On The Road To Nowhere – Why We Ride Endless Miles

Hell For Leather, HFL -



Ever get the urge to get on your bike and just ride and then ride some more and just keep going for endless miles? If you’re like me, you’ll end up so far away from home that you’re completely lost and strangers will look suspiciously at you and say: “You’re not from round here are you?”

Photo: Anne Watson

It actually took me a long time to throw caution to the wind and do this. I’d spent years finding every mundane excuse why I shouldn’t go and ride as far and as long as I possibly could until, one day, I couldn’t stand it anymore. I locked up the house, told family and friends I was going away, and I never looked back.

Over night, I changed my daily routine into getting up before the sun rose and pointing my motorcycle in whichever direction I happened to like the look of. And that’s how I ended up on a remote, empty desert highway, somewhere either in Nevada, Arizona or it may have even been Utah. I was filthy dirty. My bike was even dirtier. I was out of drinking water and also out of gas. And do you know what? It was one of the best experiences of my life.

For once, I was master of my own destiny, and was actually enjoying figuring out how I was going to find some gas in the middle of nowhere and get going again, while all the time a couple of optimistic vultures circled over my head.

Apart from my own stupidity of trusting my bike’s fuel gauge, the reason why I ended by the roadside in an empty desert was all because of a ridiculous 1970s film called Easy Rider. As a kid I had an enormous poster of a still shot from the film of Peter Fonda riding his bike with a huge, wide open desert sky behind him. I would spend ages gazing at that poster, promising myself that one day, when I was old enough, I too would get on a motorcycle and ride into small town America to discover what was really there.

Easy Rider

It took me a long time to finally seize the moment and while it may seem like a crazy man’s dream and throwing logic and responsibility to the wind, I was a fortunate enough to find a publisher that was interested in taking my experiences and turning it all into a book that would, one day, be published.

There was one big drawback in all of this. I have an appalling sense of direction and, despite studying enormous maps of the U.S., most of the time I had absolutely no idea where I was, where I was going or what I would find. But the former was probably the best part of all. To travel on a bike not knowing what’s precisely around the next corner was and still is the motivation for me to ride.

I traveled really light with just one extra t-shirt, a small bag of tools, a toothbrush and a map that I would occasionally glance at. There were no rules except that I wanted to stay away from freeways and ride the empty roads that seem to run nowhere and pass through towns with curious and compelling names. I budgeted enough money for gas and food and to stay at the cheap motels I found along the way.

The riding was spectacular. Every single mile of it. I still remember a section in Nevada where I had a highway entirely to myself for almost two hours. I saw nobody, not a car, not a truck or a single living thing and just rode my motorcycle towards the distant horizon.

Some days I’d ride up to 400 miles, following two lane roads that snaked through mountains and dark forests and across flat empty plains that seemed to go on and on forever. I’d go from freezing, snow-covered hills to 100-degree heat in the deserts below. I got rained on and, once, was so cold that I had to get off my bike to try and warm my hands on my bike’s engine cylinders.

I saw things that I never imagined in a hundred lifetimes that I’d get to see. I met some pretty crazy people too. But you know what? I never met a single soul who wasn’t friendly or interested in what I was doing so far away from home on a motorcycle.

What I hadn’t anticipated when I set out on this odyssey was just how big America is. This country is immense. What looks like a simple couple of hours jaunt between two towns on a map often turned into a full day’s riding of more than 300 miles.

I know where I went for the most part of this long journey and the astonishing things I saw and did. But, there are some gaps in my memory as I was literally riding from dawn to dusk. Not that I am complaining. To ride a motorcycle all day on some of the greatest roads I have ever seen, with occasional breaks to fill the tank with gas and grab something to eat and drink, is something I’d happily do for the rest of my life.

In the space of six weeks I managed to traverse eight states and covered more than 8,000 miles. On occasion I took my time and slowed the pace down so I could see as much as I could in case I never came that way again.

More than anything else from this entire experience I learned how to ride a motorcycle. Before I set off I was probably a very average rider. But when you’re out on the road, thousands of miles from home, it’s down to your decision making whether you ride through a thunderstorm or opt for 50-plus miles along a dirt road. I also learned a whole lot along on the way and about my bike.

