Recommended by Ricochet Members Created with Sketch. A Wandering Essay

 

Everybody talks about how they’d love to go on a cross-country motorcycle trip, with nothing but a motorcycle and a tent, to see North America for months at a time. I did that. Not once, but twice, in the early 1990s. I had a great time, and I learned a lot. As J.R.R. Tolkien pointed out, all who wander are not lost. I knew what I was doing (or, at least, I thought I did at the time) and I had wonderful experiences that I wouldn’t trade for anything. I also wasted a lot of time and effort, but I’ve forgotten about most of that. I remember the wonderful experiences. Life is funny like that.

Sometimes, it’s good to wander a bit. You never know what you might find. You often find more interesting things when you’re not looking for anything in particular. If you feel like wandering a bit, seeking nothing in particular, you’re welcome to join me on this appropriately unfocused essay. If you seek a well-organized examination of a specific topic, you might consider scrolling on past. I’ll leave it up to you. It might make all the difference to take the road less traveled by. Or it might be a waste of your time. Hard to say, I suppose.

My first trip was right after college graduation – I went with a friend, and we traveled together, making it all the way to Gunnison, CO, when we ran out of money and had to get jobs to pay for the next part of our trip. I was washing dishes at a dude ranch when I was accepted to medical school and left the next morning. My friend had found a girl there, who worked housekeeping at the dude ranch. He stayed a while longer and came back east in a few weeks.

My next trip was after my first year of medical school. I went by myself this time, in an effort to clear my head after a stressful first year. On this trip, I went out through Colorado, turned north at the Rockies, then caught the Alaskan Highway in British Columbia and rode the whole thing, eventually ending up in Fairbanks. I kicked around Alaska a bit, then followed the west coast down, as best I could, and caught a ferry for my bike on the Inside Passage to Vancouver Island. I then continued to follow the west coast down to mid-California, until I had to head home to get back to school.

If you add up both trips, I was on the road, in a tent, for a little over seven months.

I learned a lot of skills, most of which are unhelpful. I learned how to pack a duffel bag so that soft stuff would be facing forward, so I’d have something comfortable to lean against on my bike. I learned (from an old WWII vet I met at a campsite, who had slept on the ground in Europe for nearly two years), to dig two shallow holes before I set up my tent, appropriately spaced so when I laid out my sleeping bag inside my tent, my shoulders would be in one, and my hips in the other. So much more comfortable. I learned that if you’re at a campsite and you tell somebody how nice their RV is, sometimes they’ll give you hot dogs and you won’t have to eat rice that night. I learned to keep my warm clothes in a garbage bag, so if my duffel bag got soaked in a rainstorm, I’d have something warm and dry to sleep in that night.

I took absolutely no interstates. Back roads the whole way. I stayed in campsites sometimes (especially when I got sick to death of rice and really wanted a hot dog), but really tried to find places to pitch a tent out of the way, by myself. Tent campsites were generally $5-10 per night, so if I could avoid them I could save a couple hundred bucks a month. For example, this picture is my campsite in a gravel pit a few hours from Skagway, Alaska.

I brought a small Coleman cookstove, and a small Dutch oven, so I could cook nearly anything. But traveling on a budget, I ate a lot of rice. I’d boil the rice with a little bullion, to make it more palatable. Sometimes I’d make pancakes, as demonstrated in this gag picture, in which I pretend to douse the pancakes with bug spray, hoping that internal consumption of DEET would help protect me from the Yukon Air Force (my God, they have mosquitos there).

I met a lot of wonderful people. I learned that girls love guys on motorcycles, and I was occasionally distracted from my journey by unforeseen delays that were not my fault. But those delays often gave me an opportunity to get cleaned up, get a decent meal or two, and sleep in a real bed instead of on the ground for a few days. Plus other benefits. But nevermind.

