Following a 2012 tour across Australia and a 2013 tour through Southeast Asia, I ran into a roadblock of the political and geographic variety. I couldn’t head west from Thailand into Burma, a dark state, and the cost of arranging a tour guide and securing a People’s Republic of China driver’s license—both legal requirements for entering China with a foreign full-sized motorcycle—all became prohibitive.
I had been following in my father’s footsteps: In 1977-78, he circumnavigated the globe on a motorcycle. Feeling a little deflated, I tucked tail and headed east, pursuant of finding my way back to my end point at 90-degrees latitude—approximately Almaty, Kazakhstan. North America, Europe and Central Asia remained. I would still ride around the world, it would just take two directions to finish.
After a three-month-long administrative nightmare to retrieve my custom-built Happy Trails Kawasaki KLR 650 adventure bike from Thailand—and rehabilitating from a broken leg and a torn ACL—it was time to tackle North America. I rode across the United States twice in 2008 during a 31-state, 7,700-mile barn-burner atop a Kawasaki Versys, but this time would be different. Now, I was on a single cylinder semi-dirt machine that is, simply, not intended for interstate touring.
Leaving Boise’s North End on Sept. 13, I had mixed feelings. Touring is a blast, and I love to travel solo, but I didn’t know what a week of mostly interstate riding would do to my recently recovered body. Riding highway speeds on a bike that is best suited to remote two-lane roads and dirt two-track meant I would take a beating. Hunched over my 10-gallon IMS tank at 75 mph, I felt a sense of urgency to find some roads less traveled, which would make this leg of the trip halfway enjoyable. It would have to wait: I needed to make time and had a tight schedule. My return flight, six days away, hung in the distance as both a motivator and an unwelcome reminder of mileage quotas for each day.
I rolled into Salt Lake City that evening and met up with a friend from high school who has carved out a successful niche in the SLC real estate market. We headed out for a night on the town, and an evening of revelry in SLC’s up-and-coming Sugarhouse District transitioned into a foggy jaunt the next morning through Utah’s Uinta Mountains.
Highway 40 was an ideal counterpart on day two. Its scenic twists and turns and lack of semi-truck traffic made it a welcome alternative to the I-84/I-80 corridor. A fuel stop in Vernal, Utah, and a lively playlist in my headphones helped the miles pass quickly before I rolled into Steamboat Springs, Colo.
I needed to snap out of the numb brainscape required to complete as many as 12 hours a day on the bike—I had to make some decisions. I have friends in Denver, but I was burning daylight, thanks to the previous evening’s shenanigans. A dreadlocked gawker at the Kum & Go gas station in Steamboat Springs told me about a “shortcut” sure to shave an hour off my ride into the greater Denver area. Tired and not thinking clearly, I took the advice. It didn’t take long for me to get turned around on Highway 14 northbound, and I ended up at a shithole motel in Laramie, Wyo., where I stayed for the night.
The next morning, I awoke to 33-degree temps and the dread of getting back on Interstate 80. Few things are worse when touring than semi-truck traffic. Semi drivers seldom see motorcyclists and almost never run at consistent speeds. The slight pitches in eastern Wyoming’s geography resulted in playing chicken with two, three or four tractor trailers while trying to pass. These trucks spin off mean vortices that can easily push a bike into the median. For the first time in my riding career, I longed for a big, powerful, midlife-crisis cruiser with a tall windshield and tons of power. From Laramie’s 7,000-plus-foot surrounding plains, I continued east to the Nebraska line.
Through previous rides across Kansas and Texas in 2008, the bar was set pretty low, but I knew two things about the Midwest: 1.) the people are relatively nice, 2.) the scenery is almost nonexistent along major transportation corridors.
I stopped for fuel and a bite to eat in Sidney, Neb., and I still haven’t determined whether what happened next was a stroke of good fortune or bad. After I scarfed down a six-inch turkey sub, I straddled the KLR and performed my pre-ride routine: helmet strapped, check; gloves buckled, check; wallet and phone pockets zipped, check; key on, hit the starter and roll. Not check. The bike gave a groggy squawk followed by an obnoxious buzzing. The battery was toast.
I knew exactly what had happened. While riding into Laramie the night before, I had been running the bike’s high beams and heated grips, which overloaded the battery and charging system, resulting in a dead battery. The bike turned over easily on the cold start earlier that morning but lost its remaining juice across the Nebraska border. Thankfully, there was a car dealership next to the restaurant, so I moseyed over to the shop. One of the mechanics, a squat, friendly guy in his late 20s, said he had a trickle charger at home. He was nice enough to get it during his lunch break, and he let me throw a 4-amp charge on the bike for an hour. As I pulled the plastic side panels off the KLR, I had flashbacks to similar troubles in Australia and Malaysia. After a few thousand miles, I had learned not to panic and roll with the punches. When you’re riding your machine hard, it will occasionally leave you hanging. That’s the name of the game. Being able to expediently review your options, find the right fix and get back on the road is all part of the fun.
