Several years ago, as my friend Mike Hinton and I planned an epic East-West September road trip, Mike had quipped, “The best part will be the people we’ll meet.” That struck me, as I anticipated the landmarks, sights, and experiences on the open road would be the best parts. Turns out, Mike was prophetic. So many sights, locales, and road experiences, but the most cherished memories are indeed the people. Here’s our story…
I awoke at 6:45am, after a restless night of partial sleep, anticipating getting on the road. Mike and I both have been excited yet a little nervous- neither of us had ever been on a road trip this far out and for as long as we were going on this one. With the bike loaded, I geared up, woke Lisa and the girls to say my early morning goodbyes. After many hugs and kisses, I pulled out for Mike’s house. After he did the same, we got on the road about 8:45am. We negotiated traffic south on I-85, west around North Atlanta on I-285, then north on I-75 to Chattanooga, Tennessee. I had been a little anxious about riding on interstates around the metro area, but once on the open road, we settled into a good 70-75 mph pace.
We took I-24 west out of Chattanooga, and stopped for lunch at a Cracker Barrel outside town. I spent a year of my life in this city after I graduated from high school. I fell in love with this “city in a valley” back then, with the Tennessee River flowing through it, and riding through brought back memories of living here, exploring the sights, attractions, and the countryside. Mike & I rode hard all the way to Nashville, 137 miles. We skirted south of town, and swung true west for the first time, pointing the bikes toward Memphis on I-40. We chased the sun across the sky for the 200 miles it took, stopping a few times, for some “download & upload” so to speak. We passed through Memphis with a setting sun in our eyes, and as we exited the city, the Mississippi River Bridge and the Arkansas state line were back dropped by a bright orange and red sunset. Beautiful.
We pulled into a KOA campsite just after dark, in Marion, Arkansas, just over the river. A little shameless commercial- KOAs are incredible! At least this one was. A tent site, with power and water, for $10 per tent, with Mike’s KOA rewards card. Great deal. We set up, then I showered and texted/called my family back home and a few friends who wanted daily updates. I decided to stay up and read some before turning in, and made the mistake of leaving the tent flap open while I sat on a picnic bench outside. By the time I hopped in the bedroll, the tent was full of mosquitoes! I must have spent the next hour slapping and swatting bugs, and I’m sure Mike heard me. Note to self: never leave your tent open, for even a minute, while tent-camping along the shores of the “Mighty Mississip.”
Today- Georgia and Tennessee. Tomorrow- Arkansas and Oklahoma!
We packed up early and pulled out of Marion, running west on I-40. East Central Arkansas is the most desolate countryside to ride I have ever done so far. Miles and hours of endless farmland, or forests, right up the highway, and all straight, all flat. It got nerve-wracking at times, with precious few towns and turnoffs for gas stops. We finally made it to Little Rock after lunch, having been cooked in temperatures approaching 100 degrees by mid-day. We stopped at a KFC, then rode on toward Ft. Smith. I must say, the western part of this state was just the opposite- beautiful, scenic, with hills, towns, sweeping highways, and splendid sights. Mucho better.
We finally crossed into the great state of Oklahoma! Officially now in the west. We stopped at a welcome center, which was closed, but met a burly, dark-skinned, tattooed, native-American looking Harley rider who pulled in right after us, with a long braided ponytail and braided beard to match. He was from the state, returning home from riding up and down the east coast, Maine to Florida, solo. Wow, we are novices compared to him. He gave us some tips for great places to stop in Oklahoma, and we saddled up and decided to try and make for Oklahoma City by nightfall, halfway across the state. As we rode on, a drop of sunscreen lotion, which I had been applying at nearly every stop, mixed with sweat on my brow, and sank into my left eye. Instantly, my eye felt like it was on fire, and literally gushed with tears. Barely able to see, at 75-80 mph, with big tractor-trailer rigs and fast traffic all around, I eased to the side of the road, yanked my helmet off, and began dousing my eyeball with my water bottle. Mike, who had been ahead of me, somehow doubled back when he discovered I was no longer behind him, and found me beside the road bottoms-up with the water bottle over my eye. After a few minutes, the pain faded, I put in some eye drops for the redness, and we were on our way. Whew, that was painful, and scary.
