Ninja 400 setup

I took a trip (in my car) to the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee in the summer of 2020 to visit my friend and ride her husband’s Honda Grom through the mountains with her. This was my first trip – ever! – of this distance that I did alone, even in a car. It was life-changing for me, as a rider (um, hello, Tail of the Dragon?) but also as a woman and as an individual.

For me, the craving for long-distance motorcycle trips started with the desire to ride on my own, away from my husband and friends. Then it turned into a hobby of examining local maps, finding new roads I hadn’t ridden before that would still have me home before dinner or at least nightfall. In my second season of riding, I longed for the open road, and my bike upgrades led me to being more capable, as did my growing propensity for doing things, especially riding, alone.

Grom in the Great Smoky Mountains
My first time on the Tail of the Dragon on a borrowed Honda Grom. You can’t tell from this photo, but inside I am brewing a passion for cornering, and cornering fast. Deals Gap, TN

That trip in 2020 intensified my craving for longer motorcycle adventures, but I wasn’t ready to accept it yet. Instead, another craving – for speed and lean angle – called me in 2021, and I found myself going to the track as often as I could. After a season of ups and downs, winter arrived in Northern Kentucky, and all I could think about was how I wanted to set off and ride somewhere. And I wanted to do it alone.

Related Story: Alone: Onward Through the Fog

Cue my Tennessee friend. What better place to ride to? She was about four hours from me on the highway and seven on backroads. I would have a safe, free place to stay, and I would be close enough that she or my husband could pick me up if something went truly wrong. I asked her about making the trip, and she enthusiastically said yes. Then I had to wait until the weather was nice enough to make the trek.

Other things fell into place: I obtained two smaller Kriega motorcycle bags and purchased heated gear. I started reading and learning about long distance riding and discovered my love for planning. I pored over both paper and digital maps and travel review sites online, meticulously developing an itinerary for a 7-hour backroads jaunt to her house, complete with timed breaks during pre-planned stops at the highest-rated shops and restaurants in the towns I would be riding through.

Mapping out the Great Smoky Mountains route.
My process of planning a long-distance trip involves looking at travel brochures or catalogs for interesting places, planning stops about an hour apart, and using travel websites or GPS apps to locate restaurants, cafes, and shops that I would like to try while I’m there. This is because I might love eating, drinking tea, and buying trinkets almost as much as riding. Map of my route in Kentucky

By the way, my 2021 Kawasaki Ninja 400 is not technically a touring bike, not even a little bit. But it’s what I’ve got, and I was too far gone to stop now. The Ninja runs my heated jacket and glove liners adequately, it’s not too loud, it has a decent amount of power, and it can sustain highway speeds without revving too high. I’m short, at 5 feet, 2 inches, so ergonomically the bars aren’t that low for me, and my legs aren’t crouched up too high. Add a pair of padded shorts, and I am fairly comfortable on this bike.

Related Story: Kawasaki Ninja 400 ABS First Ride Review

I had to play Tetris with my luggage. I had only a borrowed 30L Kriega drypack, a miniscule 10L Kriega, and a magnetic tank “purse” a little smaller than that, all to hold luggage for an over-packer for three days. I quickly learned that I would need more storage if I were to buy any souvenirs, as I was wont to do. Regardless, I was finally ready to go.

Related Story: Kriega Trail18 Adventure Backpack Review

Packing in Knoxville
I had to get creative with how to fit everything in my bags and how to (and how not to) stack them on the bike. I managed a workable positioning on the way home as I stopped in the trendy downtown area of Knoxville to adjust. Knoxville, TN

As soon as I finally set out, 20 minutes late for my tight itinerary, I learned my first lesson – timing is never what you think it will be. Between being late to set out and some setbacks related to GPS and stopping to adjust things, I arrived at my first stop more than an hour late. On a trip like this, making up time is almost impossible, so I was on a race to beat the sunset as soon as I started. I bought a mug to remember the occasion, and while rushing to cram it in my overstuffed bags, I dropped it, and it shattered. I decided to just move on.

Beans coffee shop with mug and muffin
After enjoying my muffin and Earl Grey in a cute mug at my first stop, a nice coffee shop named Beans, I purchased a mug as a souvenir. As I was putting it into my over-stuffed drypack, it fell and broke. Dry Ridge, KY

My next few stops were to a favorite restaurant in my alma mater town of Lexington, Kentucky, to meet a friend. That’s when I discovered that half of my allotted stop time was eaten up with the donning and doffing of gear. I took the highway to my next stop, Berea, to try to make up some time. Riding on the highway seems to take more out of me than on backroads, so I spent a few extra minutes resting at Berea Coffee and Tea Co.

