By: Jamie Hansen
The rain started slapping and the thunder cracking a few hours into my cross-country motorcycle trip. I’d been racing the clouds since I left the Atlantic coast that morning, and now they’d caught me, in a barren stretch of road outside Tallahassee, Florida. I was already feeling stupid when I stopped to pull on raingear – and that feeling intensified when I discovered that, in the rush to blow town, I’d packed an extra set of rain pants instead of a jacket. With only swaying cypress for shelter, I did what I could – scavenged a white trash bag from my luggage and punched my head and arms through. Then I climbed back on my 28-year-old motorcycle and raced for Tallahassee. More than 3000 miles remained to the Pacific Ocean. The learning curve was going to be steep.
This whole trip began in a rush, when I was offered a job in California. Motorcycling cross-country had been a growing dream of mine, so I seized this as my chance. Yes, I’d only been riding for 10 months, and yes, the 1981 Honda CM400T I’d inherited was three years older than me. But, heck, I told myself, I had three weeks to prepare, and I was ready for a challenge. So I gave away most of my belongings and strapped the rest to my bike. The plan? Take the back roads. Go slow. Tent camp, diner hop and drink in as much Americana as possible along the way. And prepare as well I could by following the advice of friends who were wise in the ways of motorcycles.
Getting Started (Ignoring Advice)
Following advice proved tricky, however, as almost everyone reacted skeptically to my plans. “Cool,” said one good friend who’d taught me to ride. “But don’t you want to get a different bike?” “Not a chance,” said an Arizona Honda mechanic when my concerned dad called ahead to see how he thought the bike would handle the hills. “She won’t make it out here.”
Rob, my mechanic friend, was supportive but still cautious. “That motorcycle’s kinda like a commuter bike,” he said. “Back in the day it wouldn’t have been all that unheard of to ride something that size long distance, but now highway speeds are much harder to keep up with.” Nevertheless, he helped me gear up with saddle bags, an old plastic trunk he found in the shop’s attic, a mechanical tune-up, and basic emergency tools and skills.
Others worried over a young woman riding and camping alone. My Dad suggested I gain 50 pounds and festoon my face with piercings. Another friend insisted I take his tazer. I listened politely to these concerns, and then ignored most of them.
Cheerfully invincible, and fueled as I was on the adrenaline of adventure, factors like bad weather, dangerous people and mechanical problems fit into my plans not at all. But by the time I arrived in Tallahassee –feeling stupid, very wet, and a little more mortal than I have before, evidence that these elements would figure larger than expected was hitting me in the face and running down my back.
Still, I tuned out the pair of Harley Riders who warned me, as I rode out of Florida, “you’ll burn that thing up,” in favor of the middle-aged, minivan mom who pulled over at a gas station to say, “you’re living my dream.”
My morale rebounded quickly from that initial rainstorm shakeup, especially after my boots dried, my waterlogged phone revived, and I secured a real rain jacket. For the next week or so, everyone’s well-intentioned warnings proved untrue as the miles rolled out from under the Honda’s tires. The bike cruised gamely along at any speed under 70 mph despite the heaps of luggage it carried. I found myself keeping time with a friendly Harley rider through much of Mississippi. At one stoplight, he unzipped his jacket to reveal – I looked over expecting a hairy chest or worse – a Chihuahua. “Name’s Harley,” grinned the rider.
The bike and I motored through the South like the little engine that could, moving slow and steady through Alabama’s flaming azaleas and magnolia-lined streets that smelled musty with history. I chugged across Mississippi’s wide-open countryside, where even the gas station attendants oozed southern charm, growing fat on biscuits and crawfish pies. I crossed the Mississippi River at the funky, bluesy town of Natchez, then motored through farmland into east Texas’ explosion of spring wildflowers and big trucks. The bike and I cruised into Austin with over 1500 new miles on the tachometer, high on the fumes of adventure. The bike received a clean bill of health at a local shop. Then I was on my way again, rolling over across Texas hill country in a smug frame of mind.