As you can see from this picture of my bike in South Dakota, I rode a Honda Gold Wing. It was the first year they made Gold Wings, 1976 I think, so it was nearly 20 years old at the time. I bought it from a retired janitor at my old high school – he was too old to ride anymore and was pleased that his bike would see more adventures. He sold it to me on the condition that I would return after my trip and show him my pictures.

This was before Gold Wings had all the extras – the fairing, saddlebags, etc., are all aftermarket. It was a 1,000cc opposing four, with a nice low center of gravity, and lots of torque. So-so gas mileage. Especially when loaded like this. Shaft drive, thank goodness. Big, heavy, and smooth. Perfect for being overloaded like this on a long trip.

I kept my stuff in a Vietnam-era military duffel bag, which doubled as a backrest. The brown bag on top is my tent, and on top of that is the sweater I wore on and off essentially every day when it got brisk. The red thing behind that is a band saw for firewood, and beneath that is a folded up atlas. This was before internet, cell phones, and GPS. I used a full-face Bell helmet, and had a black tank bag with a clear map compartment on top.

I wore jeans, combat boots, t-shirts, that sweater, a black leather jacket, and black leather chaps essentially every day for seven months. This picture from the lava beds in central Oregon was my typical wardrobe. What can I say – I’ve always been a fashion plate.

I had a few close scrapes, but the only time I felt that I had a real problem was on June 16, 1992, in northeast Yellowstone Park. The weather was getting worse and worse – it was around 40F and driving rain. I was starting to wonder how much more of this I could stand, when I saw a convenient spot to camp, in a discreet place maybe 50 yards off the road, on a trail which my bike could handle even in the rain.

Of course, when you set up a tent in a rainstorm, everything gets wet. So I crawled into my wet sleeping bag in my wet clothes and piled everything I could find on top of me, to try to stay warm. I froze my tail off all night – too cold to sleep. But the noise from the rain finally stopped in the middle of the night, so I figured I’d be out of there at first light. When the sun came up I stuck my nose out of the tent and found six inches of snow. I was stuck.

I stayed in my sleeping bag for four days and nights, trying to stay warm. I’d cook rice on my cookstove inside the tent, and it warmed it up a bit, but I would get a headache from the carbon monoxide, and would have to air out the tent with cold, wet air. Reading my journal from those days is rough. That was a low point.

But in general, I had just a wonderful time. And the bad times fade in memory, while the good times become more prominent.

Not long after the fiasco in Wyoming, I met a nice girl who worked at a truck stop in British Columbia and we camped on the beach of a lovely lake there for a few days. The picture is of me complaining to her while she screws around with my camera. It’s amazing how much fun you can have on a few dollars a day. Now I live with an absolutely wonderful woman in a million-dollar house on a golf course in Hilton Head and sometimes I’m miserable. Strange, isn’t it?

I could go on and on, but you have better things to do and so do I. More important things, at least.

I’ve had a wonderful life so far. I can’t complain but sometimes I still do. I have no idea why.

If I retire someday, I’d love to wander around a bit more. It’s amazing the stuff you find when you’re not looking for anything in particular.

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  1. RightAngles Member

    Wow! You could’ve been killed by a bear! Or exposure! What a great adventure, which I’m sure must have changed you forever. I’ve only camped for maybe a week at a time at most, and what I remember is that there wasn’t a single Bloomingdale’s to be found. And look how cute you are! No wonder all those girls gave you a place to sleep. Or whatever it was you were doing

    • #1
    • December 14, 2019, at 10:26 AM PST
    • 18 likes
  2. Kay of MT Member

    I had those same wandering urges when I was your age, even to the point of living in the Sierra Nevadas at nearly 7000 feet with 2 young children, in an A-Frame one year. They both remember it as the best year of their lives. Even buried under a 30 foot snow pack. This was in 1970-1971.

    You sure do look like you were having a very good time. Wonderful memories.

    • #2
    • December 14, 2019, at 10:26 AM PST
    • 12 likes
  3. John H. Member
    John H. Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    everything gets wet

    Indeed it does!

