Road Rules – what a cross country motorcycle trip taught me about life (and business)

Many people think I learned how to ride a motorcycle because I married my husband – an avid motorcycle enthusiast. But the truth was one of my dearest friends wanted a companion to take a motorcycle safety course so she could obtain her license and asked me to join her. I was free that weekend and it sounded like fun so I agreed.

Fast forward a year later, I had purchased a new motorcycle and had some time between jobs. My husband suggested I take advantage of the break and use the time to take a motorcycle trip. “You’ll start your new job soon and who knows when you’ll have the time to do something like this again.”

He was right. However, his idea for my trip was a long weekend to visit some friends in Minnesota. He was a little chagrined when I announced that I wanted to do a solo 2,500 mile round trip trek from our home in Chicago to Colorado.

I understood his concerns. I had only been riding a year. Eschewing the interstates for two lane highways, cell phone service would be spotty across rural roads. So many things could happen…

But the idea appealed to me so much, whatever reservations I had faded into planning my route around the people and places I wanted to visit along the way.

The trip was amazing and I plan to turn it into a novel someday. But more importantly since then, the things I learned on that trip have continued to successfully help me navigate life and work.

In honor of one of our last driving weekends of the summer, I thought I would share just a few:

Stretch yourself.
At the start I had considered a shorter trip – something I felt comfortable doing.  But the pull to do something bigger than I thought I could do changed me. One of the best ways to gain confidence and grow is to attempt something we perceive as out of our reach. And an easy way to manage any large endeavor – break the large task into smaller tasks. In the end, a 2500 mile trip is just 50 fifty-mile trips all linked together.

Planning is great but stuff happens.
I strategically planned my route to visit friends and travel along some scenic routes. In a time before cell phones with the Internet or GPS, I had to be prepared to change my plans for detours – road construction or weather. Knowing that I had a middle destination (Colorado) and ultimate destination (Home), gave me the freedom to think of route changes as part of an ever changing plan. Keeping focus on my middle and end goals, I didn’t think about what I might have missed as where I was, was EXACTLY where I was supposed to be.

Everyone has an opinion and that’s okay.
Riding a bike like mine required a stop every few hours – for fuel and comfort breaks. Taking back roads, I often stopped at small town stores and almost everyone was very chatty and curious. On the second day of the trip a very nice gentleman described in gory detail his horrific motorcycle accident. While he also gave me friendly advice on how I could prevent something similar, it was not the vision I was hoping to start my trip.

At nearly every gas stop in the Dakotas, inquiring farmers would ask two questions:

  • “Had I seen rain?” There was a drought at the time but it always was threatening rain. Therefore, half the time I was in my rain suit even though it only rained two days of my entire trip.
  • “How did my husband feel about this trip?” My usual self-reliant personality would have bristled at the inquiry – how did they know I had a husband? But I chose to receive it in the way it was intended – with genuine curiosity and kindness. Because I was able to receive the questions in that way, I had some amazing discussions with strangers who shared information on routes and sights I wouldn’t have known about otherwise. It was like having little angels checking in along my way.

Resistance is necessary.
Traveling west, the Black Hills give way to the Wyoming high plains. It’s very flat. And many days is also very windy. As I headed south on my way to northern Colorado, a storm was blowing in from the west. In fact it was so windy, even walking was difficult. But there are very few towns and some long distances between, so it wasn’t an option to stop and wait out the storm.

So here’s the thing, I had to lean into the wind to stay upright – which sounds odd but feels right. When you first start learning to ride a motorcycle, you spend a lot of time trying to stay upright. Ironically, when you feel resistance it’s leaning away from the wind that will get you in trouble. I’ve learned that lesson in life as well – leaning away from what you resist tends to knock you down more easily than if you lean into and usually through a problem.

We get to tell the story.
One of my greatest fears for the trip was possibly driving on gravel roads and taking a spill. So naturally, I dropped my bike twice – both times riding on a gravel road. The first time was benign – arriving at my host’s home at the end of their driveway on my first day. The second time I lost oil when the oil cap knocked off during the fall. This resulted in having my motorcycle towed back 50 miles to a mechanic with a tow truck driver who had evidently found glory in the 1960s and had decided to not venture into any of the following decades.

Some other more road tests included the following:

  • In more populated states, a dot on the map denoting a town usually means a gas station is nearby. From the Dakotas westward, it does not. And I learned that quickly when I literally coasted into a gas station with two 13 year old girls selling candy bars out of a nearby shack.
  • I was stung by a bee in my leg through my jeans and socks while I was caravanning through a construction zone with no shoulder for 15 miles. I couldn’t pull over or stop – so I just kept going.
  • After one very, very long day the lock on my hotel room became inoperable and I was locked out. I hadn’t showered and I didn’t have my wallet. But the hotel manager called over to the restaurant next door and made sure they stay opened so I could grab something to eat. He also paid for my meal and allowed me to use their phone to call my husband.
  • On my last leg home, I pulled over on the side of the road to check the map. A few minutes later, a large group of motorcyclists stopped alongside me. Assured I was fine, they went on their way. When I told my husband, he shook his head. Apparently, the group was one of the more notorious motorcycle groups. Sons of Anarchy anyone?

As it unfolded, not everything went as planned. And yet it was perfect. Everything that happened could be told from the eyes of a victim or a grand adventure – as a failure or a triumph.  It’s not that “stuff” doesn’t happen – it’s just that it doesn’t have to define who we are or where we are going. And most often, how we tell the story, is more a reflection on how we receive the world than what happens to us.

I hope to do another trip someday but I do know I will do at least one thing different. As much as I relished the adventure of this trip, I’ll probably not do another alone. I realized that while I like the independence of a solo trip, I missed having someone to share the sights and sounds and to reflect with along the way. And that has probably been the most important lesson of all.