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Nate Farrington is an outdoor professional at Cornell Outdoor Education. He is a full-time vagabond who prefers to travel on two motorized wheels. This is a journal of his trip across the country on his motorcycle.
An invite to do technical tree climbing in California is really what started this. Do I want to go out West, stay in a cabin, get fed, and climb some of the largest trees I’ll ever see? Um, yes. This sounds fun, damn it. The next logical thought? I’ll take my 37-year-old motorcycle! It’ll save on gas, and my car frame just broke anyway.
I’ve done long distance rides before. I’ve done 1000-mile days–on interstates–in the rain. I’ve seen snow. I’ve ridden hundreds of miles in below-freezing weather. I‘ve had a few bikes under my ass by now and I’m a reasonably talented mechanic.
In case you’re curious, the bike is a 1980 Honda Gold Wing GL1100 with a newly attached trunk and saddlebags that do not match it. Beautiful.
It’s 11am on the day of my departure and I’ve just finished rewiring and reassembling the bike. I haven’t finished packing yet.
Stay tuned. Maybe I’ll make it out of here at some point today if I’m lucky.
I’m somewhere in Ohio behind a parking lot near a collection of hotels that serve free continental breakfast to any guest staying with them. I have decided that putting up with bullfrogs and highways for the night will be worth the payoff in the morning. Time will tell.
Getting here wasn’t bad. I saw a part of my home state of New York I’d never seen before (future address goal: Butts Road). And I broke a cardinal rule of long distance touring–I rode after nightfall.
Getting to the point of being able to get here was a different matter. The relative hell that put me behind schedule deserves its own section. More on that later.
I’m in the hotel right now. The continental breakfast is not good per se, but free breakfast is free breakfast!
I don’t have a degree in sketchiness, but I did stay outside of a Holiday Inn Express last night.
This is a solo trip, and I’ve had a lot of time to think. The Gold Wing is old; there are no bells and whistles. There is no music. It’s me, the bike humming away below, the road, and, in today’s case, about 17 billion tractor trailers. Having time to think isn’t a bad thing, but when you’re thinking because the route you’re on is a long, straight shot down a flat highway heading into the great beyond, it can get troublesome. Motorcycle trips are supposed to be twisty roads with elevation changes that keep you on the edge of your seat every moment, right? Right. I wish.
Ambivalence hits. You notice the bioregion starting to shift. You notice the geography changing. The voices sound different. The color tones are a little off from home. The birds sing a different song, the animals move a different way, and my god, it’s flat.
You also notice the degradation, pollution, and poverty. Trump winked at me from a billboard in Indiana. I saw rivers that looked like the deepwater horizon disaster. Trucks on the road and tractors in the fields exhaled black smoke .
Wal-Mart looks the same wherever you go. You need to search to find those cool, independent restaurants and shops; they’re hidden.
You start to lose yourself at points. Corporate America, while awful, is insanely intelligent when it comes to marketing and psychology. I’m sitting in a Barnes & Noble. Why? Because I recognized it and knew it would be comfortable. At every Barnes & Noble, I know exactly how it’ll look, what it’ll have, and how it’ll be. I’m in a state I’ve never been in my life–on a motorcycle that I should continually thank for even making it this far–and I’m sitting in one of the most wonderbread, basic places my mind could conjure up. So, as much as I resent it, good job, B&N marketing crew. You reeled me in.
Not for long, though. I’ve ridden far enough to have gained myself an hour to go somewhere interesting tonight, which means I’ve been traveling for 14 hours straight today. And it’s now time to explore. See what this state is about. Maybe I’ll end up in a corner of a bar continuing this while drinking a root beer (please, never drink and ride). Maybe I’ll end up in a state park reading. As these trips often go, I have no idea what my night will hold, and that’s where I like to keep it. A consistent state of guessing; of having my plan shot to shit at the drop of a hat.
Before I cut off to the road again, I need to mention the over-100-foot-tall crosses. Yes, plural, in different places. Want to know the first and only thought I had? “Wow, that would make for some awesome rock climbing routes. They should set some holds on that thing.”
Tomorrow, free breakfast at a hotel if I’m lucky, then a nonstop run through Kansas. I’m hoping to at least hit Colorado–I can’t wait to see how an old, carbureted bike does with severe elevation changes.
