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Common Tread

Setting out solo: What you really learn on the road

Sep 15, 2023

My time as a solo long-distance rider was born from impatience. I was loaded up and ready to start the thousand-mile route home, my friends were looking for breakfast, and off I went.

I remember calling my dad a few hours down the road and he asked who I was with. I said, "Nope, it's just me! I think I'll be OK." And that was it. I had a taste of that freedom: that choice to move as fast or as slow as I wanted, and the option to push my limits as a rider, as well. While my motivations for long-distance riding have evolved over the years, the thrill has stayed constant.

Five years, 48 states, many lessons

I've done five cross-country trips in as many years. I've ridden in each of the lower 48 states (all on the same bike!) and have clocked 65,000 miles on a 2019 Moto Guzzi V7 that I bought brand new. I've snapped a clutch cable in Toronto, blown a rear bearing somewhere around Asheville, N.C., and kept going to Brooklyn. During my 2022 trip, I fried my stator and voltage regulator on day two and coaxed the bike all the way to Babes Ride Out NY and back to California without completely losing it (the bike, or my sanity). To say I've seen it all would be incorrect, but man, have I dealt with some shit on the road.

a storm on the horizon ahead of the motorcycle
Riding into a storm on the Great Plains. Just another test of yourself. Photo by Caitlin Maher.

My first long solo trip was part defiance and part proving to myself that I could make my dreams come true. In 2018, I shipped my newly rebuilt 2010 Moto Guzzi V7 to Nashville, flew to meet it and had a wonderfully rainy campout weekend in Kentucky. While my friends headed to the airport, I turned my bike west and took off alone, with a carefully detailed plan to stop in places I had friends or family and a general idea of when I needed to be home.

The real challenge of this trip was the reason the bike was newly rebuilt: I had crashed it about six weeks earlier. While I was fully geared up for the crash, and didn't get an ambulance ride as a prize, I was certainly hurt. My confidence on the road took the biggest hit. On that ride home from Kentucky, every mile marker that ticked by on the highway was a tally. If I made it this far, I can keep going. A massive storm loomed ahead of me on the plains, as I watched the odometer tick over, hoping to time the 20,000 milestone with a turnout on the endless construction corridor I was stuck in. Finally, the dial turned over, the road spat out a turnout, and I stopped for a picture thinking, "I wonder where I'll be when I hit the next milestone." Racing ahead into the storm, all thoughts of my injured shoulder disappeared as the first drops hit my helmet. It was just me and the bike, working together as one to stay upright and in motion, knowing that the wind and water couldn't go on forever.

Recalling that trip and retelling the stories for friends and coworkers over the weeks following my return had an amazing effect on me, one that I have only experienced a few times since. It was almost as if it became more real the more I talked about it. Never in my life had I done something so hard, mentally or physically, and even now when I think back to those feelings, I can see the direct correlation to all the plans I made following that first epic solo trip.

The following spring, with a new 2019 Moto Guzzi V7 loaded up with camping gear and bags, I took off for a full cross-country trip. All the way across, and all the way back. The motivation was no longer "Can I do this?" Instead, it was an open-ended "Let's see what we can do." An invitation to see what's out there, to leave the plans a little looser and let the routes be determined by the roads and weather. I left my detailed spreadsheet behind for something less formal. "Somewhere in Nebraska" or a list of hotels along the route to choose from when I was hitting the exhaustion wall.

Finally seeing the Atlantic Ocean and swinging the kickstand down in a sandy parking lot, I was exceptionally grateful that I actually had someone to share the moment that day, after all my solo miles. My friend Lupita, who was touring the country on her Yamaha YZF-R3, had decided to ride the extra day to the coast with me. We snagged a hotel, found a bar on the pier, celebrated with a tropical drink, and talked about all the places we wanted to ride to next. Early the next morning, we loaded our respective bikes and left Virginia Beach at the same time. Lupita headed for Miami and I started for Chicago. Somewhere around Kentucky, I decided I was going all the way, and after a 22-hour day of riding, I rolled into my dad's driveway giggling at the completion of my first thousand-mile day. A message from Lupita in the morning showed she also hauled all the way to Miami in the same day. If I thought I was tough, Lupita must be indestructible.

posing in front of the motorcycles parked by the dunes of the ocean
First cross-country trip: A California rider reaches the Atlantic for the first time. But not the last time. Photo by Lupita.

