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.
My friend Harley Mark is often in a rough spot: Harley tends to unveil new stuff at the end of August. I’m planning big trips right around the time he’s working on top secret stuff for The Motor Company, so he’s stuck at work looking at my pics on Facebook. He missed the trip to Idaho.
Luckily Mr.s Roadrunner can be bribed, so for the cost of a 1 hour massage I got a 3 day weekend. I’ve been wanting to do the famous Hurricane Highway and the Tunnel of Trees in Michigan for a while. The last time I came through here it was an Iron Butt ride and there wasn’t time for anything but getting miles. The planned route looked like this:
The fun you have when planning bike trips: since we had to leave after work on Friday, I want to stop in Escanaba, MI. There was a logging convention in Escanaba and every hotel within a wide radius was booked. We wound up finding an AirBnB in Garden, MI.
Like a lot of people, we have a “no chain restaurant” rule on bike trips. I’m seriously wondering if we can do a “no chain hotels” rule as well. I’ll miss the occasional hot tub but haven’t had bad luck yet with a small family-run B&B.
I was thinking that a Lake Michigan town on a Friday night would be jumpin’.
We got to our AirBnB, which at night looked like you could just as easily film a horror movie there as have a good sleep. The hosts were incredibly kind and helpful, but informed us that most things around were closed – we had crossed into Eastern time and the season was winding down. We did find a fantastic place that said they could still make us “anything fried”, so I had the first great night with Michigan microbrews and Walleye at Sherry’s Port Bar in Garden. People warned us about deer. Yes, we said, we’re bikers and we know to watch for deer. They insisted there were lots of deer. Yes, we said, we’re basically experts at bike touring.
We saw 16 deer on the 9 mile ride to dinner. We were extremely careful.
We got up and had breakfast pasties and great conversation with the owners and then prepared for a day with a lot of miles. We backtracked just a few miles and took a recently paved forrest road straight through Hiawatha National Forest, basically riding all the way north across the UP from Lake Michigan to Lake Superior.
Seeing the area around Garden during the day, I began to appreciate just how sparsely populated and wild the UP of Michigan is. I also immediately fell in love with how the land looks, feels, and smells. This was like a quadruple dose of what I experienced riding to Tomahawk last year – the UP is wilder and more beautiful than Northern Wisconsin.
Doomsday prepping feels like it could be a fun hobby to me. While I’m not really worried about alien attack, the collapse of society, or a Zombie Apocalypse, having an off the grid cabin in the north woods sure seems like a lot of fun. Remote, and close to 20% of the world’s fresh water, you could do a lot worse than the UP.
Michigan H-58 “the hurricane highway” has been on my list to hit for a long time. It runs between Munising and Grand Marais along Lake Superior and it boasts some 300 curves depending on who you ask. It was a slow start, but by after a while I was repeatedly leaning the bike low at 55+ mph and I couldn’t stop smiling. Lake Superior is a great view as well.
After leaving Grand Marais, we needed to head South and East and make it across Mackinac bridge into Michigan proper to get to the famous tunnel of trees road on the Western side of Michigan. As we headed East and looked for lunch, I found myself completely falling in love with Michigan. This place is wild and beautiful, and barely a day’s ride from home. I began… making plans…
Lunch was a fantastic local diner on the shore of Lake Michigan, and I caved in and had Walleye again, it was so damn good.
We stopped briefly after crossing the bridge at Mackinac in order to take pics in front of Lake Huron: our 3rd Great Lake of the day.
Whatever I was expecting, the tunnel of trees was not it.
It’s a two-lane road and much narrower than I thought, barely wide enough for a car and a motorcycle. The road is curvy and has enough dips and potholes that I found the speed limit (35-45) to be a bit laughable: especially given how little reaction time you’d have if meeting a car around a curve. Other than that, it was truly beautiful: a nearly closed canopy of leaves overhead, rustic homes, homes displaying outrageous wealth, and views of lake Michigan over my right shoulder as we headed South.
Getting through the tunnel of trees, I had planned to follow the coast all the way south to Ludington, which was the bed for the night. Given how far we had to go, and how late the bourbon had fueled the conversation the night before, we cut off part of the coast and headed for Ludington.
My goal was to take the ferry across the lake, partly for fun and partly to avoid Chicago. Ludington seemed to be a busy town as far as Michigan goes, and this time I wasn’t disappointed. We stayed at a hotel with an excellent hot tub: I can’t say enough about the healing powers of a hot tub on my middle-aged ass after a 700 mile day. We had dinner at the excellent Jamesport Brewing company, and they even sent us home with some tallboys to drink in the hottub back at the hotel.
The SS Badger is an old, huge, coal-fired boat that runs between Ludington, MI and Manitowoc, WI just about every day until the lake starts freezing. It was a new experience waiting in a long line of cars waiting to get on the boat. The cars are valet parked by a crew, but bikes are ridden up into the boat by the riders. You ratchet-strap your bike to a grate on the lower deck, and then find stuff to do for the 4 hour trip. There’s bingo and movies and whatever on the boat, but we found entertainment in some bloody mary’s and microbrews and talking about rides past and future.
When you’re on the shores of the Great Lakes, or out on a boat, your body and mind realize that this might as well be the Pacific Ocean. It’s a little crazy that so many of us that live so close to the Great Lakes really don’t take advantage of them much.
Being on a riding trip just puts you in a certain frame of mind. Harley Mark and I talked about our buddy Lefty, who wasn’t able to come on this trip at the last second due to a serious injury in his family. We talked about bikes, and our families, and trips we’d like to take in the coming years. When it was time to roll off the SS Badger, I was awash in the temporary peace that always comes from riding like this.
I’ve always wanted some land to have In The Family: I dream of an off-grid cabin with solar power, an outhouse, and a cast iron stove to cook on. I’ve looked in North Carolina, I’ve looked in Idaho. Given that family keeps me in Wisconsin and I’m not rich, the UP of Michigan makes a lot more sense. The wild, gorgeous, remote North Woods have really got me thinking.
