Riding the Nation In A Time Of Plague
The “Great Quest” is always at the back of the biker mind, especially during this pesky plague. This is a time when both the bored and the brave are chomping at the bit to traverse this vast country seeking discovery and adventure, and sometimes, if we’re feeling introspective, ourselves.
The cross-country trip is a kind of rite of passage. People have been doing it for countless decades in whatever contraption they could cobble together, from the clippity-clop of mule and horse-drawn wagons to cantankerous trucks, chuffing trains and cranky autos held together with spit and glue (planes don’t count), but there is something dangerously elegant about riding coast-to-coast on a motorcycle.
The courageous rider out there alone on the unending open road, battling the elements, fatigue, bad directions, sleepy truckers, broken roads, distracted and dumb drivers and exhaust fumes. It’s so much more than a nostalgic scoot down Historic Route 66, looking for the remnants and romance of the Mother Road. It is an epic challenge of man or woman and machine; it is freedom and what it takes to earn it.
Clean Bike Is A Happy Bike
Any long-haul ride should begin with something unexpected, which is to say a bike wash. You may wonder why this is important. Good question. When washing by hand, gently and carefully going over every inch of your motorcycle, you can discover loose fasteners, frayed wires, cracks in tire sidewalls or rubber hoses (including the fuel line), small leaks, even worn brake pads. Do not take shortcuts, do not use harsh cleansers and stiff brushes and never use power washers, which is not only bad for your paint job but can contaminate your brake lines. Lay your hands on your bike, run them over her like you would a new lover, neglecting not one little bit. Then replace or repair anything that looks suspect.
Follow the usual safety inspections—tire tread and pressure, lights, signals, brakes, horn. For a cross-country ride of some 3,000 miles, give or take, it’s a good idea to start with fresh oil. Change the fluids and filters. If your bike is anywhere near due for a tune up or valve adjustment, get it done before you need it done. There are plenty of challenges that may come up on the road; worrying about your bike’s performance should not be one of them.
If your tire tread looks a little iffy, or the tread wear looks uneven, err on the side of sanity and get new rubber. I know it’s painful to plunk down $200-$300 or more per end for fresh rubber, but it will hurt much more if you get a flat in the middle of nowhere, or in the rare event a tire blows. The bike will handle better with new rubber and you’ll feel more confident in your ride. Some shops have sales on tires and/or labor and, of course, there is plenty online or warehouse outlets, but check with your shop first; some won’t install customer supplied parts, including tires.
Join an auto club. If you don’t have motorcycle roadside assistance that provides towing and other services there are a few to choose from, including Harley-Davidson, Geico, AAA, AMA and Allstate Motor Club. The peace of mind is well worth the annual fee. Some roadside assistance programs, if given some notice, will plan a route based on your preferences, including roadside stops. Of course, nowadays GPS has become the go-to tool for getting from A to B, even if A is Anaheim and B is Bangor.
Big Picture, Little Picture
Still, if you can go old school and pick up some actual paper roadmaps—such as Butler Motorcycle Maps—you’ll have a broader view of the backroads and alternative routes available. When it comes to points of interest, historical sites, local attractions, gas, food, lodging, events and activities along the way and even road conditions, closures, and construction, research is your friend.
Not very long ago, calls to your motor club and each state’s tourism bureau were a must for any chance at practical planning. Published city and state guides and sometimes travel agencies also could be helpful, especially if you wanted to do a lot of sightseeing.
Sometimes, however, the accepted biker way is to pick a general direction and just go. Over-planning is for families in wood paneled station wagons. There will almost always be diners and motels or campgrounds—until there isn’t. It’s a big country, with occasionally long, empty gaps between anything resembling a town or the sweet oasis of gasoline and coffee we have grown to take for granted. No one wants to see the dreaded signpost up ahead that reads, “No Services Next 100 Miles.” You need to be prepared for stretches like this, which may involve packing non-perishable foods, water and bungeeing a portable gas can to your bike. “Better to have and don’t need, than need and don’t have”, as Huey Lewis once crooned.
Meandering across the country, riding mostly blue highways and stopping at mom and pop motels/hotels and eateries will provide a more intimate look at America in all its beauty and bounty, but it will take time. Factor in stopping at attractions and national parks, souvenir shops, trading posts and such and weeks can be tacked on. A motorcyclist in a hurry can bomb down the super-slab and get from New York to LA in a few days, unless deterred by weather or new friends. Before any trip long or short, you have to decide why you’re taking it—get there as quickly as legally possible, or take your time and enjoy the scenery. If it’s a trip of fun and discovery, dive into the internet and make note of places you would like to explore along the way.
Sometimes, the accepted biker way is to pick a general direction and just go.
It doesn’t have to be either/or; a rider can stay on the interstate for as long as he or she finds the scenery better gone by in a blur. Even then, it’s sometimes hard to resist the call of the next exit and the hidden treasures it may hold. Choices will need to be made with every mile. If you’re riding alone, how often and where you stop is purely up to you and your schedule, if you have one. If you have a passenger or other road mates, then compromises need to be made. Some skipping of burger stands and weirdo roadside attractions, such as the world’s largest ball of yarn in Cawker City, KS, will keep you all friends.
