The room is dirt cheap and smells it. I’ve been on the road for five weeks now, mostly camping to save money, and as I lay on the squeaky bed counting flies on the ceiling, I’m suddenly sick for fresh air. But nothing feels fresh in this part of Philly. The only thing I can think to do is pack up the bike and ride.
Though it’s not even 4 a.m., I find a young guy in work clothes sitting on the curb between our rooms, undoubtedly waiting to be picked up for some ass-kicking shift. He watches as I load up my BMW R 1200 RT test bike. Beyond “Hi” we don’t share a language, and it’s clear he’s baffled by the middle-aged lady with the big motorcycle, but I get a double thumbs up as I throttle away.
My first task of the day is riding 200 miles north to swap the RT for a Honda Gold Wing Tour DCT. I’ve been testing bikes as I slowly crawl around America searching for its best roads. I tell people that when I return to the West Coast, I’ll write a book about what I’ve found, but really, it’s all an excuse to run. And yeah, we all know it’s not always the answer, but if you’re on the right bike, it sure can put some distance between you and dissatisfaction.
I’ve just returned from New Hampshire, Vermont, and Maine on the RT, and am not quite sure where to point the Gold Wing. The one thing I know for certain is I want to be somewhere memorable on my birthday, and I have just one day to get there.
THE KEYS TO A PLAN
Pancakes embody my love of the road. I never eat them at home, but boy how I love to tuck into a full stack with a side of bacon when I’m traveling by bike.
As I wait in a kitschy diner in upstate New York for a Honda rep and the fob to my fresh ride, I surf my notes, woven like a fragile net intended to encase what’s been meaningful about my trip so far. Everything is about the roads: their surface quality, the number of twists and undulations, surrounding scenery, traffic density, the character of the towns on either end. I feel taxed. Like rating so many roads has taken the fun out of riding.
I zoom in and out on my map, frustrated. Where to splurge on a birthday layover? And then I feel that familiar tickle. A wild hair. This time in the shape of the Florida Keys, with Key West a formidable 1,502 miles from my current location, and the start of my birthday just 36 hours away.
Just before noon, I’m shooting onto I-95 South aboard a candy red Gold Wing Tour. The bike, one of my perennial favorites, feels familiar, even in its modern, more lean and athletic form. The first time I tested a Gold Wing, it was a 1987 GL1500SE for Rider. I remember being transfixed by the way its enormity disappeared once it was moving. That sleight of hand has only become more pronounced over the years as Honda oh-so-slowly refined its Wing, especially in this sporty sixth-generation version, with its state-of-the-art rider aids and electronics.
CAT’S IN THE CRADLE
As the afternoon air thickens, I remember the poison ivy. Both of my ankles and shins are covered in an angry rash, punishment for getting a peek through the window of an overgrown church near Chesterhill, Ohio, a couple weeks back while I was checking out the famous Triple Nickel, Highway 555.
While trying to curb thoughts of ramming a hairbrush down my Sidi boots, I notice I’m buzzing New York City for the second time today. So close to the most important person in my life, my adult daughter, Hannah, who’s living in Brooklyn. You’d think I’d spend my birthday there, but the hard truth is, my kid just moved into a one-bedroom with a guy she’s super serious about, and I’ve already popped in and out too many times over the last couple weeks. It makes me feel all “Cat’s in the Cradle,” but I get it, and it feels right to give her space.
As a huge thunderhead slowly walks its way across the horizon, I shuffle through memories of rides a younger Hannah had taken behind me. Countless trips in the U.S., but also adventures to places like Namibia, Greece, Scotland, and South Africa. A couple days ago, I did manage to get her on the back of the RT for a little run up into the Catskills. Once away from the city, I felt her relax against the top case and sink into her love of being on the bike.
How satisfying it is to have someone in your life who understands the deeper value of motorcycles, who gets what it means to be called to the road. Because it’s not just about machines and transportation. A motorcycle is an open window, a free ticket to a fully immersive experience. Not a lifestyle. A way of living.
It’s pouring rain all the way from D.C. to Richmond, and I’m happy for the stability of the big Wing. I’ve signaled to the Tour model’s electronic suspension that I’m one-up with luggage and toggled to Rain mode in case there’s a slow down or emergency, but generally, the gyroscopic effect is the science I trust, and despite occasional hydroplaning and people in cars staring like I’m a wack job, I’m finding this part of the ride weirdly relaxing. Concentration and meditation are the same thing, after all, and as the day fades into a long, dark night, I realize I’m no longer ruminating over negative crap. Not even the itch of poison ivy is breaking through.
Once traffic lightens, it’s time to hit up a playlist via the Honda’s Apple CarPlay app. The intuitive infotainment system on the Gen 6 GL is easy to navigate, and smart features like LED lighting, multiple ride modes, traction control, walking reverse, and hill-start assist prove worthy accoutrements. It’s not my first tour with Honda’s automatic Dual Clutch Transmission, however, and it has yet to grow on me. Even in manual mode, I just don’t find it as satisfying as letting my highly trained left hand work its muscle memory magic.
My buzz flickers around 1 a.m. and I duck into a brightly lit Best Western in Florence, South Carolina. I don’t bother to unpack the bike. So far, I’ve knocked only 700 miles off my quest for Key West, but that’s on top of 200 pre-dawn miles to get the Wing and that sad, sleepless night in the dirty motel. I hit the pillow hard, my head empty for the first time in weeks. No route to choose for tomorrow, just jump back on the asphalt river and row south until the road ends.
THE ONLY ROAD THAT MATTERS
In the morning, I’m greeted by an unusual cotton-ball-strewn sky of mammatus clouds that warn me to get a move on. Georgia flies by, and with it goes any chance of riding twisty roads today. I take solace in knowing I have two weeks to ride and rank the mountain roads of Georgia, both Carolinas, and Virginia on my way to return the GL in New York.
And besides, it’s all too apparent this is exactly what I need right now. Tedium. Just a straight road, an empty head, and a comfortable motorcycle.
It’s just past 9 p.m. when I finally touch down on the famous Overseas Highway with 122 miles to go. It’s dark, but I’ve ridden this unique road and its 42 bridges so many times I can sense the bright color gradations of the surrounding waters. There is a familiar smell, too, a penetrating humidity that lingers in these islands like a briny musk.
Instead of feeling wrung out from the long ride, I’m wide awake. The miles from Big Pine Key to Key West are quiet and slow: dreamlike. Forgotten are complaints about the flies in my room in Philly, the rash on my ankles, my disillusionments back home, the baby girl who grew up.
In fact, I get a text from Hannah at 11:47 p.m., just as I’m crunching into the gravel parking lot of the historic inn I booked from a rest stop in Virginia. “Is this where you’re staying?” she asks. I’m moved that she’s followed my ride online, and I’ll cry tomorrow when balloons and a bouquet of birthday flowers arrive at my room.
It’s an awesome day of celebration. I ride a bicycle to a swimming beach, see my first six-toed Hemingway cat, eat seafood stew, and take in the sunset from Mallory Square. There’s a burlesque show, and finally, cake from a dimly lit dessert shop called Better Than Sex.
But the real gift of being in Key West is feeling cleansed by the long miles that brought me here. A reminder that an awesome ride isn’t always about a curvy road, scenery, or even the people with whom you share the ride.
Sometimes the best ride is as close as the seat of your motorcycle. And as far as a fast road will take you.