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Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Thursday, October 06, 2011

Sojourn: A Guide for Motocycle Trips

Two views of my old PC800 loaded for long distance, above, in Bisbee, Arizona..

...and Rocky Mountain National Park, Colorado
(Both images scanned from photographs)

Copyright © 2011 by Ralph Couey

In the past, vacation trips were rarely about a particular destination.  They were rather about the trip itself and the many stops along the way.  It was that philosophy that sent Americans out on legendary highways such as Route 66, Route 50, US 1, and California 1, the famed Pacific Coast Highway.  If you left Chicago on Route 66 heading west, you weren’t just traveling to the Santa Monica Pier in California.  You were going to see St. Louis; cowboys between Tulsa and Amarillo; the high plains of Tucumcari, Albuquerque, and Gallup; The deserts and mountains of Holbrook, Flagstaff, Kingman, and Barstow, and then, and only then, the cool waters of the Pacific Ocean.  The point of the trip was not to dabble your toes in the surf, but all the natural beauty and wonder of the American west.

People don’t travel like that anymore.  Most have a single destination in mind, minimize the travel time to that place, and then rack and stack everything you want (or feel obligated) to do into those few days.  That kind of a killer schedule has led to the oft-voiced phrase, “I need a vacation from my vacation.”

However, that old spirit of adventure hasn’t vanished entirely.  Within the motorcycle community it lives and breathes in the hearts of sojourners who have never forgotten the power of a journey.

I’ve taken a few long trips, all of which still live in vivid recollections.  While they were all fun and adventurous, there were those things I planned well, those I didn’t, and other details I never thought about.  Hopefully there is some value in those experiences that will assist others in planning trips.

Planning the trip

There is this persistent fantasy about a motorcycle trip where you just climb aboard and ride off into the sunset going wherever your impulses take you.  That may be fine for a Saturday ride, but for a multi-thousand mile trip, it takes a bit more forethought.

In a car, we think nothing of doing 700-mile days.  But a bike is a different type of trip.  It takes more effort to ride than it does sitting in the car, and the exposure to the elements can leach away your energy.  For reasons that still befuddle me, I never average the same speed over a day on a bike that I do in a car.  Plus, you want to leave time for visiting the sites you’ve came so far to see.   I’ve learned the hard way that the best pace for me is about 250 miles per day.  It’s hard to enjoy a trip when I’m fatigued all the time.  That kind of pace allows me to enjoy myself by visiting various sites, as well as deal with the inevitable delays with road construction and heavy traffic.

Most long-trippers I know don’t have a specific point in mind, but rather point to a region on the map and decide to tour there.  Maybe Colorado and the Rockies, or the Gulf Coast, or New England; maybe a tour of Arizona ghost towns.  Once you get there, you can adopt a sort of aimless wandering to your days.  But you still have to plan your route in and out, and at least have a general idea where you’ll rest your head each night.  In the ‘30s, you would just go until wherever the sunset found you and throw a bedroll down.  But now, even in the wide-open west, there are rules about where you can camp.  It’s better to utilize an organized campsite.  Not only is it legal, you’ll minimize the danger of being visited by a carload of ruffians who are looking to spice up their empty lives by beating the crap out of a luckless tourist.  Hotels and Inns offer a more civilized alternative for those, like me, whose back problems mandate something better than a sleeping bag on hard ground.

Cost should be calculated, at least in general.  You don’t want to run out of jack and have to go home early.  Summertime is when campsite rentals, hotel rates, and gas prices are highest, so be prepared.  Think about gas.  There are places out west where you may go as far as 70 miles between gas stations.  Don’t be reluctant to fuel earlier than normal.  It beats pushing the bike through the desert.

Most of us have a child-like faith in our machines that they will function perfectly for the entire trip.  Murphy ’s Law mandates that you should be prepared for the alternative.  Look up the location of a few bike shops and know which ones are reputable.  If the bike does break down, hopefully you’ll know where the nearest reliable wrench can be found.

If this is going to be a long trip (longer than a week), plan a rest day, or at least a half day about halfway through.  You will probably be ready for a day off the bike by then.  You can laze around, hike, do laundry, take a nap....whatever.  In the grand scheme of things, it will help you tremendously.

Once your route is settled, let someone at home know.  Give them your cell number and check in from time to time.  There are places, particularly out west, where you could crash off the road and not be found for a very long time.  If you miss a check-in, then someone at home knows at least the area where searchers can look for you.

Preparing the Bike

Have your trusted wrench do a good once over on your ride.  If your trip is going to be 3,000 miles or more, go ahead and get your oil changed.  If your other fluids haven’t been swapped out in a couple of years, have them done as well.  Have the shop take a good look at your lines and hoses, as well as filters (air and fuel) and replace them if necessary.  Do this at least two weeks before you leave, so if there’s a part that needs to be replaced, there will be time to order and install.  Tires need to be looked at closely, the tread depth measured, and the inflation checked.  This may sound like overkill, but it’s far better than being stranded in a place where traffic is a rare and beautiful thing and cell signals are nonexistent.

