Long Ride Home (Part 1 of 3)

From BMW Motorcycles of Richfield I rode the bike to a friend’s house in the suburbs to get it outfitted for the ride home to New Jersey. It was my first ride on a G310R; it was a cool, wet and windy day in late October.

By Mitch Traphagen

My sister died unexpectedly. And after she died, after the people gathered at her comfortable, artistic home in the suburbs of Minneapolis had left, I bought a motorcycle. I decided to ride the 1300 miles home rather than fly. You can’t dwell on much while riding a motorcycle, other than survival, that is. That seemed to be perfect at the time.

But then I had to drop my wife off at the Minneapolis airport. She would be home within a few hours. And then I had to leave my sister’s house for the last time. She wouldn’t come home to it again and that seemed impossible to me.

In an odd way I hoped the ride home would become a conversation with my sister. My voice in my helmet; my imagining what she might say. And it was, sort of. Sometimes there was laughter; sometimes there was colorful language. Which is exactly how we communicated.

It was late October, a time when most riders in the Upper Midwest are putting their motorcycles away for the winter. The day I was to pick up my bike, it was struggling to reach 40 degrees, there was light rain and the wind was gusting to 40 miles per hour. There was no test drive; the bike had only 0.9 miles on the odometer. The specifications aren’t exactly what most people would consider ideal for long distance travel: it’s a BMW G310R — powered by a 313cc single cylinder engine. 

But to me it seemed perfect. I wasn’t yet ready to begin a conversation with anyone so the first few days provided other things to dwell on…outfitting the bike and myself for the long ride home. After three days of installing cheap bits and parts, from soft panniers to a milk crate from Target as a top box for my camera, my departure date dawned bright and blue, as it seems only like it can in the north. When the temperature hit 35 I could wait no longer. The bike was ready and the sun was shining. I took off slowly, south-east along the Mississippi River, into Wisconsin.

And that day became the best I’ve experienced in 40 years of motorcycle riding. Shortly after the last remnants of the day’s infinite sunshine dimmed out in a beautiful sunset, I pulled into a small motel in the middle of rural Wisconsin.

At 28 degrees, the second day began even chillier than the first. Although the sun made an early appearance, the forecast for my route promised gray skies and rain. I detoured the GPS slightly towards a motorcycle shop in Madison to pick up some additional cold weather gear. Despite that, the day promised to be somewhat easier: I had bound myself to adhering to BMW’s recommendations for breaking in the engine and had since exceeded the mileage required of it. I wouldn’t have to watch the bike’s tachometer quite so closely.

Despite the chill, the bike fired immediately with a press of the button. But then the engine warning light came on, along with a little icon of an engine on the bike’s screen. While the bike seemed to be running fine, having warning lights on isn’t a wonderful feeling with just over 200 miles on the odometer.

A call to BMW Roadside Assistance yielded a suggestion: press down on the gas cap. I understood that on a modern car but on a motorcycle? I was doubtful but when I did, I heard a slight “click!” I started the bike and the scary warning light and icon were gone. The technician went on to say that he was sure the bike was fine but if I wasn’t totally comfortable, they would send someone to pick it (and me) up. Yes, even in the Middle-Of-Nowhere, Wisconsin. My gratitude towards them was immeasurable at that moment.

The following day was one that people dream about on motorcycles. The sun warmed as I rode south, leveling off in the mid-60s. Everything looked beautiful bathed in that autumn light.

I could count on my Garmin GPS to get me to this intersection, I used Google Maps and Waze to find a motel, though. It was beautiful but I was starting to run into “deer time.” (Mitch Traphagen Photo)

There was only one glitch to the otherwise experience. My GPS and Google Maps consistently disagreed as to my routes. At gas stops I would check my phone to see if the handlebar-mounted GPS was staying on the preferred track. In a small town in Illinois, to the west of Chicago, they were reasonably close: a pastoral, bovine-heavy route on two-lane roads. So I took off and…the GPS changed its mind. You would think that if a GPS was set to avoid freeways, it would just be assumed that you would also want to avoid Chicago. But no, it took me into the enormous city and into a sea of traffic and stoplights, where driving amongst those posting to Facebook and Instagram from behind the wheel becomes a death sport. 

The GPS apparently held a grudge against me. I say that having a decade of corporate IT experience, knowing that electronic devices aren’t actually capable of wanton evil, beyond, of course, the inherent evil residing deep inside their dark little microchips.

That evil bore itself out in Joliet, Illinois. I had finally managed to get back on a highway I knew would eventually lead to my small town motel about 100 miles down the road. Just as I was feeling comfortable with my memory of the route, the GPS demanded an immediate turn. I turned… onto a street that began with gravel, rose steeply to a set of railroad tracks that warned trains were omnipresent and, apparently, often silent(?) and that wasn’t the worst part. The street had spikes in-between the lanes to prevent a quick escape from the silent, lethal trains. 


I got out of there.

I’m sure Joliet is a fine city, and it seems particularly so for those in the check cashing and payday loan industries.  I’m also certain that my evil GPS wasn’t interested in showing me the showcase places around town. 

The GPS continued its evil ways for the remainder of the day’s ride, but quite honestly it found some incredibly empty, amazingly twisty roads that were breathtaking in sheer American beauty. I’m not sure if either of us knew where we actually were, but in the end, an hour and a half later than expected, I rolled into the small town of Watseka where the desk clerk at the Super 8 Motel kindly invited me to park my bike under the awning; and under the watchful eye of the security camera.

I had gone nearly as far south as I was going to on this journey. Tomorrow the bike would get its break-in service in Indianapolis, which included the always-exotic states of Indiana and Ohio and I was looking forward to it all. I whispered a goodnight to my sister and turned out the light on the day.

Click here for Part 2

Click here for Part 3

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