Night began to fall, and we were still not quite in Oklahoma City. We stopped for fuel, fluids, and to don our night riding reflector vests over our jackets. We shot through the city after dark, and proceeded on to El Reno, 45 miles to the west. Monotonous, long stretches of blacktop, into the night, to get there. We finally pulled into the El Reno West KOA at 9:45pm, local time. Tired, hungry, sore, we cleaned up, threw out sleeping bags in the bunks of a cabin we had booked, and sank into deep sleep. Two very long days, both in miles and hours in the saddle, nearly 500 miles each.
We packed up our bikes after a restful night’s sleep in the cabin, and hopped back on I-40 West. Almost immediately, we found ourselves riding against a hard, northbound wind blowing against our left at 25-35mph. The hard winds continued all day, blowing us all over our lane, especially when we encountered large trucks. The air turbulence around the trucks, combined with the strong winds, beat us mercilessly. Exhausting. We took frequent stops, as much to rest as to see the sights.
And what sights there were to see! The rolling hills of Oklahoma and North Texas prairie lands were a vast sight to behold. As we rode, I imagined these lands flowing with buffalo herds, as far as the eye could see. We saw huge, energy windmills, both sides of the interstate. We found “The Mother Road”, old Route 66, and spent the day off the interstate, riding this fabled piece of Americana. We visited the National Route 66 Museum in Elk City, Oklahoma, spending several hours in this fascinating indoor and outdoor exhibit. We had no idea this place existed, until we saw a roadside billboard for it. Still on 66, we rode through Weatherford, Oklahoma, where we actually found our first “66” intersection sign.
After crossing into north Texas, the state of my birth, we came upon the town of McLean, a town once booming with life, but virtually dead after I-40 came through, bypassing the old Route 66. It’s interesting to me, how some towns reinvented themselves when the interstate replaced 66, and continue to thrive, while others like McLean rolled up the welcome mat and have slowly faded away. Sad. We did find a national marker in McLean, the original “Phillips 66” station in Texas, rebuilt by the side of the road, replete with original fuel pumps, still showing leaded gas for .19 per gallon. That was a cool photo op, for sure.
Eventually, the rolling prairie gave way to the elevated plains and flatlands on the Texas Panhandle, and massive farms as far as one could see. Still leaning into strong northward winds against us, we rolled into legendary Amarillo! Looking up the local KOA east of town, we found their prices were a bit steep, for cabins or tent sites. Would have been tough to set up tents in the wind anyway. Besides, the campground was next to an Air Force base, and backed up to a railroad track. Too pricey, too windy, too noisy. No way. We settled upon a local Sleep Inn, which Mike had a discount card for. This guy is great to travel with! After checking ourselves in, as we began to unload our gear, we met a Gold Wing rider from Rhode Island, riding solo all the way to San Francisco. He called himself “Chick”. Cool. We walked across the parking lot to a Cracker Barrel (these are everywhere), got a bite, then hit a Harley shop next to it, to just walk and gawk. Oh, and buy the customary t-shirt.
Across the rest of Oklahoma, and into the Panhandle of Texas, on Route 66 much of the way, with scenic small towns and sights- this was a 240-mile day. With the winds, it felt like 500. Whew, what a day.
How do I begin to describe this day? Just the most amazing day yet of this trip. We checked out of the hotel and rode over to the local Texas Information Center. They directed us to our day’s destinations.
First stop, Palo Duro Canyon State Park. We rode south of Amarillo about 35 miles, across the flattest land I have ever seen. Suddenly, the scenery changed, and we were in sagebrush and canyonlands. We entered this state park, the second largest canyon in the country, behind Grand Canyon. I could not believe I had never heard of this place. Beautiful beyond description. Unlike Grand, there is a paved road that winds and descends to the canyon floor, and runs the length of the park. We rode it, stopping at various places to take photos, hike, climb, and just drink it all in, slack-jawed. It was like walking and riding through scenes from some old Clint Eastwood western. We could have stayed there for days. There are campsites throughout the basin of the canyon. Something I was informed of at a welcome center- this valley and its history was part of the inspiration behind the television miniseries “Lonesome Dove” back in 1985. What a stark, barren, beautiful place.
