Aidan O’Dowd

Coming To Grips—Making Sense Of Fatherhood From Behind The Handlebars

New dad rides 2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XCA through uncharted territories

W

e had our first baby this past June. I naively figured my son would be a quiet, independent guy who loves nothing more than long baths and a lot of sleep, just like his old man. Naturally, Baby Sol is more into screaming, not sleeping, and peeing at just the wrong moment. When we decided that I would be the primary caregiver while my wife continued to work full-time, I had romantic visions of keeping house: cultivating a tidy kitchen garden, planting a small backyard orchard, restoring an old Triumph Bonneville, writing about motorcycling with all the time in the world. Everyone said parenting would be time-consuming, but I figured if the baby was asleep I’d be free to get things done. He doesn’t sleep. I should have listened. My life is spent washing bottles and cleaning spit-up off the floors, off of myself, and off of Sol. I’ve measured out my day in dirty diapers. I’ve sacrificed every shred of self-respect as I baby-talk to keep Sol from crying. But when you’re a new parent, self-respect is different and hard-won. Just like on a motorcycle trip, expectations can serve as a compass. And, sometimes, you have to lose the compass in order to get your bearings.

2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XCA
2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XCA.Aidan O’Dowd

Six months before Sol’s arrival, we were at our friend Greg’s house for a customary Friday happy hour. It was late winter. My wife, Leah, already felt like a mom. Being a dad seemed theoretical to me; it was too distant, too unimaginable to feel real. So when Greg and our friends Rob and Doug—all semi-retired (or counting the days to it) and with kids out of the house—proposed a plan to ride the Mid-Atlantic Backcountry Discovery Route (MABDR), I committed to the trip right away. Although they’re a couple of decades or more older than I am, our lives hadn’t looked too much different from each other’s. We bonded over our shared love of motorcycles, but over the years, we’ve walked (and ridden) through life together—good times and bad. I couldn’t imagine having a baby would get in the way of that, or that all of a sudden we’d be in different life stages.

The MABDR is the first eastern route established by the BDR, a nonprofit that works to create and preserve off-highway routes for motorcyclists. The MABDR starts in Damascus, Virginia, on the border with Tennessee and makes its way across rural pavement, fire roads, jeep trails, and cow paths all the way to Lawrenceville, Pennsylvania, just an hour's ride from our homes outside Ithaca.

Blue skies in Damascus, Virginia
Rare blue skies greet us as we start the MABR just outside of Damascus, Virginia.Rob Bandler

For months, the guys and I texted back and forth about what tires to put on the bikes, who was going to bring tire inflators and patch kits, and whether or not we wanted to camp along the way. And then Leah and I had a baby.

After we brought him home from the hospital, Leah adopted her new role as a mom with apparent ease and grace. Meanwhile, I found myself practicing visor changes on my new Arai and wandering into the garage to fiddle with the traction control settings on a freshly borrowed 2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XCA. I told myself I was fully present, but it's fair to say that I was feeling inadequate and overwhelmed with my new fatherly identity—even if I wasn't able to admit it.

Is it purely biological that Sol has bonded so much with his mother before me, or am I doing something wrong? Am I supposed to read all these books about how to care for a baby? Why don't they make baby carriers for motorcycles? Is he supposed to pee this much?

I had a lot to learn.

motorcycle in scenic Virginia
Virginia’s scenic trails were a highlight of the trip.Rob Bandler

The new rhythms of life with a baby hadn’t yet been established when on an overcast late-September morning, Sol woke up early, jarring me and Leah awake. But rather than grunting and wanting to shove my head in the microwave, on this particular morning, the baby’s cries made me glad to be awake. It was time to start the trip.

Whenever we part, Leah gives me the cold shoulder, steeling herself from my absence. She went quiet as I made her coffee and changed the baby one last time. I put on my riding gear and asked her to take some photos of me and Sol. Leah gave me a quick kiss, little more than an Irish goodbye (she comes by it honestly, genetically speaking), and I was out the door. Just like that.

I fueled up the Tiger and met the guys at our favorite coffee shop in downtown Ithaca. I was still a bit shaky from saying my first-ever goodbye to my son, but the guys’ excitement soon wore off on me and the prospect of spending eight days on the Tiger began to sink in.

Foggy mountaintops in Virginia
Fogs cling to the mountaintops.Rob Bandler

We rode about 400 miles to Staunton, Virginia, mostly on two-lane roads. With heated grips and seat and good protection from the elements, the Tiger made the longish day in the saddle completely pleasurable. The little triple sang happily, running at about 5,000 rpm at 70 mph, with just a slight buzz that confirms everything’s working.

