Night Riding on Unfamiliar Roads

The sensations of night riding

The lead bike plunges through the darkness in a tunnel of overhanging trees, the ring of illumination from its headlight animating the motionless leaves. The second, third and fourth bikes pass, their cones of luminescence sending the shadows running in groups. Although I know the branches haven’t moved, they appear to pulse with each bikes’ passing like reflections as a boat’s wake crosses a glass-smooth lake. The trees part, revealing the mountainside with the road bending left to accommodate the terrain. The brightest part of each beam traces the hillside before shooting out into the night beyond. One at a time the bikes flash past a rock outcropping before disappearing as the road doubles back toward the heart of the mountain. When my turn arrives, I bend my bike into the corner. The suspension settles. My headlight sweeps across the vast emptiness of the canyon.

Night riding on a motorcycle
Night riding on unfamiliar roads might be intimidating to some, but to me they bring out sensations that are best created in that moment.Illustration by John Breakey

I discovered the pleasures of riding at night early in my motorcycling career while I spent three months traveling from Connecticut to California. Initially, I simply miscalculated how long I'd need to reach my destinations. I'd roll into the campgrounds and set up my tent in the dark. Later in the trip, I'd arrive before dark so I could set up, eat and go back out for a ride.

I didn't truly appreciate night riding in groups down remote highways until I joined the staff at Motorcycle Cruiser. My first road trip with Art, Jamie and a few others had us up in the hills near Bishop in Northern California. Famed photographer Kevin Wing, who hates for a single photon to go to waste, was shooting the beauties of the five-bike comparison in the late evening light. By the time he finished, night had completely fallen, and we were blessed with a spectacular view of a lunar eclipse. Blasting the 50 or so miles back to our lodgings while the eclipse ended and the night sky became progressively brighter with moonlight, I couldn't stop smiling inside my helmet. I was in heaven.

At night, the world shrinks down to the size of my headlight. Other senses become more attuned to make up for the lost visual input. While I may be physically feeling things the same way, my awareness of the sensations is heightened. The tires feel more directly attached to my hands. My body notes the complexities of the chassis’ movement, the forces on the frame. Sounds that might be ignored in the daytime roar of the wind actually merge with it, altering the song. In the Southeast, insect chants pour from the greenery that explodes out of the summer rains. The Rockies have the chuckles of rivers running alongside many of the roads. Pockets of cool and warm air wrap their arms about me before sliding back into the darkness.

Over the years, some of my best riding memories have involved night rides. Some are mere snapshots, like the look on a coyote’s face as it charged from the underbrush only to just barely stop with its nose inches from my girlfriend’s boot when she rode past. Or the way the world expanded from 50 feet to a mile or more from the lightning flashes during a horrendous downpour in the Nevada high desert on U.S. Interstate 50, The Loneliest Road in America, as Jamie and I slogged our way to our motel more than 120 miles away. Others play like movies in my mind.

The late-night descent into Roswell, New Mexico, on our UFO Tour (August 2001) had me, Jamie, Andy and photographer Dean Groover strafing the highway leading into the city. The pavement was smooth and well marked. Our bikes all had relatively good ground clearance. I was lead rider through a seemingly endless series of sweeping turns. As I switched from one corner to the next, I felt the headlights of the other bikes on my back projecting multiple silhouettes of my bag-laden machine up the road before me. Occasionally, I’d drag a peg to send sparks scurrying toward them. We maintained this dance—sometimes spread out, other times bunched up, but always in unison—until the road straightened out for the final dive into Roswell. I wanted to turn around and do the whole thing again, to maintain the feeling, relish it, for we don’t get enough of those times in our lives where we can truly step outside of ourselves and live exclusively in the moment.

Of course, we didn’t turn around and repeat the ride. We had photos to take and a motel to find. Even if we had gone back, I couldn’t have recaptured that feeling anyway. Since an essential part of the sensation is not knowing where the road will lead, the best I could have hoped for would have been fleeting glimpses. These moments can’t be forced, they just happen on their own. So I savor these memories until the next time I find myself riding at night on an unfamiliar road.

Related:

Riding at night can be a calming experience and so can riding to nowhere in particular. See our Motorcycle Ride to Nowhere.