska. A log cabin lodge For both my father and I, this would be the 50th state we’ve visited (though not ridden in, of course). If we don’t get some good news soon, that’s getting kicked to 2021.
The Power of Anticipation
You may not appreciate the power of anticipating trips like that until you’re suddenly unable to. The planning, the packing, buying gear, making sure your gear is in top operating condition. Telling people about the trip and promising to bring back pictures and stories.
My wife and I are both, thankfully, able to keep working right now as unemployment skyrockets across the country. There’s still still food in the stores and I still have money to buy it. I’m an introvert anyway so I’m doing OK – but I don’t have those big bright spots that help me get through the day. Am I getting away with my wife? Am I really going to be able to ride to Maine in July like I’d planned? I don’t know, so I’m doing the next best thing – I’m doing tons of research and planning trips, and more than just trips.
Another Kind of Riding
Many people who love two wheels grew up riding in the dirt. I really didn’t. Like many people, I was given my first real look at adventure riding when I watched The Long Way Round with Ewan McGregor. Yes, these are rich famous guys with a support vehicle, but it was everything I love about motorcycling write large: off the gird, but more. Isolated with just a friend or two, but more. Camping, making your own food, but more. Strange lands, but more. I thought of the many State & National parks I’ve ridden through and wonder what it would be like to just point the bike and go thatttawayoff into the dirt & woods.
I told my self that if I could swing the time & money that some day I’d be an adventure rider. Not the way Ewan and Charlie do it, to be sure, but there’s a lifetime of adventure in North America. I want to sleep on BDR land in the middle of nowhere, I want to ride the Dalton Highway all the way to Prudhoe Bay, and to ride the Trans American Trail. In The Man Who Would Stop at Nothing, Melissa Pierson describes long distance riding as the purest form of the activity, but I wonder if it’s really this on & off road blend with a healthy mix of dispersed camping thrown in.
I don’t know when I’ll have room (or money) for a BWM or KTM adventure bike in my garage (or a Harley Pan America?), or time for yet another calling that takes me far from home for days at a time. This is something I can fantasize about, when COVID19 is in the rear view.
It’s the 2020 Corona Virus Pandemic, and things are pretty locked down. School is out, everyone that can is working remotely, and people are getting caught up on games and getting after that Netflix queue.
I just spent some time with a friend helping him fix his computer so he could do his taxes. Even now, without being there in person, you can show up.
Seeing your friends should be fun, otherwise why are you friends with those people? But, laziness is a hell of a beast. There’s going to be someone’s daughter’s graduation party on a weekend you just wanted to stay at home. When people need help moving they need help moving even if it’s a rough week at work. When someone needs a shoulder to cry on it’s not an event they could schedule in advance and make sure that was a good time for you. You go to your friend’s tupperware party, pampered chef or whatever the hell else because it’s important to them, not because it was the #1 thing you wanted to do.
Bikers should know this. Sometimes your buddy breaks down, and you’ve gotta be there. So, here we are on a partial “shelter in place” depending on where in the world you are.
Call your mom.
Send some buddies a photo from a trip “Remember this you guys?”
See if you can bring some groceries or beer to someone who can’t get out on their own.
Why two wheels? Because motorcycle riding may be one of the best ways to get to a healthy mind.
If you’ve been reading the blog for a while, you may have come across the idea that Motorcycling is Mindfulness, and if you haven’t you might as well start there. Harley claims that riding a motorcycle improves focus and reduces stress. The older I get, the more I’m convinced that riding a motorcycle is a multi-faceted path to more general mental health. I’m going to use this particular page as a place to bookmark all of my best arguments and observations so that when someone asks “Why make that trip on a bike instead of a car?”, I have one place to send them. Some of these are ready to read now, some are teasers to be filled in as I have a chance to do more writing.
Motorcycling is Mindfulness: Mindfulness is having a moment in the sun right now, but being briefly popular doesn’t change the core benefits.
Lost Connections and the Cost of Belonging: It’s probably no surprise that many people’s social interactions are, well, fucked up. Why do so many people have depression and anxiety and what can we do about it? Thoughts on motorcycling as it relates to Hari’s work on addiction and depression as well as other works.
Riding Fast and Slow: Thoughts on long solitary rides as it relates to Kahneman’s work on human cognition.
The mind needs nature: it’s no coincidence that the most popular rides are set against amazing natural scenery. Much of our mental wiring evolved to find food, mates, and avoid danger. Nature is complicated, and the complex texture of nature is something that makes our brains happy. Thoughts on motorcycle travel involving research I was first exposed to by Levitin.
All of these things might be attainable in other ways, but stick with me as I fill in the blanks as to why riding might be one of the best mental health bang for your buck things you can spend your time on.
Just over a year ago, I finally lost a 17+ year battle and got some pets. We have a dog in the house. She’s a pretty good-looking and nice doggo as far as things go, a hound mix. This is Cindy:
One of the things that makes me laugh is Cindy’s excitement for a walk outside. Even though she’s walked nearly every day that isn’t outrageously Wisconsin-cold, when she sees the leash come out she loses her goddamn mind. She forgets her manners, she’s jumping all over me; I will probably lose an eye to her pre-walk affection some day. The very next day, or even later the same day, she will have the same reaction to getting to go out for a walk – this is about to be the greatest moment ever and no amount of training will control the excitement. I always thought it funny, does the dog not understand she’s probably getting a walk tomorrow too?
The other day, I backed my bike out of the garage and started it.
It’s only been a few weeks since I rode, but it was an early and brutal winter in 2019: a hilarious amount of snow on Halloween and unseasonably cold temperatures. At least a month was cut out of my riding season with ice and snow on the roads. Suddenly the sound of my exhaust and the feeling of handlebars in my hands was as comforting as a familiar lover after years at sea. Sitting on the seat, and just easing the bike back up the driveway into the garage, I got a little taste of forgotten memories.
The problem with the Wisconsin winters is that they are absolute, merciless, and eternal. I look at pictures of myself in a tank top and just a little sunburned, and it seems unreal: this is not a thing that can happen; it has always been cold and it will always be cold. Are there really places in the world where it’s nearly always 80 and sunny or is that merely a trick of the simulation we’re living in?
Nonetheless, I felt like the dog getting a walk. I know the spring will come, but I’ll be overjoyed for each chance to get out, even when I’m riding to work every day again.