Touring America: Buyers Guide And Advice

John Burns
by John Burns

So much to see, no passport required

One of the beauties of living in America is that if you’re traveling by motorcycle here, you don’t really need to go anywhere else. We’ve got it all packed into our 3.806-million square miles, from purple mountain majesties to damp New England villages, vast fruity plains and burning sands. Hop across Canada to Alaska if that’s not enough, maybe catch the ferry to Russia. Jump the southern border, and Mexico’s your oyster. Unfortunately, we have no autobahns, but large chunks of the Louisiana Purchase are so sparsely populated, you can intermittently pretend like we do. When it’s time to combat cabin fever and claustrophobia, we Americans are coming from a good place.

Atlas Rugged

Paper maps are good, and the Rand-McNally atlas is the 800-pound gorilla. For a mere $19.95, the large-format spiral-bound beauty pictured contains 264 10.375 x 15.375-inch pages with all 50 states and more than 350 inset maps of cities and national parks. Not to mention Best of the Road sections highlighting the most excellent drives (rides, in our case).

Butler bike-specific maps are also excellent, but an all-in-one atlas like this one is a fantastic resource when you really don’t know where the hell you’re going or how long it’ll take to get there (there’s a big two-page spread with distances between major cities). While all the other Iron Butt Rallyists are frantically programming their GPSs, you’ll be halfway there. There’re lots of other great travel products at the R-M site, including electronic maps for your GPS. Whatever that is. Personally, I’d rather get a little lost now and then than have Siri nattering in my ear constantly.

The Rule of Parallels

Excellent advice from the esteemed moto industry veteran Reg Kittrelle, which goes hand in hand with having a nice atlas with expanded city maps: “Tourist towns and large motorcycle events suffer the same fate: highway-clogging, snail-paced traffic. Because the majority of this traffic is non-local, it really doesn’t know where it’s going … so it follows everyone else. You can generally avoid heavy traffic by jumping over to a parallel street. The key to this is studying a map before you hit town.”

Stranded Operating Procedure

Hopefully, you know better than we how reliable your motorcycle is and how to fix it if the answer is “not very.” If it’s anything like the new ones we’re lucky enough to get to ride most of the time, breakdowns aren’t much of a problem (KNOCK ON WOOD!). What does hang us up occasionally, though, would be the Flat Tire or the Running-Out-of gas. A thing like Touratech’s two-liter fuel bottle tucked into a saddlebag isn’t a bad idea when you’re on the road.

And four out of five flat tires can be warded off by carrying a flat tire repair kit, such as the Stop&Go deal here. A few extra bucks for the kit with the CO2 cartridges makes re-inflation much easier. If your bike uses tube-type tires on its classic spoked wheels, spring for the RV and Motorcycle rider on your AAA policy, and you won’t have to give the flatbed driver all your money to transport you to the nearest dealer. Even if you don’t have a blowout, a Triple-A membership can pay for itself pretty quickly, getting you 10% off in hotels and other places.

Bring Snacks

If you do break down in the middle of nowhere, starving is a hard way to go. It’s also better to nosh your way along when you’re riding than to eat big meals. I like a nice trail mix full of nuts and raisins and M&Ms, myself. Actually, you’ll die of dehydration long before you’ll starve, so don’t forget water. And a little Jim Beam to mix with it at the end of the day is the best way I’ve found to unwind. It’s a bummer to stop and get all settled in somewhere, only to find you’re in a dry county. The horror.

I’ve grown very attached to my Kriega 3-Liter Hydration backpack, which makes it easy to keep hydrated between stops on the free water and ice you get when you do stop.

Avoid States where Lane-Splitting is Illegal

That’s all of them, in other words, except California. If you must ride in any of the other states, Europeans, be aware that car drivers will freak out when you go between backed-up lines of them. And in many gun-loving states (again, all of them), the offended party will occasionally open fire. A Kevlar back protector is not a bad idea, but thankfully, the humidity in many of the lower 48 deflects the rounds of all but trained marksmen.

Official Tourism Persons

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If you plan to actually visit places rather than blast through at speed, just about every municipality has a tourism board full of chatty people with free advice and brochures and discount coupons to all the local attractions which have been paying taxes all these years to keep them in Cadillacs and Shih-Tzus. Easy to find on the www, of course.

Social Mediate

Every time I need to write an article like this one, I turn to my Facebook friends for help and am nearly always disappointed. Peter Jones’ advice for traveling in the U.S. is “Don’t pack sardine sandwiches.” But seriously, if you have a specific place to visit in mind, put it out there and you’re bound to get input from the ex-boyfriend of your aunt’s gym teacher in middle school who’s cousin is the park ranger of Alberta, Canada, and knows the guy who turns Niagara Falls off and on and can get you a deal on a Maid of the Mist cruise.

Lead with a Smile

This may not work in Waco, but I’ve learned that a big cheesy grin and a heartfelt How are you? does wonders to dispel the visual image you project when you climb off your buggy motorcycle in your seldom-washed Aerostich suit with matted hair and five-day stubble. Whatever information you may have gleaned about wherever you are before you left home will not be as accurate as local knowledge, so it definitely pays to suck up and be nice. Most people worth listening to are happy to share, especially in the outback. Especially if you buy some stuff besides gas, and especially if you observe the Rule directly following this one.

