It started with an off-the-cuff compliment from a friend and has turned into a motorcycle touring mission that’s motivated me to ride to places I would’ve never otherwise visited and brought a new fun factor to my love of long-distance riding.
Those of us who are gluttons for the excitement and occasional discomfort of long days in the saddle may think just getting out there and riding is all there is to it. If my friend’s comment hadn’t gotten the right neurons to fire to initiate this idea, I’d still be blissfully happy riding to races and rallies, visiting scenic parts of the country and carving up twisty roads. Instead, a Johnny Cash rendition of a song that came out before I was born has given me reason to visit the middle of nowhere and stop places that 99.9 percent of two-wheeled explorers motor right on by.
What made me want to start down the dusty Winnemucca road?
My buddy Joe is to blame. He and I went to graduate school together and share a mutual admiration for Formula 1 racing. Joe owned a sport bike in his younger years and enjoys hearing about my two-wheeled touring adventures. We were chatting about some of the places I’d ridden, and he said to me, “Dude, you’ve been everywhere.”
That’s when it all came together. Like the character Nick Naylor in the movie “Thank You for Smoking” remembering why his lobbyist career of defending big tobacco and baby seal poachers was (somehow) noble, I felt the rush of an epiphany wash over me as I realized the potential to make country music lyrics into a long-distance riding project. And I thought to myself, “I haven’t been everywhere... yet.”
I’m obviously not the first person to have this idea. As was aptly pointed out by Common Tread’s editor-in-chief, Lance, the American Motorcyclist Association had a Johnny Cash Grand Tour as early as 2001, meaning members were traveling to sites named in the song and taking photos of themselves and their motorcycles.
Over the winter of 2015-2016, I started working on figuring out where all the places in the song were on the map. I held on to the hope I could easily ride to all of them, until I realized there aren’t any cities or towns in North America named Argentina, Barranquilla, Tocopilla or Costa Rica (if someone reading this knows of one, please feel free to enlighten me). Plus, Schefferville (Canada) is inaccessible by road (you have to fly into it or take an eight-hour train ride to get there). In the end, I curtailed my project to places within the United States.
I also planned to buy a shot glass for each location. That worked well with big cities and college towns (university bookstores to the rescue). However, in places like Jellico or Tallapoosa, the only shot glass you’re going to find is one you have to give back after you’ve downed a gulp of Old Grandad. Lucky for me, my toxicologist-turned-craftsman father can print photos onto shot glasses. Problem solved.
Stories from the road
After a winter of assembling the place names and possible locations to stop (there’s more than one Pasadena and Charleston in the United States), I got right to work on the project in 2016, riding my trusty Yamaha FJR1300 (named Jadzia). It started with my first big ride of the year, which also happened to be my first non-solo tour. The trip to Circuit of the Americas with my buddy “Speedy” Dan is a story all its own, but we made stops in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Texarkana, Texas, to grab shot glasses from colleges. On the way back, we stopped at the Barksdale Global Power Museum at Barksdale Air Force Base in Shreveport, Louisiana. I got to live my dream of seeing an SR-71 Blackbird and a B-52 Stratofortress up close.
I crossed a few more locations off my list on what I call my “Down South 2016” trip. I got to learn all about my favorite ball-and-stick sport’s history at the Louisville Slugger Museum and Factory, received an education in wrecker history at the International Towing & Recovery Hall of Fame and Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and best of all got to visit the Johnny Cash Museum in Nashville, Tennessee. All of these are places that might have been of interest before. The project made them must-visits and I am a better informed person because of them.
One set of stops gave me reason to ride through the region where I grew up. On my way back from visiting a friend in Albany, I stopped in Waterloo, New York (not far from where my Dad grew up in Seneca Falls), as well as Buffalo and its Black Rock neighborhood. These are places I’ve been to before at least dozens of times, but my project gave them a new perspective.
Some of the stops have been… well… just a place to stop. When I started this project, I had a cheap Windows phone (yes, I admit it) that didn’t have a front camera. It was a bit awkward walking up to a locals and asking them to take my picture next to the “Welcome to Tallapoosa” sign. The same went for Jellico, Tennessee, where a coal miner who’d just gotten off work was kind enough to snap a shot of me posing with the town’s welcome sign.
Since that first year, my progress in crossing more sites off my list has slowed, but not stopped. In 2019, for example, I hit eight more, including three I stopped at on the way to Denver to visit a friend. I managed four in 2020, despite the obstacles to travel, and if my plans for 2021 — emphasis on the word "plans" — come through I should have another dozen or so under my belt.
So, has the project been worth it so far?
Stopping at places like Jellico or Tallapoosa or Oskaloosa or Fond du Lac didn’t lead to finding a cool new thing to visit or somewhere scenic (although Oskaloosa had a neat-looking downtown area). I’m a history nerd, and my experience has taught me that most every place has a story to tell. Some of them sound exactly the same, and some are more interesting than others. But just being able to say you’ve been somewhere can mean the world to someone you meet down the line. One way I’ve benefitted from my travels is my ability to relate to new people I meet simply because I’ve ridden in or near their hometown. “Oh, you’re from Marietta, Ohio? I’ve ridden near there. Isn’t that Blennerhassett Museum right near there in Parkersburg, West Virginia?”
So, has it been worth the time and money I’ve spent on this project? Without a doubt, yes it has. The project has improved my ability to interact with new acquaintances or business contacts, expanded my knowledge of American history (a subject I hope to adjunct teach one day) and gotten me to spend more time on motorcycling. The project hasn’t made riding itself more fun. There’s nothing as simultaneously relaxing and exciting as spending time in the saddle. But it’s added a new nerd style of fun to the practice of the motorcycling lifestyle.
I hope one day I’ll be able to sit down and listen to the song while looking through a collection of shot glasses that bring back the great memories I made while finding each place. One thing’s for sure: I’ll have a smile on my face every time I find myself riding to somewhere I would’ve never otherwise gone but for wanting to be like Johnny.