What you need, what you don't need, what you learn

The roads are out there, waiting for you. What's holding you back?

Do you need a touring bike to tour? My V7 is not a touring bike (and certainly neither is Lupita's R3), and yet here I am, touring my little heart out on one. I'd argue that almost any bike can be made comfortable enough to cross state lines, and as long as it can maintain highway cruising speed, you don't need much more from the actual machine. The rest is just logistics. Can you ride 100 miles? Take a short stop for gas, a snack, and ride another 100 miles? Do that set twice in a day and you can cover Los Angeles to San Francisco. On the east coast, that's riding from Philadelphia to Portland, Maine. You don't have to slam through 700 miles a day to do a long trip.

motorcycle on the road at sunrise
A sunrise somewhere in Nevada. Photo by Caitlin Maher.
Do you need to be fully and completely prepared before leaving? Probably not. I've ridden cold, sick, tired, and heartbroken. Should you have a plan if shit goes sideways? You should absolutely have some basic tools, a roadside assistance plan, and a good attitude about looking for help on the internet.

There are thousands of travel blogs and articles on how to prep the physical things you need to ride across the country, with route advice and affiliate links galore. This isn't about that. This is about the intangible things you gain when you start chasing yourself out on the road.

I've run into a handful of other women on the road who were also out on their own solo adventures. Through the magic of Instagram, I'm connected with not a small number of women who take on that challenge year after year; who answer the call of the road with the roar of an engine. There's some sort of unspoken understanding between us, fueled by that unending desire to find out who you are away from everything and everyone else. That drive to explore and challenge may have started in different places, but the path leads to the same outcome. Being that wild woman, alone on a motorcycle in the middle of nowhere, is like being boiled down to your absolute essence. It's a rush like no other, and once you get a taste of it, you'll turn the whole world on its end for the chance to chase it down one more time.

You do really find out who you are when you're alone. And not just running-errands-on-a-day-off alone, but the alone of sitting with your bike on the side of an empty road in Montana, eating a Clif bar and staring at mountains you've never seen before while listening to the wind whistle through the brush. You begin to feel very small, but at the same time, your connection with the world around you grows deeper. The responsibility to yourself becomes so much more clear. You have to stop when you're exhausted. You know when you can push breakfast into lunch, you savor every moment of sleep before disassembling your tent and committing to another 500 miles that day. Every piece you typically hide under the surface is revealed and dealt with immediately. There's nowhere to hide from yourself out on the road.

motorcycle stopped on an empty road in Montana
A road in Montana, as empty as a road can be. It's not that you find yourself out here. You find who you've always been. Photo by Caitlin Maher.

I'm going to include here the inspiration for writing this: I arrived home just last month from my latest cross-country trip, the last leg of which I giggled my way from Chicago to Sturgis, then down through Wyoming to Las Vegas and finally home to SoCal. Quite the roundabout trip ending, though well worth it for the Black Hills, hot springs, and gorgeous camping along the way. I typically get home to a whirlwind of plans and work and motivation for projects, armed to the teeth with creative ideas or events to plan for. This end was different.

I got home a day early and spent the time reflecting on all of the above. Where I've been, what I've been looking for. Struck with the realization that I'm never going to come home and suddenly be someone I hadn’t been before. Which also meant that I wasn't going to "figure it out on the road" in the grand romantic sense that I had always hoped.

Instead, what I felt was acceptance. Reassurance that these trips weren't just something that I do, but instead reminded me of who I am. I had always been the person I was looking for.