Berea downtown
Berea’s downtown area was cute and quaint. I enjoyed the Earl Grey tea that I purchased and was delighted to find a visitor shop next door that I didn’t know about beforehand. It was fun to adlib a little. Berea, KY

I continued my trip to Corbin, Kentucky, via backroads. When I arrived, I opened my phone to many text messages that a storm was coming. It had just started raining at my friend’s house. I had to quickly decide whether I booked a hotel in Corbin and weathered the storm or busted out my Frogg Toggs and continued. For some odd reason, I was excited at the notion of riding in the rain, and the radar looked like I wouldn’t hit the rain until closer to my friends’ house, so I went for it. I took off on the two-hour highway ride to my destination.

Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, because this turned out to be the most exciting part of the ride. The sun had set so I couldn’t gauge the rain by examining the sky, and I couldn’t check the radar unless I pulled over, so I spent my ride wondering when it would start raining. Every bug on my visor was a potential onslaught of rain in my mind. The anticipation was teasing me for almost two hours, until it finally did start raining, only eight minutes from her house.

There I was, alone, in the starless mountains, on a sportbike, in the rain. I can’t imagine what I must have looked like as I rode slowly and carefully around the corners, on the race line to reduce my lean angle as much as possible, with a row of four vehicles behind me surely willing me to get out of the way. Every switchback and hairpin and blind corner were terrifying yet inspired me to continue. Spare seconds to take my hand off and wipe my rain-soaked visor were few and far between.

When I pulled up to her house and her warm, dry garage, it took a minute to hit me that I had made it. Not just through that intense rain, but clear from the northern border of Kentucky down the entire state and into Tennessee. I was out on my bike, alone, for almost 12 hours. I didn’t turn around, or stay in Corbin, or call for help. I didn’t give up – I DID IT! But the trip wasn’t a success to me until I made it home.

After spending a day with my friend, I veered off course on my final day of the trip to ride in the mountains, thoroughly not expecting to get lost with no cell signal on a road with some of the sharpest hairpins and most drastic elevation changes I’ve experienced. My trusty offline maps had me follow a one-lane, my least favorite type of road, that ran next to a creek for more than six miles. It was yet another terrifying but adrenaline-enhancing, beautiful, and freeing experience that seems to have cured up my former fear of one-lane roads.

As I neared where I had taken my first stop two days prior, I thought again of that mug I had dropped. I decided, as the sun was setting both literally and figuratively on my ride home, that I would stop there again and buy another one. This mug represents my first long-distance trip and the completion of my journey discovering new confidence and independence. I thought it fitting that the first stop on my first solo trip also be my last stop, but this certainly won’t be my last solo trip.

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  1. Congrats on your first solo road trip!!! You’ve learned a lot, and it just keeps getting better!!! I ride my NINJA to The Dragon every year from the Missouri Ozarks by myself while my family goes to church camp in Cincinnati. My first year was on a 2017 NINJA 300 ABS KRT, and now a 2018 NINJA 650 ABS KRT. Here’s a link to this year’s trip write-up:
    Hope to see you there next year!!!

  2. I Love your courage! Your transparency shines through as you shared all the hiccups and lessons learned with readers like me. I can only imagine how wide my smile would be if I found myself in the smokies riding a Grom. That one is going on my #bucketList.
    I am in the early days of my adventure. A passion for life on two wheels. The idea of exploring and challenging myself, taking risks and sharpening my skills all give me the grins. I’ve had my M license since January. Today was my FIRST test drive. Riding a bike outside of the msf environment while the Kids were at school & hubby was at work; I had a blast.
    The RE himalayan has just fanned the flames.
    Re-lighting A fire under my rear-end once again.
    I can hardly wait to find “that-one” for sale or back in stock and I too can follow in the footsteps of women riders who show us how it’s done. Riders just like you!! Thank you Carley!

  3. VERY IMPRESSIVE !!! I would only change one thing for future trips. Your luggage situation. You need to be packing low not high. Packing high Jenga like you had to on that first trip is very unstable for the bike.

  4. Love your trip! But now you have a better idea of how to alot your time. 🙂
    Oh and you mentioned “padded shorts”?!! Where do you get those?!


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