Long Ride Home (Part 3 of 3)

The BMW G310R, with a single cylinder and 313ccs proved to be a perfect all-around bike for me on my trip halfway across the United States.

By Mitch Traphagen

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become aware that more often than not, smaller is better. The BMW G310R I have been riding across the country has proven it. It is a bike that not only encourages me to get on and ride, it also encourages me to stop and easily get off to enjoy the moments through which I pass. It’s easy, just pull over and put down the kickstand. There’s little to wrestle. I can’t possibly overstate how freeing that is.

The bike also draws a great deal of attention. Nearly everywhere I went people approached me to ask about it. It is not an intimidating machine; it looks really cool. In cities and towns across America, people have approached to talk about it, or to simply offer good wishes for my travels.

I’m grateful that the machine encourages human interaction, as the conversations with my sister have started to feel rather one-sided. Given the widespread use of credit-card-accepting gas pumps, without the bike, I’d rarely have the chance to meet or talk to people, as my passing through their town and lives is rather brief. No one approaches to offer safe passage while driving a car across the country. The bike provided the means for my reassurance that people aren’t nearly so polarized and angry as is often suggested. While faces change and cities grow or decline, we are still the America we often hope to be. People in this country are kind.

There is also something humbling about riding a smaller bike — and that, too, is good. I’m well past the age of having to play out parts of my personality, real or imagined, through the edifices of my possessions. This bike suits me just fine. For older (or smaller) people dreaming of riding a motorcycle, it is perfect. It’s almost as if BMW still cares about Baby Boomers.

I found some of the best and most haunting roads of my trip to be in the rolling hills and twisty roads of eastern Ohio, made all the more magical by a wispy, lingering light fog. I’ve crossed the state a number of times on the freeway, with the tunnel vision it demands, but the backroads are where real life and beauty exists; roads which were mostly quiet and free of traffic. I did find my self apologizing to each little furry critter that was a victim of sad encounters with cars and trucks. Sometimes my acknowledgements came in far too rapid of succession.

A month before my sister passed away, I was struck with the idea of riding a motorcycle to Minnesota to see my brother and both of my sisters. It was a last minute thought and it was a busy time for my family — except for Pam who immediately replied to my text with, “I’d like a guest!”

In the end, the trip didn’t happen. And now, even before I get home on this ride, I’m thinking about next summer. Hopefully I could visit my brother and sister. Perhaps I could squeeze in a trip to Montana. At one time in my life, before my taste of the salt air on the Gulf Mexico, the Rocky Mountains felt as important as oxygen to me. It has been a long time since I’ve inhaled mountain air. On a motorcycle, you ride in the environment, the mountain air is delivered directly and unfiltered.

And despite that my original plans now seem among those things labeled, “too late,” I’m riding a motorcycle home from Minnesota. If I’m honest with myself, I know part of it is an attempt to avoid dealing with things my mind won’t accept. But part of it is the awareness that I want to do such things while I still can. Bells will eventually toll for me, too.

In yet another small town with no name, this time in Ohio, I pulled a u-turn and stopped to simply look at an abandoned church. I wondered how long it had been since a Christmas service had been held there. Is anyone who sat in a pew still around? Are they still alive? From hindsight, time passes by so very quickly. It is relentless and frequently ruthless about it. We sometimes think, “This is how I am forever” or “This will be remembered (or will be here) forever” and none of that is true. For better or worse, things change with each passing day. Usually for the better, we have a new chance at life with each sunrise. But eventually we have to realize that the sunrises are finite. 

As I get older, I want to keep doing what I enjoy. Sometimes that takes practice, sometimes luck; often it’s both. The first time I ever sat on a BMW G310R motorcycle with the engine running was to release the clutch to drive away from the dealership in suburban Minneapolis on the bike I had just purchased. I rode away into wind and cold rain and never looked back.

“I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine — and before we know it our lives are gone. 

The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

Sterling Hayden in Wanderer

Off the freeway I was surprised that eastern Ohio was blessed with great roads…and Tim Hortons.

The bike can handle the freeway, I’m just less than thrilled to be there, especially on I-80 through Pennsylvania, which is basically the Indy 500 for giant trucks, too often also mascarading as a demolition derby. After 80 miles I bailed out and returned to the relative peace of the backroads. I tried talking to my sister but if she replied, I couldn’t hear her voice in my helmet. 

The last 200 miles of the ride home took place in warm autumn rain showers mixed with terrifying bouts of impenetrable fog. For the entire ride I had difficulty actually envisioning riding this bike up our driveway, being greeted by my wife, Michelle. In more than a few terrifying moments, it felt like there was a reason for that. In thick fog on a few mountain passes, it was sheer good fortune there wasn’t an 18-wheeler behind me as I slowed to near stops in  zero visibility.

In the end, the motorcycle did everything I had asked of it and more. It was not only easy to ride, it was downright fun. If I had anything at all to suggest to the good people in Bavaria, it would be to add hazard lights. But I’m not sure that even search lights would have been sufficient to penetrate the fog that I experienced. 

The roads became less direct through Pennsylvania and one convenience store chain replaced another in regional preference (oh, and Turkey Hill? It’s downright unAmerican to tell travelers that your gas station / convenience store does not have a restroom).

On this trip I sang the same handful of rock tunes ad naseum; I raised my hands from the controls in victories only I knew, hooted and hollered, swore and shuddered in fear. I was also stunned and amazed, often frozen and sometimes wet. I was heartened by the  compassion and kindness of others.

And eventually, the little bike rolled up our steep driveway, with Michelle waving happily in greeting. For the past 1,300 miles I simply couldn’t imagine it. But now, I can’t imagine anything else. For that I’m grateful.

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

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