What I Learned Riding 8,000KM Cross-Country On An Italian Muscle Cruiser

What I Learned Riding 8,000KM Cross-Country On An Italian Muscle Cruiser
Photo: Bradley Brownell

Before I rode off for an epic two-wheel adventure deep into the heart of autumn, a good friend asked me a question that I really wish he hadn’t: “On what universal conundrum are you hoping to receive enlightenment on this great journey?”

Unknowingly, he had shifted my brain into maximum overdrive for the next three weeks mulling this insane query. I was hoping for a bit of escapism, but I’d been set on a path of constant internal debate. Why am I doing this? What is my purpose?

(Full Disclosure: I asked Ducati to borrow one of its motorcycles for a 8,047 km road trip, and it offered me use of this 2020 Diavel 1260S. I picked it up in the San Francisco Bay Area with a full fuel tank and a full kit of accessories and luggage. I emptied and refilled the tank many times. I returned the Diavel in largely the same condition it was in when I took delivery, save for a few scratches on the tank and a torn seam in the right-side soft pannier. The company also arranged for the bike’s first scheduled maintenance at one of its dealerships while it was in my care.)

There are many wild animals inside of me at any given time, inside us all, and they are fighting for survival. The hope is that some can be domesticated, and others can be vanquished, until the raging battle has resolved. But never has the battle raged more fiercely than this year. Anxieties, rage, love, hope, fear, each clawing for its moment in the sun of my consciousness.

How will my country survive this? How will the environment survive this? Indeed, how will we survive this? My friends, my family, my ideals, my health, all under attack. What is the way forward? How do we make sense of this? Will my dog survive his battle with cancer? LOOK OUT! There’s a truck drifting into your lane, dickhead!

My journey took me north from my home state of Nevada and through Idaho, where I stopped for the night at the breathtaking Craters of the Moon National Monument The next day I sojourned through the spine of Yellowstone as I made my way into Montana, touching just a corner of Wyoming. Then on to Theodore Roosevelt National Park, and across North Dakota, Minnesota, a tiny dip of Wisconsin and then the full beauty of Michigan’s upper peninsula. My destination was the greater Kalamazoo area, visiting with family for a few days before heading back on the long slog that is I-80.

Particularly on the front side of the trip, I was aiming not only for states I had never visited before, but for some of the most isolated and beautiful vistas in the country. Prior to this trip, I’d never been to Idaho, North Dakota or Minnesota, which afforded me the ability to determine whether such areas were in fact worth visiting. Spoiler alert: They very much are.

There are so many preconceptions we might have about these states. Everything between Chicago and Las Vegas is often referred to unkindly as “flyover country,” which is certainly the capitalist’s view of things. There is non-quantifiable value to be found in the swaths of frequently gorgeous, and occasionally peculiar, landscape out here. If you’ve never slept under the stars in a volcanic field or skirted a wide-open plain dotted with sleeping bison as the sun shone, have you truly lived?

After thousands of miles of isolated enjoyment of the most glorious vistas this country has to offer, I think I’ve narrowed it down to 10 things I learned. I didn’t embark on this trip to learn much of anything, and few of these lessons are existential or rare, but learn them I did. Here’s what I took away from my journey. Maybe they’ll help you, maybe they won’t.

1. Maybe don’t plan a motorcycle camping trip for October

Despite wearing the right gear, packing the right equipment, planning the right route and picking a comfortable bike with heated grips, I was still wholly unprepared for just how cold the northern states can get in the month of October. The prior week my route showed daily highs into the 60s and overnight lows still in the mid-40s. As I walked out my door to head eastward, a cold front washed in across the other side of the Continental Divide.

I had planned to camp every night of the trip, booking four different campsites across the country. My first night at Craters of the Moon was wonderfully weird, but I didn’t sleep well, as my new, never-used inflatable camp pad came factory-installed with a broken seal and wouldn’t hold a lick of air. The next day I picked up an infallible foam mattress, letting you instantly carbon-date these photos as before or after the first night. When I woke up the second morning to frost on the ground and a wet tent, I booked a hotel for that night. I found my breaking point, and it’s a 29 degree morning.

The trip eastward wasn’t so bad, despite rainy weather across the entire U.P. It was the trip back home which convinced me I’d really fucked up. The torturous winds of the Plains States left me chilled to the bone and knackered beyond all belief. Side winds of a sustained 64 km an hour across much of Iowa and all of Nebraska, with gusts up to 70 mph, saw me riding at what felt like 10 degrees of lean angle for hours at a time. I was aiming for 1,609 km in the saddle that day, but a few hours into Wyoming the temperature fell to an indicated 27 degrees and a very cold stinging rain began to fall. At 1,416 km in, I was forced off the highway to seek shelter for the night.

If you do plan to ride in the cold, plan accordingly. I planned fairly well, but not well enough, ultimately.

2. The Ducati Diavel is extremely versatile

As I said in my review of the bike, the Diavel is a revelation. In spite of being an extremely expensive two-wheeler at nearly 30 grand, this is one bike that can do everything. It’s big and burly for long highway hauls, it’s fast and fun when the roads get twisty and it could handle a track day or even track week.