My riding season consists of several things: taking the 1st 70 degree day off work, taking in a bike show or two, a local charity ride or two, a bike night or two, riding to work, and one big trip. Having gone to the Smokey Mountains in ’15, ’16, ’17, and ’18 I wanted to do something different this year. My sister (a crazy person) moved to Idaho, and I had the beginnings of a plan.
I knew I wanted to avoid the “Sturgis Scene”, but the timing worked out to be hitting South Dakota as Sturgis was closing out. I talked to people who had been and I was assured that Sturgis was mostly over by this point and finding a place to sleep wouldn’t be a problem. With the beginnings of a route in mind, I put out the call for riders: the timing was bad, work was too busy, the distance was too far. Only one rider could make it work: good ole Wingnut Dave.
Since I had only recently moved over to a 2019 Indian Chieftain Dark Horse, I was still in the process of outfitting the bike and trying some new gear myself. As I approached doing 5,000mi service on Black Sunshine, I added a few things:
Alaska Leather Sheepskin Buttpad – I was skeptical that the “Gunfighter” seat new to the 2019 Chieftain line would be good enough for touring and wanted a little softer seat. I turned out to be more than right…
Kuryakyn Tank Bag – I liked the idea of having clear glasses, flashlight, sunscreen etc. close at hand.
Cardo PackTalk Bold – Wingnut Dave had long used a CB system on his ‘Wing, but I thought this would be an easier entry to road communication. This meant in addition to my usual half helmet I’d be bringing a modular helmet.
Day 1: Motorcycling is Mindfulness
My family, Wingnut Dave, and myself were all attending a conference at the Kalahari in the Wisconsin Dells. I was speaking on my favorite topic: mindfulness meditation. As the conference wound down, the siren call of the road was too powerful to ignore, and we left with a first day goal of reaching Fairmont, MN. Heading West on I-90 is just as straight, flat, and boring as you can imagine. After reaching the hotel we picked up some of the necessary supplements for traveling together: microbrew, bourbon ( I had accidentally left my flask at home ) and some Fireball. Dinner that night was great at the Bean Town Grill.
Day 2: Fairmont to Keystone
The weather attempted to make it exciting by providing some of the worst headwinds I’ve ever ridden through: leaning at a 45 degree angle just to keep from being blown off the road at 80mph. We did see at least one bike down headed East. For the entire day we didn’t pass nor were we passed by a single bike headed West, but we did see hundreds of bikes going East presumably headed home after Sturgis.
If you’re heading out here, a National Parks annual pass might be worth it. It would turn out that I spent more money on park entrance fees than I did on beer this trip. As for Badlands National Park, I’ll let the video speak for the beauty.
The restaurant here was pretty good as well, serving me the first of many bison meals on this trip. I had a fantastic view, and once I went back to my room for the night I was completely overcome by gratitude. I was on an 8 day trip (with padding for weather), I was on a new bike with all the gear I could want, my wife was at home taking care of the kids, I was seeing one of the most beautiful parts of the country. I recall feeling so grateful I could just sit and stare.
Look at this doofus blocking the sign!
Stations like this would become the norm out here.
My driveway for 2 days.
Bison prime rib!
I found Black Sunshine an Indian pal to park next to.
Day 3: Taking It All In
Today was the day I got to see why people return to the Black Hills area again and again.
The motel was directly on the Iron Mountain Road so we were able to do most of this completely by accident as we made our way to various other attractions. First up was Mount Rushmore, which I had not seen in at least 30 years. I stared at the mountain, I thought about how lucky I am to have been born in America, and I don’t have anything new to say about Mount Rushmore.
There are many pictures of Rushmore, but this one is mine.
No drones, denied!
This guy again…
The closest viewing area was under construction.
This individual is why people are skeptical of meditation…
Next up we went to the Needles Highway. This both contained some of the most technical switchbacks of the entire trip, and yet also failed to live up to the hype. It was a bit like the Tail of the Dragon: while technical the views are largely limited by trees and too many cars. We followed a truck hauling watercraft that I dubbed “Captain Canoe” for most of the road.
While I’d been obsessing over some parts of the trip for months, I went into the Crazy Horse Memorial knowing nothing about it other than a little about the historical figure, Crazy Horse. From the photos, it’s hard to get a feel for the scale, but all of Mount Rushmore would fit on his forehead. When finished, it will be the world’s largest sculpture and include a University for Native Americans. The story of the treatment of Native Americans by the US Government is… unflattering. For the second time on this trip I was completely overwhelmed. We took a bus down to the base of the mountain, and our guide suspects they might finish the sculpture in another 70 years. As of 2019, they were working on the knuckles of his hand. We had some ‘meh’ tatanka stew and an excellent microbrew and headed for deadwood.
This “Sturgis Edition” Chieftain was being raffled off.
I expected Sturgis proper to still be a complete shitshow, but since I’d recently been watching the HBO series I wanted to see Deadwood, SD. There are various plaques an callouts to the town’s history, but otherwise if you’ve seen one town overrun by bikers, you’ve seen them all. At a different time, on a different trip, I could see myself spending a couple of days here enjoying living music and people-watching, but the clouds rolled in and I’m not a big fan of treacherous mountain roads while they’re wet.
Was this someone’s sense of humor, irony, or just going their own way? It made me laugh, anyway.
We did catch a bad lightning storm: it has to be pretty bad for me to wait one out at a gas station but this one did it. We got back to the Powder House Lodge cold and hungry and some Elk steak put me back into the right frame of mind.
