In May 1974, my wife and I, then students at Baylor University in Texas, took advantage of the break between semesters to ride two-up on a 1971 Triumph Daytona T100R from Waco, Texas, to the California coast – our first long-distance adventure together.
At the time, we had been married for three years. I was a doctoral student in clinical psychology and worked part-time at a Gulf filling station, largely because the McDonalds next door gave free Big Macs to the Gulf employees. My wife was an undergraduate majoring in liberal arts and journalism as well as a photographer. For our trip, she packed rolls of black-and-white film and strapped a tripod on the back of the bike. We had no saddlebags or storage compartments. For a trip of 4,200-plus miles over 18 days, we traveled light: helmets, jackets, a change of clothes, a few tools and chain oil, and photo gear.
I had handpainted my Bell 500TX helmet with red, white, and blue stripes and affixed a small peace-sign-with-stars decal on each side. Hidden inside the helmet were the words “free, to be, to become” – my mantra then and now.
With no cellphones or GPS, our “navigation” was a Kawasaki Good Times Vacation Guide and Road Atlas strapped on top of my clothes bag, which was bungee-corded to the gas tank.
The Triumph Daytona was produced from 1967-1974 and had an air-cooled 490cc parallel-Twin with a 4-speed gearbox, chain final drive, drum brakes, and a kickstarter that could definitely kick back. It had a right-hand throttle, left-hand front brake, right-foot gear shifter, and a left-foot rear brake.
The single weak headlight, taillight, and Smith gauges were illuminated by the electronics of Joseph Lucas – aka the “Prince of Darkness.” Night riding with Joseph with no lights was a frequent thrill!
My Triumph Daytona was a piece of British driftwood in a Japanese sea of Hondas, Yamahas, Kawasakis, and Suzukis. The ride was like a runaway jackhammer on the interstate, but over the course of the trip, the Triumph performed flawlessly, dripping just a drop or two of oil on the ground and only needing its chain lubed.
For the first 300 miles of the trip, hot headwinds of 20-30 mph buffeted us. Looking in the mirrors, I couldn’t see the whites of my eyes – only red.
The Triumph had no odometer or gas gauge for its 2.5-gallon tank. At one point, the engine sputtered, and I knew we were running out of gas. I reached down under the tank and switched on the reserve petcock, and the engine fired back up. We were good for maybe 6 miles, but the closest town was 15 miles away.
When the bike sputtered again and gradually coasted to a stop by the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, I thought we were cooked. But in a stroke of deus ex machina, a Texas Highway Department truck appeared as if in a mirage, stopped, and had a full gas can. We couldn’t believe our good fortune and were so grateful!
We would end up topping off the gas tank several times in Texas at an average of 57 cents per gallon. Motel rooms ranged from $8 to $9 per night.
In New Mexico, we saw the Rio Grande with Mexico on the other side. Globe, Arizona, was all about copper, silver, and gold mining – ruggedly beautiful mountain country.
In California, we rode from Laguna Beach up the coast. One of the best roads was State Route 1 from Cambria up through Big Sur to San Francisco. My focus alternated from the blue ocean to the curvy switchback-filled two-laner cut into the side of the mountains high above the sea.
The Golden Gate Bridge was a high point of our journey. In the bright sun, the painted steel looked golden orange above the dark blue water. As we approached the entrance – surprise! – a BSA pulled up right beside us. Two English bikes riding side by side on the Golden Gate Bridge. What a rush. I still get a big smile thinking about it. We rode back and forth a couple of times across the bridge – we just couldn’t get enough – and with no fairing, totally exposed, it felt like we were flying, suspended in air, over the ocean.
Then we rode inland and up into the Sierra Nevada to Lake Tahoe, where we touched snow in 70-degree weather at 7,000 feet. It was hard to make a snowball, but we climbed partway up a mountain and slid down a snowbank.
From Tahoe, we rode through Nevada on U.S. Route 50, known as “The Loneliest Road in America.” There were no houses, stores, gas stations, signs, animals, birds, or crickets, only the vast expansiveness of wide-open valleys. I felt direct, pure, unadulterated contact with Mother Earth. My yell was rapidly engulfed by the vastness with not a trace of an echo returning to me.
We continued southeast into Utah and Arizona, through the Hopi Indian Reservation, and later stayed at the lodge on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, a source of great energy. Looking down through the layers of the Earth, I could feel its raw, latent power. So this is what you’ve been hiding from me as I walk on top of you! I thought. Even stripped naked, with all its layers worn and peeled away, the Earth demanded respect, if not awe.
The Smith odometer on the Triumph Daytona showed 11,225 miles at the start of the trip and 15,429 miles at the end, for a total of 4,204 miles. I recorded each day’s mileage in a small notebook. The shortest riding day was 217 miles, the longest was 453, and four of the five trip days averaged 350-plus miles.
Fifty years later – despite my wife and I living on food stamps during the years we were both in school, running out of gas numerous times, riding in bone-freezing cold, and riding in the night with no lights – the photographer and the author who took that trip in 1974 are still two-up, now alternating positions, on this magical mystery tour and adventure called life.