There’s a pleasant solitude in a solo journey on two wheels, but in my case riding alone has not always meant being alone. Non-riders seem especially willing to approach a solo motorcyclist stopped for a break. Perhaps romantic notions of freedom and self-reliance implied by a rider going it alone draw non-riders. Perhaps a non-rider’s perception of risk in approaching a group of riders is reduced when there’s just one—and reduced further when the rider is short and boney like your humble scribe.
My experience leads me to conclude that a solo rider is a magnet for non-riders. A conversation is often ignited by the license plate that reveals my home state. Especially when I’m not in that state, people express fascination at the distance I am from home.
“Says ‘Mass’ on your license plate, son,” said a man in North Carolina. “That’s not Massachusetts, is it?”
“Yes, sir, it is.”
“That’s a long way. Trailer it down?”
“No, I rode it.”
“You rode that motorcycle all the way to North Carolina? What the heck for?”
“It’s on the way to Tennessee.”
“You could fly, you know.”
“It’s about the journey, so I’d rather ride.”
Such encounters occur especially when someone defines the distance from Massachusetts as “far.” One afternoon I stopped to take off a layer at a rest area in New York’s Hudson Valley. I was three hours from home; I ride farther for breakfast. A motorist pulled into the parking space next to me. Predictably, seeing the license plate cued the driver to start talking to the motorcycle guy.
“So you must be heading home,” he said, as though he knew this to be the case.
“No, sir, I just left home. I’m going to Illinois.”
“You’re riding a motorcycle to Illinois? That is so hard core.”
“Not really. When I get there I’ll be meeting people who are riding in from places like Florida, Texas, Arizona, California and British Columbia. They don’t view it as hard core either. We just like to ride.”
“Why are you all going to Illinois?”
“The Moonshine Lunch Run. We get together at a general store in the middle of nowhere for a hamburger.”
“How many of you?”
“Around a thousand.”
“You eat a hamburger?”
“And then what?”
“Then we ride home.”
“Buddy, from where I’m standing that is hard core. I hope it’s a heckuva hamburger.”
It doesn’t matter why I’ve stopped—gas, food, a look around or just to rest—if I’m riding alone I usually find myself with company. One Sunday in April I rode the last 600 miles home from Moonshine solo, and people approached me at every stop. It was a cold, gray day with few bikes out, which must have added to the curiosity of people who saw a bike with an out-of-state plate.
Near the West Virginia-Pennsylvania border, a woman perhaps 70 years old looked at my motorcycle, the only one around, and then looked at me dressed in riding gear.
“Is that your motorcycle?”
“I used to ride with my husband. We have a trike now; it’s easier for us. I see you have a long way home. Please be safe.”
“Yes, ma’am, thank you.”
In central Pennsylvania I stopped for a rest. As I sipped a coffee, a woman coming out of the store changed direction and headed my way.
“Hi! So where are you going?”
“Home to Massachusetts.”
“Massachusetts?” She confirmed by walking around to look at my license plate. “On a motorcycle? Goodness, where are you coming from?”
“I left home last Saturday, rode with friends down through Virginia to North Carolina to visit my aunt, then rode up through Tennessee, Kentucky and Indiana, and then met more friends in Illinois for a hamburger. Now I’m going home.”
“Your butt must be really sore.”
“No, not really.”
“Well, you must really like riding that thing.”
“Yes, ma’am, I do.”
“Hope it was a good burger.”
“Yeah, it was good. Cheese and bacon. Pie for dessert. Well worth the ride.”
She stood silently for a moment, looking over my bike with puzzled curiosity. She wasn’t the first to look that way at the Honda ST1300 I was riding. It looks different than the cruisers so many non-riders associate with motorcycles.
“Jeez, there’s no chrome on that thing anywhere, is there?”
“Chrome is work to keep clean. I’d rather ride my bike than wash it.”
“Yeah, and you do seem to like riding. Well, be safe out there, lots of crazies on the road.”
“Yes, ma’am. I’d be much obliged if you’d look out for motorcyclists. Safe travels.”
At my next gas stop in northeastern Pennsylvania, I was leaning against the seat, looking at a map. Despite the wide choice of empty parking spaces, a woman in a pickup pulled in right next to me. She slid down the window.
“Are you lost?”
“No, ma’am, just seeing where I am.”
“Hawley, Pennsylvania. Where are you going?”
“Oh my God, it will take 10 hours to get there!”
“I’m thinking I’ll be home in four hours.”
“No one can go that fast.”
“Whatever you say, ma’am.”
On this ride alone I was managing, somehow, to attract women, for reasons best known to them, but it’s no surprise when kids want to talk to the motorcycle guy—kids know that motorcycles are cool. As I exited a convenience store, a boy perhaps 10 years old was eyeing my ST. He had his hands clenched behind him, as though his parents had drilled him about looking with his eyes and not his hands. (Some fine parenting happening in that family.) He saw me coming and walked right up with a question:
“Does this thing really go a hundred and sixty?”
“You know, I’m not really sure.”
He said “wow” and ran off with a wave.
On a different day coming out of another store, I encountered a boy about five. His mother was dragging him into the store but he was tugging the other way to check out my motorcycle. My high-viz jacket, then new, was viciously bright and my helmet was tucked under my arm. The boy looked up, saw me and stood up straight. With pie eyes and his mouth agape, he initiated a short but meaningful conversation.
“Are you a superhero?”
“Well, sometimes my daughter thinks so. Do you like motorcycles?”
“Yeah, I have a quad but I really want a dirt bike.”
“You always wear your gear when you ride, right?”
“You’re smart. Mind your mom, OK?”
Age doesn’t seem to be a factor, considering the brief conversation I had with a teenager doing his best to look cool while pumping gas into a minivan. The van appeared to be packed with his parents and siblings, a potentially embarrassing situation. What if someone he knew should see him? What if it was the girl he liked? Taking control of his situation, he called over to the motorcycle guy.
“Hey, man, nice bike!” Everyone in the van turned to see. “What kind is it?”
“A Honda ST1300.”
“Wow…really? I never knew Honda made motorcycles. Pretty cool.” He hung up the nozzle, gave me the slightest nod of acknowledgement and hopped in the van.
As I rode home, I chuckled inside my helmet thinking about the people I’d met, people who couldn’t resist the attraction of the solo rider.