Preparing the Rider

About a month prior, start taking longer rides.  Try to stay on the bike at least 5 to 7 hours at a stretch.  This will accustom your muscles and prepare your mind for those long stretches of road.  Practice things like emergency stops, evasion maneuvers, and scanning.  You’ll be on unfamiliar roads with unknown hazards, not only other drivers but wildlife as well.


Most Americans over-pack for car trips.  I’m especially guilty of this, having hauled things around in a two-week trip that I never ended up using.  A motorcycle, even the two wheeled RV variety, have limited storage space and weight.  So the kind of things you take with you should be carefully considered.  A lot of folks have a riding suit that they wear over just their skivvies, packing only a pair of jeans, flip-flops, and a t-shirt for walking-around purposes.  But you need to be aware that just because it’s summer, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s always going to be warm.  On one trip to the southwest, I rode through Phoenix on a day when the mercury topped 114 degrees.  Plus, being July, it was the middle of the monsoon, which meant that it wasn’t a dry heat, but rather sultry and humid.  A day and a half later in Leadville, Colorado, I endured two hours of temperatures in the upper 30s and low 40s.  On a New England junket, most of the ride through Vermont and New Hampshire was cold and wet.  But once we got into Boston, the temperatures soared into the 90s.  Take it from me; you need to plan for both extremes.

You can cut down on toiletries, simply by using the free samples hotels put in their bathrooms.  But take some sunscreen for your face and neck.
Most bikes come with tool kits, but it doesn’t hurt to toss in a couple extra just in case, like a knife, both screwdrivers, pliers, and a roll of duct tape.  Take two flashlights, a large one, and a mag light you can put in a pocket, and spare batteries for both.  Pack a small first-aid kit as well; simple stuff like Band-Aids, gauze, tape, anti-bacterial gel, and burn ointment.  If you take prescription meds, don’t forget them.  If you’re in your 40s and beyond, talk to your doctor about taking an 81-mg aspirin each day.  This will thin out your blood and help prevent the formation of clots resulting from long hours in the saddle.  Oh, and when you stop for fuel, food, or touristy stuff, take some time to walk around the parking lot before getting back on the road.  A good, brisk 15-minute walk will do wonders for your circulation and your attention span.

If you have those small triangular road reflectors, take them along as well, in case you get stranded alongside the road and have to mark your location to oncoming vehicles.  Some guys take a road flare or two, but I'm kinda hinky about putting something that flammable on a bike loaded with gasoline and other burnable items.

If your bike or helmet doesn’t have a sound system, consider taking an iPod and a set of earbuds.  Music has a marvelous way of keeping the brain alert, the mood up, and helps pass the time.  Just don’t turn it so loud that you don’t hear the sounds from the bike, car horns, and especially, a siren from your six o’clock.  Make sure to pack the charging cords for your portable electronics, and spare batteries for those items that require them.

One thing you might think about is to take a medium-sized notebook with you and in the evenings, spend some time jotting down information about that day’s travels.  You don’t necessarily have to wax poetic – although that’s perfectly okay – but put down things like about what time you started, what your route was that day, the things you saw, where you ate and what you thought about the place – information that would be helpful to others who might be contemplating such a trip.  Also, those notes provide interesting reading afterwards.  I kept my notebooks and read them from time to time, reliving the experience of the trip.  That’s always a nice thing to do in the middle of winter.

If you have a motorcycle GPS device, make sure you know how to use it.  Most of them are set up to give you the quickest and shortest routing.  But motorcycle touring is more often about the back roads instead of the interstates, so having that paper map as a backup can be helpful.  If you have to change the GPS, please do it while stopped off the roadway.  If a cop sees you entering data while tooling down the road, he could pull you over for distracted riding.

Practice loading the bike a few times, so you’ll have a routine for every morning on the trip.  Also, take some rides with the full load so you’ll be used to how the bike handles with that extra weight and mass aboard.  If you have to strap stuff to the bike, whether individual items or extra luggage, make sure it’s secure.  And if you use bungee cords, MAKE SURE that you don’t leave any loose ends dangling.  Getting one of those wrapped around your rear wheel will just about ruin your day.

Go get one of those things they call CamelBacks.  This is a small (1 or 2 liter) device that holds fluids.  You wear it on your back and the drinking tube snakes over your shoulder into your helmet.  The CamelBack saved my trip (and quite possibly my life) on my trip to the southwest.  I would fill it with ice and some kind of sports drink (the kind that replenish electrolites) and sip on it throughout the day.  Because you’re sedentary when riding and exposed to the cooling effect of the wind, it’s easy to miss the signs of dehydration.  When you’re riding in the heat, you have to keep yourself hydrated.  This is not a comfort thing; this is a keep-yourself-alive thing.  That day going from Tombstone through Tucson and Phoenix was six long hours of 110-degree-plus heat which didn’t abate until I climbed the Yarnell Hill into Prescott.  It was that day that, after feeling tired and dizzy, I switched to Gatorade instead of plain water.  The difference was remarkable and literally saved the trip.

And don’t forget the camera!!!

