Austin Drawhorn

The Road to Road America

A new rider's experience on a 2500+ mi motorcycle trip

Why the hell did I do this?

Somewhere along the way to Wisconsin — maybe in Iowa? — I was chatting with someone I had just met at a bar and was asked why I was doing this; Why I was riding all the way to Wisconsin from Colorado, and especially why I was riding back solo. I got asked this a lot, and it never got easier to answer.

Fundamentally I was riding back to the state I grew up in, and to the race series/race track I had been to a handful of times growing up. This simple answer understandably never seemed to be enough, and was usually met with an odd look and a ‘good luck.’ 

If I barely understood, how could anyone else?

As I explore the real answer to that question, and share a bit of my background, maybe it’ll convince you to take that stupid-long trip you’ve been dreaming up for a while. 

Or convince you to start dreaming up something else entirely. 

Setting off: clean bikes, free of bugs, no real idea what to expect. That's John on the right, who joined for the trip to WI

The bike

I’m still very new to motorcycles — one motorcycle, 8 months of riding, 9,000 miles (post trip) new. If you think you need to be riding for years (or even a full year) to make a trip like this happen, that answer is easy: you don’t. 

I ride a 2021 Royal Enfield Himalayan: a 411cc, 26hp retro-inspired adventure bike. Highest speed reached on a giant downhill: 90mph. On flat ground it’ll do 80mph with the wind, and 65mph against a strong wind. 

If you think you need a fast motorcycle to make a long trip work, that answer's easy too: you don't

Would more power make it easier to fight direct wind or maintain speed on an uphill: probably. Would a 6th gear make cruising at speed more comfortable on you and the bike? Definitely. 

A bike you can sit on for an hour/hour-and-a-half at a time, in good working order and generally reliable, that can reach the speeds listed above and carry whatever you’re bringing along is all you actually need.

The background

Traveling long distances, by car not motorcycle, was not new to me, and I leaned heavily on that experience throughout the trip. 

I’ve taken a handful of 4,000mi+ road trips over the years for work and fun, mostly across the American Southwest and PNW, and recently through the Smoky Mountains. 

I genuinely enjoy driving, set realistic(low) expectations, and have experience with the basics of travel: arranging lodging and feeding myself. I’m stubborn, have no need for luxury, prepare decently well for things, and generally love adventures that lead to good stories and photos. 

All of these things helped me on this trip. You could probably make it work if you have some experience or a decent mindset, but with neither of these it’d be a helluva lot more challenging.

Plenty of time for photo stops

The strategy

Pack light; avoid highways whenever possible; stay hydrated; eat when hungry (and not just fast food); take frequent breaks to stretch and relax; aim for 300mi/day; don’t pass up photos; beers only when the bike is parked for the night; enjoy the ride. That’s the trip right there! 

One 30L dry bag, a 10L dry bag, three pouches for drinks, and a small magnetic tank bag. 

Just enough clothes, hygiene stuff, snacks, bike gear/tools, and tech to be comfortable. Wanted the bike to remain as light and nimble as possible, to have only what I really needed and keep the redundancies to a minimum. There are some risks in traveling light but I accepted those. 

The challenges

There were many, and I'm not gonna pretend this was easy. 

A long ride, and especially a long trip of long rides, amplifies all the normal challenges of riding a motorcycle; namely getting from point A to point B without getting hurt and having some fun doing it. 

Add in fatigue (physical and mental), heat, precipitation, strong winds, basic bodily functions — it takes self-awareness to know what you need, to keep your limits in mind, and to maintain concentration over long periods of time. This can be draining to say the least, and it’s a great idea to practice a couple longer rides and build up some endurance before setting off on a longer trip.

For reference, I've had a couple days spending 4hrs in the saddle, and just one trip of riding for an hour and a half straight through the nothing roads of eastern Colorado. You don't need a ton of practice but you should have some.

I'm not gonna pretend this was easy. 

Long stretches can become almost dangerously boring; fun sections require you to really check in with your current condition post-boring sections before tackling them. 

Adverse weather requires the right gear (layers) and some forethought in your riding plans of the day (and coming days). Keeping your spirits up, your mind clear enough to make constant decisions on routing and eating and lodging is really important.

Loneliness and boredom were probably the two things I felt least equipped to handle — riding with my great friend John on the way out to Wisconsin, seeing a bunch of friends and family along the way — and then taking the first ride alone back west was a major shift. 

This is coming from a person that likes his space, likes solitude, needs time away from people to recharge. But in these quantities it was pretty tough. 

This really pushed me to meet and talk to as many people as I could. Chats at gas stations, in diners, at hotel breakfasts, in bars. Riding solo will give some great clarity on the amount of social interaction you really need and how much the things you fill your time with really matter. 

The riding

The easiest way to forget the hardships. 

