The View of an American Road Trip from the Back of a Motorcycle

When I was in architecture school I bought a small 250cc Honda Rebel a) because it was a cheap way to get around town and b) because it allowed me to explore the mountains near my university in a way I hadn’t experienced before. Mountains had become an integral part of life after a childhood in Utah. It seemed every weekend growing up was spent hiking, biking, or skiing in some absurdly beautiful part of the state. It was a lifestyle that was hard to give up.

Although not quite matching in grandeur, the mountains closest to school were still fantastic to drive through. Switchbacks, scenic passes, and the feeling of flying a few feet above the ground immediately became one of my favorite pastimes. The drive to the trailhead used to be a chore but now it was the point of the trip. On the back of a motorcycle, I found a new way to enjoy the outdoors. One day while heading to my favorite peak, an idea formed: “What if I could tour the Rocky Mountains of the West on the motorcycle of my dreams?”

Eventually, I sold the Honda and moved to New York City to begin my career, but the idea never left me. Whenever I’d see motorcycles on the street, I’d take note and imagine whether or not they could accomplish my dream journey. Certain brands and styles started to stand out; Italian motorcycles became a clear favorite. Their aggressive riding positions, wonderful engine sounds, and general looks made it hard to see anything else. After four years confined almost entirely to the boroughs of Manhattan and Brooklyn, I decided it was time to get out of the city and explore New York State. I’d also decided a Moto Guzzi would be my mode of transportation. I loved the classic 1100cc air-cooled engine, the side-to-side vibrations and low rumble it produced, and especially the consistent stream of power that poured out as I climbed through the RPM range. Sublimely smooth suspension, massive Brembo brakes, and a dry hydraulic clutch that made an eclectic mechanical chattering sound sealed the deal.

The Moto Guzzi was a remarkable companion on weekend drives to the Catskills. A larger excursion west to tour the Rockies started to feel inevitable, and when a good friend told me she was getting married in Moab, Utah, I decided to create a road trip around her big day.

When the day came to leave, I was, like probably everyone at the beginning of a great adventure, a mix of nervousness and excitement. I hadn’t slept much the night before. My head was racing between last minute packing items and the first day’s route. Getting dressed felt like a religious ceremony and seemed to take hours. Eventually, much later than planned, I started the engine, kissed my girlfriend, put my helmet on, and rode off towards Virginia. The first day was 430 miles, the longest drive on a motorcycle I’d made to date. The second day, another 400 plus miles, seemed a little easier.

After a week on the road, I found myself near the western border of Kansas and could see dense clouds way out in the distance. The perfectly flat horizon slowly transformed into rolling hills and it was soon visible that the clouds were sheltering mountains. Disregarding the fact that I’d already driven 500 miles that day I pushed through Denver as fast as I could to find the first canyon road of the trip. I probably should’ve pulled over and found a motel but 2500 miles of anticipation made me keep driving. The dominant smells of agriculture and traffic pollution soon became pine and crisp mountain stream water. A few tight curves and steep uphill climbs transformed the motorcycle from an endurance traveler to an aggressive sport machine. Instead of managing the pain in my shoulders and hands I now focused on the next bend. Peaks with snow on them quickly became the standard backdrop and the temperature, which minutes ago was in the high eighties, had now become the low sixties. After an hour the horizon began to darken. I pulled into a small high mountain town, booked a motel, and braced myself realizing the coming weeks would be the experience I conceived of over 10 years ago.

Road Trip Highlights

Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir, Colorado

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High mountain reservoirs always seem to come out of nowhere. They offer an incredible view for a minute then disappear behind the next bend. Clinton Gulch Dam Reservoir is one worth slamming on the brakes for. Gentle winds slowly transform the water’s surface from a perfect mirror into a field of the deepest blues. The effect is mesmerizing. See on the map.

Pikes Peak Ascent, Colorado

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

If you have the chance to drive Pikes Peak Highway, don’t think about it — do it. Will it be the thrilling ascent seen in car commercials toting their latest all-wheel-drive machines? Probably not. Most likely, you’ll be stuck in a line whose pace set by some minivan from Iowa. Fortunately, that won’t diminish the fact that you’re climbing 7,000 vertical feet in a little more than an hour. At points the road is so steep it seems to disappear into space. See on the map.

Pikes Peak Summit, Colorado

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

At 14,114 feet, the sky begins to darken, the temperature has dropped nearly 30 degrees, and simple physical tasks seem to require more energy and focus than they ever have before. The view is what you’d expect from an airplane but in full panorama. I’m not holding onto the handlebar to strike a pose — the winds at the top that day reached over 50 mph and the motorcycle began lifting off its stand during gusts. The barren peak is void of plants and animals, making the clear statement that nothing can survive up there for very long. See on the map.

Moab, Utah

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

It’s hard not to feel like your in a Western film when driving alongside the buttes and spires of southern Utah. These near Castle Valley mark the entrance into Moab and the greater Canyonlands recreation area. Be careful to monitor your fuel consumption in these parts. Coming from Colorado, the previous gas station was nearly 70 miles back. See on the map.

Colorado River, Utah

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

Shear red rock canyons from where the Colorado River cuts through Utah’s desert landscape. As the river twists and bends, so, too, does the perfectly paved Utah State Route 128, making for one of the most curated drives of the trip. See on the map.

