Riding Alone — An Addendum

From Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Santa Cruz, California aboard a Victory Magnum.

Victory Magnum bagger
The Victory Magnum: perfect companion for the long, lonely stretches that cross America.©Motorcyclist

Since writing the article, "Riding Alone," for Motorcyclist (click here to read part 1), I've had several readers approach me with their own perspectives on the subject. Evidently I struck a chord, as they all said they identified with the conundrum of pros and cons surrounding riding by yourself. In each case the words 'meditation' or 'solitude' entered into the discussion, making me realize how many riders indulge a philosophical approach to their treks.

In the time since I wrote that piece I’ve had two separate semi-long-distance solo rides that added yet new perspective to the theme of going alone. I say ‘semi-long’ because it’s all relative; each of these trips put about 1,400 miles on bike, mind and spirit. ‘Relative’ because a lot of people marvel when I tell them of trips involving those types of distances, whereas others just shrug. To each his own.

The first trip was east to west, from Colorado Springs, Colorado, to Santa Cruz, California, and then to Los Angeles. This was aboard a Victory Magnum. Though not necessarily a bagger fan, I became a bit of a convert out there on the open roads of America. The thump of that big V-twin lumbering along the lonely stretches of Utah and Nevada provided an outrageously comfortable vantage point for taking in the endless barrenness.

Road signs
The sign doesn’t really say it all. Actually, there is really nothing for 83 miles.©Motorcyclist

Crossing from Colorado into Utah, a Harley swooped by at a good clip, flashing me the ‘hang loose’ sign before gradually slipping into the distance. I caught up to the tattooed Harley rider awhile later at a gas station. We were both going somewhat in the same direction; he to Eureka, California, to get back to his two daughters and a wife expecting a third. I was headed to Santa Cruz. We rode together into the evening and got rooms at a funky hotel on the border of Utah and Nevada. Literally, the office was in Nevada and after you got your key you walked the 40 feet across the border to where the rooms were, technically in Utah.

The next morning we resumed the trek west, parting ways in Ely, Nevada, where he remained on Highway 50, while I detoured onto Hwy 6. It was on the 168-mile stretch between Ely and Tonopah that I was transported to a new plateau of meditation while riding. As Ely got smaller and smaller in my mirrors and two-lane Highway 6 settled me onto a meandering course west, I soon found myself completely alone, not a single motorist to be seen. The sun pounded, the engine hummed along. I didn’t pass another vehicle in either direction for a very long time. I feel the powers that be on the Nevada road-naming board may have missed something when they officially named Highway 50 “The Loneliest Road In America,” for certainly Highway 6 is equal to—if not more so—the bleakness of Highway 50. Each crest of mesa rewarded with the sight of a thin ribbon of highway stretching across the desolate reaches as far as the eye could see, the two-lane road splitting the interminable distance. Nothing moved out here and not a sliver of shade to be found. Flat, dry land in every direction. Just wide open American frontier, much the way it looked to early settlers coming across in Conestoga wagons—albeit at a much slower clip.

After several hours of this solitude, my mind was lured into a trance. Cruise control set, the steady thump of the big V-twin a metronome for the sublime backdrop for moving meditation. By moving meditation I’m speaking in terms of physics, not philosophical. Though emotion enters the equation after a few hours of this kind of straight-line entrancement. I opted out of the stereo, choosing to be alone with my thoughts.

Old rusted truck
Scattered across the southwest are the remnants of the past.©Motorcyclist

It’s amazing, when riding a motorcycle on roads completely devoid of the usual concerns of traffic and their requisite requirement of concentration, the level of calm that can be attained. Unfettered by concerns, absent of demands, the un-tethered mind enjoys a genuine serenity. The only thing that intruded on this was a growing concern about fuel. When I’d made the detour onto Hwy 6 at Ely I had three-quarters of a tank, which I figured was adequate to get me to the next outpost of humanity—wherever that was. I assumed it would be Warm Springs, a reassuring dot on the map straight ahead some one hundred miles. Unfortunately, as I trekked across the nothingness of Nevada, halfway to Warm Springs, the gas gauge began its dalliances of teasing. The needle unexpectedly plunged rather rapidly. The endless highway stretched out before me with not a sign of life. I knew from the last stop that the bottles of water in the saddlebags were already hot. Not a great deal of relief there.