Day 4: Boring and Amazing
Day 4 was going to put us within striking distance of what I was most excited about: Beartooth Pass. I’m sorry to say that Wyoming is … mostly terribly boring to drive through. The last time I had come out West, there was a point where I could no longer get 91 octane gas, yet somehow had good luck until I was nearly home. Getting closer to the end of the day we finally had some nice scenery at Big Horn Pass. I’ve only ridden in the Smokey Mountains before, which I now feel like “aren’t real mountains” compared to the Rockies. I was not ready for the 30 degree temperature swings as we went up and down in elevation. The views were spectacular though. At the top of BigHorn pass, we met some folks who had flown in from Australia and rented bikes to do the Black Hills area.
I guess getting through Wyoming was worth it.
We ended the day at the Bear Tooth Hideaway in Red Lodge, MT. In all my travels, by bike and otherwise, this was the first hotel hot tub that was actually hot. Nothing like heat & jets to soothe a biker’s ass after a thousand miles of travel on a new seat. At the recommendation of hotel staff, we ate at Foster and Logans pub and it was fantastic. In one of the awesome coincidences that happen on the road, two folks sat down next to us and we started talking. They were both from Wisconsin.
This was such a cool place, I can see coming back for the Beartooth Rally some day.
Finally saw a buffalo!
Sinclair dinosaurs remembered from the roadtrips of my youth.
I got up the following morning and followed the sound of running water, literally 15ft across the street from the motel. This is what I saw:
This place will spoil you for views. Every little bit you see a scene worthy of a calendar or postcard. Why does anyone choose to live anyplace less beautiful? It’s complicated.
Day 5: The Big Event
I had been dreaming of going over Beartooth Pass on US 212.
It did not disappoint.
This is the best road in the mainland USA.
Beartooth pass is technically a good road: meaning there are technically difficult switchbacks, great sweeping turns, and tons of elevation changes. What really makes this the best road in the US are the views: majestic Rocky Mountain views around every corner. One second you’re focusing on leaning the bike and looking as far through the corner as you can to avoid a stray elk or errant cager, the next moment you’re confronted with a godlike vision of the landscape … and then you need to focus on negotiating that next turn. What good are guardrails if your bike stops and you keep going over the handlebars just in time for a 7,000 ft hill roll?
This repeating rote of joy –> life-or-death moment –> beauty –> life-or-death moment –> gratitude –> life-or-death moment is why we love motorcycling. What better way to appreciate the value of every heartbeat and every conscious thought of life than to risk it in a dangerous yet controlled experiment? What better assertion of your skill and confidence than to challenge the mountain to kill you and walk away with your life the victor?
In “The Life of David Gale”, Kevin Spacey’s character tells us we’re never happier than when we’re thinking about future happiness, and the Art of Manliness tells us that Anticipation is a powerful source of dopamine, but after months of anticipation I feel like I was perfectly happy in each moment climbing Beartooth Pass, and then I was happy in each moment descending since I got to experience the same level of scenery but also be warming up foot by foot.
The top is around 10,900 ft in elevation which was enough for me to have a little trouble breathing. I’ve been as high as Pike’s Peak (14k ft) and this isn’t that bad, but you notice.
As we went through Yellowstone, I was thrilled to see tons of buffalo, one of them 5ft away on the side of the road. Wingnut Dave got yet another earful of my incredible vocabulary through the intercom: “Holy fuck, fuck fuck fuck, a buffalo, right fucking there!”
Yellowstone might be the hardest part of the trip for me to describe. I have been here before, but it’s been a good 30 years. I felt a lot of gratitude rolling through Yellowstone, this time for my parents. My folks took us kids on a ton of epic road trips when we were younger, and I’m sure that’s a part of my wanderlust and my appreciation for these landscapes today. Yellowstone is just … so big. It’s not just mountains, it’s tremendous plains, far away are tremendous mountains. There are rivers, waterfalls, sulphur springs. The air is so clean you can see forever, it’s impossible to know if you could reach the mountains across the plains in a day, or two weeks.
Maybe you can get a little taste of Beartooth Highway and Yellowstone with these videos:
After we were a ways into Yellowstone it was time to separate from Wingnut Dave for a day and a half. I was going to see family in Idaho, and he was riding the Sawtooths and other awesome roads in Northern Idaho.
Day 6: Family and Rest
After Yellowstone, I road down into Central Idaho and spent some time with family in Pocatello. I did not get the adventure that Wingnut Dave got, but I can tell you for sure that Idaho is a well-kept secret. It has a little bit of the Pacific Northwest, the Rockies, and the alien landscape of its Southern neighbor Utah. It has more river frontage than any other state except Alaska. Idaho requires a lot more exploration.
I was mauled by nieces and nephews I seldom see, and I ran out exploring Pocatello for a while. The small city hosts at least two micro breweries and a lot of one way streets. I got lunch and a lot of samples at the Port Neuf Brewery in old Downtown. Arriving, I parked next to an ancient Kawasaki touring bike that turned out to belong to the owner or manager. He mentioned that some other bikers had been through recently: nice folks from Australia who went a long way towards drinking the place dry. Based on my description, and the unlikelihood of multiple Australian parties in the area, it had to be the same folks I met at the top of BigHorn.
We drank beers, and grilled stakes, and watched Aliens and did the things that families do. I stayed up too late, but still met Wingnut Dave on time the next morning.
Day 7: Back Roads into Steamboat Springs
The goal today was to make tracks for the small Skiing town of Steamboat Springs, CO. We could get there by avoiding the freeway which meant some more time in Wyoming, and to my pleasant surprise, Utah.
Wyoming is so sparsely populated, this was the only place I was legitimately worried about running out of gas. Up until this point we had remarked that we had pulled into whatever local joints looked good and not had a single bad meal. I won’t say we had a “bad” meal, but the food and service at the Badlands Lanes Saloon wasn’t great either.
I had recently done a family reunion in Southwestern Utah, and immediately realized I had to come back on the bike. The landscapes are amazing: red rock mountains, black volcanic rock, bizarre sunsets. Being in Utah makes you think you’re on Mars. We hadn’t planned it, but our 2-lane roads took us into Utah for a while, and I was not disappointed.
