Riding Alone

A Taste for Solitude

PCH in Central Coast always stimulates the mind.
PCH in Central Coast always stimulates the mind.Alfonse Palaima

When I was a kid I loved Westerns. The gunslinging, bank robbing, and cow rustling all excited my adolescent mind. But what was equally seductive was the cinematic visual of the solitary cowboy, tall in the saddle, headed out across the open plains. That image planted an indelible ideal in my mind of self-reliance and sublime isolation. It spawned dreams of getting a horse, strapping a bedroll to the saddle, and trekking off into the great beyond.

Over the ensuing years the want for a horse was supplanted by an obsession for motorcycles, which in turn led to a modified interpretation of that boyhood dream: heading out across the lonesome prairie not on four legs but two wheels. A big part of the cowboy ideal, particularly the ardent individualism, carried over into my own motorcycling adventures as a preference for going alone. Strapping a sleeping bag on a motorcycle and heading out onto the open road seems a reasonable modern-day facsimile of a cowboy roaming the range. Depending on the thesaurus you're using there are a host of adjectives to describe those who go alone: maverick, rebel, individualist, loner, outsider, and, my personal favorite, the somewhat flattering eccentric.

It’s not that I don’t enjoy riding with others; traveling in a group has provided a treasure trove of wonderful two-wheel memories over the years. Also, there are the obvious safety benefits of traveling with others in terms of visibility and support should something go amiss due to a mechanical breakdown or, heaven forbid, a riding mishap. Going with others offers a unique bond of camaraderie bolstered by the joy of riding and sharing of the experience, something that is lost when you go alone.

The upside of going alone? There’s no complicated juggling of schedules and maddening logistics among riding buddies to sort out the grown-up concerns and conflicting demands of jobs and family. The beauty of going alone simply entails the wonderfully selfish indulgence of your own, solitary wants.

Highway one in Big Sur California
Highway 1 never gets old.Alfonse Palaima

It should be pointed out that the definition of “going alone” with regard to this article is to be interpreted as riding in relative proximity to civilization. I’m not suggesting you take off across the Great Atlas Mountains and into the Sahara or push through the dense jungles of Panama solo (though plenty do). I’m talking about traveling roads where, despite potential long periods of isolation, another human will eventually happen by.

So “isolation” is, in fact, the perception of isolation. Breaking down or getting hurt while riding alone in a desolate area is not something anyone wants to experience. That said, this needs to be tempered with the proverb: Do as I say, not as I did. For in my younger years, as a devout motocrosser, I regularly went to the track mid-week to practice completely alone. My approach to training involved going into the mountains above Indian Dunes and laying out a course with challenging uphills and gnarly downhills. I would be up there for hours, all by myself, putting in laps in anger. Looking back, the danger I was flirting with spooks me. I’m very lucky to have never suffered a major crash that might have left me incapacitated. They wouldn’t have found me for hours, maybe days. Such is the fearless nature—or rather, stupidity—of youth. That said, the preference for going alone has been carried into adulthood with dozens of trips on adventure rides into relatively remote areas. The potential dangers are mitigated by riding well within limits, the risk/reward being aloneness in beautiful surroundings of nature.

A pause at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.
A pause at the Henry Miller Library in Big Sur.Alfonse Palaima

Invariably, when you're on your own there will be times you wish you had someone to share things with, and, conversely, when riding with others there will be moments when you wish you were alone. A good example of this was an early-morning solo jaunt through Sequoia one hot July. The roads were completely empty. Another motorist hadn't been seen for more than an hour. I was enjoying myself immensely, piloting a BMW R1200GS over the meandering two-lane road that wove through the towering Sequoias. Coming around a bend I had to get on the binders to avoid hitting a good-sized brown bear emerging from the woods. By the time the bike got stopped I was close enough to clearly make out the bear's eyelashes. The bear studied me for a moment with indifference before casually lumbering across the road. I kept the bike in gear should he decide to make a move in my direction. As he sauntered across the road, his massive claws clicking the pavement, I was wishing for someone to share the moment with. But I was alone. So I sat there on the bike and with childlike excitement watched the bear as it disappeared into the forest. After he was gone and any threat of being mauled abated, I felt my rapidly beating heart settle back to normal. There had been no time to grab a camera to capture the experience. It became one of life's private, fleeting moments simply to be enjoyed and then stored away as a personal memory.

