No more hemming and hawing. No more worrying or waiting. We borrowed things, pooled our money and did whatever it took. In tears and quiet frustration, we were all thinking the same thing: “Let’s go on a big ride.”
Dad was in a fight that had taken a turn for the worse. Ocular Melanoma, a rare form of cancer found in the eye, had spread to his liver, adding “terminal” to his prognosis. The only combatant to the inevitable was finding a way to enjoy the time we had left together.
The four of us bought used, street-legal dirtbikes and hashed out a plan. The route would include public streets, broken asphalt, dirt, gravel, and water crossings – terrain that justified our choice of dual-sport motorcycles.
We didn’t aim for a faraway destination or set lofty goals; it would be about riding toward togetherness. Since childhood, our father-and-son-time revolved around riding motorcycles. Now, as thirty-somethings, we knew that this father-son motorcycle trip could be our last.
Nine days were blocked out starting in early May with a plan to meet at the east end of the Trans America Trail (TAT) in Jellico, Tennessee. We purchased maps and roll charts from Sam Correro (he charted the route) and acquired GPS waypoints from a friend who had previously ridden the TAT. We didn’t know how far west we’d make it before turning back around, but it didn’t matter.
Our travel strategy was to enjoy the ride and the company we were in, wherever we ended up.
I rode a 2000 Honda XR650L, my brother Casey and brother-in-law Chris chose Suzuki DR650s (a 2003 and 2001 respectively) and our Dad picked up a 2003 Kawasaki KLX400. Knowing his way around a welder, Casey went to work with scrap tubing and a couple of dismantled step-stools to create utility racks for the Honda and Kawasaki. They held dry bags, fuel packs, tool tubes and whatever else we could bungee down. We invested in the small Garmin 60Cx to help navigate beyond the paper roll charts and maps.
We were amped to receive our ICON Motosports Variant helmets, which were brand new to the market at the time. The urban assault styling would be perfect for the varying terrain on the TAT and, of course, would look good blasting through it. The guys at ICON had shipped them right out with a nod of understanding and appreciation for what this ride meant to us. Seeing the four gloss-black Variants lined up got Dad choked-up; it was all starting to sink in now, how special this ride was going to be.
The amount of cancer that made its way to Dad’s liver was going to require multiple surgeries that would take a massive toll on his strength. Riding over broken bridges and wheelie-ing over ruts would be impossible in the coming months. Though the reality of Dad’s condition would frequently creep in to our thoughts, the planning and readying of the machines gave us reasons to smile.
Riding Toward the Rains
Casey and I left Indianapolis via the interstate to meet Dad and Chris 315 miles away in Jellico. Turns out the stock tank on my XR650L at full speed would only allow about 65 miles before running out of gas. The extra fuel pack came in handy. Casey’s aftermarket IMS tank seemed to go forever. Riding through Louisville, the skies looked heavy. After Lexington, we drove straight into a torrential downpour that forced cars to surrender and pull over. Our anticipated five-hour jaunt turned into an eight-hour trudge. We didn’t know it, but we were riding toward historic flooding that had just begun in Nashville and Middle Tennessee. Over 19 inches of rain were recorded in just two days. The Cumberland River reached nearly 12 feet above flood stage.
We arrived late to the hotel where Dad and Chris were watching the weather reports. Chris had just trucked his bike over 1000 miles from Boston to southern Indiana to meet up with Dad. From there, Dad’s buddy, Dave, trailered them to the TAT’s starting point in Tennessee. “It doesn’t look good, boys,” Dad said, pointing to the TV weather map. We wrung out our clothes and hung them on a rollaway bed frame to dry. We were bummed about the forecast, but, hey, this ride was going to happen. As we fell asleep, the rain hit hard outside our window and spilled over the flooded gutters.
The Ride Begins
It was morning; everything we planned for had officially begun. A mellow, but exciting vibe set in as the first sliver of sun appeared, accompanied by muted sounds of boots being buckled. The firing and fast idling of the first bike got our blood pumping; we were ready.
We rode off carrying everything we needed for the next several days. It felt wonderfully nomadic. Shortly after departure, we turned onto a gravel road and cracked the throttles, roosting rocks and goofed off like we used to do, decades ago. Gunning through the countryside on this sunny morning made us forget about the waterlogged night before.
Every once in awhile, we’d stop to take pictures, talk, and relax, then hop back on for more dusty, muddy, scenic riding. We’d see how fast we could go on loose gravel before someone backed off the gas. We’d find sharp curves to pitch our bikes into, like flat track racers, then turn around to try ’em again at higher speeds. We’d slip back into the blissful obliviousness of our younger days when we’d explore old stripper-pits on dirtbikes or ride through creeks and rain without worrying about getting wet.
Thoughts of schedules and debt and responsibilities slipped away.
We laughed hard inside our helmets, traded bikes, dared one another, spotted each other through the mud and soaked up every moment. We were riding on borrowed time with our Dad, but we were squeezing every bit of life out of each day.
