It was while spending 15 hours in Lisbon, Ohio, waiting out severe thunderstorms in a tent, that I hit the first “rock bottom” of my Great American Motorcycle Journey. When I started a couple weeks earlier, I pictured something out of the ’60s movie Easy Rider—open roads and gleaming engines, self-discovery combined with national exploration. Instead, hunkered down and shivering in the tent, I was quite the uneasy rider. I passed the time counting the seconds between lightning flashes and growling peals of thunder. When the blinding bolts happened instantaneously with a crashing clap, I realized the storm was directly overhead. I awaited the felled tree branch that would shamefully end the trip (and most likely kill me). I never felt such intense loneliness in my entire life.
For someone who didn’t even attend movies alone, a solo motorcycle adventure was an ambitious undertaking. But I was in my mid-twenties and had just gotten out of a long-term relationship. A journey seemed like precisely the kind of reflective soul search I needed. Even when I got back into that same relationship just before the trip, I had made up my mind—I was going. Only now, I was leaping into the unknown and leaving behind someone close to me, someone I knew well. A few weeks before I left, my girlfriend looked at me and said, “You know, if you die, we have to deal with it.”
I survived the pummeling I received in Lisbon and emerged from my tent at dawn to a soggy landscape, glad to be alive and outside of the claustrophobic confines of the tent. Maybe the night before was meant to be a baptism, I thought. Perhaps it was a rite of passage I needed to start anew and embrace the sense of possibility that a motorcycle provides, like Easy Rider star Peter Fonda. Perhaps not. I went to fire up my 25-year-old BMW K75 only to hear a dying sputter. I looked around the empty campground, and all the loneliness came rushing back. That was the second low point of my Great American Motorcycle Journey.
While hurtling west on sun-bleached interstates, I quickly learned traveling solo does not mean traveling unencumbered. There is the literal baggage one carries as well as the mental and emotional baggage one brings. Despite meticulously packing my belongings to fit in my motorcycle, I didn’t consider the heavier load in my mind, multiplied tenfold by ample time to ponder. I hit the road to discover something profound about myself and my country. Instead, I spent an awful lot of time singing gibberish in my helmet and marveling at how cheap the motels became as I ventured further into the flatlands.
Paul Theroux once wrote, “Travel is the saddest of pleasures, the long-distance overland blues.” Before this adventure, I had always traveled with others. I did a semester abroad in India with fellow students, a stint as an English teacher in Vietnam with friends, which I detailed in my ‘Love Letter to Saigon’, and a Southeast Asian backpacking tour with my girlfriend. Having fellow travelers saved me from the blues, and travel seemed to be the happiest of pleasures. They acted as a mirror, reflecting the joy of unique, awe-inducing experiences, and helped to carry the burden of hardships. However, having companions also prevented me from tuning in to the mournful and poignant rhythms of the road. Now I was finding out just how sad those tunes could be.
I hit my third rock bottom in Miller, South Dakota. I had arrived there after a string of Midwestern misadventures, including a snapped front brake line and a tense afternoon clutching my beer in Slugger’s Sports Bar during a tornado warning. One imagines a soul search happens inside of you, but my experiences were mainly of the external, visceral variety. My body was exposed to the elements day in and day out, and I often thought of houses, cars, and the walls that contain and protect us. We build walls to give us physical safety and security. Then we build metaphorical walls that form our sense of self through world views and opinions. And yet, my walls were crumbling. Each night I went to bed with hands swollen and reverberating from the constant thrum of the engine. My body was taking the brunt of this spiritual quest.
One morning in Miller, a simple question caused me to internalize all of these humbling insights. I was talking to my mom on the phone outside the dingy lobby of the Dew Drop Inn. She asked, “Does it feel like it was the right decision to do this?” I did not know how to respond. The day before, I had ridden 334 punishing miles and dealt with electrical issues and raging winds. Even worse, I had learned that my friend Hunter might not accompany me on the second leg of the trip (doubling the length of my time alone).
Her question implied some sort of ledger upon which the scales of the trip needed to be balanced. Did the cons outweigh the pros? Did the risks of life, limb, and money outweigh the opportunities of the open road and self-discovery? These were questions I was not able to answer then.
Distraught, I hit the highway, entering Montana and promptly killing a bird with my helmet at 70 miles per hour. Throughout the journey, countless birds, startled by the engine on otherwise quiet stretches of road, would dart up and away from the bike, which became a roaring projectile. But not this poor American Goldfinch. He flew up and back into my helmet with the force of a solid punch, flopping lifelessly to the pavement behind me. I was at the (new) depths of my solitude, and now I’d committed murder.
Play the blues long enough, and you might get a feel for the spontaneity involved. Paul Theroux called traveling the saddest of pleasures rather than the most pleasant sorrow. All of the “rock bottoms” I experienced were part and parcel of plumbing the depths. They were mere moments on a winding path that kept expanding, broadening, and dramatically changing. I learned that the low points too shall pass. And by comparison, they make possible the visceral thrill that comes from reaching dizzying heights, both external and internal. The same vulnerability that solo travel requires allows you to feel so profoundly its trials and triumphs.
Dropping down from the Snoqualmie Pass in Washington to the cool air of the fog-filled coast was like putting on technicolor shades with a green tint. The land revealed itself, just as it had for the previous 5,103 miles, to be as diverse as the internal moods of the rider passing through it. By the time I arrived in Seattle, I knew that I could always sink lower, with my well-honed ability to hit a new rock bottom every 300 miles. Still, I was bolstered by the discovery that I could strike out on my own, with only a bike and my baggage, and find the rhythms to keep me humming along.
Hunter, it turned out, was able to join me for the ride back east. Together we rode down the Pacific Coast, across a stretch of US Route 50 through Nevada known as the “Loneliest Road in America,” across the plains and up the Smoky Mountains back to New England. We mirrored each other’s joy and shared burdens; travel again became a communal experience, perhaps a touch more playful and a smidge less profound. I never balanced the ledger to know if the cross-country motorcycle trip was the right decision. But whether easy or uneasy, I had played the long-distance overland blues.
Need one last push to pack your bags and hit the road? Read all about Why the Great American Road Trip is Important as Ever.