Lessons from the Road

10 lessons learned while on the road

I went for a little ride this past August on my 1996 BMW R1100GS. This ride, to each of the four geographic corners of the United States (Key West, Florida; San Ysidro, California; Blaine, Washington; and Madawaska, Maine), covered 11,600 miles, 29 states, three Canadian provinces and five time zones. En route I, of course, visited many of the must-see sights, such as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, the California and Oregon coasts, Mts. Rainier and St. Helens in Washington, the Cascades Highway in Washington and Glacier National Park in Montana, to name just a few.

As one might expect, there were lessons to be learned in such an undertaking. What one might not expect, according to my (former) friends, is that a bonehead like me could actually learn something. Well, in spite of them, and in spite of myself, I did learn (or was reminded of) a few things about long-distance touring on two wheels. Most of these lessons are equally appropriate for shorter day and weekend trips.

Lessons from the road
Lessons learned on the road are valuable for any ride whether it's a short weekend jaunt or a week-long tour.Illustration by Douglas Fraser

1. An ounce of prevention.

The last thing you want is to break down on the side of the road on a deserted stretch of highway because you tried to nurse an extra thousand miles out of a three-year-old battery. Or, you may have 3000 miles of tread left on your tires. That’s good if you’re making a 1500-mile trip. It’s not so good if you’re riding cross-country. While I bought a new back tire for my trip, I figured I had 5000–7000 miles of tread left on my front tire and planned to change it in Seattle. I did, but not without spending a lot of time worrying about whether I’d make it to the BMW dealer, whether my tire would be in stock and how much traction I’d lose if I ran into a Pacific Northwest soaker. Keeping that front tire was false economy.

I do much of my own bike maintenance, but I took my bike to the dealer for servicing before I left on my journey. The peace of mind was worth it, knowing as I departed that my valves were adjusted, my brakes and cables were good, the fluids were fresh and all the fasteners were torqued to specification. Of course, something can always go wrong on the road, so having a few spare fuses, an extra quart of oil, a small yet versatile tool kit and a tire-repair kit is a good idea. (And, by the way, learn how to use your tire-repair kit before embarking on your trip. I learned how to use mine at 9:00 pm, 40 miles west of Glasgow, Montana.) Also, joining a roadside-assistance club and having a cell phone are additional safeguards that can minimize the duration of the dreaded vacation interruptus.

At the risk of fanning the flames of the interminable debate about whether deer/moose whistles really work, I stuck some on my bike as I entered the desolate interior of Maine. I had spoken to three different locals who swore by them, and that was good enough for me. If you’ve ever rounded a bend at the posted 70 mph only to find a 1500-lb. moose standing in the road (I have!), the whistles seem like a good idea. I never did see a deer or a moose in Maine, though I saw lots of wildlife out West and in the South. Was the $6.95 worth it? You tell me.

2. Plan for serendipity.

It doesn’t pay to be too compulsive about planning your trip. If you map out all your routes, you’ll not only be less inclined to ask locals for the best roads, eateries or must-see locations in the area, you’ll also be less inclined to go there since it will entail deviating from all your planning. Similarly, if you make hotel reservations for each night of your trip, you risk becoming a slave to your plans, having to get to a specific location by a given day and time. When traveling I choose instead to head for a general area but leave myself free to explore and enjoy the many unplanned opportunities that pop up during such a trip. A case in point: At Mt. Rainier, I bumped into a rider who advised me to take Route 200, rather than the more traveled Route 2, across Washington State. Had I made reservations along the latter and been unwilling to go through the aggravation of canceling them, I would have missed some of the most spectacular scenery and fun roads I’ve enjoyed in many years.

This is not to say that all forethought is bad. For instance, search out a hotel on the far side of town each night so you won’t have to contend with rush-hour traffic as you leave the next morning.

While I’m “carpying the diem,” I advise you to take pictures when you can. Riding through Texas, I kept postponing taking photographs of longhorn cattle and oil derricks, in part because it was beastly hot and uncomfortable to stop and because there are a billion of both in Texas. I never did get a shot of either, and once in New Mexico, there was never a longhorn or a derrick around when I needed one. Of course, that’s more than ample reason to make another two-wheeled trip to Texas, but missing those shots annoys the hell out of me.

3. Less is more.

The ancient Romans really knew what they were talking about when they called their supply train impedimenta. I prefer to travel light, and for several reasons. If one feels compelled to cart too many clothes, tools, maps, raingear, etc. around the country, then nothing short of a Gold Wing, a Harley dresser or other luxo-tourer is adequate for a lengthy tour.

