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.
So, here I am. The tail end of a pandemic (or so we hope). The Mrs. and I both in healthcare IT, working from home, surviving the ‘rona lockdown just fine. Things start getting back to normal and things start getting better and better.
I had a trip planned to Virginia to ride the Back of the Dragon between Marion and Tazewell. I had taken care of enough other money things that I planned to do this on a new Indian Challenger. The problem was the ‘rona had still fucked supply chains to the point where getting a bike or parts was anyone’s guess. Weeks went by, and my trusty dealer kept pushing the ship date back one week, every week. It’s not their fault, but as things started getting close to the departure date I started looking around. A new 2021 Challenger Dark Horse in Thunder Black Smoke was sitting on the floor at two local dealers. Now listen, I am a creature of loyalty – I value relationships and that includes relationships with people who have things to sell me. If you get into a hard-to-diagnose electronic issue or something you’ll be glad that you’ve always treated your dealer & service department with respect. But this is the end of a pandemic, which world wide supply chain issues, and me with several trips planned on a newer motorcycle. I had to consider grabbing one of these bikes.
One dealer didn’t call me back. The other called me back and asked for pictures of my bike. I rode down and traded that day. The Crow replaced Black Sunshine in my garage.
The owner of Indian of Metro Milwaukee, who obviously would have sold me another bike if he could have, actually called to apologize. As if he hadn’t already done what he could! These guys are legit.
I wanted a Freedom Shields windshield, highway bars, soft lowers, lower LED headlights, a rider backrest, and a color matched trunk on this bike. The ‘rona supply chain made it clear I would likely have none of it. At least I was able to install highway bars, lowers, and a new set of the trusty ole Kuryakyn highway pegs before I rode for Virginia.
I got the 500mi break in service on The Crow but mounting brackets for trunks and back rests were still hard to come by. Since I knew I was also taking an off the grid canoe trip soon, I just bought a dry bag to serve as my trunk for this trip.
So, who could come to Virginia with me in Mid May? Harley Mark met me on Hwy 41 and rode for Kentucky with me on Day 1.
As I’ve said before, it’s shocking to me how lucky we’ve gotten over time when it comes to finding local food & drink. We opted for a Chill’s somewhere in Indiana for lunch but the host said “We only have 1 server, can you wait?”. Here we are seeing the dis-incentive to work in food service in the latter days of the Covid world. Shit. Luckily the Harley GPS is firing on all cylinders (more on this later) and we see something called “Rick’s Boatyard” on the same exist just 3 miles down the road. We roll, and we’re not disappointed.
Not a bad view for lunch when you’re on a motorcycle trip:
Since I am The Political Biker, I can’t avoid talking about this part. Rick’s has a full staff: all the servers and cooks and bartenders they could want. Chili’s could barely stay open. I have to think that if I were in the service industry in North West Indiana I would obviously make more money and be treated better at Rick’s. Let this be a lesson: there is no labor shortage, there’s only a shortage for labor that will work for shit money and get shit on by assholes.
The rest of the ride is a song as old as time, at least if you’ve been reading Two Wheeled Thoughts. Getting through Indiana is hot and sucks. The second you cross into Kentucky things improve immensely. I will say in all fairness that this was the easiest “No crashes or random road closures” trip through Indiana I can recall for at least the last 8 trips.
Day 1 was to end in Pikeville, Kentucky. Once we got off the freeway East of Lexington onto “mountain parkway” the riding was fantastic. Well maintained roads, lots of sweeping curves and altitude changes through the mountains, the last 150mi of a 700mi day were fantastic.We met up with frequent co-conspirator Wingnut Dave here, who had a shorter drive up from Georgia.
I had assumed Pikeville, KY was a “normal” town due to the fact that we booked a Hilton. However there were some oddities. Despite being a Friday night, the town basically rolled up the sidewalk pretty early. Due to the ‘rona, pools & hot tubs were closed. And this was a mountain town you could just as easily have found in Colorado, or Seattle, or California: so there was no actual hotel parking lot. We found BBQ down the road a bit, parked on the street, and finished the day strong.
I built a small self-contained machine (Raspberry PI) with dozens of my favorite movies on it. Takes up no space but is awesome to be able to pull up The Easy Rider on demand in a random hotel room.
The next day was pretty awesome.
My main goal for this whole trip was to ride the Back of the Dragon from Tazewell to Marion in Virginia. But as I already knew from planning this trip in Rever, the 90 miles just getting to Tazewell was going to be an awesome mountain curve fest already. We rolled into Tazewell and found that the town had very much leaned in to this attraction:
A big shop, a big parking lot, food trucks. Yea, they like the two wheeled tourism in Tazwell.
