Touring America In Search of Adventure and Self

Tiffani Burkett explores the USA on her Yamaha FZ-07.

Tiffani Burkett's cross-country motorcycle ride
"When people saw my California plate, they kept asking if I really rode there all the way from the West Coast. When I told them my story, they wanted to take my picture."Tiffani Burkett

My name is Tiffani, and I hail from Los Angeles, California. I ride, race, wrench, eat, sleep, dream about, daydream about, and basically just all-around live motorcycles.

I’ve wanted to tour the country since I first learned to ride when I was 21. I think most riders have a similar desire at some point. Part of the appeal was the idea of travel. I’d never ventured far beyond the LA city limits, and I knew that there was a lot out there to see. There was just one big problem, and it was that I was terrified by the idea of leaving.

Camping at Death Valley
My campsite in Death Valley during my first day on the road.Tiffani Burkett

But every now and again in life, things line up just right and you're presented with an opportunity. Sometimes everything lining up means losing your job and being frustrated with life while at the same time becoming the owner of a lightly used Yamaha FZ-07 that you've decided to modify into a lightweight adventure bike.

I’ll admit I was marginally petrified by the idea of traveling across the country on my own, but I’ve learned that the most rewarding experiences in my life have always started with fear, and I wanted to believe that this trip would be no different. So I decided to hit the road.

I shoved off in early March, pointing the FZ toward an entire country that I’d never seen before.

campsite
Moto camping in Texas, from the fourth leg of her journey.Tiffani Burkett

My first night away was spent in Death Valley, which is weirdly beautiful for a place so desolate. Deploying my camp kit for the first time (other than in the yard outside my apartment) showed that I was at least moderately equipped for the trip, so I breathed a small sigh of relief.

I swung through Vegas to visit a friend and have some pie for Pi Day (besides being a motorcyclist, I’m also a huge nerd!) and then rode north into Utah to Zion National Park. I got to put my little ADV to the test on a heavily rutted dirt road on the way to a somewhat sketchy but very free campsite, and after giving myself a “don’t be a wuss” pep talk I pitched my tent in the secluded campground.

Oil change on the road.
Oil change al fresco.Tiffani Burkett

It was a cold, windy, and scary night, but the next day I awoke to see some birds with Yamaha-blue feathers perched near the FZ. Clearly, it was going to be a good day. I spent the day hiking and exploring Zion, caught an amazing sunset over the canyon, and even scored a campsite inside the park, complete with ranger oversight.

I was sort of hopping from park to park, and my next destination was the Petrified Forest in Arizona. On the way south I rode some beautiful roads through Zion and the Kaibab National Forest, up chilly mountain roads still speckled with snow, then down to an epic view of the Vermilion Cliffs. I continued through Flagstaff, but as the day wore on, I realized I wasn’t going to reach the Petrified Forest before dark, so I stopped at a campground in Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest. I hadn’t made it to my planned destination, and I was ready to call the day a failure, but as I parked and unloaded, I realized I had a big smile on my face. I guess any day spent riding a motorcycle is never really a bad day.

Moto camping in a tent.
Cold and wet but making the best of it during one of my less pleasant nights in my tentTiffani Burkett
Yamaha FZ-07 tour
Waking up to a beautiful day and my beautiful FZ at a lakeside campsite in Central Texas.Tiffani Burkett
Friendly Americans
A granola bar and an encouraging note left on the FZ by a stranger. Throughout my travels I was amazed by peoples’ kindness toward me.Tiffani Burkett

After another freezing night in my tent, I was ready for some warmer weather. The route to Tucson, Arizona, was beautiful. The road twisted elegantly around mountains and through forests, and it was a very enjoyable ride. Unfortunately, the last 30 miles were spoiled by the fact that my low-fuel light was on! When I finally got to a gas station, I put 3.5 gallons into the FZ’s 3.7-gallon tank. Eesh.

I made it to New Mexico the next day and got to White Sands National Monument just in time to watch the sun set on the chalk-white dunes. Then I had to find a place to spend the night. The whole “not knowing where I was going to sleep” thing became easier to swallow the more I did it. As luck would have it a man in an RV (who used to ride—I love that riders never hesitate to approach me) gave me directions to a nearby campground.

When I got up the next day I realized I’d been on the road for a full week, which made the eighth day of the trip feel marginally special. I had put down around 2,000 miles so far and learned a lot about living off a motorcycle and about myself.

With no particular plans for the day, I set off for Carlsbad Caverns, only 170 miles away. The route took me up through the mountains of Cloudcroft, which ascended to over 8,500 feet where the temperature dropped to 40 degrees! My Dainese jacket and pants kept me reasonably warm, but I had to do a bit of coasting while warming my hands on the engine.

