Down the Dirt Road

“. . .travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.”   — Miriam Beard

I learned to ride on a Hodaka Dirt Squirt. My earliest rides were on unpaved country roads, dirt trails and seasonal two-tracks in northern Michigan. Then I bought a motorcycle of my own—a street bike—and left trail riding behind for most of the last 10 years. I miss those trails and that way of riding. In those backwoods, I didn’t think about cars or traffic signals or pedestrians. The ride was pure and unfettered. One route in particular sticks with me. I remember crossing a stream and climbing a steep hill while dodging roots. At the crest of the hill, a trail meandered through the woods. I remember stopping to pick raspberries from the bushes alongside me. Each time I ventured out on those trails, I found something new. I was an explorer, wandering through an unknown world.

I didn’t ride dirt again until a few years ago, when I went with friends to Brevort in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula on a borrowed Suzuki DR350. We spent the weekend riding off-road. I loved the single track most, one long path that snaked through the forest. We maneuvered over downed limbs and dodged branches. Sometimes the trees opened onto fields with brush so tall I could barely see the trail. It took all my focus to navigate the path ahead of me. I was exhausted after each ride—both from the concentration and the physical stamina it required. Nevertheless, that weekend convinced me to return to dirt riding. It offered a whole new world of riding—new landscapes, new skills, new roads. Afterward, I planned to purchase a dual-sport bike, but that hasn’t happened yet. Instead, I’ve been saving for a trip to South America.

A pond sat at the road’s edge covered with green, the sun lighting its surface.
A pond sat at the road’s edge covered with green, the sun lighting its surface.

This fall, I’m traveling with a group via motorcycle through Peru, Bolivia and Chile.  About one-third of the 1,800-mile trip will be on dirt: roads, trails, desert and sand. I had no idea those first tentative rides on country roads would lead to an adventure tour abroad. I’m excited about the trip but a little nervous because my dirt experience is somewhat limited.

Last week I borrowed the same bike I rode up in Brevort and met my friend Aaron at a backyard motocross track to work on my skills. I rode around the track a few times—there were so many things to navigate, I couldn’t get a handle on any of them: sand, jumps, whoops, steep hills and abrupt turns. Aaron found a way break it down for me. I stood nearby while he rode through a sandy corner so I could watch his technique. He showed me how to study the ground for the best path and to slide forward on the tank while keeping the bike underneath me. Next we tackled a series of whoops; I stood on the pegs with my weight forward so I floated along the tops of the bumps with the bike moving underneath me instead of tossing me around. The last thing we did was a circuit of jumps. A tabletop jump lead to a series of three jumps that turned into a tight S-curve. He taught me how to maneuver the bike so it would land squarely. When I did it right, I could feel the sweet spot, like hitting a baseball just right.

I tackled a tabletop jump while out practicing dirt biking skills with my friend Aaron.
I tackled a tabletop jump while out practicing dirt biking skills with my friend Aaron.

I’ve done a lot to prepare for South America—purchased travel clothing, found durable three-season riding gear, got a passport. I even got medication for altitude sickness since we’ll be riding up in the Andes. Nevertheless, when I think about the trip, I’m flooded with questions. Will my body hold up to riding all day for 17 days straight? How well will I do next to the other riders, who are all men? What will I encounter while there—the people, the landscape, the animals? If my first trail rides turned into more than a decade of motorcycling, then how will my life be changed by this trip? What unknown territory awaits me?

Before returning the DR to its owner, I took it out alone and explored the dirt roads near my home. I followed one road after another with no end point in mind. This is in contrast to street riding where I often return to favorite curves and race ahead through them. On these dirt rides, I saw the land around me and not what lay ahead. Tall trunks reached high into the sky, their leaves casting dappled shadows on the road. I slowed and noticed the ferns swaying and twitching with the breeze. Gravel crunched underneath my tires and pine scented the air. I came upon a pond at the road’s edge covered with green, the sun lighting its surface. Riding through this scene, I felt as though I was on a long-lost road. And like every dirt ride since the first one, I was wandering around in the forest, seeing the world with new eyes.

On these dirt rides, I saw the land around me and not the miles of road ahead.
On these dirt rides, I saw the land around me and not the miles of road ahead.

Riding is like this for me. It helps me remember the things I need, forget the things I don’t. I forget about the leaky kitchen sink and the weeds growing in the front yard. I stop trying so hard. In the roads and the scenery, I see my life differently. I feel more connected to the land and to myself. There is no striving, no reaching. I’m right where I’m supposed to be.

I’m counting down to South America by marking red X’s on a calendar that’s hanging on my fridge. There is so much I can’t anticipate, so much I can’t plan for. When I get there, I don’t know if I’ll remember how to find the best line through deep sand, but I know that those unfamiliar roads will open up a new world and might possibly lead to a whole new life.


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  1. Nice writing… you captured my first experiences on two wheels as well, riding dirt trails as a kid in the sleepy Summer days with a world to explore. I’ve ridden for decades now, crossed continents on pavement and off, but that feeling of freedom and exploration is still one of the biggest draws. And don’t worry about your South American trip… I’m sure you’ll have a memories, friendships and experiences that’ll last. Do watch out for livestock, though (Don’t ask how I know).

  2. Hey Lisa,
    Thanks for the article. I too remember riding as a teenager in the Allegheny National Forrest in northern Pa. I too have been street riding for a while now and traded dirt for asphalt. Since then, I have become a rider coach with the PAMSP (MSF). But a few years ago, my youngest son bought a XT225 dual sport and we went riding. One of us on the XT and one on a mountain bike, every so often we would switch. Wow what a rush, all the memories came back. Your article put into words all those “things” that happen while riding in the dirt. I too am now looking for a dual sport, a DR350 in fact. Keep up the great writing, have fun, be safe and make every day count!

    • Mike~ thanks for you comment. I’d love to buy that DR. The owner isn’t ready to sell it. I’ll give him another year of leaving it in the garage before I ask again! Good luck on your search and enjoy the ride!


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