Sure there were times when I would have gladly got off my motorcycle and walked away. Baking in the desert heat on an air-cooled V-twin is no fun. Being cold, wet, tired and often completely lost played havoc with my mind.

But above all I kept reminding myself how lucky I was to be doing this on a motorcycle. Not only that, I was riding across one of the greatest nations on earth. I guess you could say by my getting on a motorcycle and riding for the love of it mile after mile, I got a true sense of what being free means.

What’s the best place you’ve ever ended up?

  • Aakash

    Just finished a 350 mile ride from Santa Barbara to Berkeley. I wasn’t exactly going nowhere, I was going home.

    You will meet people when you travel by motorcycle. While stopping for a break on highway 1 outside of Big Sur, I had a woman ask if she can take pictures of my bike to send to her brother back at home because “He loves Triumphs. He’s got a classic Bonneville from the 70s.”

    A guy at a vista point admired my bike and then told me he’s thinking of selling his Vulcan 2000 in order to get one. Rob (I think) at Roxanne’s Cafe in San Luis Obispo walked out to take a look at my bike with me. He’s a fan of Scramblers and has a CB350.

    In Carmel, I had food at Yafa (excellent Jordanian food). Me and one of the owners (Ben) get to talking motorcycles and turns out he’s got a really nice R1100S and goes riding all the time (how can you not when you live basically ON highway 1. When I left he handed me his business card and told me to get in touch anytime I’m in the area and want to go for a ride on the coast.

    Yes, my ego gets a great fat helping of love with all these little interactions. But so what? Meeting people and sharing stores is always going to be a good thing. If it takes a motorcycle to be facilitator, then so be it.

    Breaking up the zen-like moments (or zone-out, depending on your perspective) of moto-travel with a stretch o’ the legs, a bite to eat and a bit of conversation makes the journey much more enjoyable.

  • Paolo

    If you ride too far into the unknown in my country, you might run into trouble with people that would’ve rather not be found…then instead of a book I’d have an obituary.

    • Piglet2010

      I have found people like that in the Upper Midwest – best not to ride down dead-end roads with people living at the end of them.

      On the bright side, I now know what a bullet from a .22 LR sounds like going overhead.

  • Jono

    ended up riding a ktm exc530 through the ancient vineyards of Aragon, Spain with my cousin. absolute magic to ride through those wild valleys and then pop out a couple of days later in some old catalan town for a night or two before we disappeared down the rabbit hole once again.

    dont do Europe with contiki or bus-a-bout … do it via motorcycle. any motorcycle.

    • MichaelEhrgott

      That sounds glorious. I lived in Bilbao for a year and toured the La Rioja wine region a bit on foot. The entire time I wished I had a motorcycle.

  • Justin McClintock

    Wound up in Helen, GA by accident during Octoberfest a couple years ago. Ended up chatting with a gentleman who had his 40′s era Indian parked next to me for over an hour about bikes and rides and random stuff. All in all, a great day.

  • Send Margaritas

    Good stuff Tim! Bring a camera on the next ride.

  • akaaccount

    Man, I gotta make a trip out west

  • Chris La Rose

    Set out from downtown Columbia, SC a couple of years back to go to the bookstore at the mall on the outskirts of town and ended up traveling down an in-town section of Hwy 1. Decided to see where it lead and it took me two days to circle around and get home.

    However, I made it through little towns like Cheraw, SC; Rockingham, NC; Monroe, NC; Charlotte, NC; Rock Hill, SC (where I stayed over with a friend) and Chester, SC before getting home. Got caught in a thunderstorm, and had to hide out under the eaves of a church, when lightning hit a tree in the front yard of the church. Had to buy new boots and clothes at the Walmart in the next town, cos mine were soaked through (by rain).

    Ate great BBQ, feared for my life, lost my way and found myself… Never did get to the bookstore.

    One day, I’ll tell y’all about almost running out of gas in a town rife with Klan flags (I’m Latin-American by way of South Africa and definitely ‘not from around here’) and trailer homes in the backroads of SC on my way back from Daytona, but that’s a different story…

  • motoguru.

    “What’s the best place you’ve ever ended up?”