I believe any bike can suffice as a long-distance tourer. Apart from the leather pants, T-shirt, socks, underwear and armored jacket I wore each day (along with a rainsuit bungeed to the back of my bike), the total sum of my impedimenta for a five-week trip was a pair of jeans and three each of T-shirts, socks and skivvies. These clothes, along with my tools, a tire-repair kit, a camera and a few other items, fit handily into a tank bag and a small duffel bag bungeed to the passenger seat.

Of course, this meant I had to do laundry every four days (or longer when I was riding the Western plains!), but lots of hotels have laundry facilities available. Failing that, one can enjoy plenty of local color at the corner laundromat in Muleshoe, Texas.

If you're planning to ride in varied temperatures, such as 120 degrees in Yuma, Arizona, and 45 degrees in Montana's upper elevations, there is an alternative to packing both hot- and cold-weather gear. I packed my hot-weather gear on the bike because I would be riding to Key West, the humid South and the arid Southwest before hitting the cooler climes of the Pacific coast and the Rockies. I mailed my heavier gloves, a sweatshirt, warmer socks, and so on to a friend en route, and I mailed some of my hot weather stuff home when I was done with it. Remember, you can always find a military-surplus store or some mega-market where you can pick up a cheap sweater or other sundry item you need in response to unanticipated weather or something you may have forgotten.

If I had owned an extra pair of glasses, the mails would have been an excellent means to replace the pair I lost in Washington State. There are also lessons to be learned about wearing prescription sunglasses when riding at night, but I’ll spare frightening you with the details.

4. One’s more fun.

There are many good reasons to travel with a buddy on a long trip. A friend can provide an extra measure of security, give mechanical expertise in the event of a breakdown and administer first aid or bring help in the event of an accident. And often, great sights and adventures are more fun when shared with a close friend (or even a spouse; not that the two are mutually exclusive, but don’t get me started on that rant).

There are, however, significant benefits to traveling alone. I’m an early riser, so I was on the road each day by 7:00 am and was able to cover 100–150 miles before stopping for breakfast. I didn’t have to wait around for a slow-moving friend. On the other hand, I could sleep in when I wanted and not worry about delaying someone else. This flexibility allowed me to stop where and when I wanted to stop, see what I wished to see and stay as long as I desired, whether to take photographs or explore Belzoni, Missouri’s, Catfish Museum. One just doesn’t have such flexibility when traveling with another—I don’t care how close the two of you are.

It’s also been my experience that people are more inclined to approach a single rider than a pair of riders. And since more than two riders constitutes a gang to many, the prospects of being engaged by locals in conversation declines rapidly as the number of riders increases. This is unfortunate, because local flavor, information and memories often result from such encounters. People seeing Virginia plates on a filthy bike adorned with bug-splattered luggage in Sandpoint, Idaho, could not resist approaching me to ask if I had ridden all the way from Virginia, where I was going, how long I had been on the road, what I liked best, how I liked my bike, why I was making the ride, how and what they used to ride, and so on. I met many interesting people, enjoyed great conversations and picked up a lot of rewarding information from these encounters.

Perhaps the best reason, though, to ride solo is how it makes you feel about yourself. Undertaking the uncertainties, and even risks, of a long trip will serve as a welcome reminder that you’re not averse to risk that you still have a sense of adventure. The experience made me feel independent and self-reliant—that I was still living and not just breathing. It also reminded me that while I’m not always in control of my destiny, I am not afraid to rely upon my own courage and ingenuity and even my fellow man to overcome obstacles I encounter. This is a rewarding feeling.

5. Enjoy local color.

There is very little variation within two miles on either side of an interstate, and I don't care whether you're in Mississippi, Montana, Michigan or Maine. Fast food joints, hotel megachains and locals catering to a transient clientele make for an appalling lack of sincerity and cultural diversity. Stay off the interstates! Ride the back roads instead and seek out local color.

If you want a place to start, ask Bubba at the local gas station or his older brother, Bubba, at the local bike shop, where the locals eat, or the name of a clean and cheap motel. (Regrettably, in some locations, I learned that the two are mutually exclusive.) In general, this strategy worked wonderfully, and it was in this manner I found Sam's Supper Club and the Star Motel ($26 per night) in Glasgow, Montana, and Abner's Restaurant (ribs to die for!) in Sault Ste. Marie, Michigan.