Despite having ridden thousands of miles with Wingnut Dave, I do not recall him having an obsessive bike-cleaning habit before now. My bike had collected so many insects, he was begging me to clean it, or even let him clean it. I let the bugs stay until the next time we hit rain.
Steamboat Springs is a typical Colorado Ski town: food, stores, and hotels that a town this size couldn’t support without the powdery slopes. Despite not being ski season, it was fairly busy. We stayed on the East end of town closest to the Rockies, and had some great barbeque and local microbrews at the Steamboat Smokehouse.
In yet another example of the great people you meet on the road, we met some folks in the hotel hot tub who do off-road riding in Utah.
If you’re in an area without too much light pollution, the night sky in Colorado is worth the trip. Another great day.
Day 8: Rocky Mountain National Park
The idea for day 8 was to conquer Rocky Mountain National Park, have lunch in Estes Park, CO, and part ways until next time.
Do you want to know the definition of being spoiled? Seeing this kind of scenery and thinking “Yea but Beartooth was better…” Rocky mountain national park is epic.
Of course there’s some video as well.
As we descended, I had to remind myself that the rest of the way home would be solo. I thought about the last time I had to say goodbye to Wingnut Dave, and it seems unreal that it’s really a year in between these big trips. We both had long, boring, high-miles trips across the plains to get home, but first one more local restaurant. This one just said “Restaurant” on the side, which is usually a sign you’re entering a greasy spoon that might make you wish you’d found a George Webbs instead. Once again, we got lucky, and the “Restaurant” was an excellent spot called Bird & Jim. It’s a reminder of how the Internet has spread things like “Food culture” to every corner of the world. Here we are in Estes Park, CO, and the first place we find has an eclectic menu including some gourmet hipster chili-cheese dogs with house made chili and 4 cheeses.
Yes, I ate them both.
After we parted ways, I had about 30 minutes of gorgeous mountain roads, then a couple of hours of getting through smaller cities north of Denver: 99 degrees and “it’s 2pm on a Thursday whythefuckisitsobusy?” traffic.
Helmets: I had been wearing a modular/full helmet up to this point to use the Cardo Packtalk. When we parted ways I switched back to my half helmet. I hate to admit how much I like having my ears & face uncovered: it’s far less fatiguing from a noise perspective, and your connection to everything around you is so much more real. I have to admit that wearing a half helmet is pretty damn close to not wearing a helmet.
As I rolled through Nebraska, I had the 2nd close call with gas this trip. I stopped in a true shithole gas station that only had 87 octane, and used my Octane Booster for the first and only time this trip. Obviously modern engines have anti-knock technology, but the last time I was in SD I put a few takes of 87 in my Victory and I felt like it “wasn’t quite right” until the next tune up, so I carry octane boost with me.
My target was to make it to Grand Island, NE this day. I had found a hotel that looked pretty close to the river, and had a local BBQ joint in the same parking lot. I barely beat a wicked looking lightning storm in, only to find a mixed bag of luck: the local BBQ joint had closed, the Arby’s in the gas station was still open, and the hot tub was open until 11pm. I swallowed my “no chain restaurants” pride and got a snack at Arby’s. I sat in the hotel hot tub with a can of The Banquet Beer and reflected on my trip so far. This hotel was the only one that would let me park under the front pavilion, so I finally got a picture to match my favorite shot of Red Sonya under the pavilion in Kentucky.
… and a good thing too! I had barely beat the storm, and it did pour that night. Not a big deal, but it does take some work to dry out my sheepskin butt pad.
Day 9: Freeways home
Every time I take a trip, it seems I leave myself with a 600-700mi last day and a grind getting through Chicago to get home. This Friday morning, the Indian Ride Command gps said 645mi to home and the weather showed a couple hours riding through rain right away in the morning. I hate wearing rain gear (I probably just have uncomfortable, shitty gear) so when I’m not in danger of getting too cold, I prefer to just roll through it and dry out on the road.
It was 10am in Nebraska, I had my half helmet on, my music on, and I was doing 80mph through the rain. Yes rain hurts your face at 80 but it wasn’t raining super hard. I was sad that my trip was nearly over, but excited to see my wife and kids. All of a sudden, I realized that this rain on the freeway was going to massively clean up all the bugs I’d accumulated on this trip, and how happy that would make Wingnut Dave. I started laughing uncontrollably, and my mood went through the roof. I was singing along with my music at the top of my lungs, passing cars, and loving life. I can only hope there were dinner table conversations that night “So this biker was getting rained on and absolutely plastered with road water by the big rigs but was smiling and singing, I’ll bet he was taking the drugs!” Every day above ground is a good day, something bikers understand better than most.
I stopped for dinner and didn’t get home until about 10pm. My great trip of 2019 over, it was good to be home safe.
3,400 miles, though I had planned just over 4,000. What a great road trip.
So how did all the new gear perform?
Kuryakyn Highway Pegs – I should have just taken these off my previous bike before I traded it in. These pegs are great and adjustable enough to try different things. One wrench and some allen wrenches I’d be carrying anyway and they’re easy to adjust on the road.
Alaska Leather Sheepskin Buttpad – This was a big help, since the stock seat sucks for touring (see below). I do feel like it lives up to the promise of helping keep you cool when it’s hot and warm when it’s cool as the 30 degree mountain temperature swings proved. It does get wet and collect overnight dew easily, so be prepared with a cover or to have dry hotel towels to dry it off in the morning.
Indian Aftermarket ThunderTrunk – I feel like it “bounces” a little bit during travel, but this was a great $1k spent, especially when you consider that an Indian brand sissy bar is $900, and this is a much nicer backrest + storage + luggage rack.
