Common Tread

The Tao of solo: Riding by yourself does not mean riding alone

Nov 23, 2016

Three days, 1,500 miles. Business and pleasure. I would be riding solo, but as it often turns out, I would not be alone.

leaving home
Florida palms in the background, saying goodbye to the cat. Photo by Nico Danan.
The plan was to ride from sunny Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to supposedly chilly Philadelphia to meet with folks at RevZilla about the Merlin riding apparel our company, Hugo Moto, brought to the United States. Plotting my route, I consulted my dad and the Common Tread team. Spurgeon chimed in with “get in the Georgia mountains, then head to 28 that leads to 129, then pop over to Asheville for a beer and maybe the best sushi I ever had.” Lemmy concurred. I loved how they never mentioned the Tail of the Dragon, but rather called it 129. Sure, the Tail of the Dragon has an adventurous ring to it, but U.S. 129 sounds more humble. This simple number connects it to the gigantic nervous system of the great American backroads.

I eventually decided on three waypoints. First, Athens, Georgia, to catch up with my old friend Matt Smith, a brilliant designer. Then Asheville for the beer and sushi combo, and Philadelphia for my meeting.

Day one: the road to an old friend

Past the excitement of getting on my Triumph and beginning a long journey, the first few hours of a ride are usually uncomfortable in both my head and my body. I am stuck in my thoughts about work, aspirations, dreams. But as I ride more, the road tames my mind. I feel that the road has something to give in every encounter, every turn, every crossroad. One just has to pay attention to the holy quest to truly appreciate the ride.

Georgia mountains
Finally out of the flatlands of Florida. Photo by Nico Danan.

Finally out of Florida, I rolled into Athens in the early afternoon under clouds and a few drops of rain. The Georgia Bulldogs were playing, so the entire town was either at the stadium or in the bars on Broad Street.

Matt met me in a coffee shop right by the Home Depot. He was busy working on his house, building the most epic playground for his kids. We laughed and reminisced about our past over iced coffee. We had so much to catch up on, but we each had a mission. We said goodbye, knowing all too well we wouldn't see each other for years, but that my motorcycle addiction combined with my wandering habit was our friendship’s best ally. I would come to see him again.

Day two: The surprise of a new friend

The next day, I raced through the landscape. I wanted speed over sightseeing. Too much time in straight, boringly flat Florida left me starving for some carving. The road was playful, and so was I. I opened the throttle and the triple roared. Giggles and my self-tutoring voice (“Man, you braked way too late on that one.”) took over the personal audio in my helmet. Yes, I do occasionally talk to myself.

The sun was slowly setting. I was ready to stop and stare into the sunset to thank the road gods for another fantastic day on the Blue Ridge Parkway. The first thing I noticed as I stopped randomly at one of the many Blue Ridge pullouts was the KTM Super Adventure, white as a unicorn and perfectly lit by the angled light. I parked right beside it. Seconds after I removed my helmet and gloves, a white-mustachioed gent with his camera in hand showed up.

“Nice bike,” he said, with the proper accent to greet my British motorcycle.

I answered jokingly. “A British gent on an Austrian bike and a French bloke on a British bike? What is wrong with that picture? Perhaps we should swap?”

He laughed, and said he wasn’t going to get rid of his KTM any time soon, as this bike was not only outrageously fun, but also held a lot of meaning for him.

We talked and laughed and found we had an instant connection, beyond motorcycles. We also shared a passion for the world’s oceans. We were both Scuba divers and he was an avid sailor.

The multicolored leaves of the Shenandoah glistened like the ocean at sunset. "This is my backyard!" he exclaimed with a big smile, and continued on explaining to me about the geology of the valley and why a particular type of birds called it home. He told me his name was Peter.

“I am a farmer, an avid birder and a naturalist,” he said. “I live just at the bottom of the hill. You want to grab a pint?”