The miles unfolded and the gas gauge continued its steady plunge, steadily escalating my concern about being left stranded. I was reminded of a sign I’d seen a while back that had caught my attention. It read: “Next Services 83 miles.” Now some 50 miles later the gas gauge was way down below half, headed for the red. My cell phone was flirting between one bar of service and obscurity. I was alone. It was during this long, lonely stretch of isolation, with its threat of leaving me stranded in this stark landscape, that my mind went into a kind of heightened sense of alertness and I became acutely aware of my surroundings. The scrub brush, the lines in the pavement, the smells all became more pronounced.

Old mailbox on the road
Long before the internet, this was the way people wrote to one another.©Motorcyclist

Time passed with a continuity of the same bleak landscape. The gas gauge was now in the red, and had been for some time. The sign for Warm Springs loomed. The relief of civilization I assumed to be in Warm Springs was thwarted when I arrived to the wind blown, collapsing remains of a hotel and a defunct gas station, the rusted signs creaking in the breeze. The next outpost of humanity was Tonopah, 50 miles further, and not a great deal in between. With my bottled water too hot to drink, there was nothing to do but press on and see how far I could get.

As the decrepit remains of Warm Springs retreated in my mirror, I wondered about the how’s and why’s of towns. Someone, somewhere in time, deigned it a good idea to sprout up a town here and built what was once a brand new hotel and gas station. Now, the structures were being slowly reclaimed by the nothingness. Why does one town survive and another fail? A hotel and a gas station out in the middle of nowhere—seems like a pretty solid venture. Evidently not.

Nevada Hwy 50
The people in charge of naming highways in Nevada had a number of roads to grant the title, “Loneliest.” But in the end, Highway 50 won out.©Motorcyclist

Back up to speed on Hwy 6, the gas gauge now absurdly in the red, I pointed the Victory toward Tonopah, a town I knew from previous trips to have a gas station or two. The next 50 miles was a study in patience and the dulling of expectation. Each crest of rise was met with yet another stretch of pavement that split the harsh desert and disappeared into the horizon, with not one hint of industry save the road I was on. It was now high noon, with the sun directly overhead.

With the threat of being planted out in the middle of nowhere a very real concern, each little irregular cough or miss of the engine—either real or imagined—had me thinking, okay, this is it, I’m out of gas. Somehow, despite the needle having long since pegged itself at the bottom of the gas gauge, the bike rambled on, unperturbed, sublimely unaware of its imminent loss of purpose due the impending starvation of fuel.

Old fashioned road map
A coffee in Breckenridge, planning the long trek west the old-fashioned way; a map. Still my favorite way to do it.©Motorcyclist

Perhaps it was the sun making me delirious, or maybe the seemingly senseless paranoia of being stranded, but it all got kind of comical. I kept badgering myself for not having topped off in Ely. From now on, when traversing America, I will never again assume that anything less than three-quarters of a tank will suffice, given the long stretches that—despite the endless real estate development that has consumed the country—still exist across America.

Eventually, well past an hour of a blinking warning light for low fuel, the town of Tonopah loomed. I was progressively relieved as I got closer and closer, realizing with each passing mile the walk to civilization was less and less. As Highway 6 dropped me onto Main Street I was rewarded with the familiar yellow branding of a Shell station. At this point I knew that if the engine coughed off, out of fuel, I had enough momentum to coast the rest of the way in.

As the pumped chimed away under the shade of the awning, the gallons of petrol filling the empty tank, I had to laugh at the whole episode. I think we need these experiences once in a while to re-establish respect for travel and the consequences of getting too lax. I had been remiss at not topping off, especially since my instincts had been to go back and fuel up in Ely. The spec sheet for the Magnum claims a fuel capacity of 5.8 gallons. The pump clocked 5.8 gallons before snapping off. I must have been a Dixie cup short of coughing that engine to dryness.

Victory Magnum on the border
Straddling the border of Utah and Nevada, literally. Being from Los Angeles, it’s still hard for me to fathom parking a bike in the middle of the road without concern for a vehicle that might be passing.©Motorcyclist

One thing, through it all, even with the pertinent threat of running out of gas and being stranded for who knows how long in the great expanse of Nevada, I never lost sight of the joy of being in absolute solitude. In fact, in some strange way, it enhanced the experience, granting a new value and emphasis to aloneness.

Note: The second trip was from west to east, across the same States—albeit by different routes—aboard a GS. More on that experience later.