With the delay, I only made it as far as Kearney, Neb.
The next day, I stopped in Lincoln, Neb., for a quick oil change. With a reusable oil filter, the whole process took me fewer than 10 minutes, and the guys at Frontier Harley were gracious enough to dispose of my old, blackened oil.
Next up was lunch in Omaha at JD’s Tavern with Dave, another old friend from Boise. He moved out to Nebraska with his wife and kids a few years back to take a job managing a real estate appraisal unit for a major bank. With his thumb on the pulse of land topics in the Midwest, I picked Dave’s brain for a comparison to Idaho. He distilled an otherwise complex answer into a single sentence: “We have awesome public land in Idaho and everything out here is privately owned.” I was suddenly overtaken with a sense of gratitude for my home state. I would hate to have to know somebody who owned frontage on a creek or river in order to go fishing. The majority of Idaho is public land—we’re spoiled rotten.
From Omaha, I crossed the Missouri River into Iowa—roller country. The relatively flat farm lands of Nebraska gave way to a pleasant 200-mile sequence of gentle hills neatly adorned with perfectly manicured troughs of corn. I descended into Davenport, Iowa, and found another cheap motel off of I-80. That evening, I walked over to the Iowa Machine Shed—a legendary restaurant with robust grub and a folksy vibe. The classic tractor collection at the entry and rows of 18-wheelers in the parking lot are indicators of the menu offerings: vegetarians need not enter. Pulled pork, beef brisket and corn bread were favorites at the tables surrounding mine. I opted for a massive chicken ceasar salad, cold Leinenkugel beer and apple dumpling for desert. Full and happy, I headed back to my room, a stone’s throw from the Mississippi River and Illinois State line.
The next day was a bastard. It seemed as though every semi in the Midwest converged on the cluster of highways and interstates south of Chicago. After navigating heavy truck traffic into Joliet, Ill., I stopped in Gary, Ind., for fuel. Seldom have I encountered the local stink-eye so fiercely as in this armpit of the rust belt. I gassed up in haste and made my way to the toll road bound for South Bend: Notre Dame country. By now, the farms and fields had been replaced by some nice fall foliage, making the ride more scenic. I cruised through South Bend, noting the collegiate atmosphere, and pushed all the way into Cleveland for the night.
I arrived just in time to take Jake and Camille, two friends from high school, to dinner. Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic, these two work an intense schedule. Jake hammers out night shifts in the emergency room while Camille works in cancer research during the day. They love what they do and maintain an almost-superhuman level of energy. Jake went straight to work after dinner, and Camille and I returned to their downtown Cleveland condo.
It was great seeing all these people I had remained in touch with, yet somehow rationalized not visiting for many years. For the record, Cleveland was one of the most charming and enjoyable cities on my entire trip.
The next day, I headed north along Lake Erie into Pennsylvania. I made a fuel stop in Erie, Pa., before hitting I-86 east into Binghamton, N.Y. Upstate New York is beautiful in the fall, and the mixture of deciduous and coniferous trees, and clean, crisp air, made for a relaxed ride. I rolled through the Adirondack and Catskill mountains before stopping for the night in Oneonta, N.Y. I was 175 miles from the end of this leg of my journey. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the minutiae of the cultures I subtly experienced atop my KLR but in Oneonta, the thick New York accent gave me my first sense of being far from home, and the people I met in this region were incredibly nice, debunking my previous opinion of “East Coast assholes.”
The next day, I passed through the outskirts of Albany, N.Y., and headed for the Massachusetts turnpike and I-90. I was on schedule, so I elected to take backroads to my final destination of Shelburne Falls, Mass. I stopped at the Creamery in Pittsfield, Mass., for the best avocado and bacon sandwich I’ve ever eaten, and then took my time putting along to my final stop. My GPS routed me all over the place before spitting me out on a long unpaved country drive leading to a 200-year-old barn. The barn and its surrounding 23 acres call Bill Cosby a neighbor, and belong to my friends Josh and Taresa, who offered to store my bike for the winter (in the 200-year-old barn). I had made it across America in six days, rolling 2,910 miles under the tires of my KLR.
Taresa, Josh and I made plans for a night of fun in Boston, 90 minutes away.
Weary from the week, I booked a room in an upscale hotel next to the Boston Commons, and after a traditional Irish dinner and a few whiskeys, I was on a flight back to Boise.
With 13 states and almost 3,000 miles behind me, I learned that every inch of America has something to offer a student of the road; the interstate highway system is an unsexy but extremely important piece of infrastructure; and there’s no place like home.
Europe 2015—Paris to Istanbul—is officially in the pipeline.