At the end of his senior year, Geoff Smith ’71 bought a motorcycle and left Princeton for a two-week “head-clearing adventure” across the country to his home, career, and the rest of his life in San Diego, Calif. Going back to Princeton for his 40th reunion, Smith decided to complete the circle, leaving his son in charge of the family business and riding a 2004 Harley Davidson Road King motorcycle on an 8,000-mile wandering journey from San Diego to Princeton and then back to San Diego. (His wife, Julie, flew to New Jersey to join him at Reunions.) Smith collected his thoughts near the end of the journey and wrote this essay for PAW.
It’s 5 a.m. and I’m 10 miles out of Gila Bend, Ariz., on the Road King heading home to San Diego on I-8. My mirrors show me a line of black mountains silhouetted by the orange promise of dawn. In front of me a huge full moon is hanging low in the lightening sky and the desert is still blessedly cool. This is the 28th and last day of my coast-to-coast-to-coast journey across the country that began with me rolling in the opposite direction on this same road. With my boots up on the highway pegs and the Road King’s engine faithfully thumping beneath me as it has for every one of these days, I find myself replaying some of the trip’s experiences in my mind.
Just two days ago, riding along the old Santa Fe Trail in southeastern Colorado, I ran into a couple of fellow Harley riders at a gas station, and they decided that my path and theirs were close enough to accompany me to the site of Bent’s Old Fort on the trail. While walking the fort site and talking I learned that they were prison guards at the State of Texas death row. Amazing conversation – and I decided I liked my career a little better than I had previously thought. This is typical of the road conversations with salt-of-the-earth citizens of this country you meet in diners, bars, gas stations, and sitting outside of motels. The road delivers you to people like this that most of us Princetonians do not interact with, due to our typical driven focus on our personal and often upper-class sphere of influence. You can’t help but feel these people are the real America for better or worse. Hearing their thoughts and desires can give one a broader perspective on what life in this country is or should be, and it goes way beyond the sound bite and editorial generalities we all hear every day from our favored sources.
I’ve taken plenty of bike trips with friends, but this one I took solo and it was pretty special. Whatever speed I was traveling was the perfect speed. Wherever I wanted to stop was the perfect place. There were no arguments about the route or when to eat. When (notice I did not say “if”) I made a wrong turn I didn’t hear about it for days, and a few times that wrong turn led to another adventure. Heading east, I would sleep in, have a leisurely breakfast, and clean yesterday’s bugs off the bike while the sun rose high enough to not be straight into my eyes for the first two hours of riding. Heading west with the early morning sun at my back I hit the road at the crack of dawn as I had this morning. Some bikers love it, but I don’t listen to music when I ride. I am not looking to distract myself or pass the time. I am living the time, being in the moment – a rarity for me – feeling one with the motorcycle and observing and marveling at the sights and smells of the America I am passing through and reflecting on their meaning and connection, today and historically.
A faded billboard, Funk’s Grove Maple Syrup. Exit 324 West, then 3 miles. What the hell; I like maple syrup. Off the interstate and down what turns out to be a section of old Route 66, up a gravel road into some trees to find a grove of sugar-producing maples that were left uncleared when this part of southern Illinois became major farming country in the 1920s. The showroom was a few shelves in a corner of a barn, and the owner came out with his mouth full of the lunch I had interrupted to give me a little sample of the syrup that generations have been producing for close to 100 years. I learned the history of the enterprise (which was famous enough as a stop on Route 66 to be identified by a labeled dot on my road atlas), bought a couple little bottles as gifts, and headed back out on the road. That stop epitomizes what this trip was about.
Weather is a giant part of a motorcycle trip, and I was lucky on this one. I sat out several violent thunderstorms in sheltered spaces, saw the half-mile-wide swaths of snapped tree trunks devastated by tornados near Tupelo, Miss., just three weeks earlier, watched the incredible flow of water from the opened flood gates on the Mississippi River north of New Orleans, rode through a snow-covered pass over the Continental Divide and baked myself in the flat, drought-hit farm country of western Kansas. There was also one fluidly sensual ride with a friend on the back through a hot and humid Detroit night with the air temperature, humidity, and skin temperature all at about 92.
Further west of Gila Bend, my mirrors are suddenly aflame with the sun, which has flashed over the top of the mountains behind me. Then the road curves and I watch the top of my long biker shadow racing across the desert scrub at the edge of the road.
