It’s impossible to come up with a definition for motorcycle touring. There is no one definition for touring on two wheels because there are so many different ways to satisfy motorcycle wanderlust.
For some riders, motorcycle touring defines a group activity that includes friends who join up for long rides, mainly for the social aspects of the trip. The lone-wolf types view motorcycle touring entirely in the opposite; instead, this is a time to hit that old lonesome highway solo, and embrace the empty landscapes. Some overachievers view motorcycle touring as a personal challenge, setting off before sunup with laser-like intensity to travel as many miles in a single day as possible. Others view motorcycle touring as both a means and an end as they travel to rallies to congregate with friends in far-flung destinations.
There are many more scenarios to long-distance travel on two wheels. We decided to seize the opportunity for an extended ride on a pair of differing bikes, the Gold Wing 1800 and a mid-sized Honda NT700V, to try out yet another approach to touring: we set out in search of blue highways.
The notion of blue highways came about from the book Blue Highways* by William Least Heat-Moon, who coined the term about 30 years ago to describe his travels around the United States using only the small two-lane state and county roads, which were identified on his maps in blue. That book has become a cult classic for many travel-minded folks, and to many motorcyclists the thought of exploring seldom-seen and out-of-the-way side roads and small towns seems like the perfect application for riding bikes.
Matching up the NT700V with blue highways is a no-brainer—a mid-sized touring bike rolling down mid-sized roads is an ideal formula for fun times. Light, nimble, lots of ground clearance and an eager 680cc liquid-cooled V-twin engine form the perfect pairing for backcountry blue highways that love to dip and twist and wind their way through canyons and along rivers. At the same time, a full fairing, integrated saddlebags and comfy seating arrangements make the NT a most accommodating travel partner.
If you’ve never ridden a Gold Wing, you’ll be surprised how athletic it is. For the more experienced among us, it’s no surprise how deftly this 1832cc machine carves up little-used country roads. The Gold Wing 1800 is the latest in a decades-long line of models, a machine that continues to gain high praise from all quarters for its sportbike-like handling and plentiful power spread throughout the rev range.
We found that with both bikes we could settle into an especially entertaining pace and a natural rhythm on the blue highways we explored, although each machine had its own distinctive personality, of course. The subjective impressions from the NT700V made it seem like the two-wheeled equivalent of a golden retriever—always happy, light of foot and eager to explore whatever was around the next corner. The Gold Wing, in turn, felt serene and imperturbable, supremely confident, athletic, yet exquisitely comfortable while powering past all that it encountered. Yes, the Wing is indeed fully capable of absolutely devouring miles and miles of straight-line highway while coddling two people like no other motorcycle on the planet, yet it can slice and dice with amazing aptitude on the twisty sections as well. And since we could trade off riding stints from one bike to the other whenever we felt like a change, we could enjoy the best of both throughout the course of each day.
Besides the entertaining aspects of poking along many winding roads at whatever pace you feel like setting, riding the blue highways offers many other unique advantages, including the opportunity to experience the “forgotten America” that still awaits travelers who want to relax and explore rather than gobble up as many miles as quickly as possible. That very change to a more relaxed mindset is what makes cruising the blue highways so much fun, and so much of an adventure.
On the blue highways, we also rediscovered the small family-run cafes and local restaurants that serve up those in-house specials you won’t find in a chain establishment. Some travelers fear the unknown—how do you know if a restaurant is any good? Checking the parking lot for local license plates is one good way to measure the quality of the grub. Or you can pick up on the cues that Least Heat-Moon offers in Blue Highways: “There is one almost infallible way to find honest food at just prices in blue-highway America: count the wall calendars in a cafe. No calendar: Same as an interstate pit stop. One calendar: Preprocessed food assembled in New Jersey. Two calendars: Only if fish trophies present. Three calendars: Can’t miss on the farm-boy breakfasts. Four calendars: Try the ho-made pie too. Five calendars: Keep it under your hat, or they’ll franchise. One time I found a six-calendar cafe in the Ozarks, which served fried chicken, peach pie, and chocolate malts, that left me searching for another ever since.”
Such is the allure of blue highways. And as we enjoyed our search for good roads and good food, we became thoroughly convinced that chasing blue highways—especially with a pair of bikes such as the Gold Wing and the NT700V—has to be the very best way to go touring.
* First published in 1982, William Least Heat-Moon’s book Blue Highways: A Journey Into America, was republished in 1999 and is available on Amazon.com