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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Long Ride Home (Part 2 of 3)

By Mitch Traphagen

In Fowler, Indiana (Mitch Traphagen Photo)

“Serendipity” is a beautiful word. The experience of it isn’t always so alluring, however. 

It was serendipitous that I found a brand new 2018 BMW G310R at BMW Motorcycles of Richfield, south of Minneapolis. The bike had never left the dealership. For the man who had bought it many months ago and was ultimately unable to ride, it was not so happy an event. And my moments of happiness faded as I dropped off my wife, Michelle, at the Minneapolis airport to fly home to New Jersey on a cold and wet day in late October. It certainly felt less than serendipitous to make a last drive to my sister’s home, her passing the reason we were in the Twin Cities, which serendipitously resulted in the motorcycle that I would ride the 1,300 miles home. 

Watseka, Illinois, is a great town. People travel by all conveyances — from bicycles to motorized chairs to a guy who travels back and forth across town in a big riding lawnmower (sometimes with a large trailer attached — and sometimes with passengers in that trailer). People waved. People bought lots of wine and beer at the convenience store. They smiled.

One of my sister’s best friends lives in Chicago. As my evil GPS tossed me into the maw of that city, I fled south. I wondered if my sister would have been disappointed that I ran away, but decided she would not. In life, she had no interest in inflicting needless pain. 

Light and nimble, the little BMW proved to be an excellent vehicle for the city, or at least what I’d experienced of it. Since I had no expectation of living to 113, I’m well past middle age, and being on a bike that I didn’t have to wrestle, nor worry about overpowering me and taking a fall on hard pavement, was a relief of immeasurable significance.

The bike was scheduled for its 600-mile service at Tom Wood’s Powersports north of downtown Indianapolis. Alex, the mechanic, took good care of the bike, including cleaning off the road grime that had accumulated in the first 640 miles of it’s road life, while the service manager, Todd, proudly provided a tour of his growing facility. Off the expansive showroom in the store, two young employees took an interest in my GPS woes and offered an incredibly secure mount for my iPhone (and thus Google Maps), which, after a quick inspection of my bike, they assured me would fit perfectly. So with a clean bike, new fluids and the navigation aid of choice, I took off east on two-lane roads, seemingly forever out of Indy and back into the countryside.

People in small towns across Ohio and Indiana apparently like their mayors. And when they don’t, they want you to vote for Pat or Bill or sometimes Mary. The “re-elect” signs significantly outnumber the “elect” signs, which would seem to be bad news for Pat, Bill and Mary, however.

Century-old churches and schools, built during a time of far greater optimism in rural America, are often repurposed into community centers, more rarely standing as elaborate homes. The churches that remain houses of worship are impeccably maintained and beautiful. The new consolidated schools, replacing the old buildings in every small town, often look like prisons; perhaps sending a significant but unfortunate message to the youth of rural America.

The backroads since Minnesota have been impressive and excellent, except when they are neither. Fortunately, the latter proved true only rarely but often spectacularly. Along one rural highway in Indiana, four-foot-wide and ten-foot long pieces of tarmac had been entirely removed in various places along one quiet stretch, leaving a six-inch deep void. Striking those places in even the largest vehicles would have been violently jolting; had I hit them on my motorcycle? I would have gone airborne, certainly landing with bent rims. In those parts of the country, apparently, even the department of transportation is counting on people to be aware, to not be complete idiots. What else could explain the lack of warnings, beyond a “Road Construction Next 8 Miles” sign? They are certainly literal.

But other than that, and also in a few really remote places, the road was fantastic. It seems this country isn’t falling apart so easily after all.

I found myself in the golden light of a late-Autumn Midwestern sunset. The highway was empty, and I came across hairpin curves at 90 degree angles, often with gravel strewn about on the high side. I thought about my lifelong friend, for whom one such curve was his last, gravel possibly playing a role. As I rode on in the quiet of the sparse population, my soul was brightened by the sheer rugged beauty but my heart was heavy with the thoughts of loss that lasts forever. I realized that this was likely the longest I had not heard from my sister in my entire life. And it would only get longer still.