Twenty-eight days of different scenery don’t all run together; I remember each of them vividly. I rode on engineering-marvel bridges over rivers named Pecos, Rio Grande, Mississippi, Tennessee, Ohio, Monongahela, Delaware, St. Lawrence, Missouri, Arkansas, San Juan, and Colorado. I saw the meandering and spent Rio Grande along the Texas-Mexico border and then later fresh and rushing near its headwaters high in Colorado. Living in dry So Cal, I never stopped marveling at the sheer amount of water flowing in these rivers. You could hear the whisper of their histories in those inexorable flows.
Standing at the edge of the Mississippi in Hannibal, Mo., I absorbed the area where Samuel Clemens lived as a boy and formed the memories that inspired him to write Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. I rode past hundreds of huge wind turbines rising out of fields of knee-high corn that stretched to the horizon; part of the energy future sharing ground with one of the country’s greatest strengths, food production.
I rode through Battle Creek, Mich., home to all those Cheerios and Frosted Flakes I ate as a kid, and walked the beautiful Indiana Dunes beach on Lake Michigan, 10 miles of nature preserved between a nuclear plant and the huge steel mills of Gary on the miniscule coastline of that state.
I swam in a pristine and cold Canadian lake near beaver dams, and stood quietly in the mist along with my memories of that time at the site of the Woodstock Festival of 1969. The Great Smoky Mountains with the Cherohala Skyway and the famous Tail of the Dragon with its 318 turns in 11 miles were some of the best pure riding of the trip, though the Natchez Trace Parkway – 430 miles through Mississippi, Alabama, and Tennessee at 50 mph with no stop signs, lights, or commercial traffic – was the mellowest road I have ever ridden.
I guess there weren’t a lot of options back then, but why William Travis, Davy Crockett, James Bowie, and others chose the surprisingly small and nearly indefensible Alamo to take a stand when outnumbered 10-to-1 remains a mystery to me. But their decision and subsequent sacrifice created a huge state. The engineer in me wondered if there are still trace elements from the blood spilled on the last day of their lives by thousands of brave soldiers on the ground I reverently walked at Gettysburg.
By now the sun is well up on the last day of my trip. I have passed through Yuma and El Centro and the mountains behind San Diego have appeared out of the desert haze – and none too soon as the Road King and I are hurtling through increasingly hot air. Ninety miles to home.
Motels were my home for most of this trip, occasionally nice ones with fitness centers, but mostly little places with quixotic air conditioners, low-def TVs, thin towels, and pitiful continental breakfasts (though amazingly, all of them had Wi-Fi). Their hardworking desk clerks were often a great source of local lore, routes, and restaurant tips, and it was fun sharing road stories and beers with other bikers who happened to stop at the same place for the night. There were some extremely pleasant and warm breaks on the trip when I stayed at the homes of classmates and family and was able to spend high-quality time with some very interesting and good people who were universally happy that I had taken the time to stop and visit with them on this cross-country tour.
There were some traumas, too. I almost passed out from the heat in stalled traffic on a hot humid afternoon in Detroit. A large deer and I missed a 60-mile-per-hour collision by five feet after she leaped from a roadside shadow in Colorado. My money clip with about $150 slipped from my pocket in a gas station and its status as missing was not discovered until it was too late to do anything about it. Not once but twice my sunscreen tube leaked inside my shaving kit, thus protecting every item in it, including my toothbrush, with SPF 50.
A trip like this also hands you a wonderful amount of time to reflect on your life and what you want out of the portion remaining. Putting together lessons from my past and my observations of others, I came up with the goals of not aging into being a crabby old man, remaining open to the thoughts and concepts of others in this rapidly changing world, and endeavoring not to repeat myself in conversations.
As I pulled off the freeway in Carlsbad, just north of San Diego, my trip odometer rolled over 8,000 miles. It was certainly an adventure that will stay with me for the rest of my life – and who knows, if the health holds, maybe I’ll repeat it for my 45th reunion. How many people have you heard say, “Boy, I wish I could just hop on a Harley and ride across the country to see it all”? (Certainly not my wife, but maybe some others.) Lots of people talk, far fewer make it happen.
When I get to be an old man, and to me that is not yet, I expect to have a very short list of things I wish I had done.