Because of the flooding, the adverse conditions kept us on our toes. Cutting across farmland and riding through remote towns, we encountered locals clearing mud-covered roadways with backhoes. We had to re-route around several submerged roads and saw residents boating from homes that were surrounded by high water.
Bridges were washed out, layers of asphalt had been peeled away, but our machines were up for the task and our minds welcomed the unpredictable adventure ahead.
The Trans America Trail
In the early 2000s, maps and roll charts of rural roadways from the Tennessee mountains to Oregon’s coast were charted for motorcyclists. The roll charts looked and felt primitive; a long, spliced-together paper list of cryptic notes told us where to turn and in how many miles – down to the tenths of miles. After making a turn, we’d manually roll the paper to the next instruction. Trying to ferret our way around unmarked offshoots and hidden intersections got a bit tedious and led to many turnarounds. Of course, no matter how special, an adventure ain’t always sunshine and roses.
Thankfully, we leaned on GPS waypoints programmed by a friend who painstakingly plotted the course on a previous run. The portion of the trail starting in Tennessee consisted of many starts, stops and repetitious crisscrossing on pavement, but there were also awesome segments of dirt, gravel, water crossings and great old towns to enjoy. Mississippi and Arkansas provided some more interesting scenery including silt-like farm roads, wooded fire roads and a levee system where we hit speeds of 70+ mph atop its elevated gravel roads.
Despite the occasional navigational miscues, it was a rush. It was like taking a self-guided tour through the South with hundreds of vignettes of how its people lived. By taking the super slab to a populated destination, you skip past much of the country’s hidden culture. We were fortunate to experience some great hospitality in the small towns sprinkled along the route. “I know y’all didn’t ride those from Indiana,” southerners said with a smile. We were a dusty group on muddy motorcycles, but passersby at fuel stops would cordially ask “How y’all doin’?” and politely wait for our answer.
Each day, when the sky started to darken, we’d look for shelter. With our iPhones, we were able to locate hotels within a short ride. After hours of hand motions and abbreviated conversations at gas stops and photo ops, it was nice having the evenings to relax and talk. At the end of one night, I realized one of the things I was most thankful for on this trip: it had been many years since we’d been able to say, “Goodnight, Dad” on a regular basis.
Sights of the Scenic Route
Some hotels were filled with displaced residents. Along with the heavy rains, tornadoes had ripped through hills and homes. Clean-up crews and fleets of flashing trucks were everywhere. Exposed, splintered tree trunks revealed the destructive trail of a twister leading from one side of the road to the other as far as we could see. It was humbling to recreationally ride up on people sifting through debris for items they could salvage. It reminded me of how fortunate we were to have avoided any mishaps. The longer the ride, the higher the chance you’ll run into a solemn moment or mechanical snafus. Thankfully, we stayed in the clear.
Dad had ridden motorcycles since the 60s; Maicos, Triumphs, dirtbikes, streetbikes, you name it. Seeing him hang a leg off the Kawi and attack the terrain didn’t surprise us. This wasn’t a parade lap or mere obligatory participation. He wasn’t tiptoeing as he blasted creek beds and blitzed rutted hills. He wasn’t going to let us think he was preoccupied with what was looming after the ride. He was having fun with his boys and son-in-law…and cranking it up to 11.
Armadillos, snapping turtles, cattle, goats, territorial dogs and horses are all part of the entertaining grab bag of back-road riding. We also came across a handful of “Bridge Out” warnings that were passable with a two-wheeler. At one railroad crossing, deep water hid any hope of continuing our route on the other side. Turning back around would require lengthy backtracking; riding the railroad tracks would provide a shortcut. A two-mile sprint between the rails ensued, leading us to higher ground and a quicker detour.
Time to Head Back
After several days and over a thousand miles of riding through the Smoky Mountains, Mississippi Delta and Ozark Mountains, we had a lot to be thankful for. No big wrecks, no mechanical failures and no broken bones. Over a burger in eastern Arkansas, we began to talk about heading back home.
Some folks measure the quality of motorcycle adventures by accumulated miles. Some collect patches for record times and distances. We were riding toward something more satisfactory and fulfilling. Riding further, not farther. We wanted to absorb and appreciate the ride for however long it lasted, with no expectation other than being together.
Our trip ended with hugs and the kind of pats on the back a Dad gives his son after an exhaustive triumph.
Chris and Dad found a rental truck and hauled their bikes back east. It was a great way to decompress and have concentrated conversation after days in the saddle. Casey and I rode the long and winding way to Little Rock and stayed the night before riding our bikes back to Indianapolis.
The ride was over. We did it. And now we’ll never have to say, “I wish we would’ve gone on a big ride.” No regrets.
It would be the last time we all rode together before Dad passed away. Less than a year after, the man who had instilled in us the passion for motorcycles had his riding time cut short at 63. There are decades of great moto-memories with Dad we’ll reminisce about, and we’ll always be thankful to have been alongside him as he rode against the dying of the light.