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.
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.
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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.
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
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.