Kuryakyn Tank Bag – I like this, it’s super convenient, and the exotic magnets stick this so firmly to the tank I have no worries of it ever falling off, yet also no worries of it scratching the tank. It’s about the right size to hold extra sunglasses, flashlight, iPass, sunscreen, etc. In addition it has a see-through top section that I could use for hand-written directions if I wanted. My only complaint is that it’s too tall with the stock handlebars: meaning if I’m backing the bike around a parking lot sharp turns will hit the hand controls: radio volume on the left side and electric windshield on the right side.
Cardo PackTalk Bold – This took some getting used to. Installation is key: make sure when you install this that the speakers are RIGHT under where your ears are, even if your ears do not quite line up to the “ear holes” in your helmet – otherwise volume will be intolerably low. On balance, being able to call to each other to block a lane, “watch out for that pothole”, “Hey dude there’s no left arrow don’t go yet!”, was a net positive over the increased noise fatigue and loss of peripheral vision that came with wearing the full helmet. Road noise would indeed have made the system useless, so you do need a helmet that can shield the mic or a tall enough windshield that there’s not any actual wind in your face. We even discussed on a larger ride that it’d be useful just having 2 people with this system riding lead & sweep to block lanes, etc.
Sedici Modular Helmet – Good helmet, versatile, but it made me really appreciate my half helmet after 2500 miles. I guess I should admit that my half helmet is very close to not wearing a helmet.
GoPro – I was worried about not having enough storage, so recorded video in 1080p instead of 4k. This was a mistake, it could be the GoPro, or it could be YouTube, but even though I don’t have a 4k TV, the 4k video looks outrageously better. I need to keep working on a better GoPro mount, and always do 4k in the future.
What About the Bike?
What about the Indian Chieftain?
All in all, I’m still super happy with this bike. The infotainment is fantastic and the GPS is extremely helpful on a trip like this. The bike is torque-y, good-looking, and has awesome storage. It proved it’s handling chops a thousand times over on the mountain switchbacks. My complaints are few and all fixable:
Indian has to fix the Ride Command app. It crashes 100% of the time when I load my 4,000mi route. Since I started planning my next ride I notice it also breaks terribly when planning routes that involve Canada. You can only adjust your route on a full desktop/laptop computer, not a phone, and no one is carrying a laptop on a roadtrip like this. Indian needs to keep investing in this app.
The “gunfighter” seat standard on the 2019 Chieftain models seems woefully inadequate for touring. I dare say I have a narrower-than-average ass, and the seat is still too narrow to provide long-haul support. I can tell from my multiple-IronButt experience that I could ride basically forever on this bike with a better seat.
The bike is a torque monster, but when trying to pass at highway speeds… the claimed 79HP stock is just not enough. I don’t want to ride a GoldWing, but I also don’t want to be embarrassed by a GoldWing in passing maneuvers. I’m going to spend some money (hopefully not as much $$$$ as the 116 kit) to see if I can get some more HP without sacrificing that delicious torque.
I got so many compliments on this bike. The adjustable windshield, the audio, the storage, the ground clearance – it was all so excellent on this 3500mi trip. I just need to do a little more to make it perfect.
I try to avoid “sorry for not posting” stuff, but for the few of you out there I wanted to give some updates.
I recently got back from an epic motorcycle trip: WI, MN, SD, WY, MT, ID, UT, CO, NE, IA, IL, and home. The article and pictures are all edited, but I have a lot of GoPro footage to get through and video editing is not my strong suit. As it cools off here in the North Woods, these will be some great (and mostly warm) memories.
I’m also going to be on a smaller 2-wheeled adventure in a few days, which means I won’t be getting any video edited this weekend either. The coming content will be worth the wait.
Living in Wisconsin sucks for bikers. Sorry Wisconsin-lovers, this is an objective fact not up for debate, I don’t make the rules.
For the past few years, I’ve made it a point to burn a vacation day in the spring: on the first 70 degree day I can possibly squeak out of work I take the day off and disappear. It’s a way for me to heal, to be alone, and it’s my own version of the groundhog day superstition: if RoadRunner takes off in March, spring is coming six weeks early…
This year spring was a schizophrenic asshole: 36 degrees one day, 78 the next day, snow, then rain, continuous 40-degree temperature swings in a 24 hour period. I assume I was just a cranky asshole with a motorcycle in the garage, but even a local paper concurred that this weather was shit.
I had seen a couple of online discussions claiming that Wisconsin Highway 33 was “Wisconsin’s tail of the dragon”. I was skeptical, but before Bart died he and one of his friends went out there and the result was his friend going over the guardrail bike and all – he said it was the scariest thing he’d ever seen. That’s a tale for another day…
The observation peak at Wildcat Mountain State park is not the Smoky Mountains, but it is beautiful. Be sure to watch both videos at 4k, Youtube seems to murder the quality otherwise.
This is the shitty half of the twisties, and I’m still early in my moto-vlog career. I plan to go back and catch it all from west to east which seems to be the most fun way to ride it. These are also not “produced” videos in any way, no clever overlays you just hear whatever happens to be in my playlist at the time.
I need to come back here and take better video of the whole park, but if you’re in the area this is worth checking out for sure.
Ever since I started riding in the 1990s, dusk has been my favorite time to ride.
While riding certainly means wind in your face, there is such a thing as too much wind. As the sun goes down, it ceases powering the wind and calm prevails.
It’s still warm at dusk, and the setting sun has not yet robbed the world of heat and left the air reluctantly giving up its energy.
Working folks have been home for a while, and they’ve done their post-work duties; most of the chores are done. The lawns have been cut. The grills have been lit. There are campfires, and the sounds of gatherings reach out of neighborhoods to the through-roads. If you happen to be rolling through a town, you’ll see people at the sidewalk seating of coffee shops and neighborhood grilles; you’ll hear the ruckus from behind the wooden fences of pubs with volleyball nets, horseshoes, bean bags; you’ll hear bands warming up to play small outdoor stages.