The following day, the skies cleared and a rare bit of sunshine welcomed us as we rode into Damascus; the starting point of the BDR. We turned on to a well-groomed off-road section that meandered past a glistening stream and beyond hidden farms in green valleys. The trails were damp and fog sat on the mountaintops obscuring the vistas. Virginia's mix of tidy well-to-do farms, humble homesteads, rolling hills, and pristine waters framed the journey with an aura of old-time charm. The ethereal fog and dripping leaves dampened my Gore-Tex gear. The gravel crunched beneath the knobbies. The expletives rang in my headset as Rob fought to keep his KTM 1290 Super Adventure upright in mud pits and washed-out sections of trail.

Rob, the most experienced rider, rode lead. His preparedness and willingness to ride in front to be the first to encounter road hazards (thus the expletives) warranted the nickname “Trail Dad.” Greg, whose uncanny ability to sniff out a margarita in every small town we passed, made him the most useful member of the team. Doug, Greg’s old college buddy, lives in California and works at the Seismological Lab at UC Berkeley. Which means he’s smart. Every trip needs a smart guy. Most of us are primarily road riders, but save for a few tricky sections, the off-road portions of the MABDR were a good introduction to ADV riding. I was never out of my comfort zone on the bike. Still, I felt (and was) about 1,000 miles from diaper changes and bottle washing.

2018 Triumph Tiger 800 XCA
The Tiger is one refined motorcycle. It feels like a streetbike but has no problem tackling dirt and gravel.Aidan O’Dowd

That night, we checked into a Quality Inn in Wytheville, cleaned our chains, and walked across the street to a Mexican restaurant. “They have margaritas,” Greg said.

Reality reared its ugly head the next morning when Greg announced his plan to abandon the trip and ride home. He needed to deal with some family situations and nurse a hankering injury. Barely north of Damascus wasn’t far enough to prevent real life from reaching us. The image of the trip I drew in my mind was beginning to fade as the actual trip began to take shape.

Leading up to it, I fantasized about stopping at roadside farm stands for early season apples and fresh cider, sharing moonshine with mountain folk, and waking up to drink coffee out of hand-thrown ceramic mugs while leaning against the stoop of old brick inns where the proprietors stocked bookcases full of early American literature and motorcycle magazines.

The idyll might exist, but without Peter Egan as our tour guide (his bike trips always seem to have an element of fortuitous charm, don’t they?) we never found it. The quaint inn with handmade quilts is too expensive and never seems to come up on a smartphone map. We became resigned to staying at chain hotels off highway exits—convenient but anonymous; homogenized, impersonal examples of an industrial economy that we couldn’t easily escape.

bright motorcycle headlight
Considering doing the MABDR? Using a GPS with the BDR route downloaded is a must.Rob Bandler

At the Comfort Suites in Hagerstown, for instance, hospitality was as much a priority as keeping up on the laundry. According to the grouchy woman at the front desk, there weren’t any sheets for my pull-out bed. After conveying my displeasure with ever-more animation, she handed me what I can only assume was soiled linen straight from the hamper. I wanted to tell her that if I could keep up on laundry with a newborn baby at home, a well-staffed hotel should be able to do the same. I held my tongue and pulled my sleeping bag off the bike.

If chain restaurants and hotels stymied my sense of adventure and disappointed my aesthetic sensibilities, I have myself to blame. Since my wife and I share a car, I’ve spent more consecutive days at home than I care to recount. Stay-at-home dad was beginning to be less a title and more a literal description. On this trip, all I wanted was to be on the move.

I’d spent most of the summer off a motorcycle and caring for a baby. I needed to make up for lost time. I would’ve ridden all day and into the night, until blisters ripped open my hands and my eyes felt dried up and my vision blurred. I wanted to ride because it’s hard, because it has consequences, because personal identity is mostly one-dimensional on a motorcycle. It’s an identity that takes care of itself, not one that feels too big to ever own; not one capable of diminishing other aspects of selfhood.

motorcycle in the fog
Fog: our constant companion.Rob Bandler

If domestication would make of me a feckless, worthless man, I’d step across the sill for the future state of my own integrity. By the time I reach old age I’d see that there’d be something left of the man my wife married. If I’ve believed anything, I’ve believed it deeply; if I’ve labored, I’ve labored vigorously; if I’ve denied myself, it’s been in fidelity of the ideals and values I endeavour to uphold.

Yet, by day four, as we passed Seneca Rocks in West Virginia, the inevitable loneliness of the road started to descend upon me. I desperately missed my family. Apart from them, I felt alienated and began to question the point of such a trip. An eight-day journey is a blip. Is it too brief a time for it to acquire explicit meaning beyond the trivial? I wondered if leaving was a selfish act. My wife reserved a week of her maternity leave just so I could ride a motorcycle. Was the journey itself worthy of her sacrifice?

