Motorcycle RoadtripThe Motorcycle Diaries
When it comes to travel, I’m a pretty well-versed guy. Lounging poolside in the south of France? Yes, please. Feeling the rush of endorphins and the sun hitting my face as I speed through fresh powder in St. Moritz? I’ll take it. From pleasure trips to action-packed adventures to a balls-to-the-wall 24 hours in Vegas, I’m there. But drop the phrase “soul journey” and there’s a damn good chance I’ll have paid the tab and be out the door before you can blink. Not my style...or so I thought. A few years ago, I began to feel a restlessness that couldn’t be satiated by money, success, or fame. (Trust me, I tried all of the above, and then some.) This need called from within, and, almost by accident, I embarked on a deeply personal endeavor.
I was at the height of my career. I had a beautiful wife and two little kids when I felt the call to hit the open road. I won’t go so far as to call it a personal crisis – at least I didn’t think so at the time – but I felt a deep, unrelenting desire to live life with abandon à la Jack Kerouac after a youth spent watching the road literally pass me by. This is my motorcycle diary; my reckoning with more than 5,500 miles of road from New York City to Los Angeles. My firsthand journal of the unparalleled way that traveling helps you revisit your past to deal with your present and make you stronger for the future.
A Global Citizen of the World
“Tell the class where you’re going, Neal,” my teacher said. The year was 1973 and my parents had just withdrawn me from kindergarten to fly halfway across the world. This was the first of many trips that would shape my international upbringing. Was I afraid to leave home and the steady familiarity of school? Not at all. In fact, I’ll never forget the adrenaline coursing through my veins.
I remember our driver gliding down Highway 95 toward the airport. Houses turned to fields, fields turned to buildings. My hometown flashed past my backseat window, and I knew that whatever was ahead, I wanted it.
Growing up, my parents moved our family around a lot. By the time I was 16, I’d been to 52 foreign nations. I’d explored 14 European countries by car, truck, or jeep. I’d been driven across Bahrain in the Middle East, and fishtailed through the deserts of Kenya, sick as a dog in the backseat of the car. I’d been driven from Baltimore to Mexico; Baltimore to Alaska. I still flash back to the landscapes of Hungary, France, Wales, Scotland, and Norway, distracted, in standard 14-year-old form, by the flocks of stunning women in each country.
For most of my life, I was a passenger, passively observing the world from the backseat.
Life from the Backseat of a Town Car
Fast forward to my thirties. It was Tuesday. With an ice-cold six-pack of Corona, I walked from Sylvester Stallone’s mansion, where we’d spent a long day working on a screenplay together, to where Jimmy waited by his Mercedes a few steps away. Jimmy had been my driver for nearly 12 years, between New York and LA. My wife loved having a driver. I did not. But Jimmy was like family. His familiar eyes watched me from the rearview mirror, observing in polite oblivion my standard end-of-day routine.
“Don't take me back to the hotel,” I said, out of the blue. “Let’s head out to Hermosa Beach.”
Three beers in, my second hometown flashed past my window in a blur; strip malls turned to houses, homes turned to beach bungalows. Four beers in, I was reminded of how disconnected I was from the street, its rhythm, texture, and smells.
I thought of asking Jimmy to stop the car. I envisioned myself jumping on a motorcycle, engine throttled, feeling the landscape approach, head on. I didn’t want a roof overhead. I wanted to smell the asphalt, blow in the wind, hear the meditative purr of an engine, and feel the road beneath me. I wanted to watch green highway signs glide overhead as I gunned the engine and passed beneath them. I wanted to stop – all James Dean’d out in my leather jacket – to talk to beautiful women.
I loved Jimmy, but I didn’t want a driver. I wanted to drive, far and fast. I wanted to reckon with the thirty years and thousands of miles I’d spent looking out the backseat window.
Six Coronas in, I stood by the pool of my LA hotel with my phone in my ear.
“We’re going to ride our old Triumphs from New York to LA.”
“We are?” said my best friend Sam Yocum.