If I’m out riding, chances are I am experiencing a world that is preparing to wind down, while I am still alive and active. I am a nocturnal creature, taking in the sights and smells of a world that isn’t prepared to challenge me. I’m probably a little sunburned, and the setting sun gives me some relief.
Without the sun powering the wind and evaporating moisture to higher altitudes, humidity rises. This, too, is a relief to my sunburn.
The best Dusk experience, really, is during a multi-day riding trip. I get to see the unique character of the sun as it rises in the morning in one location, and I get to see the unique character of the setting sun many hundreds of miles away in a different environment. If you’ve never experienced this without the UV-treated windshield between you and the world, you will not understand. If you’re in cage, you won’t feel the difference in the wind between morning and dusk. The difference in the the way the air feels and smells, of sound and the pressure in your ears. If it is a long trip, then dusk also means that rest is likely coming. I’ll be stopping for the night and joining the ruckus behind a wooden fence. People will ask about the patches on my vest, where I’ve come from and where I’m going, and I’ll be glad for the conversation even if I’m traveling with friends.
At night and far from home, with either a can of beer (it has to be a can) or my travel flask of bourbon, I am at my most thoughtful and melancholy. I’m outside, sitting on my bike, mentally time traveling. At a hotel or campsite folks are out at all hours of the night taking smoke breaks or reinforcing each others’ company and the details of their own adventures. They ask me questions, and I’m happy to talk, but something about my eyes tell them I’m not really into it: I’m already deep in my own head.
I love the dusk time, and on a warm summer evening when lighting bugs are visible in backyards and the smell of burning leaves drifts from one neighborhood to another it’s all I can do to keep myself from hitting the starter and taking off.
It has been two years. I just took Adam for a ride, so I thought it was the right time to finish this letter. Adam is probably the person who needs you most, but we do the best we can.
Missing you is hard. We used to talk all day every day on the computer while we were both at work.
“How’s work today?”
“When are you leaving?”
“What are you doing tonight, can we ride after work?”
Losing my brother sucks, but losing my riding buddy sucks too. Losing my best friend is worse. You were all three. I’ll be sitting in my basement watching a movie and suddenly miss you being there. I randomly start crying at inconvenient times: not cool man. I’m fine 99% of the time, but then suddenly I’m a fucking wreck dude.
It still hurts a lot to not be able to ask what you think about the world as it changes. I’ve got an electric car, what would Bart think of that? Brooke is driving now, can you believe it?
I found some land in Northern Wisconsin that might be a serious hunting/fishing/cabin-building retreat for us. Something to have in the family long after we’re both gone. This is the kind of thing you would have flipped out over. More than 5000 feet of frontage on the Chippewa river. I won’t buy it, but if you’d been around…
I’ve taken over the website and technology for ABATE of Wisconsin. The more I’ve seen about what we do with legislation at the state level, the more I think you would have appreciated this. You were all about freedom in general and freedom of the road specifically. This would have been your cause.
People say there are phases of grief. In truth, they overlap. I’m mostly done with denial and anger. I mostly just miss you now; not in bad times, but in good times. When I’m doing something fun like planning a ride, I think about how much you would have enjoyed it.
You used to like Irish/Celtic stuff so much. I got some rings and I’m having them engraved with your name.
I’m planning a 4,000 mile trip right now, you would have loved this. Wisconsin, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Nebraska, Iowa. I’m avoiding Devil’s Tower I think; this is the place I think of as the ride with you that we didn’t get to take.
Love you brother,
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 had the joy of traveling for work recently: Milwaukee, WI to San Jose, CA. It had been a while, and I forgot how much I hated air travel.
It’s not that flying bothers me: it’s amazing to travel thousands of miles in a few hours. It’s not that packing bothers me: indeed I rather like planning and compressing my needs for a week down into what I can carry. Rather, I hate the ceremony and the complete loss of control that comes with modern air travel.
“The Ceremony” is simple: if you fly in America today you have a taste of what it’s like to live in a police state. You need various identifiers and identification; if your name does not appear exactly on your driver’s license as you booked your flight, you may not get to fly. The US Government can put you on a “no fly list” without telling you, and without giving you any due process of law that would allow you to see why you are on the do-not-fly list, and without a clear legal path to getting off of it. Furthermore, in the United States you will soon need a “Real ID”, much closer to- or equivalent-to a Passport in order to fly.
All this to fly domestically. In the “land of the free”.
So you need “your papers” in order to fly: something the average middle-class traveler in Soviet Russia would certainly understand. But wait, that’s not where your privacy violations end. You are going to get SCANNED.
Consider first the “millimeter wave” scanners deployed at almost every US airport now. Depending on which article you read, this may or may not present TSA officers with a high resolution contour of exactly what you look like naked. The thing that people forget about TSA officers is that they are just like all other officers: they are just people. That means they are no better or worse than the average American. Some of them will be ethical and honest, with their mission in the forefront of their minds as they do their jobs. Others will behave as though they were a 14 year old boy who suddenly had X-ray vision into the girls’ locker room.
The TSA can also simply embarrass you. Suppose you, like my father, have various iron and titanium pins in your legs due to severe injuries from motorcycle accidents. The metal detectors are going to alarm as you walk through. You’re going to have to explain yourself at the very least. Maybe you’ll get “extra screening”.
Finally, the TSA can search your luggage at any time and for any reason. If you have a diver’s computer, a special piece of hardware for work, or maybe a particularly flashy pack of condoms in your luggage: someone with close to zero training is going to be flagged that they should look through your luggage. Did you bring a pair of fuzzy handcuffs on your vacation with your wife, or did you bring something to clean your CPAP, or are you traveling with a few things to spice of the bedroom while you vacation in the Caribbean? The TSA can poke, prod, and confiscate any of that.