The steel gray sky continued to press upon us as we traveled north through the mostly paved sections of West Virginia and Maryland. Water crossings were raging torrents. We backtracked, re-routed, and donned waterproof gloves. In Pennsylvania, the asphalt gave way to graded dirt and gravel roads through Tuscarora and Bald Eagle state forests. The Triumph churned through the gravel at 50 mph.

tree blocking the road
When a downed tree nearly forced us to turn around, a local hunter came to the rescue with truck and chain saw.Rob Bandler

Then we hit the Slough of Despond. Not technically a bog, but its boulder-ridden, washed-out path is a doubt-inducing descent into despair that could be the bane of the pilgrim’s existence. The Tiger’s well-damped WP suspension and predictable throttle response meant I made it to the other side without any self-inflicted injury. Gassed over dog-sized rocks, the Tiger’s skid plate remained unscathed. Its low first gear enabled me to remain in charge of my bladder as I crawled at idle the whole way down.

The Tiger was unflappable. It felt light on its feet in spite of carrying camping gear and all I needed to live for a week. Here’s a motorcycle to tour on, to slice through the twisties on, to feel at ease on in rugged terrain. The Pirelli Scorpion Rally tires don’t have any of the typical knobby vagueness and were left looking relatively fresh after 2,000 miles. Every morning, I happily loaded the panniers, donned my Alpinestars gear, and looked forward to a full day on the thing.

SW-Motech Drybag
With Triumph Expedition panniers and an SW-Motech Drybag, all my gear stayed dry throughout the foul fall weather.Aidan O’Dowd

Its versatility makes the Tiger more than just a utilitarian machine. It took me places I didn't think I could go. Its competence in the dirt made me pity folks on larger machines. Its all-day comfort on the road made me pity folks on smaller machines. When a motorcycle does its job well, it makes you believe it's the only motorcycle suited for the purpose. The best motorcycles would make you biased, prejudiced, and fiercely loyal. The best motorcycles can define a trip.

There are journeys that become monotonous. The numbness of the road can turn one blind and callous. Riding a motorcycle distills existing to its finite elements and holds that numbness at bay. It forces the introvert out of his comfort zone as strangers strike up conversations at every gas station. It forces the indolent to get his hands dirty as he maintains the motorcycle’s chain and checks the fluid levels. It forces the man used to comfort and ease to turn up his jacket collar as the temperatures drop and the rain pours down.

Stream-side riding in Pennsylvania
Stream-side riding in Pennsylvania.Rob Bandler

For the stay-at-home dad, it reaffirms his duty by momentarily placing him outside of it.

Not to get all Freudian, but in hindsight I recognize there was an unacknowledged part of my psyche that was afraid of being a dad; that committing to this trip ahead of Sol’s birth would give me—the new, inadequate, fumbling dad—a way out, even if for a short time.

The man I want to be doesn't need a weeklong motorcycle trip to help reaffirm his duty, but the man I am does.

There’s a difference between who I am and who I want to be. There’s a difference between what I want a trip to look like and what it turns out to be. A motorcycle trip becomes edifying inasmuch as what’s expected is never what happens. As I’m discovering, it’s a lot like parenthood in that respect.

Tech-Air airbag
Big Sur gear from Alpinestars features a Tech-Air airbag. Most common question of the trip: “What’s that light on your sleeve?”Rob Bandler

Visions of restoring a motorcycle or planting an orchard while caring for a newborn baby are unrealistic, but they do provide me with a compass of sorts. Regardless of whether or not I reach my intended destination, the compass plots a true course. I want to raise my son outdoors with the knowledge of growing things, I want him to learn self-sufficiency as he helps me adjust the timing on an old parallel twin, I want him to value work and to develop skills that will shape his mind by shaping the world around him.

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On the final night of the trip, the clouds parted and we were able to set up camp at Little Pine Creek, less than 90 miles from Lawrenceville. After a meal of beef jerky, instant ramen, and bourbon, I reclined in my tent and read by the light of my headlamp. It was warm in my sleeping bag, but the air was sharply cool beneath a clear star-filled sky. It felt good to rest my sore feet from a full day of standing on the pegs. Thanks to willing riding companions and a competent-as-hell motorcycle, we chewed up the BDR a day earlier than expected. Almost home. But Leah didn’t know it. I decided surprising her a day early would be a fitting end.

Blue skies in Pennsylvania
Blue skies on the penultimate day of the trip. Apparently, the Pennsylvania section features many similar vistas. Caution is required on several gravel sections in Pennsylvania that access a pipeline. On these middle-of-nowhere gravel roads, I’m not sure who was the most surprised to see the other: us or the many semi-truck drivers.Rob Bandler

By noon the next day, we made it to Lawrenceville, the official end of the BDR. We were so close to home, but my friends insisted we stop for lunch and soak up the end of the journey. I impatiently ate my burger, feeling that pausing here was anticlimactic. This wasn't the end of my BDR. Finishing a motorcycle trip is usually something to be delayed for as long as possible, but when coming home means coming into your own, it's time for the ride to end.

When I knocked on my front door, an unsuspecting Leah met me with a huge embrace and happy tears in her eyes. As I peeked in the nursery to see my son asleep, Leah handed me a cold glass of cider from the cider mill up the road. It only took 2,000 miles for me to get the glass of cider I’d been expecting since the very beginning.