I am a Selfish A––hole
The day before I began my seven-day cross-country journey, I was booked on the Today Show. Although I was about to walk onto national television in front of millions of viewers, my mind was on the trip. I couldn’t stop thinking about how colossally selfish I was being, embarking on such a self-centered and potentially dangerous journey, while I had a wife and two kids at home. “You’re a selfish a––hole," I said to my face, powdered and bronzed in a layer of high-def makeup, in a small backstage mirror. Then I stepped out into the harsh 6:50am lights.
I waved at the crowds that rushed the panoramic window on set. Matt Lauer took his place before me and rearranged his earpiece. Like so many of the interviews I’d done before, I did this one without paying much attention to what was being asked or how I was responding. (I used to think all press was good press. Experience has taught me better.) It’s no secret that I was battling a drug addiction at the time, but this morning, I wasn’t distracted by these vices. My mind was on my family – and on the road.
My kids watched from home in pajamas a few blocks away, sleepily making shapes in their maple syrup. They’d seen me on TV hundreds of times. This was nothing new. The fact was, I wasn’t home. I was away in hotels when they had colds and nightmares. I was on airplanes during birthdays. Hell, on any given Tuesday I was at my writing desk, lost in a magazine deadline, deferring to a nanny, or, if totally desperate, the maid. And now, once again, I was going away, walking out of these bright lights to hop onto a bike to risk my life riding 5,500 miles in seven days.
“And for what?” I wondered as I climbed into a town car after the show.
On the Road to Redemption
The next morning, Sam stood by his bike at the gas station at Lafayette and Houston. He’s never nervous, so I pretended not to be. And as we headed north and the green highway signs glided overhead, any notion of fear completely dissolved.
I tilted my head so my helmet would cut through the oncoming wind and rolled my throttle back, gunning forward.
We were hauling ass and it was physically grueling, but we made up for it with plenty of well-researched cultural and culinary stops. Some were off the beaten path, others more obvious. In Pennsylvania, we stopped at the Martin Guitar Company, which crafted guitars for Johnny Cash. In Michigan, we took a four-hour ferry ride across the one and only lake that feels like an ocean.
Riding a bike triggers a pretty hearty appetite, and our food choices did not disappoint. We stopped for gorgeous sirloin steaks at the Snakebite Restaurant, an award-winning, cash-only joint in Idaho Falls. In landlocked Fargo, North Dakota, we discovered outstanding seafood and chorizo paella at Monte’s Downtown. Meyer Company Ranch in Helmville, Montana, delivers a steak like you’ve never experienced. The divey Davidson’s Distillery in Reno offers everything a guy could need after a long day on the road: booze, women, live music, and wings that wake you up fast.
In Montana, I watched the road disappear into a point ahead, just as it had in Ohio and Minnesota. Sam kept a distance the length of two bikes behind me. I kept watch of him in my rearview mirror.
“Sam. Check.” I heard myself say inside my helmet.
My ears were numb from hundreds of miles of wind rushing past at 85mph, but my thoughts, racing as fast as my bike’s engine, were sharp and clear.
I gave Sam the gesture. He rolled his throttle back and took the lead. Old-school bikers say never ride more than 300 hundred miles a day. To hell with that. We clocked 600 miles a day – making it to San Francisco in seven days.
Back to Civilization
In San Francisco, Sam and I parted ways with a handshake that punctuated the end of a ride and the beginning of a brotherhood. San Francisco was my soft landing back to civilization. From here, I was on my own before heading down to Los Angeles for a shoot with Janet Jackson.
“We are always happy to have you here at the Four Seasons Hotel,” was my welcome as I rolled up on my Triumph. I stepped off my bike, and paused beside it. It was silent, and seemed almost small surrounded by the amalgam of cars in the garage. I felt protective. My relationship with this bike was like a summer romance – I never wanted it to end.
Inside my room, I fell into the giant duvet, exhaling, and stared at the ceiling. A film was playing out in my head, merging the ride I’d just taken with scenes from my past. I saw the roads I’d just conquered and noticed how the winds had rushed past my ears in the exact same way they did in my childhood, as I sat in the backseat of my father’s green Ford Maverick with the windows down. I thought about how, from that backseat, I’d witnessed the same thousands of miles I’d just passed.
