I can’t speak for everyone, but there’s something about modern life and the “progress” that comes along with it that bugs me. It’s just that everything has gotten too easy. Automatic transmissions, lane assist, autonomous driving modes, and the list seems to keep going on.
While there are plenty of examples of this in the car world, there exists even more in the rest of life. We (largely) don’t have to hunt our own food, wash our own dishes, hell even modern dictation software means we don’t even have to TYPE most of the time if we don’t want to. We can have everything delivered to our doorstep now, and nobody has to really know how to cook anymore. Also, let’s not forget that there has been Peanut Butter and Jelly IN THE SAME JAR for a couple of decades. Big stuff indeed.
I’m not suggesting that all of these modern conveniences are bad (you haven’t LIVED until you’ve experienced a heated steering wheel on a winter morning), but largely I feel that in many ways, too much of living is done for us. I grew up in the 80’s where we had to walk across the room to the TV to change the channel. We had to use a manual can opener and brush our own teeth. But even then, I would watch 19th century Western films with characters whose lives were ROUGH. I’m not suggesting that I’d prefer living in those times, but I can’t be alone in getting a bit caught up in the idea that I COULD do it if I had to. There is some romance in wanting to think you are tough enough to live in those times even if you wouldn’t want to HAVE to do it every day. Please hold the old man “get off my lawn” jokes, I've heard them all.
Even though modern living has made us comparatively helpless with its conveniences, nobody WANTS to feel helpless, and many take it a step further and try to make sure they haven’t gotten a bit too soft in the modern era. Luckily, there are a few things left that we can do that still will require a bit of effort, and activities that people do seek out as recreation. Hiking, fishing, and camping are popular choices. These activities connect us with the outdoors and nature and make us feel like we can survive without modern life. But if those choices seem a bit light, I offer a suggestion: Travel by Motorcycle.
I have hiked in the mountains, fished in remote lakes and camped for multiple nights in a row, but there is nothing that quite feels like “Roughing It” like a long motorcycle trip. It is so much harder than you might think and makes most other means of travel seem cute by comparison.
The United States is rather enormous, and here we are no stranger to a road trip. Who hasn’t had the family hauler packed with luggage, siblings and a seemingly bottomless supply of Combos from the gas station? This however, is a bit different.
There’s a few key differences. An obvious one is weather, and it’s a big one. Everybody has been driving on the highway, eyes squinting through the buckets of rain with the windshield wipers on full tilt. You are thinking to yourself “this is awful” and then you notice somebody braving that same rainstorm on a motorcycle and suddenly you realize that you’re doing pretty well at that moment. When you’re on a long road trip, there is no time to wait out the weather for anything longer than a brief shower. If it rains, you’re riding. If it’s really cold, you’re riding. If it’s too hot, you’re riding. Let’s hope you brought either a lot of different gear or have very versatile clothing along with you.
Which leads to the packing, which is arguably the hardest part of the trip. No matter how large the bike, you are going to run out of space. The touring bikes (think a Honda Goldwing, Harley ‘Bagger” or a loaded-up BMW) still only offer about as much space as a single large suitcase you’d check for a flight. It gets harder from there. So packing becomes a very difficult series of crucial decisions. You’re likely to get it wrong the first few times, but this builds character (and hopefully not frostbite or hypothermia). Think of the last time you traveled for over a week - can you fit a week’s worth of what you need in a duffel bag? Do you have enough room in that bag for a rain suit, an extra layer for cold weather, spare gloves, tool kit, first aid kit and maybe even a helmet? Not an easy task, I promise.
At this point, many of you are saying “this sounds awful”. I get it. But like our parents’ canned excuse for making us do any sort of chore we didn’t want to do, IT BUILDS CHARACTER. There have been days on the road that I have asked myself “why do I do this?” but the truth is that every tough day I have experienced on the road toughened me up for every day after. It makes you feel tough. It builds confidence and makes you feel like you haven’t gone completely soft as life has gotten easier.
But it’s not all arduous life lessons. It’s the way a road trip on a motorcycle feels that is like little else. There’s nothing to distract you. There is nothing to remove you from the task at hand. Even when making a trip in a sports car, you have moments where you are fooling with the radio, reaching over to grab a snack or occasionally spacing out in thought. The most visceral car - even a convertible one - is still offering isolation from the road, wind and elements to a degree that is a huge degree shy of a motorcycle’s involvement.
There is not a single second of the journey on a motorcycle that you’re not 100% engaged and involved. Everything is turned up to eleven. You take in everything to a degree you never thought was possible. It’s sensory overload and yet you’re absorbing all of it the entire time.
For example, a few years ago I made the classic PCH road trip in a drop-top Mustang. Cliche’ I know, but it was fantastic. I had such a great time with my wife exploring western California in a pretty cool car and I loved it. But even though it was just a handful of years ago, I remember that trip in snapshots, largely from the photos taken by my wife and I. I remember the cliffs near Carmel, the seals and the obligatory Neptune’s Net stop that any fan of the Fast and the Furious franchise needs to have. Beyond that, the road trip portion was just a lot of (nice) forgettable driving. I don’t really have many standouts other than a memory that it was very beautiful, enjoyable and definitely something that is deserving on the bucket list of American road trips.
In contrast, I remember more about any day of a motorcycle trip from as much as 17 years ago. I remember the smells of every place like it was yesterday. I remember how the pavement changes from state to state and how that feels through my palms and fingertips. Seriously, I don’t know what Oregon uses in their roadmaking but it has a reddish-huge and has more grip than anywhere in the country. I can tell when it’s going to rain on the road, regardless of how the sky looks just by the feel and smell of the air. I remember the sound that the bridges make, and how they shimmy the bike side to side as you cross. I can tell you that rain drops the size of a jawbreaker in Wyoming hit differently than the onslaught of tiny drops in the forests of Pennsylvania. I can also attest to the reality that you can enter Yellowstone with snow on the ground and exit the other side hours later sweating in 90 degree heat and how many layers need to be shed in the process.
These and a thousand other little details that are etched into my memory are a direct result of NOT taking those journeys in a car. I remember each of them because the feelings were inescapable at the time. Many of the moments were uncomfortable. Plenty were educational moments where I was suffering but learned to prepare better the next time I would do them.
Most of all, the motorcycle road trip is one of the last opportunities to “Rough it”. It’s not easy, but it’s a challenge that I adore. It makes every other way of travel diluted and shallow by comparison. Sure there are times that it isn’t all that enjoyable, but if you don’t experience the sour you can’t appreciate the sweet.
Traveling on two wheels gives you the closest idea of what it was like for early Americans to travel west on their horses. Packing only what they could carry on their horse, they had to prepare for anything that may come up and deal with everything that did. While traveling the Oregon Trail from the Midwest to the coast on a motorcycle that has a reasonably soft seat, suspension to absorb bumps and having waterproof gear is hardly roughing it to the degree that the original explorers did, it gave me a small idea of what it must have been like.
Not everyone wants to ride a motorcycle, but if you do and never GO anywhere, I urge you to wander a bit and go on an adventure.