Thorough pre-trip discussions of where you want to go, how fast you want to get there and how much time you want to spend on stops are important if you want a pleasant ride where everyone feels included. Think about avoiding night riding, when less visibility and fatigue are more of a factor, and because deer have become the most dangerous animal in the world, after people and Bigfoot.
Remain flexible since true adventure cannot be charted, mapped and scheduled. Limiting food stops, however, is a good idea if you want to make any time, but the old biker adage (cleaned up slightly) of “Never miss a chance for gas and a bathroom,” remains sage advice.
Do The Math And Dress For Success
We’re sometimes asked how far should a motorcyclist ride in one day. The answer varies greatly by the rider’s skill, experience and endurance, road conditions, if they are appropriately dressed, and of course, their bike. Machines with full fairings or windshields can make more miles because the rider is not getting as fatigued fighting the wind.
Extremes in cold or heat are also exhausting, as is vibration. If your bike tends to shake like an old washing machine, it will sap your strength. A fatigued rider is not as alert and doesn’t react as quickly as a rested rider. A 10 to 20-minute break every couple of hours can actually help you make better time.
Then there is that ever-present intangible: desire. How many miles do you want to ride per day? There is no right answer. In fact, the whole spirit of motorcycling is to get away from rules. (Our attorneys insist on the following disclaimer: “In no way or under any circumstance do we suggest, condone or imply motorcyclists disobey any federal, state or municipal laws and statutes, even in the pursuit of happiness and freedom.”)
The whole spirit of motorcycling is to get away from rules.
Know your limits and don’t be a tough guy. Motorcycling is supposed to be fun, so don’t turn it into a chore, if possible. If you haven’t done any long-haul rides before, don’t plan on pushing 500 or more miles per day. Give yourself adequate time to complete your trip without attempting dangerous days of extreme miles. It’s no fun and can be costly. Every rider finds his or her level—whether that’s 100 miles per day or 400—after which point riding becomes work. Like fuel, leave a little energy in reserve when planning your day’s ride. There may be times you’ll need to push out a few more miles to get to the next bed.
Veteran distance riders suggest getting into a rhythm. For example, some stop for rest and refreshment every tank of gas, depending on mpg and fuel capacity. Don’t run it dry, obviously, but start looking for gas stations some 20 or 25 miles before you’re running on fumes. Others will stop every hour or two, whether they want to or not, and take break. Eat light, stay hydrated and it should go without saying don’t drink alcohol or consume drugs. Be advised that some medications will also prohibit riding. DUI laws do not differentiate which influence you’re under if it impairs your ability to ride.
What To Pack
Generally, bring twice as much cash and half the clothes you think you’ll need. Riding cross-country will take you through dramatic shifts in elevation and temperature. Mountain passes can have freezing temps and snow, even in summer. If you come from an area where there are not significant changes in elevation, it’s hard to wrap your head around entire climate zones existing at certain elevations. It’s simple—be prepared for everything. Bring your smartphone, portable charger, layers of cotton, wool & leather, and most importantly, common sense.
Saddlebag basics include tools, flashlight, spare batteries, bungee cords, fuses, canteen, rain gear. Rain gear can also be used for layering to keep you warm even when it’s not wet. Full face helmet, scarf, thin ski mask or balaclava, spare day & night glasses or goggles, spare lightweight leather jacket, leather gloves for warm and cool riding, rubber gloves for wet, extra shoes, and a small medic kit.
It’s simple—be prepared for everything.
Dressing in layers is key. Cotton is always a good base layer, then blends and even better, wool. Hoodies and leather vests come in handy for extra warmth and life off the bike. Cowhide or deerskin should top it off and cover all of you, if possible. If you’re not into leather, some synthetic ballistic materials are available that have good abrasion resistance. Good, solid boots with ankle protection are a must and preferably waterproof. Sweats are good to lounge or sleep in after the ride and can be worn under or over your clothes for added warmth. Be pragmatic, stay comfortable.
In hot weather it’s tempting to ride in nothing but a t-shirt on top. Sounds cool, but it isn’t. Not only are you inviting serious road rash, but sleeveless shirts will actually make you feel hotter and dehydrate you faster. Exposed skin wicks away moisture, especially in the wind, and burns easily when riding all day in the sun. Wear loose fitting, cotton long-sleeve shirts under a light, warm weather jacket. There are a number of ventilated and/or perforated leather jackets on the market, one of which you should pick and stuff in your saddlebag on long trips.
Practical planning, staying safe and riding within yourself is good, but at some point you just have to go, whether it’s a scoot down country lanes to Grandma’s house, or retracing Route 66 or other historic roads such as the Lincoln Highway, Blue Ridge Parkway, Pacific Coast Highway, the spooky Extraterrestrial Highway, the one-time buffalo path of the Buffalo Trace, or the longest road in America, US Route 20, which stretches 3,365 miles from Massachusetts to Oregon. You are free to roll about the country. Take your time or bomb down interstates east or west, north or south until you want to climb off the saddle and have a look around.
J. Joshua Placa
*photos by AMA