The sun set, and my giant hotel window presented a city I’d first met in 1980. Its lights looked like tiny needles sparkling across a hilly landscape. The city, sprawled before me, was as unobstructed as the open road had that brought me there. At that moment, with the world before me, I felt comfortable letting go of the past – and with it, the ride. There would be more miles to face, more obstacles to overcome, but I felt fortified. I was ready to take them on, even those coming at me at 100mph.
“Sounds like a kind of baptism,” Janet said in LA a few days later, on a blindingly bright cover shoot. “It was,” I replied. “It was.”
When I started my ride across America, I was uncertain about why I was taking such a risk. I just knew I had to do it. Traveling more than 5,000 miles gives you a lot of time to think. As I stepped off my bike in LA, I knew that I was ready to make some changes, changes that meant leaving the bright lights of media and fame – and beginning a new life. I only wanted to take on work that mattered to me. I wanted to become the father and husband who showed up. Back in New York, this new life was ushered in – fast – thanks to a scandal involving a world-famous athlete and his Swedish, golf club-wielding wife. In that moment, I discovered my boundaries, personally and professionally. And, I discovered that quality of life and work far surpassed a tabloid headline, a good-looking woman, a fat paycheck, or a drug.
What’s next for me? There is yet another chapter of my Motorcycle Diaries to come.
Top Tips for Riding Cross-Country
1. Be Safe
Most cities offer a two- or three-day motorcycle license class for new riders, and refresher courses for seasoned riders. I recommend taking this course to sharpen your safety riding skills.
2. Gear Up
If you want to get all Easy Rider, by all means, do it. But remember: They died. Make sure you gear up with all the proper equipment, and know that quality counts. If you’re able, buy the best.
3. The Jacket
Vanson jackets reinforce the inner elbow pads, back guards, and shoulder pads with steel. The leather is extremely thick and durable so that if you do go down, you’ll have solid protection. The Vanson Sportrider is a best in class. For warmer months, ask about their perforated leather models.
4. The Gloves
Gloves are an important part of motorcycling. If you go down, the natural tendency is to break a wipeout with your hands, and leather gloves protect them from injury. Vanson gloves, like the coats, are made with high-grade leathers specifically for high-speed sport riding. I recommend a pair of Vanson Rocket Gloves that allow you to zipper close the end of the glove around your wrist so it won’t interfere with the sleeve of your leather jacket. Again, for warmer months, Vanson makes sturdy and safe leather gloves with perforated leather.
5. The Helmet
Arai helmets have consistently been rated as the safest motorcycling helmet on the market. I recommend any of the Arai Corsair-V helmets. For long rides in various climates, the venting system maintains a consistent temperature within the helmet. You can easily adjust the temperature by pressing the vents open or closed.
6. The Boots
Motorcycle boots have become a fashion statement, but most of the boots you see are not designed for long rides. A true motorcycle boot is made with foot safety in mind. It should have a snug fit, rise above the ankle to the calf, and have oil-resistant soles. The steel toe will save your feet after days of shifting gears, the height of the boot above the ankle will protect you from the heat of the engine block, and the oil-resistant sole will prevent you from slipping and dropping your bike when you touch your feet down in wet or dirty road conditions.
7. Get There
A good SPS system that mounts onto your handlebars may come in handy, but if you plan on a coast-to-coast ride, be prepared for road construction and detours that your GPS might not be able to detect. Nothing, and I mean nothing, will ever replace the value of having a good printed map at the ready. Study the map before you go and chart your course well in advance. Many phone apps can forecast road conditions regarding construction, detours, weather, and more. My advice is to use available navigation tools so you can concentrate on safe riding, rather than wondering how you took that wrong turn in Albuquerque.
8. Easy Riding
The key to safety is awareness of what could happen – and the confidence that you won’t let it – because you are prepared, educated, and practiced. To achieve this, make sure you’ve covered all your bases in safety and planning. Take the refresher course, get the proper gear, know where you’re going, and have fun.
(Photos: courtesy of Sam Yocum)