It’s been over a year now since completing The Great Ride of China, a trip in which I, with my girlfriend Amy, rode a motorcycle through all 33 provinces of China (“all” if you don’t count Taiwan), breaking the world record for Longest Continuous Motorcycle Journey in a Single Country. We spent 146 days from July 19th to December 11th motorcycling over 21,000 miles, going counter clockwise around one of the biggest and most diverse countries on the planet. We spent time in sandstorms, rainstorms, and snowstorms, went through 20-mile long traffic jams, rode through deserts and up to Mount Everest Base Camp, and much more besides. Falling back into normal routines, a 9-5, weekends and weekdays, overtime and holiday time, has of course been a big change.
Over the past 13+ months that I’ve been back, a couple times a week I get the opportunity to escape back into that adventure Amy and I took back in 2013, reliving the memories of the trip as I go through them in my mind attempting to translate them into words. Trying to write a book for the first time has been a journey and a learning experience in and of itself (blog posts are hard enough!), and could easily be the subject of a whole other post on its own. One thing it has given me however is the opportunity to reflect on life on the road. Specifically I’ve been wondering about what it is I found (and still find) so appealing about indulging on such seemingly outlandish journeys. Why did we decide to spend 5 months out on a motorcycle? Why travel for so long through unfamiliar and, often, dangerous terrain? Why take the risks in the first place?
The Great Ride of China was actually not my first long distance endeavor. Ever since being introduced to hiking at summer camp in the Adirondacks, I’ve been hooked on the feeling of completing these types of personal challenges. Still to date one of the most difficult and memorable trips I’ve ever been on was a one day traverse of the Presidential Range peaks in New Hampshire when I was 15. As part of a group of 10 teenagers and 2 counselors, over the course of a 17 hour day, from 3am to 10:30pm, we hiked 23 miles, summited 11 peaks and climbed a total of 10,000ft. of elevation. We were in the clouds and rained on most of the day, eventually ending the hike as we started it, by headlamp. That trip was one of the most mentally and physically demanding challenges I have ever faced, but it was also one of the most gratifying and rewarding experiences as well.
Since becoming enamored with this kind of life, I’ve had the great fortune to meet, and in many cases befriend, some truly remarkable and fascinating people. There have been road warriors, world adventurers, triple crowners, iron women, bucket list gurus, explorers, record breakers and many more. So many different people with their own experiences and their own unique reasons for leaving the relative security of the predictable to venture out into unfamiliar territory, challenging themselves in new (and often uncomfortable) ways.
Looking at my own somewhat eclectic array of interests, I started to think about what it is, if anything, that connects such a varied collection of individuals. It seems kind of strange on the face of it to group trail bums, tri-athletes, jet-setters, and iron butts all together in one amalgamation of masochistic hobbyists. As I began getting interested in long distance motorcycling after years of hiking, it seemed a bit strange, even to me, that I would make a transition between two such seemingly different forms of travel.
A closer examination though and the parallels, particularly between the cultures, starts to come a little more into focus. Standing around listening to old, grizzled bikers talking about chrome customizations, helmet preferences, and their longest day in the saddle, it reminded me exceedingly of similarly themed hiker conversations: sometimes bearded and always unkempt hikers talking about their favorite stoves, whether they preferred boots or trail runner, and strategies for packing efficiently. You even had similar alignments of communities. In the motorcycle world there were the sports bikes vs. the cruisers, “Jap” bikes vs. Harleys, H.O.G.s (Harley Owners Groups) and online dirt bike forums. Hikers had section hikers vs. thru-hikers (vs. Bill Bryson), AT (Appalachian Trail) vs. PCT (Pacific Coast Trail), North Bound, South Bound, Yo-yos, and ultra-light hikers. Bikers had rallies like Americade and Sturgis while hikers had Trail Days and Kick-off.
A lot can be said for the fact that as human beings we like to create communities and give structure and purpose to them. So is that the answer to “Why I Ride”? To join a “tribe”? To surround myself with people I share something in common with? Well if it were that simple then surely there has got to be cheaper, safer, and more stable ways for a person to feel like they are part of a club!
After spending a lot of time thinking on this, through hikes, and rides, and (most recently) cycling trips, I think I’ve come up with a few reasons that help to pin this down. Now of course everyone will have their own personal motivations specific to their own situations, so this is by no means authoritative or inclusive. However, in terms of what personally continues to draw me to these types of activities, whether it’s long distance hiking, motorcycling, or cycling, these are the four reasons that have stayed consistent through my experiences and different adventures.
There is just something about challenging yourself with something where your biggest barrier is your own will and determination. The sense of achievement when you’ve accomplished something that seemed insurmountable is almost addicting. On a personal level, having had these experiences has also allowed me to face even the seemingly mundane challenges from everyday life with a new sense of confidence, allowing me to push myself farther and take greater leaps of faith. Facing these hardships can also help to build on the feeling of camaraderie with others that are part of “the tribe”, whether it’s commiserating over the rocks in Pennsylvania or talking about your first Iron Butt.
A Different Perspective
Related to the confidence that comes with challenging yourself is the new sense of perspective that you get when you push yourself out of your comfort zone. Rather than worrying about networking events, deadlines and unanswered emails, you start concerning yourself with the basics: Where will I sleep tonight? How will I stay dry? Where will the next water source be? Am I getting enough calories? I’m not saying that there is necessarily any kind of religious experience, or recommending that dropping family, work, and all other responsibilities is the way to go. What this perspective can do though is help you be both calmer and perhaps happier when you are dealing with the challenges and stresses of “everyday” life, particularly in the modern day where there are so many more distractions.
In addition to the perspective that reducing life to the necessities can provide, the simplicity it brings can be particularly liberating. When you reduce life to just what you can carry on your back (or in your saddle bags) and put yourself in a position where you are concerned with only the necessities (food, water, warmth, etc.), it can make you much happier than you might have thought possible even while shivering in the middle of a snowstorm. It’s amazing how cluttered our minds are on a day to day basis and the clarity and contentment that can come from removing that clutter is really quite remarkable.
Beautiful vistas and pretty pictures are nice, but there really is no beating the unique kinds of interactions that you can have with people on the road/trail. Some of my fondest memories from past trips are those from experiences I had with people along the way. You can meet so many different and interesting people when you travel, from fellow adventurers passing through to locals welcoming you in to their homes, and the interactions you have with them can easily leave a person with a renewed sense of faith in humanity. People that I only hiked a couple months (or weeks!) with have since become friends that I will likely keep for the rest of my life. From trail angels in North Carolina to hospitable Tibetan families in the mountains of Sichuan, people are what can really make an experience special.
As I said, this may not be the most comprehensive list and I realize that some of these points may come off as a little abstract. There could be a lot more to say about each of them, a post devoted to each on its own, and each with its own sub-motivations and backstories. But, as I look back now on a decade of adventures, and look forward to what will hopefully be decades more, it is these points that I feel invigorate me and keep me going back for more. They are what unite my love of hiking and motorcycling and what I have, in the past year, found myself being drawn to by cycling. Others will no doubt have their own lists and motivations and more likely than not there will be differences with the four points above, but I also would not be surprised to find a lot of overlap as well.
What about you? What motivates you to try and push yourself to try new and challenging adventures? Or maybe you’ve felt the pull but something has been holding you back from taking the plunge. Feel free to share your experiences and thoughts in the comments!