Common Tread

Trial by mud: My first dual-sport trip

Apr 05, 2018

My husband Jason has a saying: “Sometimes the best part of a motorcycle ride is taking off your gear at the end of the day.”

I didn’t understand what he meant until my first multi-day dual-sport ride.

Until we started out on that first trip, I had only ridden my bike around Pittsburgh surface streets, country roads in the Laurel Highlands of Pennsylvania, and my own backyard. I didn’t know if I had the physical and mental stamina for longer rides. Honestly, I still had to give myself a pep talk to pull out of our driveway.

Jason and I had a plan to take a dual-sport camping trip out west. I had the bike, the gear and the interest, but I didn’t know if I could really handle a trip like that, due to my inexperience. Skills like tight cornering, handling a skid and using clutch control to massage my way through tough terrain were things I was just starting to practice.

First, I practiced some basics close to home. I’m lucky that Jason is an avid dirtbiker who works hard at improving his riding skills. He created obstacles in our backyard that mimic the tough terrain of off-road rides. He prepares for unexpected downed trees in the trails by practicing getting over downed trees in our woods. A stack of palettes in our backyard represents rock ledges. Any challenge we might encounter in the woods has a corresponding obstacle at our house. Jason even built scaled down obstacles to make it easier for me to practice my skills this way too. I have my own sets of railroad ties to practice getting my front wheel over and a gravel lot to practice skids.

backyard practice
Practicing technique in the backyard gravel. Photo by Devon Gill.

Not that I ever practiced enough. I made progress when I did practice, but I didn’t consistently put in the time I should have. We ultimately decided we were just going to have to start with a test ride and see what happened. We had two friends with cabins that were in prime locations for a multi-day motorcycle trip. One cabin was a day’s ride away. The other was a two-day ride past that using tracks from the Trans West Virginia Trail. Two more days after that, we could be at my parents’ house for a visit using more of the TWVT before we turned for home.

Somewhere along the way, we would find out if I had what it took to do five days on two wheels through three states. Once the 700ish-mile route was set, it was just us, our matching Yamaha WR250Rs, fresh knobbies and camping gear.

Practice gets real on Day Two

Day One to our friend’s cabin in the Laurel Highlands was a route I was familiar with, but Day Two took me into uncharted territory. We left Pennsylvania and headed onto the West Virginia mountain mama country roads. By the end of Day Two, I had learned that just because the GPS says it’s a road on the map doesn’t mean it’s paved or easily passable. That’s the thing about a GPS: It just tells you where to go. It doesn’t know if you have the skills to get through it.

Halfway through Day Two, we hit a really long stretch of unpaved road that went from hard dirt to softer dirt to loose gravel. Here was that trial-by-fire situation we were looking for when we set out on this trip. Corners were suddenly terrifying and going slow enough to stay in first gear became my approach. Using my brakes felt like I was skidding into certain death.

gravel road riding
Yes, we're driving on an unpaved road. That's pretty much the point of this trip. Photo by Sally Turkovich Wright.
I tried to remind myself that the gravel lot and the railroad ties were the same things I was coming across out in the wild, but I hadn’t practiced enough at home, so I forgot that I had seen and experienced all of this before. I didn’t yet have the muscle memory that comes with repetition. I was wearing myself out by making dumb mistakes. I was riding too cautiously.

It took a serious tough-love conversation from Jason through our Sena headsets for me to snap out of this tailspin. Yes, he was waiting for me at turns when I lost pace and coaching me when he could, but it was me alone who had to get this figured out. We were only halfway into a multi-day trip. Turning around was going to be just the same as finishing it off. The only way past it was through it.

So through it I went. I picked up the pace enough to get into higher gears. I would squeal a bit in fear when I’d come around a corner with roly-poly gravel at higher speed. Out of sheer determination, I put to good use those skids I had practiced a few times at home. I’d do a little brake drag to get through the corner and then get back on the throttle. By the end of the day, the squeals of fear started turning into “woo-hoos!” much to Jason’s delight. I realized the gravel was just another surface, not a monster trying to kill me.

muddy at day's end
The destination at the end of a good day of riding is a feeling of accomplishment. Photo by Jason Wright.

It was a blessing to have had a renewed sense of determination. On Day Three, we found a mud bog where a road was supposed to be. An Appalachian thunderstorm had rolled through the night before. What was supposed to be a maintained county road was a rutted track of melty peanut buttery mud that would have made me cry just one day prior.

A group of people on ATVs and side-by-sides were having a blast in this mess. Once they saw us, they let us through and gleefully cheered us on. Jason and I looked at each other and shrugged. Here we go, I thought.

Jason’s experience in the woods on a dirt bike meant that he had developed a keen sense of line choice. I know now that following his line would have been my best hope for getting us past this stretch of so-called road before nightfall. Instead, I chose my own line and learned a hard lesson. My lowered WR250 got dug in up to its footpegs in that muck.

stuck in the mud
Ever feel like you're stuck in a rut? No, really, I'm stuck in this rut. Photo by Jason Wright.

By the end of Day Three, we got to our other friend’s cabin in West Virginia. I finally knew what my husband’s saying meant. The best part of my day that day was taking off my gear. The sweet release of unbuckling my boots and letting out an exhale of gratitude had everything to do with the sense of accomplishment I felt. I had made it through a lot of tough situations. I was worn out, but not because of anxiety or mental exhaustion. I was worn out because I worked hard and I refused to quit. The best part of the ride was taking off my gear, because in that moment, I reflected on what I had just done. And I was proud.

rest stop in the woods
A rest break in the woods. Photo by Jason Wright.

Days Four and Five of our trip continued as Day Three had: with a renewed sense of determination and an appreciation for what we were experiencing together. I had somehow remembered how to breathe and look around. I began appreciating the little pit stops we took, not because it meant I could stop riding for a minute, but because I was ready for snacks. I started taking glamour shots of our bikes and my partner in crime.

Since that first trip, we’ve upped the ante with our adventures by charging out on back-to-back summer trips. Those 30-day trips tested and inspired me, but that first little five-day ride is one I often think back to fondly. Often. As a woman rider, I take a lot of pride in getting out there and twisting the throttle. I continue to be humbled by how much I need to learn.

To this day, I still take the time to reflect on each ride as I unbuckle my boots and take that long, deep, exhale in gratitude for what I just did.