Next, we rode back up into Amarillo to the famous Big Texan Steakhouse, home of the 72 oz Steak Challenge. As the story goes, if you can finish off their massive steak, and all side dishes, within one hour, your whole meal is free, and you enter their record books. Many have tried, few have succeeded. We didn’t even try. But the food and atmosphere was fantastic.
We then rode out to the popular “Cadillac Ranch” west of town, which is ten old Caddies buried nose-deep in the ground, single file. Everyone who walks through it has the opportunity to “leave your mark” with a can of spray paint. We sprayed our names on the left fender of one, took some pics, and rode on. A quirky, eclectic stop. Pure Americana.
We had been told of a place known as the Midpoint Café in Adrian, Texas. It is at the exact midpoint of old Route 66. We found, it, still on a drivable portion of the famed road, and decided to pull in, exactly as two other motorcyclists did, followed by a senior couple in a pickup truck with a camper on it. They had just closed, but as we looked in, the two ladies who operate it suddenly came to the door and welcomed us in, reopening just for us six wayward travelers! They served us up some fresh-squeezed, ice-cold orange juice, and a helping of their “World Famous Ugly Crust Pie.” We stayed there nearly an hour, chatting with the two sweet proprietors Fran and Joann, the camper couple, and the two riders. They each had fascinating stories of their own. One of the riders, an elderly gent on a Suzuki V-Strom named Alan, was from “across the pond” in England. He shipped his bike over to New York City, and had been riding America for a month. He was headed to the Grand Canyon, and had just picked up his traveling companion Rick in Amarillo, who himself was riding his Gold Wing from Toronto, Canada, doing the same thing- riding across America. They both were well up in their 60s, full of youthful enthusiasm and energy. The camper couple was from Massachusetts, the state my parents are both from, driving to San Francisco to meet up with their son, who planned to give his father a motorcycle ride across the San Fran Bridge. The Midpoint Café, we learned, was the inspiration for “Flo’s V-8 Café” in the Disney Pixar cartoon “Cars”, and it’s easy to see why. Inside and out, the café is decorated with nostalgia from the glory days of the Mother Road. We wrote our names on their “Graffiti Truck” in the parking lot, purchased a few souvenirs in the small gift shop, and after saying our goodbyes and exchanging emails all around, Mike and I rode on westward.
Leaving the Texas high plains for the mesas of the old west, we crossed into New Mexico at sunset. We rode on to the town of Tucumcari, with a glorious sunset directly before us, setting over the buttes and mesas in the distance, and a bright full moon directly behind us. The colors in the sky faded from bright gold, to orange, then red out front, to purple, blue, and finally black out back. It was an amazing moment in time, riding in that. An eternity was wrapped up in those moments as we descended into Tucumcari. We pulled into the KOA outside of town, up on a small hill, checked in and set up our tents in a steadily increasing wind.
Mike had quipped before we left on our trip: “You know, even better than the places we’ll visit, will be the people we’ll meet.” I had tucked that thought away, and it certainly was proving to be true. More than the amazing sights and places we visited today, the best part really had been the people we encountered. There was the young lady we met back at Palo Duro, travelling alone across America from Rhode Island to California; Sarah, our waitress at the Big Texan, who was actually a single mom from Missouri, looking for a new life out west; Fran and Joann at Midpoint Café, the sweetest ladies in Texas; the old riders, Rick and Alan, new-found friends on the road; Fred from Phoenix, Arizona, heading east for Vermont, living out of his SUV with two Rottweilers, two Dobermans, and a German Shepherd! Each person had their own unique story, and each have enriched the journey for us both, as much if not more than the places we’ve visited. I prayed for each of them by name before turning in for a tent camp under a full moon.
Texas and New Mexico- many memories, many miles. More tomorrow.
It’s gonna be a blustery night…
After a breezy night under a bright moon, we awoke to a cloudy, drizzly, windy and noticeably cooler morning. It went downhill from there. We ate breakfast, bought some bottled waters and ice, then loaded up to continue west. We rode old Route 66 through downtown Tucumcari, once a booming, gleaming city along the Mother Road, now mostly run down. Old neon signs dotted the street, vestiges of a bygone era.