The Back of the Dragon was excellent. I would rate this much higher than the Tail of the Dragon if for no other reason than there’s a lot MORE of it and you can reach some higher speeds. Like everywhere else in Appalachia, the views don’t disappoint.
Now, I had routes planned, but I made it clear to my co-conspirators that The Back of the Dragon was what I really cared about. We did some re-planning and decided to take on The Snake instead. The re-planning sucked. It was here that I learned what a big step backwards the 2021 Ride Command is on Indian motorcycles. It’s not super clear why. It appears that basic things like “Take me to Mountain City, TN” won’t work without a strong wireless internet connection. Send a route from my phone to my bike? Nope! Worked on the 2019 but only works using iPhone on the 2021 as of the time of this writing. This was pretty embarrassing: after me bragging about how this tech was eating Harley’s lunch for a few years, we had to rely on the Street Glide to get us to The Snake.
The Snake is actually 3 forks of TN 421 near Mountain City, TN. Very fun curvy roads, but nothing in particular stuck out to me as amazing/memorable. Maybe I’m getting spoiled? You should for sure ride The Snake. There’s a country store at the nexus of The Snake, and as another sweet whiff of normality, there was a cover band playing there and lots of bikes in the parking lot.
From here, we decided to stay in Johnson City, TN. We found a Brazilian steakhouse a short walk from the hotel that was far better than it had any right being.
Day 3 was to involve several wacky roads in Kentucky that I found via MotorcycleRoads.com. Beware: just because something is highly rated doesn’t mean it’s safe or well maintained. We encountered a few issues.
Bathrooms: I think it must be difficult to maintain a bathroom in the South. Either there’s an epidemic of septic tank killing microbes, or people just randomly close their bathrooms to strangers. Or, maybe there are other issues
One Lane, 10mph roads: A couple of times, the amazing roads turned out to be super sketchy 1-lane roads where you were likely to meet a dude pulling his pontoon boat and need to squeeze close to the ravine to let him by. For me, this wasn’t fun. Tons of gravel, no reaction time, no ability to get any speed. Plan your routes carefully.
Lack of Road: One thing about the “t-shirt roads” is that they tend to be well maintained, and if they are not you’ll know about it. Here’s a story: on a certain “highly rated” road in Kentucky, I came around several corners to see the asphalt completely washed out in the opposite lane: I kept thinking “Wow, glad I’m going this way and not that way”… until I was going that way. Hitting a seriously huge wash out and catching air on a 1000lb touring bike and landing with enough force to bottom out the suspension and feel some “Oh, that’s going to fuck up my neck for weeks” level of crunch is just not fun. I heard “Oh fuck I thought Mark was dead” in my headset, and hilariously only the guy on a Dualsport with suspension that could have handled this 40mph ramp actually had time to react.
We rode lots of other curvy and narrow roads around Kentucky. One of the final legs of curvy roads of the day was blocked with an orange “road closed” sign. I was about done, and so we turned and headed for Shelbyville, KY.
The Ramada on Brighton Circle is sort of a goofy story. It’s the kind of story that I assume everyone who does real roadtrips has. We found <place> due to <wacky circumstance> but yet had <great experience> so now it’s a part of our routine. In my case it was an amazing 2015 road trip and my dad being cheap and finding a coupon for this hotel at a Rest Area. Cheap, clean hotel. Steak restaurant in the parking lot. Kentucky bourbon liquor store in the parking lot. The right place to be 1 good scoot from WI. I’ve stayed at this place so much now I should have a plaque in there, and it’s become a sacred place due to good memories with Dad and my brother Bart. It’s also one of the few places that has never given me shit about parking my bike under the pavillion:
As long as there’s awesome riding in the Smokies and Appalachia, I imagine I’ll keep staying in Shelbyville from time to time.
The next day, well, you know:
Go new places for the first time is awesome, and of course no two trips to the same locations is ever quite the same, but in this case we said “Let’s not mess with a bad thing”.
The new Challenger performed admirably, though I did miss my trunk and rider backrest and I’m still getting used to the schizophrenic throttle response on this bike. A rider backrest and some larger grips would have made the 600+ mi days a breeze on this bike.
Just a four day weekend packed with a ton of fun. As of the time I write this, I have a whole other two-wheeled road trip to write up. Come back soon!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.