    On my bike, on a road I’ve never been on.

  • JBXC

    Amen, brother.

  • MichaelEhrgott

    Myself and three friends are riding from Sacramento, California to Deadhorse, Alaska next year. Taking the ferry from Seattle to Haines on the way up and riding all the way back. Going to be my longest trip yet. About 5200 miles, can’t wait.

  • Bill J

    Great article! I’m still finding roads in NorCal that I’ve never been on, and that is good enough for me. One day though, New York, here I come…

  • John

    On the outskirts of nowhere
    On the ring road to somewhere
    On the verge of indecision
    I’ll always take the roundabout way

  • ghaash

    Best place I’ve ended up at? Backside of Ortega.

  • LeeB

    Good stuff Tim. Riding with no timeline puts life in perspective.

  • CruisingTroll

    Strategic Air Command Museum, Lincoln, Nebraska
    Gold Coast Railway Museum, Florida
    Laws Railroad Museum, Bishop, California
    Western Railway Museum, Suisun, California
    taking pictures of turtles outside of Brunswick, Georgia
    Scottish Festival, Halifax, Nova Scotia
    4th of July celebrations on a lake in Maine, and in a teeny, tiny “town” on the Idaho/Nevada border.

    Those are just some of the cool places/events I’ve stumbled across while riding.

    Others that were intentional:

    Ka Lae, Hawaii
    Key West, Florida
    Duluth, Minnesota (the old ore docks are incredible)
    and many, many more.

    Met some pretty good folk along the way, and I’ve been constantly amazed at just how beautiful this country is.

  • Honyock Undersquare

    I was discussing the migration of hummingbirds with a volunteer docent at the visitor center of a National Park in Southern Arizona last Spring. Those little guys fly 6,000 miles from South America on a half an ounce of flower juice, raise a pack of kids, and then fly back – every year. The docent said “They’re either preparing for, undertaking, or recovering from an epic journey most of their lives. What could possibly make them do it?”
    I know, but I couldn’t tell him.

  • robersonphoto

    Frenchglen, Oregon. Google it. Then back out and do the math.

  • appliance5000

    I do this every year by car in the west – have run into some strange unfriendly people (most of Utah and a gun toting nut job in the wilds of Colorado )- but it is magical – so magical. Me and the GF – camp, drive ,drink and smoke. No plans, no radio, no arguments – just moving and sucking it all in.

    I’m prepping to do this on my bike – just started riding this year – and have done a little camping – want to do something before winter.

    One caveat in a really nice article: Easy Rider really truly isn’t silly.

  • maxkohl

    100 degree heat in the Utah desert. 40 degrees hail 10 minutes later.
    14 hours of riding through absolute nothing in Nebraska and Wyoming.
    5 days of rain through the Eastern states.
    115 degrees of heat in Death Valley and Vegas.
    6 hours of trying to outrun a storm while finding a motel in Colorado.
    6500 miles.
    11 days
    1 broken bike.

    One experience I wish would never end.

  • Blixa

    Terrific writing, Tim. I’m really enjoying your contributions to this site.

    • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

      Me too!!!

  • Piglet2010

    One would have to be on serious drugs to ride any distance on the crappy old choppers from Easy Rider – I would rather ride cross-country on my TW200.

  • Joshua Prince

    With all humble and due respect to the West Coast contingent: an aimless summer ride up and through New England is unparalleled. And the very definition of moto-joy. CT, Mass, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhodey…lush, green mountains, the summersmells, the rivers and swimming holes, New England beaches, offbeat luncheonettes. I wound up on the top of Mount Equinox this summer (home to Vermont’s own Skyline Drive, and a little-known monastery of…Carthusian Monks?), and wrote about it on my demi-blog here: http://longitudeandgratitude.com/2013/09/07/adventure-rider-not-exactly-roughing-it-1/

    • http://www.twitter.com/seanmacdonald sean macdonald

      This is an area of been dying to explore

    • markbvt

      I’m lucky to live in Vermont. I get to go on amazing day rides all the time, and when I want to go on a trip, I’ve got some pretty epic destinations to choose from. I’ve ridden northeast to Labrador and Newfoundland, east to the Canadian Maritimes, southwest to West Virginia and the Great Smokies, west to the Finger Lakes, south to Alabama and the Outer Banks… There’s lots of amazing riding to be had east of the Mississippi.