Let’s start out today with a misadventure. It already happened so you don’t have a choice.
Pretend you’ve been on many a solo motorcycle trip. Pretend you have camped a good amount in your life. You with me? Now, imagine an out of the way small field sandwiched by a motel and a truck stop. Imagine yourself setting up your tent under the cover of darkness sans flashlight because some teenagers are looking in your direction. Imagine you taking your phone out of your pocket, checking the weather, and saying “perfect, it starts raining at 7AM so that’ll make sure I’m out of here in time.” Imagine what happens next.
Or maybe you don’t need to imagine what happens next. Because you already know that it starts to rain hard at 3 am, weather report-be-damned.
Typically, this wouldn’t be a big deal, but maybe you also already know that thanks to the weather report, the fly wasn’t put on the tent. Imagine a grown man in his boxers bolting upright out of a deep sleep. Imagine him swearing loudly and running to the motorcycle to get the fly. Imagine him putting it on wrong in his dazed and sleepy state and laughing when he saw it later that day.
I shouldn’t complain though–it didn’t rain at seven or at any other point today after the sleep interruption.
Missouri came and went. The most eventful portion was the biker club I ran into while riding. We exchanged some silly motorcycle culture hand gesturing and that was that.
Next comes the story of how I shot myself in the foot. I’m just on the cusp of Kansas City and I think to myself, “You know something? Drivers have been amazing on this trip. People have been cautious and respec–” BEEEEPPPPPPPP. Yeah. Totally should’ve seen it coming. I’m on Interstate 70, where every other road in the region merges. Someone thinks it’s a fine idea to start changing lanes into my side. Sadly typical. I honk. The response? They come faster. I brake. Hard. Then, fury gets the better of me and I get beside them a moment later. What do I see? The driver on her cell phone. The passenger hanging outside the window. I exclaim, “Are you kidding me?! Get off your cell phone!” The response? Another hand gesture–this one not entirely monopolized by motorcyclists.
Enter Kansas. Oh, Kansas. Before I left, I read that going from East to West out to California is better (as though I had a choice) because the US opens up heading that way. It’s true, but I don’t know that it’s a good thing. Kansas is so open that it’s unnerving. There’s this sense of being watched because there’s no privacy whatsoever. And one doesn’t need binoculars in Kansas. Nay, they need a telescope. Kansas is a sniper’s dream. And it never ends. Seriously. It took forever. I don’t plan on returning that way.
Second ridiculous moment of the day happens here: My keys fell out of the ignition. Some people might gasp, but I knew about this. My bike has a feature where you can start it with the key, then pull the key out with no ill effects, it keeps running. Now, truthfully, I don’t know whether the ignition does this because it’s broken or if it always did it. But I don’t really care…or, I didn’t care.
I stop. I don’t even remember for what. I look down, and voila, keys are gone. Nothing. I curse the sky. Pulled over on the highway, clad in black clothing, punching the air, I must have been a sight to behold.
The trick to this story is that I’m clever enough for every bit of stupid that I bring on myself. Some time ago, I thought it would be a wise idea to hide a spare set of keys on the bike as a “just in case” scenario. I wouldn’t have been stuck in the middle of Kansas with a motorcycle that wouldn’t turn off. Instead, I turned it off and thought about what the hell to do next. Do I go back searching a road that I never want to drive on again as long as I’m on this earth? Do I say screw it and continue on? What other keys may have been on that thing? It’s around now that I start looking around the bike, because I am noticing the physics of how they must have fallen off and remembering how gravity works.
I remember that my tank has 3 of the 4 bolts holding it on.
And remember that the side the keys would probably have fallen on is the side missing the bolt.
And see a set of keys nestled between the frame and the inside corner of the tank, dangling, by a thread.
And thank my lucky stars for saving me, yet again.
Then I blew Then I blew through the remainder of Kansas as fast as I could with a bungee cord holding the keys against the ignition as tight as it could be.
I ended up in Limon, Colorado.
Now, time for another piece of land somewhere that will house my tent for the night. Wish me luck, even the geography here is flat. Mountains are tomorrow. They’ll be a welcome change.