About eight miles west of town on I-40, I realized my wallet was not in my jacket’s inner pocket. We pulled over, and took apart both bikes by the side of the road, frantically searching for it. We rode back, with me in a near panic. All of my cash, cards, identification, medical info, etc. in that billfold. We split up, Mike riding back through Tucumcari to search along the sides of the street we came down, while I bee-lined back to the KOA campground. I had the entire KOA staff helping me comb the place- the office, our tent site, the parking areas, bathrooms, TV/game room, even the trash cans. Nothing. We scoured the frontage road leading into and out of the KOA site, two to three times, to no avail. Depressed, I called Lisa back home in Georgia, had her cancel all the cards, left our contact info with the KOA manager, then prepared to ride into town to fill out a police report and find a way to get some money wired to me. Turning onto the frontage road, there not 100 yards up on the right side, was my wallet! We had walked by that spot three times, and now there it was. Someone had it all along, and tossed it there in between searches. All of my cash, cards, and a gas gift card were missing, yet incredibly, my IDs and medical cards were present. Strange. We rode back to the KOA office, to tell them. We and the manager came to suspect one of their employees, Phil, who had coincidentally drove into town on “errands” earlier, but since no one saw anything, it was hard to accuse. We rode into town to the police station, made out a report, and an officer said he would question the “suspect” later that day and contact me if they turned up anything. I wasn’t holding my breath.
Having done all we could, and left our contact info everywhere, we deliberated what to do. Calling home, Lisa advised we ride on, that she could wire money to a Western Union in town. Yet as we sat at a local Burger King (which Mike had to spring for), we overheard a weather alert warning of massive storms with heavy rains, strong winds, and dangerous flooding, all across Arizona and rapidly moving east, our way. Our mind was made up for us. We decided to turn around, and make hard for Amarillo. Plans change with circumstances.
The winds howled against us all the way back, south to north, on our right side this time. We rode through several small rain showers before arriving back in Amarillo, staying at the same Sleep Inn as before, Mike covering the cost. He said, “Don’t worry about figuring out how to get cash wired out. I’ll get us both, and we can settle up later.” A good friend. That night back in the hotel, we decided to change course and run south to Wichita Falls and on to Dallas, to my brother Rick’s place, who had said we could ride out the coming storms with them. Sounded like a plan.
Looking back, the good Lord may have actually protected us from a bigger calamity than my stolen wallet. The next two days saw massive storms and floods across Arizona and New Mexico, with mudslides, road washouts and several deaths reported. We could have never crossed under those conditions. I had also retained my identification, insurance, and medical info, which was a blessing. Very thankful- things could have gone much worse for us, on both counts.
So, we would make new memories and meet new people all the way home, by an entirely different route. This would still be great fun. “Epic Adventure, Part 2”.
We woke up, packed up, filled up, and rolled out of Amarillo in a windy, cold, rainy morning. We said our goodbyes to Route 66 and set off southwest on Hwy. 287 toward Wichita Falls. We slogged through heavy rains and driving winds for almost an hour and a half, trying to outrun the storms chasing us from the west. The road was mostly deserted save the occasional semi truck, and in some places our pace slowed to 25-35mph, with water in these flat lands up to our floorboards at times. Scary riding in these conditions. We dared not stop for long in the small towns that dotted our route along the way, eager to make south Dallas and my brother Rick’s house by nightfall.
Finally, after what seemed like an eternity of wet, wind, and exhaustion, the weather began to break. We were outrunning the storms. Before long, we rode off the Panhandle’s high plains, and into the northeast Texas rolling hills and prairie lands. Despite the remaining, lingering rain, we found this to be beautiful country. We rumbled through numerous small Texas towns, each with their own flavor and Lone Star pride: Clarendon, Estelline, Childress, Quanah, Vernon, to name a few. The further southeast we rode, the more distance we put between us and the storm front we had ridden (almost swam) through. By the time we hit Wichita Falls, the skies had cleared, the temps had climbed, and our spirits had lifted. After a brief pause in town, we continued south down 287, and the prairie gave way to farm land, then rolling hills of cottonwood. We even rode through vast oil fields between the towns of Henrietta and Bowie. Miles of rigs, bobbing up and down under the Texas sun. We rode along a ridgeline overlooking the valley of Springtown and North FT. Worth. After battling the stifling afternoon traffic, we finally rolled into Rick & Robyn’s place in Mansfield around 7:45pm. Rick took Mike and I out for a bite at a local barbeque joint, then we spent the evening in their living room, recounting our experiences of the last six days. After calling Lisa and the girls back home, exchanging some e-correspondence and loading some photos up on social media, we called it a night.