    • #3
    • December 14, 2019, at 10:26 AM PST
    • 6 likes
  4. Henry Castaigne Member

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    Wow! You could’ve been killed by a bear!

    He smelled like DEET. He would have tasted funny. 

    • #4
    • December 14, 2019, at 10:54 AM PST
    • 10 likes
  5. danok1 Member

    I’ve always had that urge to just go wander about, but never acted on it. I told my wife that when I retire, I want to sell the house, get an RV, and just roam around NA. SWMBO is having none of it; her idea of camping is staying at a Holiday Inn Express.

    • #5
    • December 14, 2019, at 11:13 AM PST
    • 9 likes
  6. Kay of MT Member

    What we do in our 20’s does not equate with what we would do in our 80’s.

    • #6
    • December 14, 2019, at 11:53 AM PST
    • 5 likes
  7. Retail Lawyer Member

    Is this a great country or what? Where else can this be done? I try to go on a motorcycle tour every summer, though on lighter machines than you had. I have had so much bad weather in Montana and Wyoming I might not try those again. My only tough spot was on Hwy 89 in Montana where the highway became greasy mud for about 20 miles (construction) and my front tire would pick up enough mud to pack it under the fender and act like a brake, causing me to fall over and rely on the kindness of strangers, to get the motorcycle back up. I was strong enough, but couldn’t get footing in the greasy mud. Repeatedly. I’ll never forget finally getting to pavement, getting up some speed, and looking at all the mud being flung out in front of me, lit up by the headlight in the dark, in pouring rain, and some of it hitting my helmet or windshield as I rode through it. I thought no one would ever give me a motel room, dripping mud as I was, but the lady did not bat an eye.

    • #7
    • December 14, 2019, at 12:19 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  8. Arahant Member

    Thanks for the tales of youthful adventure.

    • #8
    • December 14, 2019, at 2:21 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  9. Kay of MT Member

    Retail Lawyer (View Comment):
    the lady did not bat an eye

    We take things in stride up here.

    • #9
    • December 14, 2019, at 2:30 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  10. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    looks like they changed the sign. This was on the Alaska Highway in 1999. Appears to be the same slope behind it though.

    • #10
    • December 14, 2019, at 4:37 PM PST
    • 7 likes
  11. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat

    Miffed White Male (View Comment):

    looks like they changed the sign. This was on the Alaska Highway in 1999. Appears to be the same slope behind it though.

    Very cool!

    • #11
    • December 14, 2019, at 4:40 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  12. Housebroken Thatcher

    danok1 (View Comment):

    I’ve always had that urge to just go wander about, but never acted on it. I told my wife that when I retire, I want to sell the house, get an RV, and just roam around NA. SWMBO is having none of it; her idea of camping is staying at a Holiday Inn Express.

    Any youngsters reading this – do it now, because I’m the voice of experience here to tell you “in a few years” or “after I retire” is a recipe for disappointment. Doc built a memory bank that nobody can take away, and that’s better than something moth and rust destroy, and thieves break in and steal.

    • #12
    • December 14, 2019, at 4:45 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  13. Skyler Coolidge

    I would die quickly on a motorcycle. I’m not afraid of a motorcycle, but I know I am too reckless to live very long on one.

    I drove across the continent seven times. It didn’t take me seven months, but I really liked being alone.

    • #13
    • December 14, 2019, at 4:46 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  14. Arahant Member

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I would die quickly on a motorcycle. I’m not afraid of a motorcycle, but I know I am too reckless to live very long on one.

    Get a fast plane, instead.

    • #14
    • December 14, 2019, at 5:48 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  15. Skyler Coolidge

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Skyler (View Comment):
    I would die quickly on a motorcycle. I’m not afraid of a motorcycle, but I know I am too reckless to live very long on one.

    Get a fast plane, instead.

    I’d die even faster in one of those. I just fixed them. 