Riding in the snow
Snow at elevation in the Southwest had me wearing every bit of clothing I owned.Tiffani Burkett

When I got to the caverns the elevator was broken. People were still allowed in, with the caveat that you had to hike more than a mile down into the caverns then trudge what felt like 2 miles up and out of Middle Earth. I didn’t have time to change before they stopped letting people in for the day, so I went for it—in full touring gear. One of the rangers laughed at me on the way down, noting that he didn’t expect to see me in my jacket on the way up. He won that bet!

Riding with GPS
Another sandy back-road adventure in Central Florida courtesy of my often-confused GPS.Tiffani Burkett

I treated myself to a hotel room that night, and the next day I set out across Texas. The state is pretty big. And pretty straight. For riding, I made a note: worst roads so far. But at least the food portions were comically big. I didn’t have any destination in mind, so I set my GPS for Ben Spies’ restaurant in Dallas. I ordered a burger and then sat back to admire the decorations. The walls were lined with Ben’s cycling jerseys, his Tech 3 suit, and autographed pictures. I was in fan-girl heaven.

I figured I’d hightail it across the second half of Texas, but then I got a text message from a racing friend saying that the MotoAmerica tire test at Circuit of the Americas was open to the public. Whoa, really? Destination: Austin!

It was great to walk through those gates and see an array of racebikes speckling the paddock. It felt so natural and easy to talk bikes with total strangers, but it was the familiar faces that made the visit really special. I knew some of the MotoAmerica staff and had close friends on one of the privateer teams that was looking to qualify for the big leagues. It was a great visit, and I had to tear myself away from the comfort of friends to get back on the road.

The next morning, with storms swirling over Louisiana to the east, I opted to head north to Arkansas. Some 300 miles later, I was still in Texas and the sun was setting. Man, Texas is big! After two failed attempts to find campgrounds (seriously, GPS?), it was getting dark and I was getting cold and tired so I broke down and got a motel.

The next day I rode to Arkansas to visit Hot Springs National Park. Nothing eventful happened on the ride up aside from literally dodging a chicken crossing the road (I assume the punch line is my life). As it turned out the “park” was just a strip mall of geothermal spas, and the going rate was $33 for two hours. As this is a story about a motorcycle adventure and not The Princess Diaries, I promptly turned on my heel and headed to camp at an equally unimpressive campground. The people there were nice though. A sweet, older couple vacationing in an RV made sure I was taken care of, fed, and warm before I headed out the next day, just because I was alone and on a bike. The kindness of strangers still shocks me sometimes.

Frost in Tennessee
Tennessee treated me to some frosty mornings.Tiffani Burkett

I blasted across Mississippi, and when I got to Alabama it was raining. I love riding in the rain. There’s something about that extra level of inconvenience and suffering that somehow brings me to my Zen place. I enjoyed everything from a light drizzle to a proper downpour before I turned my attention toward finding a campsite near the Georgia border.

The next day, I arrived in Florida. The last state before the Atlantic! I spent the night in Ocala National Forest, where I was confused by the bear box at my campsite. If someone had told me that the first time I used a bear box would be in Florida, I probably would have laughed at them. But as it turns out the Ocala National Forest is home to a pretty big population of big, hungry bears.

But I paid for my camp spot, so I was determined to stick with it. Despite my paranoia and the thousand nightmares that ran through my head all night, everything was fine the next morning. Well, except for the fact that when I woke up my tent was covered in crickets, each silhouette clearly visible from the inside of my rain fly.

At breakfast at a little café that morning when I asked for the check, I was told that someone else had already paid for it. Huh? Does that happen outside of movies? An old man stood up and told me I looked like I was on quite an adventure and that he admired my boldness for doing it alone. I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d considered peeing in my tent that morning to avoid getting crickets in my hair! Either way, his kindness and compliments made my day.

Miami was a mess of traffic and humidity, but then it was smooth sailing out to Key West. I’d made it! I stopped at a beach to revel in my victory and take a swim. A bystander offered to take my picture for me, seeing as I was alone, and apparently my face had “celebrating really freaking hard right now” written all over it. He told me about some monument that marked the southernmost point of the US that I needed to hit before I left, so when I got back on the bike that’s where I headed. From SoCal to the southernmost point in the country! Woo hoo!