High Winds and Snowstorms
Leaving Austin, the wind picked up. It was manageable but exhausting. Tired from battling the gusts, I stopped early at a Texas-sized campsite (three acres of open prairie) and checked the weather. As it called for afternoon winds much fiercer than today’s, I broke camp at dawn to beat them.
The weather went from nice to gnarly in an hour. The landscape flattened into long expanses of scrub, framed by low-slung plateaus that were perfect for winds to howl across. A strand of white, swirling turbines warned how blustery the area could be. When I finally arrived in Big Spring, I was going about 40 mph to avoid being blown off the road and feeling shaky. By then, 55 mph gusts had suspended every red particle of dust in the air, so that the valley appeared on fire.
I was accelerating through a dusty intersection when a mean gust whooshed down, picked up both bike and passenger, and lifted us over a concrete median. I was in the process of steering into the safety of a parking lot when the first gust’s accomplice knocked me completely over. I gathered myself quickly and stared forlornly at the motorcycle laid out, like a wounded animal, at my feet.
A friendly passer-by helped me pick it up. After checking its aging, rusting body for leaking hoses, hissing radiators, flying monkeys and other possible disasters, I pushed start. The engine turned over weakly and quit. Breathless minutes passed. I tried again. The bike sprang to life.
I rode no farther than the nearest Motel 6. It smelled like stale armpits. I spent the rest of the day glaring reproachfully at the wind, boosting my morale with heaps of Big John’s barbeque, and making the most of a railroad ghost town.
Despite the spill and the miles, the motorcycle purred as gamely as it did the day we started, and aside from a leaky seal that I’d been told not to worry about, it chugged along in its typical “I think I can” attitude. I, on the other hand, was feeling the effects of the road. By this point, the wind, sun and cold had leathered my face and induced in me a flinty eyed grimace reminiscent of Clint Eastwood.
And in this edgy frame of mind, I encountered the next obstacle. It hit after just one day of sunny respite in Roswell, New Mexico – a day spent unsettling myself with evidence of crop circles and fretting over little green men visiting my tent that night. The morning started inconspicuously. It was warm and sunny, but forecasts called for increasing rain and cold as I headed toward Albuquerque on 280 North. It was the loneliest stretch of highway I'd ridden: 95 miles without a town, a solitary gas station, a house, or even a cow. Only clouds fell in long, dark lines across the highway.
And by the time I reached the town of Vaughn, the sun had headed home for early drinks, and those clouds had developed an angry, swollen look. Feeling rushed and frustrated from my recent layup, I decided to continue about 50 miles to what appeared to be the next town, Clines Corners. The rain started just out of Vaughan, and before too long, it got harder to see. Rain had turned to snow. The snow fell heavier the farther I drove, blanketing the desert – and the pavement-- white.
Over the past few days, I'd felt a growing sense of frustration with the weather. I'd been wasting hours each day, planning routes to correspond with elements that ended up noncompliant anyway. 'Shouldn't I be relaxing, drinking in the countryside and not freaking out about logistics?' I’d thought bitterly. Now, wiping snow from my visor, I found myself laughing at how crazy I’d been. I’d chosen to cover this great, wide country on a little, two-wheeled vehicle and somehow expected a pleasure trip. Sight seeing, friendly encounters, golden highways and open skies were all I’d envisioned. Think Easy Rider, but without the death. I had conveniently forgotten that weather existed, or at least come to believe it would not affect me as I traveled at 60 mph in the open air.
I realized, as I drove with great determination for Clines Corners, that this was not a joy ride, but more an expedition. And with this thought everything fell into perspective.
Finally I reached Clines Corners, wheels slushing through inches of snow. Clines Corners, it happened, was a gas station and diner at the intersection of two lonely roads. The next motel was half an hour away, and the roads might be closed soon. I ordered a coffee and sat down to freak out as a slush pool formed at my feet. My options appeared to be: hitch a ride in the wrong direction with the pair of gnarly truckers to my left, pitch camp in a snow drift behind the gas station, or get demolished by a runaway semi while attempting to bike to the nearest motel.