My most recent experience of going alone was attending the Quail Motorcycle Gathering in Carmel Valley. It was a spontaneous decision (another advantage of going alone). After gathering up my camping gear there was an early-morning departure for a solo run up the coast from Los Angeles. It was a textbook example of the pros of going alone: waking as wanted, departing when ready, and stopping to eat whenever desired. No discussions, no conflict of wants, no compromising. Just simple, unfettered freedom.

There have been specific experiences that led to this nomadic mindset. One ride in particular comes to mind. Some years back I had been invited to ride up to Laguna Seca with a bunch of guys for the US round of MotoGP. The original, strictly mandated time for "clutches out" was 8 a.m. As the various members of the group sporadically began traipsing in on the morning of travel the original start time gradually disintegrated to an apathetic departure of noon. Subsequent, numerous stops eventually used up a significant portion of daylight, and by the time we got to San Luis Obispo via back roads the group decided to just hightail it up Highway 101 instead of detouring to enjoy the serpentine beauty and adrenaline offerings of the Coast Road—the entire point of riding. It was on the tedious, three-hour, straight-line haul to Salinas that I told myself next time I would go alone.

My return trip from the Quail event was an exercise in carefree, solitary indulgence, the true essence of going alone. I abandoned anything remotely resembling a schedule and took my time, stopping at every excuse of scenery, artifact, historical landmark, or promise of decent coffee. I’m a coffee snob (courtesy numerous press junkets to Italy) and will tolerate serious detours to find a proper coffee. This is one of the indulgences many of my riding friends don’t value with the same zeal, and, therefore, it gets added to the list of pros of going alone.

Simple back-road scenery is everywhere and wonderfully refreshing.
Simple back-road scenery is everywhere and wonderfully refreshing.Jeff Buchanan
Bixby Bridge, Highway 1, Big Sur California
Bixby Bridge, Highway 1, Big Sur CaliforniaJeff Buchanan

Cruising through Big Sur I stopped at the Henry Miller Library. Miller’s legacy and work—along with other prominent, controversial writers—is preserved here in a small building a few miles from where Miller lived on the Central Coast following his infamously bohemian time in Paris where he had penned Tropic of Cancer, earning fame as a writer as well as a 30-year censorship ban in the US. Poking about the shelves of books and various pieces of memorabilia, I couldn’t help but think of all the times I whipped past this place in a group with little more than a glance. I figured there was scarcely a chance my fellow riders shared my interest in Miller or Anais Nin, so we just barreled past, leaving all the glorious smells of these printed thoughts in our roaring wake. Unhurried, on my own schedule, allowed for looking through the various books and appreciating the artwork hanging on the walls. I touched one of Miller’s typewriters, petted the library cat, and watched three half-naked women rehearse their fire dance for that evening’s acoustic concert. Going alone had allowed catering to whimsy, enjoying the pines, some music, and the sight of those beautiful girls practicing their routine.

Topping off in Carmel for 80 miles of serpentine beauty.
Topping off in Carmel for 80 miles of serpentine beauty.Alfonse Palaima

Going alone offers a chance to test yourself, to be away from familiar things, familiar tasks. There is often an air of accomplishment when you return from a solo trip. Going alone can be a liberating experience. Of course going alone isn’t for everyone. Going alone requires being content with having private experiences, seeing and doing things that you will not be able to share, save in some vague retelling that will, more often than not, fail to paint a truly complete picture of what it was all about. Photos help, but they still fall short of capturing the essence of experiencing the actual thing first hand.

In this age of constant connectivity a new fad has been spawned called “going ghost,” which refers to people choosing to turn off their smartphones for extended periods in order to find some peace from the technocracy that has taken us hostage. Going ghost and going alone go well together, granting personal permission to cut the electronic tether and be free (naturally owning up to hypocrisy the moment a GPS is needed to figure out where you are when lost).

Usually after returning from a solo trip, having put the bike away, cleaned up, and settled back into routine, you immediately start thinking about the next trip. Where to go? When? And for how long? Despite all the benefits of going alone, going solo actually tends to make you appreciative of friends, sentimental about the sharing of experiences, which invariably starts you wondering about who just might want to go with you next time.