    • http://ericrshelton.com/ Eric R. Shelton

      I’m trapped in the northern plains of North Dakota with my job right now. Getting the hell out of the midwest and riding closer to EITHER coast would be a dream come true!

  • kevin

    Great article. Reminds me a lot of some of Peter Egan’s stories about his motorcycling adventures. I’d recommend a copy of his “Leanings” to anybody who is interested in riding a motorcycle..

    • Tim Watson

      That’s very kind but I am not even in the same league as Peter. I know him well and have read his work for years. I’m with you on Leanings too – terrific read.

  • Piglet2010

    The bad part about riding at random is you can end up on roads such as US 30 between Sterling-Rock Falls and Joliet, Illinois – they need to give this section the honorific “America’s Most Boring Road”.

  • Kr Tong

    I’ve never agreed with the “Zen and art of Motorcycle Maintenance” way of motorcycling. Long distances are grueling in the absolute worst way. You dont feel like you’re leaving the gym. You feel like you’re leaving your job at the foxconn iphone factory, pushing the same button over for inhumanely long days. Your wrists, knuckles and knees ache for days later. I think this is what rigamortis must feel like. Even on sport tourers there’s a limit to what the human spirit can take. And when you’re absolutely crushed you’re still hours from getting home. I’ll check into a best western at that point.

    Motocross on the other hand, being somewhat slower and more technical breaks your muscles down before anything else. Your days are shorter but it feels much more rewarding.

    • Mykola

      Different strokes…
      I’ll agree insofar as there is much misery to be had trying to tour with an improperly prepared bike and gear. One of my more memorable rides was a straight stint from LA to San Diego on a CBR250 through the evening/night in mesh gear in October, and I’m particularly cold-intolerant.

    • CruisingTroll

      Except you don’t really need to ride long distances. You simply need to get on the bike, point it “thataway”, and go. If you have 2 days, then you go “thataway” for 1 day, then head back “thisaway” on the second day.

      Next weekend, go “the other way’…

      refuel, repeat.

      Sportbikes, which is what it sounds like you’re basing your assessment on, can be the WORST type of bike for this, simply because they are designed to place all of your attention on the RIDE, calling all your focus on the process of riding fast and smooth, to the exclusion of your surroundings beyond what is necessary to go fast & smooth. Sport bikes beg to strafe the next set of twisties, and get positively surly when you stop to smell the flowers. Cruisers are the exact opposite. They LUV to stop and smell the flowers, or at least stare at the reflection of the flowers in the chrome, and get downright unruly in the twisties.

      • Kr Tong

        Couldn’t disagree with you more. I’ve ridden long distances on everything except a dual sport. Not a fan. I still do it but I REALLY dont care for it. And if you’ve ever ridden a sportbike on twisties for a hundred or more miles, if you do it right you’re winded after 20 and NEED to smell the flowers… or maybe that’s just me.

        And I’m not about to go a long distance on a cruiser just so I can reach a perfect road and be stuck out there with only a cruiser. I’ll take a car for that.

  • contender

    Was doing a loop from L.A. to San Jose and on the way up I found a dead person lying in the road in Pine Mountain Club, CA. Four cars had driven by him, and the town is only about 2000 people large. We stopped. I lost remaining faith in humanity that day, but the rest of the scenery was nice.

  • Randy S

    Couldn’t agree more with this motivation for riding. I made a similar trip on my VTX 750 10 years ago only 3 months after getting my m-class license. I didn’t even know how to tighten my chain.

    I came home a different person and have wanted to carve out the time to ride nonstop like that again. Thanks for the inspiration.

  • Justin McClintock

    You guys suck. Now the refrain from that damn song is stuck in my head!

  • gregory

    On a Hyosung GV250 “Aquilla”, I once ended up at a Buddhist temple. It turned out to be Popchusa/ Beopchusa, the place where Bruce Lee filmed the outside shots for “Game Of Death”. Pretty cool.

  • ZedsPeds

    The true adventure starts when your best laid plans have gone awry.

  • subaruzi