I was doing a valve adjustment on a vintage BMW at home in southwestern Pennsylvania as my then 13-year-old son Parker looked on. “You know, Park, 20 years ago I rode a bike like this one across the country.” Pause. “Maybe I should take a 20th anniversary ride to the West Coast and back.” Without hesitation, Parker replied, “Make it the 25th anniversary and I’ll go with you!”
The thought of traveling across the country by motorcycle with my son was a fabulous notion. But, while such an adventure with Dad might seem fantastical to a kid, surely new priorities would squeeze out this plan by the time he turned 18. Yet, Parker continued to research the trip, propose routes, and suggest must-see attractions. We pored over maps and travel books. We read Blue Highways – him for the first time and me for the third – about the wonders of traveling America’s two-lane highways. This whimsical idea was evolving from abstract to absolute.
We still had his mother to convince. I reassured her Parker would first get the requisite training and emphasized how this trip would allow the boy to develop his skills while under my constant observation. I would avoid setting firm daily destinations and, instead, we would stop when we got tired. Or sooner. We would send her updates from the road, and she could track our progress through the Spot satellite tracker software. Disapprovingly, she gave her approval.
After years of preparation, the faraway date arrived. Family, friends, and a couple neighbors I don’t think I’d ever met gathered to give us a proper send-off. Parker and I slipped the bikes – him on a Triumph Bonneville Thunderbird and me on a BMW R 1150 R, both heavily laden with luggage – into gear and eased onto the road, leaving family and friends waving in the mirrors. The made-for-TV moment was made a little less dramatic when I had to ride back for my wallet, but it was still pretty cool.
Escaping the familiar landscape of Pittsburgh, we picked up U.S. Route 50 west heading into unknown territories for Parker. After nagging technology issues, we abandoned the bike-to-bike radio comms and went old-school. Although we were traveling just a few bike lengths apart, we would experience the road individually. Later, when we stopped for gas or food, or at the end of the day, we would recall what we saw and thought about. I’d nearly forgotten how special such conversations can be. It was satisfying to see how much Parker was enjoying the experience and connecting with the magic of back roads and small-town America.
A pivotal moment was when we stopped in historic Madison, Indiana, for a bite. As we strolled the sidewalk in search of a coffee shop, an older gentleman approached from the opposite direction. “Good morning!” he said joyfully. It was a standard social exchange except for one thing: instead of continuing to walk on by after the polite acknowledgement, the man stopped. We stopped. And right there, we began an impromptu conversation.
I think the scene threw Parker off for a moment, but he quickly embraced it. The man asked about our journey and listened with interest. He told us about his town and his life there. And, as we paused to engage with each other, strangers became acquaintances. The gentleman undoubtedly went on to tell others the story of the father-and-son two-wheel travelers he’d met, and Parker and I have shared the story of this kind and interesting man as well. This is the small-town friendliness and hospitality I was drawn to as a young solo traveler, and it was wonderful to see Parker discovering it as well.
That brings to mind another encounter. A man on his riding mower waved enthusiastically to Parker and me from his front yard as we rode by. We waved back with matched enthusiasm. About a mile ahead, Parker and I made a U-turn, deciding to circle back to explore an interesting store we’d passed. As we rode back by the mowing man, he was waving just as fervently as before. We waved again. Following our store visit, we traveled past the man and his mower for a third time. Sure enough, his arm was high in the air. That’s when Parker and I realized our new friend was a mannequin that had been placed on the riding mower, its arm propped in a permanent welcoming wave to passersby.
I’d ridden the interstate through Missouri and Kansas in the past and have little to recall – the super slab isolates travelers from the local culture. Parker and I rode into the heartland instead of past it. No rest-stop plazas for us; we visited family-owned restaurants and sampled the local flavors, like lengua (tongue) tacos at El Rancho in Syracuse, Kansas.
Traveling across the endless Great Plains gives one abundant time to think. Or get mischievous. Recognizing it was time to update Parker’s mother, we paused to take photos of each other performing “stunts,” including standing on the seat and riding without hands on the controls. We texted her the pictures with greetings from Kansas. In reality, the bikes were parked securely on their centerstands at the shoulder of the road, but the camera cropped out that little detail. Mom was not as amused as we were.
Eventually, the Rocky Mountains rose before us, and Parker had an opportunity to apply his training as we took to the demanding mountain passes of Colorado. I threw in a favorite 36-mile scenic dirt stretch known as Colorado River Road to show Parker the joys that can be found down a dirt road and to build his confidence riding unpaved surfaces on a loaded streetbike. We went on to conquer Independence Pass and, from there, got every penny out of the Million Dollar Highway, as we negotiated its daunting twists, turns, and drop-offs in the rain.
Just beyond Four Corners (the juncture of Arizona, Utah, Colorado, and New Mexico) an ominous black cloud loomed overhead. Afternoon Western storms can be severe and sometimes move slowly, an d, in this open territory, there is no place to duck for cover. I knew such storms were often isolated and this one appeared to be small, so with just one path available to get us to where we needed to go, we leaned toward the darkness and into an intense, blinding downpour. We emerged just a couple minutes later into sunny skies. I pulled over to make sure Parker was okay and to talk about the experience. He asked if I’d seen the other rider who had pulled over in the downpour to wait it out. With such a slow-moving storm, the guy was likely to get pelted for another hour or more.
Our path took us to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon and then over to America’s Mother Road, old U.S. Route 66. We wheeled into Seligman, Arizona, as night fell where an abundance of neon signs and classic American roadside attractions were abuzz. The next day, our kicks continued on Route 66 over to Kingman. Thinking Parker would enjoy seeing Las Vegas, we detoured north.