Well, crap, I found myself thinking. I might have come to embrace the adventure, but this particular scenario still sucks.
But as I grew jittery on coffee, the flakes slowed up. Sensing opportunity, I reached down deep into my gut, pulled out some burliness I wasn’t sure I had, and motorcycled with steely caution, on ice, to Moriarty, where I spent a night de-frosting, relaxing my clenched butt cheeks, and drinking at the local honky tonk with a fellow stranded biker.
I’ll admit it. I set out on this trip as much looking for fiascos as not. I chose to ride my bike cross country to seek out moments where the comfort of the routine ends and all of a sudden you are forced reach down deep, grab onto a heaping mound of fortitude, and LIVE.
The Joy of the Road
I found those moments, probably in larger doses than I was looking for. But I also found an America that is unique to two wheels – the America you can’t find in a minivan crowded with screaming kids, a small angry pet and flying Dorito c hips, hell bound for the next tourist destination. As anyone knows who’s cruised the open roads, riding a motorcycle opens you up to the people and places in between destinations – sometimes in a very raw and exposed way.
The Southwest, filled as it was with small disasters, also contained great thrills: back roads that stretched over a hundred miles between signs of civilization, diners with swagger and sharp-tasting coffee, bars with Mexican flavor and cowboy appeal, towns with aliens and conspiracy theories, and the Navajo Nation – a separate country tucked into ours – revealing its character along the Vermilion Cliffs that fringe the Grand Canyon.
Being on a motorcycle also gives other folks a reason to break their routine, open up to a stranger they’d usually ignore –either to help out, or just to swap stories for a while. Kenneth, a squirrely-haired Harley rider left Easter breakfast early to help me determine if my bike was burning oil (it wasn’t.) Then there was Craig, who took personal time from the Flagstaff dealership where he worked to come help when some MORON (I’m not naming names) poured diesel down her gas tank. Even Santa showed up in Utah and left a candy cane on my tank bag.
Eventually, outside the Grand Canyon, the bike had to start climbing, and phrases like, “you’ll burn her up” nagged at my new found high. I dropped into a lower gear and the bike and I wound our slow way high above the canyon, up through pinyon pine and juniper, and dropped down the other side into Utah. Despite all the warnings to the contrary, the bike loved the hills.
I cruised the crazy topography of Zion National Park and scooped up my boyfriend, John, who rode alongside me on his dual sport Kawasaki. We headed south again, because we could, for a music festival in Arizona. Saguaro cacti towered up to greet us as we climbed mountains and descended into Phoenix.
Then, after a few days of music, we made tracks for California, through the most desert-like landscapes imaginable – low and barren, spotted only with train tracks and ghost towns. And then, before it felt like it was time, we crossed the Colorado River into California, scooting along the edge of Joshua Tree National Park, through the forgotten, middle section of the state, through the frigid wind funnel that is Tehachapi Pass, and finally descended into wine country. We zoomed over the rolling hills ecstatically, making tracks for San Luis Obispo and the ocean. John and I arrived on a windy afternoon. We parked on the edge of a rocky overlook and shook off our helmets, then wiggled loose our faces and jiggled the stiffness from our wind-braced bodies. We looked at the ocean. Looked at each other. I’d been planning to hurl my body into the Pacific, but it was COLD. So instead, I raced down the rocks and danced in circles on the sand.
It was a strange feeling. Two days later, I’d be in San Francisco, behind a desk, starting a new chapter in my life. And with 4000 miles of adventure fueling me, I felt ready for any challenge.
Later that day, a biker approached John and I as we nursed coffees at a beachside café.
“Nice bikes,” he said, mostly to John. “Been traveling far?”
“This girl,” said John, “just rode that motorcycle here from Florida.”
The biker looked to me, a little incredulous-seeming, for confirmation.
I glanced over at my bike, dusty but standing tough under the sagging gear, and then down at my scuffed up boots.
“Well, yeah,” I said, with a very non-Clint Eastwood grin. “I guess I did.”
Originally published in the January 2010 issue of Motorcycle USA