Again, we met some wonderful people today- the young mother in Childress who offered to top off our gas tanks; the old man with the huge cross around his neck, who warned us of bad weather to our south, and then asked to pray over us; the black lady in Mansfield who very compassionately pulled up alongside me at an off ramp to inform me, “Sir, you’re in the wrong lane. Here, pull up in front of me.” Like Tuesday, a memorable day of riding, although nerve-wracking and exhausting, and kind folks all along the way.
A note: Somewhere north of Ft. Worth, my Royal Star odometer passed 50,000 miles. May it carry me another 50K.
Mike and I spent the day resting and recharging at Rick & Robyn’s place in Mansfield. We slept in, read, watched TV, played with their dogs out back, and just hung out with the family as they came home. We needed this today.
We went out to eat at a quirky little restaurant this evening called “Freebirds.” Similar to a Moes back home, but way funkier. There is a stretched chopper hanging from the ceiling, straddled by “Lady Liberty”. Too cool. We chowed on king-size burritos, and piles of fresh chips.
Its been great to see my brother, sis-law, nephew and niece. Tomorrow, on to Mike’s sister’s house!
We awoke to heavy rain showers all across the Dallas-Ft. Worth metroplex. Flash flood warnings were being broadcast citywide, so Mike and I weren’t leaving anytime soon. We ate, talked, played cards and video games, and of course, watched football. The weather looked it might break sometime mid-afternoon, so Rick suggested we all go for a bite at a local Cracker Barrel. Finally by about 2:00pm, the rain ceased. Mike and I packed the bikes, suited up, said our goodbyes to Rick, Robyn, and the kids, and took off east on I-20.
It’s been said that Dallas is where the east begins, and Ft. Worth is where the west begins. So, we finally said goodbye to the west, entering the east Texas piney forests. Like the previous east-bound days, we eventually outran the storms, and rode in the fading sunlight. By 7:00pm, we rolled into Gary, Texas, and Mike’s sister’s place.
Debbie and Ronnie’s homestead is an old converted train station that had been moved to their 12-acre property, with a stocked pond and two motorcycles in the barn out back, a Harley and a BMW. They had a carnivore’s delight cooked up for us when we unloaded: fire-cooked hotdogs, huge hamburgers, and barbeque ribs. I am not going to sleep well tonight, but delicious doesn’t even come close. The evening ended with all four of us watching the original “Jaws” movie on their big screen. Ahh, memories from my childhood. Or should I say nightmares? Off to bed.
We awoke to the smell of bacon and biscuits that Debbie was cooking up for us, then I prepared to talk live with the children of a church back home who had been following our trip. After lunch, we loaded up our gear, said our goodbyes to Mike’s kin, and rolled out. I thoroughly enjoyed our time with Debbie and Ronnie- old biker folks themselves, having ridden all over north America, the four corners of our great land. We rode up and back out of Texas for the last time after a total of 7 days in and out of the state.
We rode back to I-20 in Shreveport, Louisiana, and tried to cross the state as fast as possible. Three statements best describe our view of north Louisiana- flat, wooded, and lousy roads. We couldn’t get across the Mississippi River fast enough. We finally crossed the great river into Mississippi around 6pm. At a gas station across the river, we deliberated whether or not we should continue on to Meridian to a KOA campground there, or find a hotel nearby for the night and visit the Vicksburg Civil War museum in the morning. After considering riding through Jackson in rush hour traffic, a band of bikers pulled up to us in the parking lot, wearing the patches of the Banditos outlaw gang. They pulled up close to us, looked us over, and one of them asked, “You from around here?” To which Mike quickly replied, “No, we’re just passing through.” Apparently satisfied, they nodded, pulled out, and rode away. A strange, tense, brief encounter. Our minds were made up. We would ride on. Just like the day we crossed Arkansas and rode on in the night to Elk City, OK exactly one week before, after a long day in the saddle, we made the Meridian KOA at almost the same time exactly as last Sunday- 9:45pm. We also had a cabin just like last week too. Many parallels.