    • #15
    • December 14, 2019, at 5:51 PM PST
    • 5 likes
  16. Cow Girl Thatcher

    What a great thing to do!! You were smart to do it when you were young–good memories are made of this. I lived in Wyoming from birth till high school graduation. Our farm was 150 miles south of Yellowstone: altitude 6400 feet. It can, and does, snow whenever Mother Nature feels like it!

    One summer, after high school, I was a waitress in Jackson Hole earning money for college. On July 4th, the highway had to be closed at the south entrance of Yellowstone Park because…snow. One of my tables had a group of shivering people wearing shorts and windbreakers. When I said that they should probably wear their long pants today, they replied that they didn’t bring any on their trip. They were from Florida, and had definitely not researched their Yellowstone Park vacation too well.

    But you were definitely prepared! Leather jackets and chaps–full face helmet! It looks like a terrific journey.

    • #16
    • December 14, 2019, at 5:54 PM PST
    • 9 likes
  17. Concretevol Thatcher

    Skyler (View Comment):

    I would die quickly on a motorcycle. I’m not afraid of a motorcycle, but I know I am too reckless to live very long on one.

    I drove across the continent seven times. It didn’t take me seven months, but I really liked being alone.

    All the more reason to get one. The only way to go is travelling at a high rate of speed cackling like a madman right until the fireball. :)

    • #17
    • December 14, 2019, at 5:56 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  18. Concretevol Thatcher

    Dr. Bastiat: It’s amazing the stuff you find when you’re not looking for anything in particular.

    I find this to be so very true. Great post!

    • #18
    • December 14, 2019, at 5:57 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  19. Arahant Member

    Concretevol (View Comment):
    The only way to go is travelling at a high rate of speed cackling like a madman right until the fireball. :)

    Amen, brother. Preach it!

    • #19
    • December 14, 2019, at 6:11 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  20. Miffed White Male Member
    Miffed White Male Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Cow Girl (View Comment):
    One summer, after high school, I was a waitress in Jackson Hole earning money for college. On July 4th, the highway had to be closed at the south entrance of Yellowstone Park because…snow. One of my tables had a group of shivering people wearing shorts and windbreakers. When I said that they should probably wear their long pants today, they replied that they didn’t bring any on their trip. They were from Florida, and had definitely not researched their Yellowstone Park vacation too well.

    In Mid-July 1982 I was backpacking with two friends in Glacier National Park and we got snowed out of the high country. The three of us were sleeping in a two man tent at the Sperry Chalet campground. The snow collapsed the tent in the middle of the night. We grabbed our sleeping bags and made a run for the chalet until morning.

     

    Making dinner the night before, and outside the chalet the morning after:

     

     

    • #20
    • December 14, 2019, at 6:52 PM PST
    • 11 likes
  21. Joseph Stanko Coolidge
    Joseph Stanko Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    You wrote this whole essay just so you’d have an excuse to post a shirtless photo of yourself in your twenties, didn’t you? 

    • #21
    • December 14, 2019, at 7:57 PM PST
    • 12 likes
  22. Skyler Coolidge

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    You wrote this whole essay just so you’d have an excuse to post a shirtless photo of yourself in your twenties, didn’t you?

    There are worse reasons.

    • #22
    • December 14, 2019, at 8:41 PM PST
    • 6 likes
  23. Reese Member
    Reese Joined in the first year of Ricochet Ricochet Charter Member

    Great story. Thanks! Pitchin’ a tent in the rain. Been there, dude.

    For me it was six weeks on $400 (1982 dollars). Sold everything after “graduating” high school, except for camping stuff and a 1978 Kawasaki KZ-650. Starting in Albuquerque and aiming for Montreal (I wanted to speak French), I started running out of money at about Oshawa. Camping on the north shore of Lake Erie Ontario with Ontarians pouring Molsens down my gullet was fun for a just-barely 18-year-old kid from New Mexico.