Who knew A&W still existed? Lots of childhood memories… (Mitch Traphagen Photo)

I pulled into a gas station / convenience store in a backroads town that seemingly had no name to fill up and get a snack. After parking, a young guy in a pickup truck next to me asked, “What kind of bike is that?”

“It’s a BMW,” I said.

“Is it a dirt bike?”

“To me, it’s an everything bike.”

“It looks cool.”

A young guy at a convenience store far to the north in Winona, Minnesota, figured it out pretty quickly. He asked me the size of the engine and I told him it was 313ccs. He noted that I was loaded up as if for travel and was then surprised to hear that I was riding to New Jersey. 

“I didn’t know you could do that on a motorcycle that size,” he said.

I told him I have bigger bikes and that this bike could do it just fine and was a lot of fun. When he hit my age, he’d probably understand. 

But he already understood.

“Because you don’t want to wrestle a big motorcycle?”


Pretty soon I would reach a point on the trip when “riding to New Jersey” would no longer illicit surprise, or even disbelief, primarily towards overcoming the weather on a road that leads far beyond what some had ever experienced. For some people in rural America, there has never been a reason sufficient to leave; and places like New Jersey or even Florida… well, those were just words they’d heard on television.

Road food.

The evenings were often the most beautiful but also the most difficult. During these hours I became acutely aware that wherever I happened to be wasn’t where I belonged. People were going home to their families; dinners were cooked, glasses of wine were poured and televisions lit up living rooms. 

Home is calling but I still have some time left in these unfamiliar places with people who look familiar but none whom I know. In the growing darkness I looked around, still far from home, and realized I needed to find a place to stay. That place was just 20 miles up a freeway leading towards Cleveland. Seeing the motel lights in the dusk, seeing a smile behind a motel desk, somehow it felt serendipitous.

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 3

Long Ride Home (Part 3 of 3)

The BMW G310R, with a single cylinder and 313ccs proved to be a perfect all-around bike for me on my trip halfway across the United States.

By Mitch Traphagen

As I’ve grown older, I’ve become aware that more often than not, smaller is better. The BMW G310R I have been riding across the country has proven it. It is a bike that not only encourages me to get on and ride, it also encourages me to stop and easily get off to enjoy the moments through which I pass. It’s easy, just pull over and put down the kickstand. There’s little to wrestle. I can’t possibly overstate how freeing that is.

The bike also draws a great deal of attention. Nearly everywhere I went people approached me to ask about it. It is not an intimidating machine; it looks really cool. In cities and towns across America, people have approached to talk about it, or to simply offer good wishes for my travels.

I’m grateful that the machine encourages human interaction, as the conversations with my sister have started to feel rather one-sided. Given the widespread use of credit-card-accepting gas pumps, without the bike, I’d rarely have the chance to meet or talk to people, as my passing through their town and lives is rather brief. No one approaches to offer safe passage while driving a car across the country. The bike provided the means for my reassurance that people aren’t nearly so polarized and angry as is often suggested. While faces change and cities grow or decline, we are still the America we often hope to be. People in this country are kind.

There is also something humbling about riding a smaller bike — and that, too, is good. I’m well past the age of having to play out parts of my personality, real or imagined, through the edifices of my possessions. This bike suits me just fine. For older (or smaller) people dreaming of riding a motorcycle, it is perfect. It’s almost as if BMW still cares about Baby Boomers.

I found some of the best and most haunting roads of my trip to be in the rolling hills and twisty roads of eastern Ohio, made all the more magical by a wispy, lingering light fog. I’ve crossed the state a number of times on the freeway, with the tunnel vision it demands, but the backroads are where real life and beauty exists; roads which were mostly quiet and free of traffic. I did find my self apologizing to each little furry critter that was a victim of sad encounters with cars and trucks. Sometimes my acknowledgements came in far too rapid of succession.

A month before my sister passed away, I was struck with the idea of riding a motorcycle to Minnesota to see my brother and both of my sisters. It was a last minute thought and it was a busy time for my family — except for Pam who immediately replied to my text with, “I’d like a guest!”