Weather is looking rough back home for Monday, so we may have to linger in Alabama some tomorrow. We’ll see in the morning…
After checking out storm reports all over north Alabama and Georgia, we opted for Lisa’s suggestion and rode south for Mobile and the Florida panhandle. Kathy, my wife’s sister, had arranged for us to spend a night at their beachside condo in Perdido Key, so we took US 45, a beautiful, winding highway down to Mobile. We swung east onto I-10, crossed the Mobile Bay, then caught Hwy 59 down to Gulf Shores. We did something I’ve wanted to do for many years- we rolled a beachfront road, the sands, dunes, and beaches of the Gulf of Mexico off our right shoulder. The last time I had the opportunity to ride along beaches was in 1998, at Myrtle Beach Bike Week, and got rained on the whole way. Not memorable. But this time, it was. We took that road across the state line into Florida, and got platefuls of fried seafood at the Crab Trap Restaurant. We rolled into Beach Colony, the condo complex, and after tossing our gear in a couple of rooms, we took a sunset walk down the beach. What an amazing turnaround- who would have thought we’d wind up at the beach on this trip?? Mike observed, “We may have lost Arizona, but we gained Florida.”
We met a lady clutching a puppy sitting on a towel by the shore, whose name was Julie. We struck up a conversation with her, and she shared with us that she lived alone in a mobile home nearby with her puppy, finding odd jobs to pay the bills. Julie confided she was a 13-year recovering alcoholic, a born-again Christian, but estranged from her husband and children for many years, and unable to find permanent work. Yet in spite of all this, she had a positive view of life, and a deep faith, which gave her contentment. We had a moment of prayer with her there on the beach, the sun fading to our west, for her work, provision, and reunion with her children someday. She cried as we prayed for her. She declared, “I knew God was leading me to come down to the beach tonight, and now I know why: To meet and pray with a couple of biker brothers in the Lord. Thank you so much!” Again, I’m amazed at the people and stories we’ve discovered on this trip. God is good, all the time. We would have never been afforded this opportunity had we continued west, took another route home, or even timed our walk differently. Moments like these, and so many on this trip, seem definitely orchestrated by Providence.
The sunset over the Gulf to our west was brilliant, awash in color through small, scattered clouds on the horizon, and the subsequent moon and stars over the water was breathtaking. We were meant to be here, in this place, at this time. We’ll leave for home in the morning, the final day and leg of our journey, but coming to the white, Gulf Coast beaches of north Florida was an unexpected pleasure, for sure.
Mike and I packed up, cleaned and tidied the place up for my sis-in-law, and said so long to the sunny, sandy shores of Perdido Key. We snaked our way through the outskirts of Pensacola, then pointed the bikes north to I-65. We rode hard to Montgomery, Alabama, then jumped on I-85 northeast back into “Georgia On My Mind”. We pulled over into Alabama’s last rest stop before the state line, for a “rest” and refreshment break. Upon returning to the bikes, we met up with Terry, a state employee cleaning up the parking lot, admiring our motorcycles. We struck up a nice conversation with Terry, who showed us pictures on his phone of ’67 Camaro drag strip racer. “She’s a screamer,” he beamed. “I wouldn’t want to run against her,” Mike quipped, which brought a smile to Terry’s lined face. He wished us a safe ride home, and with that, we crossed back into our home state of Georgia. We gunned the throttles to Atlanta, bypassed the downtown traffic on I-285, and dodged the crazy cagers on Hwy 78 past the “Big Rock” Stone Mountain, finally arriving home around 7:30pm. So good to be back home.
What an amazing odyssey this had been! Ten days, ten states, over 3300 miles roundtrip. We experienced the mountains of north Georgia, Tennessee and Arkansas, the rolling prairies of Oklahoma, the “fruited plains” of the Texas Panhandle, rode hundreds of miles on and alongside old Route 66, out into the mesas of New Mexico, back across Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi, then the bright beaches of Alabama and Florida. We witnessed sights and wonders we could not have anticipated or planned for, met people we will always remember, and felt the presence of God everywhere we rode. Although we were never “standing on the corner in Winslow, Arizona” like we had hoped, we did indeed discover what it means to “get your kicks on Route 66”! New Mexico to the Gulf of Mexico, and so much in between. It was a great adventure, shared with a great friend.