“Just enjoy it. You’re on a motorcycle! Be adventurous, be bland, don’t hit deer, be Peter Fonda, don’t be Dennis Hopper. But most of all, smile and always let people know how great motorcycles are.” —Aaron Lach

Follow the White Signs

FB friend David Schenk gets credit for this one, which is slightly obvious but you know how thick some people can be. Sometimes you’re just in a hurry and you have to take the Interstate, and when you do that, it’s easy to despair and think there’s nothing left of America but Waffle Houses and Stuckey’s pecan rolls and Starbucks. The fainter lines on your Rand-McNally is where you’ll find the rest of it, the small-town America, what John Steinbeck called the blue highways. Maybe it’s just me, but as some big-city economies have faltered in the last decade, quite a few city slickers have been returning to and breathing fresh life into lots of small towns. Traveling between them can be way more pleasant (and affordable) than stopping in big cities. Who knew you’d pass through Billy the Kid’s stomping grounds (Lincoln, New Mexico) on the way to Roswell to look for aliens on NM Highway 380? The other upside is that traffic is always much, much lighter on the skinny roads, along with far fewer speed-limit enforcers.

Take your time and enjoy

Easier said than done in the modern world, but doable. Lately, I’m a big fan of carrying the Zebco mini rod-and-reel I paid $14 bucks for, which encourages me to stop at nice bodies of water and dip my podiatric digits even if I don’t catch a fish, which can lead to a nice nap. Which is nice in the afternoon, and probably makes you safer and able to ride farther into the evening. Nearly all the weird little signs you whiz past for museums and other offbeat attractions are worth turning around to visit. Pack a pair of dime-store flip-flops to wear while your boots air out.

Good gear is worth it

If your head’s not throbbing from being deformed inside an ill-fitting helmet all day, you can still have fun on the humblest motorcycle, but not the other way around. Don’t set out in a new helmet unless you know it’s comfortable for hours at a time. If you’re going where there’s any chance of rain at altitude, Gore-Tex is the bomb. Off-road riding gear makers offer reasonably priced rain-proof gear. If you can swing it, swim trunks and a t-shirt under a one-piece Aerostich suit (pictured) are the hot set-up for hot-weather riding. (Be careful at that website; you’ll find lots of things you didn’t know you needed.) If you’re impetuous and unprepared, check the weather before you head up Pikes Peak in your jean jacket and fingerless gloves. If it’s your first big road trip, you’ll be amazed how cold it can get in August above 5,000 feet, and how quickly it can do it. Also how quickly dirt turns to mud when it rains all of a sudden.

Motorcycle Camping is a whole ’nother article or 20, but I have spent some quite pleasant nights sleeping by the side of the road with my Aerostich as sleeping bag and helmet as a pillow. A layer of fleece under any decent shell should work just as well (unless it rains hard, anyway). If your bike has a steel gas tank, a magnetic tank bag full of clothes makes a great pillow for non-back-sleepers.

Travel light

Now’s the time to get rid of all the free t-shirts you never really wanted. Abandon them along the way. Also time to cull the holy underwear (though Mike Emery says it should be clean when it’s packed). Bring a few pairs of undies and socks and wash as needed along the way (rolling them up in a towel, then hanging them up, dries things pretty fast). If your SO is riding on back, you should write your own article. All bets are off. Though shopping in Goodwill stores along the way for fresh clothes every few days is another good tactic. (Bonus points if you buy your old stuff back on the return leg, freshly laundered.)

Several smart guys advise travelers to remember their medications and an extra pair of glasses; Mark Dickinson says take your spare bike key – way cheaper, he says, than losing your only one. Michael Walt says, in addition to stashing a spare key, you should also carry a copy of your driver’s license and registration, some cash and a valid credit card in a separate and secure Ziplock baggie. You weren’t going to set out with just one credit card, were you?

If you have an actual destination, ship the stuff you don’t need ahead of you via the UPS man.

Check Your Regional Biases

All Southerners are not hicks, all Yankees are not carpetbaggers, and all people in small towns are not morons. Most, but not all. Try not to let your condescension show during social and financial transactions if you’re a big-city sophisticate, or you will pay. That goes double for law enforcement officers. Slow down for towns, stow the Stars & Bars, turn down the Notorious BIG, and try a little humility. We’re all Amuricans on the road.

For God’s sake, man up just a little for once in your life!

It’s only been 150 years since Gottlieb D. built the first motorcycle, and paved roads crisscrossing the U.S. are way more recent than that. If you’re hot or cold or wet or have chapped lips or bad reception, drop to your knees and thank Baby Jesus you don’t have an arrow in your sternum or chickenpox or are about to give birth for the 13th time on a bed of tumbleweeds, okay? The whole point of motorcycle travel is to experience climatic conditions that aren’t always ideal, to digest and pass items that aren’t universally agreed upon as being edible, to have a meeting of minds with the occasionally mindless people you meet. A little self-inflicted hardship is good exercise for the soul. Embrace it, ladies. No whining. It’ll make the air-conditioned cubicle way more appealing when you get back.

Related Reading
50 Tips for Riding A Motorcycle Across America
Whatever! – A Million Pillions

John Burns
John Burns

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  • Michael Conchscooter Michael Conchscooter on Jul 17, 2015

    Best article on motorcycle touring ever. Travel light and follow Chopper Read's video advice to "Harden the fuck up."

  • Chris Cope Chris Cope on Jul 21, 2015

    Just finished up a 3,500-mile jaunt around Europe and pretty much all the advice here also applies in Not America -- especially the Lead With A Smile tip. I found that adopting an "Everything About This Place Is Amazing!" attitude (regardless of whether I actually felt that way) was immensely helpful. In Germany, they frequently rewarded this behavior with beer.