    Elsewhere, people are really willing to be hospitable, like the rural cop in Oklahoma that (after checking me out while I sat in his AC’d patrol car– I forget why he was checking me out) escorted me to his own land to set up my camp for the night. Aunt in Kansas, uncles in St. Louis and Chicago. (Avatar is re-enactment.)

    Nearly out of said money, I headed straight south (well, got around Lake Erie first) on major highways to pick up I-40 in Knoxville. Caught the World’s Fair there. Soviet and Mexican pavilions seemed pitiful to me. Mainly I remember the big orb and pretty girls in the Tennessee heat.

    Had to high-tail it home to get on the plane to boot camp. Hooked up with another rider for the last few hundred miles. Wonder whatever became of him.

    Like you said, the bad memories fade, but the good ones stay sharp. At least that’s the way I remember it.

    • #23
    • December 14, 2019, at 8:49 PM PST
    • 10 likes
  24. Mark Camp Member

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    What we do in our 20’s does not equate with what we would do in our 80’s.

    A man longs to do in his 80’s exactly what he did or longed to do in his 20’s.

    A woman wants not to do the same thing, both times.

    • #24
    • December 14, 2019, at 8:51 PM PST
    • 3 likes
  25. Mark Camp Member

    Joseph Stanko (View Comment):

    You wrote this whole essay just so you’d have an excuse to post a shirtless photo of yourself in your twenties, didn’t you?

    Not also to post the other stuff about himself in his twenties?

    No, certainly not.

    • #25
    • December 14, 2019, at 8:55 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  26. Skyler Coolidge

    Mark Camp (View Comment):

    Kay of MT (View Comment):

    What we do in our 20’s does not equate with what we would do in our 80’s.

    A man longs to do in his 80’s exactly what he did or longed to do in his 20’s.

    A woman wants not to do the same thing, both times.

    A very long time ago, my dad told me life is backwards. When you’re young and can do a lot of things, you don’t have the money or the time. When you’re older and have the money and the time, you can’t do much anymore.

    I took that to heart and did as much as I could when I was younger. Either that or I couldn’t get any girl to marry me.

    Anyway, a while ago I made a quick spread sheet where I listed every year of my life, and alongside each year I listed where I lived and major events that year. It was limited to one year per line.

    I learned two things by doing that. First, your life looks really short at one line per year. There are 66 lines on a standard typewritten page.

    Second, I learned that I don’t need a bucket list. As I reviewed each year in my mind and had to pare down events to fit on one line, I realized I’d done a lot of stuff in my brief one page life.

    I think I’m due for an update on that list.

    • #26
    • December 14, 2019, at 9:03 PM PST
    • 12 likes
  27. TBA Coolidge
    TBA

    Dude’s got that Halcyon look. 

    • #27
    • December 14, 2019, at 10:20 PM PST
    • 2 likes
  28. Kay of MT Member

    Skyler (View Comment):

    Second, I learned that I don’t need a bucket list. As I reviewed each year in my mind and had to pare down events to fit on one line, I realized I’d done a lot of stuff in my brief one page life.

    I think I’m due for an update on that list.

    I would not be able to pare down what I have done in my 80+ years. I would need to write a book. A lot of things I’d still like to do, but lack the finances, or the physical ability.

    • #28
    • December 14, 2019, at 10:41 PM PST
    • 8 likes
  29. Gazpacho Grande' Coolidge

    Thanks Doc! Great story.

    • #29
    • December 15, 2019, at 4:38 AM PST
    • 3 likes
  30. Dr. Bastiat Member
    Dr. Bastiat

    RightAngles (View Comment):
    And look how cute you are! No wonder all those girls gave you a place to sleep. Or whatever it was you were doing

    I corrected your first sentence. That is a “were.” This was nearly 30 years ago. My wife would forcefully point out that those days are over.

    Next, your phrase, “…or whatever you were doing…” What are you suggesting? What made you so suspicious of the motivations of innocent young men? Hmph…

    • #30
    • December 15, 2019, at 6:02 AM PST
    • 7 likes