Another suggestion is to pick up a copy of the local newspaper. You may find that your arrival coincides with the local fire department’s fish fry, the high school’s performance of Macbeth, or a taffy pull at St. Peter’s.

6. Inspiration Is Everywhere.

You never know whom you’ll meet at your next stop. At one motel, after a long day of riding, I saw two riders sitting near their Gold Wings, and poring over maps. It turned out these guys, both in their early 70s, traveled 30,000–40,000 miles yearly on two wheels. They described their trips to Alaska, Mexico, Central America and each of the contiguous 48 states. These riders were eloquent testimony to the old saw that a person doesn’t stop riding because he gets old; rather he gets old because he stops riding. Thanks, Bob and Dick.

7. It Pays To Be Cheap.

There are lots of ways to save money on a long trip, apart from sponging off family and friends (though I highly recommend, and often exploit, this strategy). There is camping, for those willing to rough it and carry the extra gear. Or, if you don’t mind a communal setting, consider youth hostels, for about $15 per night. They even let old geezers like me stay there, and you’ll meet an international and highly adventurous group of people. However, if you prefer to stay in hotels, here are a few tips that might save you a few dollars.

Many hotels have discounts they don’t advertise. While most places I stayed offered reduced rates to AAA and American Association of Retired Persons members, many also had reduced prices for members of the military, government employees and people over 50 years old. Some also offer discounts to American Motorcyclist Association members as well as selected motorcycle enthusiast groups, such as Harley Owners Group, Gold Wing Road Riders Association, Honda Riders Club, and so on. Before you leave, review which of your memberships may have discount benefits.

Some places, usually mom-and-pop hotels, will offer a discount for payment by cash rather than credit card. During a two-week trip, you could save enough to treat yourself to a really nice meal. Another reason I like to stay at privately owned hotels is that their prices are more negotiable. If you’re checking in at 8:00 pm and it appears that some of their rooms are not occupied, don’t be afraid to ask if the rate they quoted you can be reduced further. I asked and often saved a few dollars.

Finally, I learned not to pull into the first hotel or gas station upon entering a town, especially if I had just transited a desolate stretch. Think about it: Someone who just drove 200 miles across the desert and is tired will tend to pull into the first hotel, gas station or restaurant he encounters. Often, the prices at these establishments run a little higher than similar places farther down the street. Take an extra few minutes and ride through a town to check out prices. You’ll save money.

8. Smiles are free.

The road provides a constant source of amusement. Read road signs carefully for a little levity. Consider the town sign for Portales, New Mexico, which identifies the city as “Home to 12,000 friendly people and three or four old grouches,” or Lee, Florida, which notes it’s “Small but proud.” I’m not sure I’d want to do business at the Road Kill Taxidermy Shop in East Texas, but my curiosity was piqued. Then there’s Mom’s Diner in Burlington, Washington, the “Home of great grub but lousy service.” And this diner is right down the street from an automobile dealer with a three-story inflatable bust of Elvis Presley above a sign proclaiming the dealer to be the “King of finance.” If you’re really looking for a laugh, visit St. Louis du Ha-Ha when in Quebec. Sources of amusement are everywhere if you keep your eyes open. Enjoy the twisted humor of others.

9. Don’t forget to learn.

I never knew there was an Erotic Channel until I checked into a hotel on the main drag in Magnolia, Arkansas; that people from Michigan’s Upper Peninsula refer to themselves as “Yoopers” (U.P., get it?); or that the busiest person in all of Quebec must be a young lady named Salle A Manger, whose name I saw at every restaurant, business and hotel I encountered. Finally, a trip such as this can offer you new perspectives. After I passed at least 10 signs warning of moose on a five-mile stretch of highway in Quebec, the potential damage associated with a collision with a measly 200-pound deer somehow didn’t seem quite so bad.

10. Some things never change.

Upon the end of my ride, as I was getting on I-66, overhead signs flashed the news of an accident a few miles ahead had halted all traffic. And within two blocks of my home, an inattentive driver turned left in my path, giving me the closest call of the entire journey. As I said, some things never change!

It is often said that Washington, D.C., is 70 square miles of territory, surrounded by reality. It is that, indeed (and more!). But I suspect you’ll find the same can be said of your own area as well. We all tend to become comfortable with local customs and perspectives. So pack up your bike and take off on a road trip to see how the other 99.9 percent live. You’ll learn a lot about this great country and about yourself.

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