The myth of the American open road permeates our culture as thoroughly as gun worship and our cowboy history of conquest by might equals right. The idea posits that every American man* can remake himself by packing up his troubles and setting out on the road towards a distant horizon to discover what awaits for him in the remainder of that infinitesimal slice of eternity making up each of our lives. Lest you think I’m disputing this, I’m as susceptible to the myth as anyone. After all, as I’ve written before, I came to motorcycling through a months-long cross country trip to escape an unpleasant situation.
Even though I bristled in graduate school, when a professor deconstructed the American road to prove it was dead (and, perhaps, had never existed) – other than in literature in the form of characters like Dean Moriarty in On the Road – I was already unconsciously aware of the fact when I set off on my first motorcycle journey. After all, I’d changed my address to my mother’s house so that she could pay the minimum amount on my credit card to ensure that I wouldn’t default on my debt in the months I was being a nomad. Once I landed wherever I landed, I’d want to empty that 8 x 10 storage unit holding my all my worldly belongings in Brooklyn, and it was set to autopay on that card. Today, if I were embarking on a similar trip, I could take care of my financial obligations via a smartphone on the road, but I’d still need some kind of physical address. Such are the considerations of modern life.
Though the open road may be less real than it had seemed previously, it still has a powerful pull on our psyches. Just look at just about any advertisement for a motor vehicle with their mountain vistas and amber waves of grain. Also, how do we explain the perennial popularity of full-dress tourers (aside from the fact that Americans own too much crap and want to take it with them wherever they go)? The recent baggers boom may be part of the barhopper scene, but they also carry the image of being able to hit the road at a moment’s notice. While very few of those baggers will take more than a handful of tours, you can bet that the hope for travel was a key component in the purchase of each one.
Like most myths, the concept of remaking oneself through travel across the American continent has some basis in reality. The key to the trope, in my experience, lies more in the change affected on the traveler than in the travel itself. In short, if you hit the road to run away from your problems, they’ll be waiting for you right there wherever you end up when your travels are done. If you go out seeking to move beyond them, though, you stand a better chance of making the discovery you seek.
At various times in my life, I’ve continued to use motorcycle trips to mull over decisions or celebrate important transitions. Thirteen years ago, while riding and hiking on assignment for Motorcycle Cruiser in Big Bend National Park and the surrounding area, I made my decision to leave my staff job at Motorcycle Cruiser and Sport Rider in pursuit of a freelance career. I had a couple days of solitude on remote winding roads and endless stretches of superslab to consider the consequences/benefits of making this big change. The time gave me the clarity I needed to step away from the daily grind of the magazine business to see if – despite the fact that I was enjoying the biggest perk of my job, being paid to ride and travel on a motorcycle – I was ready for a change.
When Kevin Duke approached me in late 2013 to discuss working at MO, I also took a ride – though for a few hours instead of days – to get out of town and ponder how this could potentially affect career and my role as the parent with the flexible schedule who could stay home with sick girls or drive them to ballet or soccer or play dates. In the end, the lure of being part of a team (and then there’s the regular paycheck instead of having to constantly peddle my wares) was the deciding factor. Fortunately, MO’s decentralized structure has allowed me to retain much of my parenting role (my oldest is in the kitchen baking cupcakes on her first day of spring break as I work on this article) by allowing me to continue to work at home.
Lately, I’ve been dreaming of the open road. I’ve traveled through the Rocky Mountains, the Sonoran Desert, the Great Plains, and the Blue Ridge Mountains. In these dreams, I’m alone as I ride a variety of bikes or sit by the campfire, my motorcycle glittering in the dancing light. At these times, I’m mostly happy but deeply contemplating something that hasn’t quite made it into my daytime world. I awake refreshed but aware that something is rooting around at the edges of my consciousness. This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. So, when I do it for days in a row, I’ve learned that my inner self has latched on to and is beginning to work on a perceived transformation coming down the pike.
The air is warming and infused with desert juniper, a welcome change after the long, chilly descent from the alpine pass. The valley widens before me, revealing new expanses. My tank’s a long way from empty, and the engine’s pulling at a comfortable rhythm. I open it up to see what we can do. The next adventure is out there somewhere along this ribbon of time. Let’s see what’s just over that distant ridge line.
* My apologies to the women reading this, but although the myth is changing, historically this has been for men only.