Google’s “Avoid Highways” routing option does a pretty great job of getting you off of main interstates and onto some really fun roads (or at least less-traveled/smaller highways). I was able to find incredible, smile-on-face riding in every state along the way.

Yes, including Kansas, Nebraska, and Iowa. 

Lush tree-canopied forest roads; smooth sweeping stretches past wind turbines; technical twisties; desolate expanses of dirt roads; huge open stretches from horizon to horizon. Coming from Colorado I’m pretty spoiled for great riding but I was wonderfully surprised at least once every day. 

Great riding reminds you why you chose to make the journey by motorcycle in the first place, and without it the boring stretches would be unbearable.

If your route is hurried and primarily on major highways, just drive. 

Dirt road through Badlands National Park all to myself

The experience: new sights, places, people

There was definitely a component of “doing a thing to have done it” for this trip — a romance to the framing of an experience that you’re either drawn to or not. And I am.

"2500mi to Wisconsin and back via the Badlands and Black Hills" has a great ring to it. 

I love doing things that come with great stories to share with friends, and now I’ve also got a responsibility to be a cool uncle with great stories to inspire my nieces and nephews to have their own big/crazy experiences.

Beyond this narrative, I’m always hungry to see and photograph new things, to explore new places, to eat new food, to meet new people.

This drive, plus an experience's framing, plus my own stubbornness — this is how awesome shit gets done.

Road America

What I’d do differently

Bike: Next time I’d take a bike with a 6th gear and more power, or allocate much more time for the slower off-highway route between Colorado and Wisconsin. 

The Himalayan gets a lot of shit (often from their owners) about being slow, but really these bikes are plenty up to about 70. It hits 80 easily, though strains to sit there, RPM hovering just below redline. Riding into the wind cuts cruising speed by 5-10mph. 

So yeah, a 6th gear (or gearing tweak) so the bike could chill out at those speeds would have been great. And a bit more power to fight some of the wind would’ve been welcome as well. 

I removed the windshield from my bike for AESTHETICS, and really that made little difference to me. The stock windshield distorted the wind, and taking the wind evenly just really wasn’t that difficult even on the long long stretches. 

Gear: About the only change I’d make would be to add another of the 10L Kriega bags (to the 10L and 30L I brought) and strap them perpendicular across the bike instead of the two I had stacked vertically. Keep the weight a bit lower and make the method of attachment a bit easier, and have the room to bring a laptop to work during downtime.

I was able to securely bring everything I needed so I’ve got very few complaints here. Way to prep, me. 

Pace: The first day I logged a bonkers 525 miles — easily four times more than I'd ever ridden in a day. At the end of it I could have ridden another 100 or so if weather hadn’t made us hunker down. Don’t underestimate starting-the-trip energy (or get-through-the-boring-part energy on the first day). 

It was clear the next morning that this pace was not gonna be sustainable, and so I settled into 300-350 or so miles/day which felt great. 

Morning pack up & breakfast, ride, lunch break, evening ride, check-in, dinner, sleep. 

Day-in-day-out, 300 miles was the goal, stopping for a break and a stretch every 100 miles or so, and photos whenever I saw them. Especially when you’re seeing new things, this pace was great. 

When you reach the point that you just want to be home (which hopefully comes at the end of your trip), even 100miles will seem like too much. 

Scheduling a lighter riding day every 1-2 days was great, where I'd stick to one area and only need to ride a couple hours that day. 

Riding solo: There’s a romanticism to solo travel that not everyone will find appealing, I’m here to report.

It’s not that I didn’t enjoy the solo trip home, but more that I would have enjoyed it more with someone. The camaraderie of shared hardship goes a long way; small talk through the comms, and celebratory beers do too. And for the budget, splitting hotel rooms is fantastic.

I’m an anxious person generally, and during the ride back I definitely feared a mental breakdown much more than a mechanical one.

Serial Number One | Harley-Davidson Museum | Milwaukee, WI

Would I recommend taking a trip like this? Would I do this again?

Let’s start with the easier question first: if you’re considering a longer ride, YES, you should absolutely do it — especially if you’ve got experience with road trips by car and traveling in general. 

There’s really something to making your way by motorcycle, in the freedom and challenge of it, and if that kind of thing calls to you I don’t think you’d be disappointed (especially with the right expectations and preparations). 

Now as for whether I’d do this again — 

This route? Hell no.

I will probably never ride through Kansas, Nebraska, Iowa, or southern Minnesota again by motorcycle, though I would take a few days and head north to ride in the Black Hills again. 

Rural midwestern routes no longer call to me enough to endure them. 

The two remaining routes calling to me now would be riding the length of the West Coast, or riding to Alaska from Colorado. Other than that, I’ll be sticking to shorter trips around CO and Utah.

…and trailering the bike out to ride Tail of the Dragon some day.

Even more photos

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