Tail of the Dragon
Bundled up in all my clothes at the Tail of the Dragon.Tiffani Burkett

And just like that, I was headed west again, but I wasn’t in any hurry to get home. This road trip stuff is fun! In North Carolina I stopped by Deals Gap to ride the Tail of the Dragon. Temps were in the 30s, and I was freezing even though I was wearing every piece of clothing I had. But man, is that road worth it. Between the flow, the technicality, and the scenery, I can’t think of anywhere I’ve ridden that was more fun than those 11 miles.

But what really made the experience great were all the fellow motorcyclists I met there. When people saw my California plate, they kept asking if I really rode there all the way from the West Coast. When I told them my story, they wanted to take my picture. This happened multiple times while I was riding around those roads and had happened a few times in Florida as well.

It felt good to get some congrats, some love for the FZ that I had put so much time and effort into building, and to just be among riders who were actually riding. I spent the better part of five hours there talking to people and riding the road back and forth before hunting down a campsite in Tennessee.

Barber Motorsports Museum
Bug-eyed at Barber. I’m pretty sure my face looked like this the entire time I was in the museum!Tiffani Burkett

The next morning I steeped myself in even more motorcycling at the Barber Motorsports Museum in Birmingham, Alabama. The moment I walked through the museum door and saw bikes everywhere I’m pretty sure my eyes bugged out of my head. I probably spent a good hour or two in the racing section alone. The only hard part was seeing the track out the window and not being able to ride it.

New Orleans was my next spot, and I headed to The Transportation Revolution on Julia Street for a tire swap and some basic maintenance. Later that night I met up with the shop’s co-owner, Max, and his wife for dinner and got to meet a bunch of cool people from the motorcycle industry. Being a motorcyclist really does make you part of a special community.

Tree of shame
Tiffani and her FZ-07. No parts left behind here.Tiffani Burkett

And out of all the niches in the motorcycling community, the one I feel the strongest affinity for is racers. I didn’t have much of a timeline for my ride west, but after visiting COTA for the MotoAmerica tire test I knew I wanted to make it back to the track for the combined MotoGP and MotoAmerica race weekend. I mean, how could I not?

Some close friends would be in Austin for the races, so I was legitimately excited to get to town. We partied downtown most of the night, grabbed the minimum amount of sleep, and in the morning headed to the track. This time the parking lot was overflowing with bikes, and walking through the gates really felt like I had just walked into a magical motorcycle theme park. I explored a bunch, got lost trying to navigate from Ducati Island to the paddock (my sense of direction has not improved during my travels!), and then met up with a friend I’d made on Facebook. He worked for Aprilia and actually got me a tour of the Aprilia WSBK garage!

The weekend was a blast and a blur. I watched MotoGP and MotoAmerica races, got Andrea Iannone’s autograph at the Dainese booth, stayed up late playing assistant to my friends as they worked on their racebikes, and even got to meet with some Yamaha employees who were curious about my trip on the little FZ.

After about 7,500 miles of travel, I was convinced that the FZ-07 was a reasonable choice for a touring bike. What it lacks in creature comforts, it makes up for in just being plain fun! Double points because it’s small and lightweight enough that even weak little me could muscle it out of the situations I got myself into.

With my dream weekend at the Austin MotoGP all wrapped up, it was finally time to get back on the road and head home to California. And for the first time during a month of travel I was actually going to be riding with company! I headed west with a group of friends who had road-tripped out from California. They all wanted to make it back to SoCal in three days (apparently some people still have jobs), so we stuck to the freeway and hauled ass across Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona.

On my 31st day on the road we crossed into California. The reality of being back didn’t set in until I passed the exit for my local track, Chuckwalla Raceway, and waved to the track in the distance. The other riders in the group peeled off to head home along the way, and I finished the remaining 130 miles to Los Angeles alone, just as I’d started the trip a month earlier.

I made one last stop at Manhattan Beach Pier to touch the Pacific Ocean, then I rolled my bike into my garage at my apartment in Redondo Beach.

Why we ride.
"I realized that not only did I never want to give up, but this kind of constant challenge is what makes me feel most alive."Tiffani Burkett

When I set out on this adventure I wasn’t sure I had what it would take. But as it turns out, all it takes is heart. From bad weather, uncertain nights, and even just the 550-mile marathon days that put mental and physical endurance to the test, I realized that not only did I never want to give up, but this kind of constant challenge is what makes me feel most alive.

I’d done it. I’d overcome my fear and ridden coast to coast. I’d logged 9,000 miles and ridden through 14 states, all on my own. I should have been satisfied and content, right? There was just one big problem, and that’s the fact that there were still 28 states I had yet to see.

After a few months at home Tiff put her stuff in storage, moved out of her apartment, and returned to the road. She’s been living off her FZ-07 ever since and has explored 33 states (including Alaska) and covered more than 30,000 miles. —Ed.