On the Trip

Finally, after all the preparation and planning, the big day arrives.  You swing the leg over, hit the starter, and off you go.  The first day is exciting to be sure, but can also be a bit of a let-down after you discover just how long four or five hours really is.

Before getting underway each morning, do the T-CLOCS checklist: Tires, controls, lights, oil, chassis, stands. 
  • Tires:  Check air pressure.  This is best done when the tires are cold.  This is important.  A few years ago, I read about a gang of kids that would sneak into motel parking lots and let the air out of tires.  Don't let yourself be surprised.
  • Controls:  Cycle all your controls to make sure everything works like it should. 
  • Lights:  Check your headlamp, both low and high beam, and turn signals and running lights as well.  I have always carried a spare headlamp bulb on the bike, just in case.
  • Oil:  Check the level.  Some riders even get down to look for any seepage around the drain plug.
  • Chassis:  This may be a bit harder, but look at the places you can see.  Make sure the welds haven't cracked.
  • Stands:  Your sidestand and centerstand (if you have one) should be able to retract and stay retracted.  Make sure there's no play where the bolt attaches the stand to the frame.
Make sure your luggage is mounted properly and securely, and all the loose straps and strings are tucked away.  Check that your saddlebag lids are closed and clipped.  You'd be surprised how many riders take off with them flapping in the breeze.

Take one last look at your route for the day, paying particular attention to your next turn point.

Then just before pulling out, double check your gear, making sure that all the zippers are zipped, buttons are buttoned, snaps are snapped, and pockets closed.  Confirm that you have your wallet, cellphone, cash, and ID.  Oh yeah, and your key as well!

I wait until morning to fill up the gas.  Wide awake and rested, it gives me one last time to take a slow, careful walkaround of the bike and baggage before hitting the road.  Take time to clean yesterdays collection of dust and bug splat off the headlamp, windshield, and helmet face shield.

Start off slow; ease into the pace of the day.  You shouldn't go more than three hours without stopping for a break.  Don't sit; walk around briskly and stretch.  Double-check your straps and strings and do another walk-around.  During these stops, people may come up to you and want to talk about your bike and the trip.  Have that conversation.  Riding long distances is by nature a solitary activity and it will only help you to open up and talk a little.  Plus, being friendly and gracious helps improve the reputation of all riders.

Resist the temptation to speed.  Most cops will allow a 7- to 10-mph bubble above the posted limit, but don’t push it.  You may know that you’re not a violently-inclined one-percenter, but that cop doesn’t.  Be nice, calm, and respectful if you get stopped.  If you dispute the reason for the ticket, a courtroom is the place for that battle, not the side of the road.  Cops have heard every excuse in the book, so there’s no argument you can offer that will change his mind.  But being a “nice guy” may just possibly earn you a warning instead of the yellow slip.

Things don’t always go smoothly.  Delays happen.  Don’t get flustered, just do the best you can with the situation you have.  A morning call to that state’s DOT may give you the information you need to route yourself around road projects.  Stay away from cities during rush hour; heavy traffic is a breeding ground for disaster.

Try not to ride after dark on unfamiliar roads.  Wildlife gets active after sundown and can be in front of you before you know it.  Also, it’s easy to get lost in the dark and that can be stressful. 
Most of all, enjoy yourself.  Make this a time when you’re less driven by clock and calendar.  Stop and see stuff along the way, even just pulling off at an overlook and diggin’ on the scenery for a while.  That’s one of the big reasons for keeping the daily mileage around 250.  You have a lot of flexibility.  And if you get to the motel earlier than you planned, just spend some time in the pool.  One of my favorite memories was pulling off of New Mexico Route 82 northeast of Douglas.  I was in a valley that stretched for 15 miles in every direction.  This was land that hadn’t changed appreciably in the last 500 years and the only sign of man’s influence was the road itself.  I just sat on the bike, looked at the land, and listened to the wind.  I had nowhere to be, and all the time in the world to get there.  To this day, when I’m feeling stressed and overwhelmed, I can pull up that calming memory. 

For me, the last day of a trip is the hardest one.  I’m torn between the let-down of The End, yet anxious to get home to my family.  As I get closer, the roads grow familiar and finally, I make that last turn into the driveway and into the garage.  Reaching for the key, I hesitate, knowing that killing the engine writes the final denouement to a time of adventure and self-restoration.  But once I open the door and receive the welcome of my family, I am glad to be in the one place I truly belong.

When you get home, tell your family about where you’ve gone and what you’ve seen.  Share the pictures and tell about each one.  As you’ve missed them, they too have felt your missing presence.  Sharing the story of the trip makes them feel, at least a little bit, that they went along.  And maybe you’ll plant the seed of curiosity and discovery in your children and one day, they will make such a journey themselves.

There is a real sense of accomplishment in such a journey.  To go for a 4,000-mile ride and return safely is no small thing. There are hazards beyond number out on the road, but you have survived them successfully.  You will have accumulated tales to tell and memories to recount that will last a lifetime. 

Every rider should at least once take a long trip.  It’s really more than a vacation, after all. 

It’s a trip for the soul.
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