In the end, the trip didn’t happen. And now, even before I get home on this ride, I’m thinking about next summer. Hopefully I could visit my brother and sister. Perhaps I could squeeze in a trip to Montana. At one time in my life, before my taste of the salt air on the Gulf Mexico, the Rocky Mountains felt as important as oxygen to me. It has been a long time since I’ve inhaled mountain air. On a motorcycle, you ride in the environment, the mountain air is delivered directly and unfiltered.

And despite that my original plans now seem among those things labeled, “too late,” I’m riding a motorcycle home from Minnesota. If I’m honest with myself, I know part of it is an attempt to avoid dealing with things my mind won’t accept. But part of it is the awareness that I want to do such things while I still can. Bells will eventually toll for me, too.

In yet another small town with no name, this time in Ohio, I pulled a u-turn and stopped to simply look at an abandoned church. I wondered how long it had been since a Christmas service had been held there. Is anyone who sat in a pew still around? Are they still alive? From hindsight, time passes by so very quickly. It is relentless and frequently ruthless about it. We sometimes think, “This is how I am forever” or “This will be remembered (or will be here) forever” and none of that is true. For better or worse, things change with each passing day. Usually for the better, we have a new chance at life with each sunrise. But eventually we have to realize that the sunrises are finite. 

As I get older, I want to keep doing what I enjoy. Sometimes that takes practice, sometimes luck; often it’s both. The first time I ever sat on a BMW G310R motorcycle with the engine running was to release the clutch to drive away from the dealership in suburban Minneapolis on the bike I had just purchased. I rode away into wind and cold rain and never looked back.

“I’ve always wanted to sail to the south seas, but I can’t afford it.” What these men can’t afford is not to go. They are enmeshed in the cancerous discipline of security And in the worship of security we fling our lives beneath the wheels of routine — and before we know it our lives are gone. 

The years thunder by, the dreams of youth grow dim where they lie caked in dust on the shelves of patience. Before we know it, the tomb is sealed. Where, then, lies the answer? In choice. Which shall it be: bankruptcy of purse or bankruptcy of life?

Sterling Hayden in Wanderer

Off the freeway I was surprised that eastern Ohio was blessed with great roads…and Tim Hortons.

The bike can handle the freeway, I’m just less than thrilled to be there, especially on I-80 through Pennsylvania, which is basically the Indy 500 for giant trucks, too often also mascarading as a demolition derby. After 80 miles I bailed out and returned to the relative peace of the backroads. I tried talking to my sister but if she replied, I couldn’t hear her voice in my helmet. 

The last 200 miles of the ride home took place in warm autumn rain showers mixed with terrifying bouts of impenetrable fog. For the entire ride I had difficulty actually envisioning riding this bike up our driveway, being greeted by my wife, Michelle. In more than a few terrifying moments, it felt like there was a reason for that. In thick fog on a few mountain passes, it was sheer good fortune there wasn’t an 18-wheeler behind me as I slowed to near stops in  zero visibility.

In the end, the motorcycle did everything I had asked of it and more. It was not only easy to ride, it was downright fun. If I had anything at all to suggest to the good people in Bavaria, it would be to add hazard lights. But I’m not sure that even search lights would have been sufficient to penetrate the fog that I experienced. 

The roads became less direct through Pennsylvania and one convenience store chain replaced another in regional preference (oh, and Turkey Hill? It’s downright unAmerican to tell travelers that your gas station / convenience store does not have a restroom).

On this trip I sang the same handful of rock tunes ad naseum; I raised my hands from the controls in victories only I knew, hooted and hollered, swore and shuddered in fear. I was also stunned and amazed, often frozen and sometimes wet. I was heartened by the  compassion and kindness of others.

And eventually, the little bike rolled up our steep driveway, with Michelle waving happily in greeting. For the past 1,300 miles I simply couldn’t imagine it. But now, I can’t imagine anything else. For that I’m grateful.

Click here for Part 1

Click here for Part 2

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