Flaming Gorge Reservoir, Utah

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

Hopping off the pavement was always fun and sometimes a necessity. The areas around Flaming Gorge Reservoir seem to have the perfect roads for this. Smooth hardpack moving through low rolling hills make for the ideal conditions to test your dual-sport tires. See on the map.

Uinta Mountains, Utah

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

The Uintas of northern Utah offer a more subtle beauty compared to the more dramatic mountain ranges seen throughout the west. Yellow dandelions and purple lupine flowers scatter the grassy hills under gently rounded snow-capped peaks. See on the map.

Plains of Idaho

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

Part of any drive through the West is through land that has not been purposed by mankind, has few significant geological formations, and is so flat the road will follow a straight path into the horizon. Drives like this offer a welcome contrast to mountain roads and their constantly changing array of scenery. In these astonishingly empty places, it’s still possible to find the middle of nowhere. See on the map.

Fields of Idaho

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

Say what you will about monocultures, the crop fields of Idaho are breathtaking in their homogeneity. The composition of the ever-so-slightly changing landscape was always balanced by an occasional farm building or piece of agricultural equipment. Often times, spectacular mountain ranges occupied the background but their majesty was always rivaled by the clouds. See on the map.

Stanley, Idaho

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

Located under the Sawtooth Mountains and alongside the Salmon River, Stanley, Idaho, is a quintessential alpine paradise. The drive to Stanley is enough to make any trip worthwhile. Whether coming from the south through Galena Summit, with its hairpin switchbacks and expansive overlook, or from the north along the lush canyon bends tracing the Salmon River, any Stanley visit provides a near perfect mix of scenery and thrill. See on the map.

Bitterroot Mountains, Montana

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

No image could fully capture the experience of being in Montana. This valley sandwiched between the Bitterroot and Beaverhead-Deerlodge Forests was so immense that mountain ranges on either side only show as specks on the horizon. See on the map.

Wisdom, Montana

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

On a wet, 50-degree day such as this, it’s an easy choice to pull over, have a bite to eat, and watch the rain roll by safely in the distance. This particular pit stop was just outside Wisdom, Montana. See on the map.

Yellowstone National Park

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

After exiting the southern gate of Yellowstone National Park, drivers are met with a distant view of the Tetons with Jackson Lake in the foreground. Keeping your eyes on the road is nearly impossible. Continuing south, the lake disappears and the majesty of the Tetons slowly unfolds before you. See on the map.

Grand Teton National Park

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Nicholas Shrier/The Manual

Of all the mountain ranges in the West, few are more striking than the Tetons. They rise so abruptly and to such a height that their jagged peaks seem to only emerge from the clouds for brief moments. See on the map.

How to Prepare

As soon as I committed to the road trip, I realized how unprepared I was.

What if I got caught in a rainstorm? That was unavoidable over the course of a month. My biggest trips had always been made on carefully selected, dry, warm weekends. During portions of the journey, I wouldn’t have the luxury to choose which days I’d want to drive. Temperatures higher up in the mountains would be in the 50s. What if I needed to spend a week in those temperatures?

How about mechanical problems? I know guys who’ve tried this only to have their motorcycle break down halfway through. The excursion would add so much mileage the bike would need servicing along the way. Would it be easy to schedule a service around the places I wanted to visit? Up until then, two small side bags were my only means of carrying gear and they could barely handle a single weekend. How could I fit all the clothes and supplies needed for over a month on the road?

When the save-the-date letter came, I had about nine months to get everything figured out. I developed a plan for rain and cold first. Waterproof gloves, socks, jacket, and pullover shell pants seemed to solve that problem. I tested packable down and fleece layers on 40-degree drives around New York and was able to stay relatively comfortable. Electric glove liners helped immensely.

Mechanical problems soon became my biggest source of anxiety … Maybe the dilemma of “how to carry everything needed on a month-long motorcycle trip” should’ve been one of the first problems tackled. 

Mechanical problems soon became my biggest source of anxiety. The bike worked fine, but I wanted to make sure any potential problems were dealt with before the trip. I started with the service items listed in the manual and got to work changing oils (shaft drive, gearbox, and engine), replacing filters, checking seals, and adjusting valve clearances, all the while looking at every area I could get to for signs of wear. What I found was eye-opening. Numerous seals had worn out, creating oil leaks; a few electrical connectors appeared to be more corrosion than connector; wires were stripped from rubbing; sealing rubber parts had crumbled; and very important components that should’ve had a healthy coat of grease on them were bone dry. Order after order from Mcmaster-Carr and endless hours wrenching with a schematic next to me eventually solved these issues. I decided to have the Moto Guzzi shop in Brooklyn do a full-service inspection, as well while putting new tires on. Eventually, all the visibly problematic areas were corrected and the motorcycle felt noticeably smoother.

Maybe the dilemma of “how to carry everything needed on a month-long motorcycle trip” should’ve been one of the first problems tackled. I ended up saving this for last though, mainly because the packing list seemed to change every few weeks. For anyone planning to do something like this save yourself a world of hassle and go with hard luggage. Water will never be an issue and you won’t have to carry everything you own into a hotel room each night (because fabric bags offer virtually no security even when locked). That said, aside from soaking the contents on a few extraordinarily rainy days, I really didn’t have any problems using the side bags I already owned with a large duffel placed over the top of them. I could fit everything needed with room to spare. It was a simple solution that allowed me to spend more time planning out the places and routes I wanted to see.

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