Unfortunately, my gamble on Vegas was a bust. Bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Strip plus 110-degree heat dealt us a bad hand. With no air movement, the heat inside our riding gear was unbearable. My air-cooled BMW’s valves rattled in protest each time I twisted the throttle. It wanted out, Parker wanted out, and I was more than willing to oblige. Without exploring a single casino, we fought our way back to the desert highway. We had taken a four-hour detour just to sit in Vegas traffic in sweltering heat. That’s when I learned just how much my son dislikes being hot.
It was 114 degrees in the desert. At 70 mph I opened my faceshield to get some relief from the heat inside my helmet only to meet a blast furnace of even hotter air. At a stop, I paid a fortune for two large bottles of water. After drinking a couple swigs of mine, I poured the rest onto my shirt to soak it down for evaporative cooling. Good idea had I not been wearing a moisture-wicking shirt. The water sluiced off the shirt and onto the hot pavement where it evaporated instantly. Parker laughed, and that was all it took to lighten the mood.
In contrast to the open desert highway, we went on to navigate the frenzied L.A. freeways and then we surfed the rad canyons of the Santa Monica Mountains above Malibu, ultimately winding our way back to U.S. Route 101. A right turn and we were tracing the coastline northward.
One night, with limited lodging options along a remote stretch of Highway 1 and daylight gone, we set up camp in the pitch blackness at a roadside pull-off. We could hear the ocean, so it must have been a prime spot. Come daylight, we found we’d pitched our tent less than 10 feet from the edge of a sheer cliff with a hundred-foot drop to the rocks below. Thankfully, neither of us stepped out to relieve ourselves in the middle of the night.
We stumbled upon Laguna Seca Raceway in Monterey and watched vintage sports cars practicing for the weekend’s races. We had the best eggs benedict breakfast ever in Carmel (Katy’s Place), rode on to San Francisco, did the Golden Gate Bridge thing, and then worked our way east away from the hustle and bustle into the serenity of the Eldorado National Forest and Lake Tahoe region. We’d seen countless small towns by this point, but none as small as Kyburz. A sign outside an old hotel read, “Welcome to Kyburz. Now leaving Kyburz.”
From Reno, we ventured onto “The Loneliest Road in America,” the endless stretch of U.S. Route 50 extending forward to the ends of the earth. No traffic. No animals. No gas stations – a disconcerting notion when the fuel light comes on and there is no sign of civilization for miles ahead and at least 120 miles to the rear.
Some 400 miles later, the wide-open nothingness eventually transitioned to the otherworldly landscape of Utah as we rode State Route 24 to Hanksville, where we established camp. A friendly dog warmed up to Parker and followed him everywhere he went, even tailing our bikes for a quarter-mile as we rolled out the next morning toward Moab.
Paralleling Interstate 70 on the more relaxed U.S. Route 6 back through Colorado was our blue highway choice. It’s amazing how different the experience is even a hundred yards off the interstate. We then crossed I-70, took a few more mountain passes to the north, and rose to 12,000 feet at Rocky Mountain National Park, ultimately wrapping the day in Cheyenne, Wyoming.
The casual travel and spontaneous side trips made for an unforgettable experience, but the time window of our journey was closing. Somewhere around Ogallala, Nebraska, we shifted from lazy blue highways to the frenzied Interstate 80 for the return stretch across Iowa, Illinois, and points east. Although we logged more than 700 miles one particular day, when asked what he saw throughout that day’s ride, Parker could only list cars, cornfields, and truck stops. A sharp contrast to the sensory-rich secondary roads we’d been enjoying previously.
In one giant protracted real-world riding session, Parker discovered an America unknown to many. An America that is still kind, compassionate, welcoming, and helpful. He also discovered more about himself, his values, and his character. As a traveler, Parker discovered how to handle a wide variety of riding and weather conditions and successfully navigate a traveler’s challenges. The experience made him an infinitely better rider, a more passionate traveler, and a true lover of small-town America.
Over our roughly 9,000-mile ride, we also learned a great deal about each other. We bonded over discovery and adventure. When we weren’t talking about bikes or travel, we talked about life. We discovered new aspects of each other and grew our mutual respect. Motorcycles have a way of bringing people closer – even those who are already quite close.
A month on the road with your dad isn’t what most 18-year-olds have in mind for the gap between high school and adult life
, but for me this was like a second graduation. It was the nod from my dad that I was ready to dive into the unknown. It was a sign of trust, but also an invitation to share in a lifelong passion. A welcoming to the club of discovery and the joys of no set plans, time for reflection, and seeing how much diversity this country has to offer while simultaneously learning what ties us all together.
There’s no way I could have known at age 13 that a few weeks after graduating high school was the perfect time for a trip like this. At the intersection of “my house, my rules” and total freedom was an opportunity to force a perspective shift. To reflect on who I wanted to become as an adult. To evolve my relationship with my dad. To put into perspective the sheer scale of this country I’d lived in for 18 years but had yet to experience. And to challenge myself, testing newly learned skills, and building my confidence to move from the passenger seat to the saddle, in more ways than one.
Over the course of this trip, I finished reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, a classic book about a father-and-son motorcycle journey. I was incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to do a trip like this and am grateful that my dad had the gumption to follow through and make it all happen. I had no clue the impact this trip would have on me as a rider, a son, and a person. Fourteen years later, Dad and I could still spend all day talking about the things we experienced together on this trip – leaving enough time, of course, to plan where we will go next. — Parker Trow