Here’s the thing: once you reach a certain age, a doctor is going to poke around your most private parts and ask you uncomfortable questions. This is a part of getting older: we get pap smears, testicular cancer checks, breast cancer scans, prostate checks, and so on. But being a doctor is not easy: when you drop your pants for a doctor you are doing so for someone who has gone through 8-12+ years of school and has seen it all before and has everything to lose from being accused of sticking their finger in the wrong place. A TSA agent is different from a doctor in all the wrong ways.
Once you are physically on your flight, you lose even more freedom. You must obey a US Air Marshal or any random Southwest employee or face felony charges. Sure, nearly every flight goes well, but how do you feel about the idea of being beholden to someone who didn’t like the political message on your jacket? Remember, people are just people…
If, by Odin’s grace, you don’t make your flight, you are likely fucked. Did you get trip insurance, or did you get the kind of tickets that will not be refunded? You see, Americans have decided over the past 25+ years that all they care about is the cost of a flight. It doesn’t matter if they are sitting literally on top of someone who is hand-pumping their colostomy bag out into their neighbor’s coffee, if they can get to Vegas for $50 less they’ll deal with it. They will not remember this experience and vote with their dollars to have a more dignified flight next time. So, you are likely missing a day or more of your vacation if you miss that flight. Does it matter that it’s Spring Break and Airline X didn’t staff their counters enough? Nope, go back home loser.
Maybe you get bumped from an overbooked flight. Maybe you have to hand over a prized pocketknife you had in your jeans out of pure habit. Maybe the counter was too busy and they leave without you…
But the Road Won’t Leave Without You
Now, suppose you are instead packing for a motorcycle trip. Assuming that everything you’re packing is legal, you have nearly zero concern for anyone looking at it. The chances of you getting pulled over and searched are, anyway, incredibly small.
Suppose it’s spring break for some local schools and you start out a little late?
Oh well, you sit in traffic a little bit. You don’t miss your flight, you don’t lose a whole day of your vacation.
Suppose a tornado tears across the road a few miles in front of you? OK, you wait, and you move on when it’s safe.
Suppose the thunderstorm of the century tears across the state you’re riding through and you find yourself stuck in a rest area in Knoxville?
Fine, that’s great. Survive. There is no large insurance company who will not let your bike take off without considering a billion variables: you can leave whenever you feel like you can ride. If you take off and discover that the roads are really terrible, you can pull off on the side of the road and sleep anywhere you’re equipped to sleep. Sure you shouldn’t build campfires on someone’s private property but you can judge for yourself. You are in control. Maybe you do pull off the highway and park your bike in a ditch and throw your bivy over yourself. Rain pours, lightning strikes. Thunder follows. A man who is shurely Clint Eastwood reincarnated rides a horse near the tree you’re camped under and politely but firmly asks what the hell you’re doing on his property. Flustered, you explain how you’re on a motorcycle trip and you pulled over to escape the storm and you meant no disrespect to his property rights…
There was a time when he might have said at best “Why don’t y’all come up to our cabin” and at worst “Y’all take care, feel free to camp on my land, but ride up and tell me if you’re staying past tomorrow.” The way we treat each other today, that’s a topic for another day…
You see, the Road won’t leave without you, and the Earth won’t refuse to let you sleep there. When you are traveling on your own steed, you have so much more freedom. An airplane cannot decide to camp underneath an overpass. An airplane cannot ask the bar owner if you can pitch a tent out back. Your saddlebags know that anything packed in there is not for anyone else to know about. You can pull over to the side of the road and wait out traffic if that’s what makes sense. If not, you roll on by in your rain gear.
If you make a mistake, you leave a little late. If the road is unsafe, you choose another road. You decide how much risk to take, you decide how long the “layover” is. You travel with your rights and dignity intact. You can even carry a bottle of water if that suits you.
The airlines will leave without you, they’ve already got your money and quite frankly you dropping dead in the check in line or not is all the same to them. Out on the road, though, you’re in control. There may be challenges and decisions to make, but the road won’t leave without you.
I’ve seen so many Facebook threads, internet memes, and satirical Youtube videos lately focused on one question: What makes someone a Real Biker™?
Why does it matter, because it apparently matters a lot? Let’s unpack this idea in a few stages.
Why does anyone care what a real biker is?
Firstly, it’s nearly universal that when people attempt to define what “A Real XXX” is, there is high perceived value in being A Real XXX. Real social status, deserved fear, privileged access to resources, or unassailable authority is attributed to members of that in-group. There are no arguments about who is “A real serial killer” because it’s not considered desirable to be in that group and it confers no advantages. A “real biker” has an opinion that matters more than a fake biker, is assumed to have more and better stories and more and “more real” experience than the RUBs. Real Bikers are true and Original, possessed of motives as pure as the driven snow, modern day cowboys or desperados. Modern day Pirates, banditos and gangsters on two wheels. Guys want to be them and women want to be with them, and even when the cops are busting them they are thinking: god dammit they sure are cool though.
Side note on RUBs: if doctors, lawyers, and investment bankers hadn’t bought a lot of Harley’s in the ’90s would American motorcycling have been decimated? Should we thank the RUBs for their investment dollars but not let them play in our reindeer games?
In any community where you can be considered either a piece of shit or a god and everything in between, there’s a notion of “paying your dues”. Did you grind for years on the stand-up comedy circuit or play every shithole bar and birthday party with your band? Did you work as a waiter and do unspeakable things to gain your first big acting break? Congratulations, you’ve Paid Your Dues. Paying Your Dues is a common value in Honor Cultures. Another common requirement is a Rite of Passage or Initiation. Boot camp is a rite of passage any US Marine has in common with every other Marine. The “Rush” in fraternities. Residency for doctors. The bar exam for lawyers. These shared experiences knit a group together: it’s completely reasonable for a group to be suspicious of those who did not pay their dues and go through the initiation rites. The rich would-be politician who uses wealth and celebrity to instantly “make it” is reviled by all the others who worked their way up from Town Alderman to State Senator to US Congress.