Nico and Peter
Nico and Peter. Photo by Nico Danan.
I followed Peter down the hill to the Blue Mountain Brewery in Afton, Virginia, where he picks up barley for his cattle. Near the bottom, Peter grabbed his brakes. A young black bear was lying dead in the middle of the road. It must have just happened. A sad sight, really, but also a reminder to be extra cautious riding these mountain roads as the sun comes down and visibility becomes tricky.

Peter offered to let me set up camp on his 150-acre farm. “There is plenty of room you know!” Outside, the full moon was at 100 percent brightness and the air brisk. I did my best to follow Peter on the small roads to his farm. The last bit to access his property was a dirt road, and Peter was standing up racing up the hill on street tires. At that specific moment, I smiled, thinking about the constant debate among the ADV crowd about what kind of knobbies were essential: Continental TKC 80 or Heidenau Scout? Peter, 72 years old, was rocking street tires on dirt, no problem.

We arrived at his cozy farm where his lovely wife, Susan, was having dinner after a long day. She is a nurse by night and a farmer by day. Yes, it is possible to combine two of the most challenging lines of work in the world into one.

old Triumph in the barn
Peter's 1973 Triumph Bonneville in the barn, awaiting its turn. Photo by Nico Danan.
Rum in hand, more stories followed. As we strangers became friends, Peter explained what he meant about the KTM Super Adventure having special meaning to him.

“I was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer two years ago,” he explained. “I promised myself that if I made it I would get myself my dream bike. Buying the KTM was like dangling my own carrot, always somewhat out of reach. It kept me positive.”

I now better understood why he had such a contagious joie de vivre. After two years of hell, Peter looks at his wife lovingly as he says, “Without Susan, I couldn’t have made it. She was an incredible support, but most importantly she could explain to me clearly what was happening to my body.”

camped out
Bedding down on Peter's farm. Photo by Nico Danan.

As I pitched my bivy bag by moonlight, listening to the farm sounds, I was happy about my decision to ride instead of flying for this trip. Reminiscing about previous solo trips, I realized such encounters only happen when you ride alone.

Dawn on Peter's farm. Photo by Nico Danan.

Day three: Theory confirmed

I woke to the sound of sheep bleating. I was ready for heavy amounts of caffeine to continue my journey. I walked to the door and was greeted by Peter, coffee in hand, with a breakfast of eggs and potatoes from the farm, bacon from a neighbor. The coffee was dark and I was in heaven.

As I rode back to the Blue Ridge Parkway to get to Skyline Drive, I reflected on the beauty of the Shenandoah Valley and the great people who lived there. Loneliness is absolutely impossible to achieve on a bike. Even when you are riding, the machine’s rumble reminds you that you are sharing the journey with spokes, pistons and oil. And then there is always the little kid’s face smooched on the back window of his parents’ car, staring at you and your machine like you are a superhero of sorts.

Navy Yard selfie
A selfie in the Navy Yard in Philadelphia, near RevZilla HQ. Photo by Nico Danan.
I finally got to Philly on a freakishly warm 84-degree fall day. So much for the winter gear I packed in Florida. After my meeting at RevZilla HQ, I followed Spurgeon on the BMW R nineT Scrambler he was reviewing to a cool local coffee shop for an iced coffee.

We spoke a lot about bikes, of course, but also about our passion for hitting the road or the trail, for that matter. Spurgeon and I both like to ride with our dads. In my case, it is a great way to spend time with him so we don’t argue about our common stubbornness. The road, it seems, enables a very peaceful complicity in between us. Two years ago we rode from Key West to San Diego. To this day, it is still our best ever vacation together. We froze most of the way (it was April) and managed to get caught in a sand storm in New Mexico on the road to Truth or Consequences. Go figure. But we had an absolute blast.

That being said, Spurgeon and I agreed that in order to meet amazing people on the road, one has to travel solo. Sorry dads! It is just the sine qua non condition to enable the magic.

This trip, in which I rode alone but shared each day with a friend old or new, once again confirmed the theory.