Those who view themselves to be in a good place and they got there the “right” way will naturally revile those who took a different path.
Secondly, the inverse of the “Really belonging” idea is the notion of being a tourist, a fake, a poser. These are clearly undesirable labels.
What’s a tourist? Well, the dictionary says “A person traveling, especially for pleasure.” That’s fine, but I prefer my friend Chris A’s definition, a definition with a lot more negative connotation: “A person who travels to observe a radically different way of life, but they see it as one would see an animal in a zoo and don’t allow themselves to be changed by it.” A great example of this is a huge influx of people visiting Woodstock, Alabama after the hit podcast S-Town. People showed up to (Steve Irwin voice) See the wild US Redneck in his native habitat. No one wants to hang out with someone who’s going to go back to work Monday and say “Oh man, you would not believe what these bikers actually say!”
Fake should be self explanatory.
What about a poser? Well when I was a kid this meant people who wore Vans and carried around a skateboard but basically couldn’t skate. It implies that the thing that makes you a part of the community is hard or dangerous but you want that social status without putting in the work, so you pretend.
Side note on posers: a lot of people hate on those who trailer their bikes, especially to big events like Sturgis. While I’m generally not a big fan of “purity tests”, I tend to agree that if the baseline assumption is that you rode there, you’re riding on stolen valor if you rolled your bike off a truck 10 miles out. This is not meant to disrespect folks who can’t do that for health reasons.
Side note on danger & difficulty: I will wave to any biker on the road, but I am torn about things like Can-Am riders. Traveling balanced on two-wheels is just harder and more dangerous and it seems like that’s table-stakes in our community; when I see an old-timer on a trike I wave my respect, assuming he’s one knee-replacement too far to trust his balance anymore but still wants the wind in his face, but a lot of people I suspect should just buy convertibles instead. That’s my bias, peace.
In any culture where there’s any kind of purity test or acceptance test, you will face arguments and standards that evolve over time. This results in a no true Scotsman kind of attitude, where the criteria for being a “real biker” evolve over time to be more exclusive as more people fit the old criteria. I am told, by someone who would know, that in the ’70s you were either in a club or you were a fake. I’ll bet there are a lot of independants out there today that would pass absolutely anyone’s smell test for being a real biker.
The entire first season of the country music podcast, Cocaine and Rhinestones, has many examples of this kind of thinking. Throughout the 19th century the definition of “real country music” was always basically one generation behind what was going on in the country music scene. The lesson is one of dictionary conservatism: if you are not exactly like the status quo, you are fake.
So then, what is a real biker?
For some background I think it’s good to go all the way back to Hunter S. Thompson’s 1967 book on the hell’s angels. There may be more and better sources, but this is a pretty good one. A lot of what’s taken for granted in biker culture today comes out of this place and time, and I do not mean any special favor to the Hell’s Angels here as a modern club. People do things because they’ve seen others doing them, and have no idea why.
Wearing leather. Wearing a German Iron Cross. Being tough. Patches. Choppers. Racing. Being outside of society, misunderstood by the law. Being A Proud Outlaw. Codes of respect. So much of what we know as biker culture has its beginnings with men who came back from World War II and Vietnam. They found that the country they loved and fought for did not offer them the same opportunities for close brotherhood that the military had (see the links on honor culture above). The safe streets of America seemed boring to their heightened tolerance for danger. They brought together the danger, exclusivity, initiation rituals, ranks and titles, logos, and much more from their former military lives and created motorcycle clubs. These men were rebels. So bikers were originally:
Believed in some kind of Honor Culture, has a code of mutual respect
Tough, manly men
Outlaws and rebels
Risk takers, thrill seekers
Rode motorcycles everywhere
Wrenched on their own bikes
I am the first person in my entire extended family tree to go to college, so I’ll never be a Real Biker. No woman can ever be a Real Biker. No weekend warrior who doesn’t ride his bobber to a factory job every day can ever be a Real Biker. No one who voted Democrat, or is gay, wears safety gear, or has a white collar job can ever be a Real Biker. So on, and so forth.
Except that, as Cocaine and Rhinestones illustrates better than I ever could, the distance between the “Real OG Old-skoolers who truly get it” and the “Upstart pretenders who are ruining everything”, in any human subculture, is always nearly exactly one half of a human generation. Country music? Check. Hip-hop? Check. Muscle cars? Check.
Guns? Politics? Sex? Bikes? Check, check, check, check. Everyone is watching the next generation destroy their pure faith and their perfect culture. If I had studied Latin in college I could bust out something profound sounding like a priori ergo melior. Before is better.
Every American generation is more or less convinced they’ve got it all figured out, while they watch their kids and grandkids send the world directly to hell in the most efficient manner possible. Motorcycling is no different.
Can ladies be badass bikers? That seems clear to me. Can even rich Hollywood types be bikers when they slept by their steeds in the wilderness for over a year? Seems reasonable. Can a lawyer be a biker when he’s got half a dozen Iron Butt Extreme rides under his belt? Why not? No matter what the price of belonging is, some will still find reason to shun the newcomers.
Obviously it’s not up to me to say who is and isn’t a “real biker”. I’m not one, and no amount of three-thousand mile trips and rugged two-wheeled camping will make me one. I can claim that it’s a continuum: be more biker-y and not less biker-y. We used to be a nation of individuals. Don’t let a Facebook thread or a motorcycle commercial tell you what you are. A motorcycle dealership can’t make you a rebel. Wearing the same thing as everyone else doesn’t make you an individual. Get out, ride, camp with nothing more than you can carry, ride through the rain and cold, stop and help someone on two wheels stuck on the side of the road, stop at a dive bar you’ve never been in before, show respect, be real, be judged by your actions.