In the three short weeks that I had this bike, I did everything I could to test its mettle. It handled all of my favourite riding roads with aplomb and served as my trusty steed for 8,047 km. This bike had only 483 km on the odometer when it rolled into my employ, barely a newborn, but it grew up fast. It’s really a crying shame that more moto folks don’t log more miles.

3. A good tank bag makes all the difference

Ducati handed me the biggest tank bag I’ve ever seen. With a large central cavity (expandable) and smaller pockets on each side, this bag carries as much as 27 litres of stuff. I used it as my dresser for the week, holding three pairs of jeans, four T-shirts, socks, underpants, a selection of reusable masks, and my laptop and associated electronics in the main compartment. The two side compartments held a scad of disposable gloves for gas stations and disposable ear plugs to save my hearing, as well as my compact laptop mouse and a case for my eyeglasses or sunglasses as necessary.

Because this one was so large, it made a nice chest rest in a mild aero tuck for long stints on the highway, a way to get down out of the wind. And because it was held on with very strong magnets, I was able to take it off each night and tuck it into bed next to me where nobody could steal my valuables from a sketchy hotel parking lot.

4. Heated grips don’t get enough credit

Without the Diavel’s heated grips, this trip would have been nigh on impossible. These things get VERY hot and kept the insides of my hands toasty warm. Chucking a disposable hand warmer packet into my glove kept the tops of my hands reasonably warm. It was just the front sides of my fingers that felt the biting chill. My decade old leather Alpinestars gloves are decidedly not built for winter riding, and the winter gloves I brought along didn’t translate much feel of the handlebars through to my hands.

I ordered up a set of Oxford handlebar muffs for this trip, but ultimately didn’t think I would have anywhere to store them when it was too warm to use them. I really wish I had just found a place on the bike to make them fit anyway, because at least two of those riding days would have been infinitely more comfortable with them on board.

As it was, however, the heated grips kept me from feeling too miserable about cold hands. On a brisk day they make everything better. On a truly cold day, they can make all the difference. I will pretty much not even consider buying a motorcycle if it doesn’t have heated grips. They just extend the riding season so much that you can get several more months per year on two wheels, which is a very good thing.

5. There’s nothing more nerve-wracking than riding at night

The one regret that I have about my ride was not stopping in Northern Michigan when the sun went down. I was cold and wet and desperate to press on and log some miles because I was behind some imaginary schedule I’d set for myself. As I left the lakeshore and worked my way inland, the sun went down and the road got much more remote. No longer anywhere near a city, the street lights ended, and the forest encroached.

Having grown up in Michigan and witnessed more than one suicidal Cervidae jump in front of traffic, this was the most nervous I’ve ever been on a motorcycle. Thankfully nothing transpired, but the idea of running headlong into the antlers of a 30-point buck looking to rut sends a shiver up my spine. By the time I reached Mackinac City, my eyes were tired from darting this way and that at the vaguest notion of motion in the roadside.

I’d probably have felt reasonably safe in a car, but on a bike I couldn’t have been more nervous. Between the visibility issues of a helmet visor on a cold rainy night and the deep inky black of a moonless U.P. night, I doubt if I could have seen my death coming.

6. Yellowstone deserves its spot at the top

My goodness, our national parks are true gems of the earth. While I have not visited all of them, I’ve seen a fair few, and I’ve been blown away every time. Within minutes of rolling into the park I felt a peace wash over me at the purity of the blessed land. I didn’t explore the full extent of the park, as I didn’t have several days to spend, but stops at a number of waterfalls, hot springs, rivers, and plains gave me a glimpse at the splendor of this place.

I have plans to return someday soon and give the place a week or more of my life, which it truly deserves. As a first-timer I couldn’t just dive in with both feet, and I think that has made the experience all the better for me. A glossed-over view of the park is a great introduction, as there’s far too much to process in a single day. I dipped my toes into the pool, but next spring I’ll be back to cannonball into the deep end.

7. Lake Superior really is

Superior, that is. I haven’t been to the Upper Peninsula since college, and I’d forgotten much of the gorgeous majesty that is Michigan’s more northern mitten. Even with chilling winds and biting rain — once, for about 16 km turning into snow — the northern shore along Lake Superior, from Marquette to Munising, was about the most beautiful section of road you can find. The whole point of planning this trip in the fall was to see the bursts of fall colour settle in among the treetops, and Michigan delivered like it was a Grumman Long Life Vehicle full of Christmas presents.

8. Maybe we’re going too fast on the highway

For much of the trip, I would settle in around 121 km/h, set the cruise control, and manage my speed from there to keep distance ahead or behind of other vehicles. Much faster and my fuel economy plummeted, along with my expected range. Any slower and I would surely find my rear wheel eaten up by a cabover Pete with a reefer on.

I’m not going to advocate for the return of a national 89 km/h speed limit, but can we at least be a little bit more sensible about our speeds on the highway? Several times while tooling along in the right lane with my cruise set 5 over the limit, I’d be freight-trained by a dually diesel pickup hauling a 9.14 m trailer full of Clydesdales. Where the fuck are you going in such a hurry?

Think about all the wasted resources in excess burned fuel and tires and drivetrain wear. That speed is going to cost you. And that’s before we consider the danger aspect. I’m a soft meat sack sitting next to you on the highway, please consider my safety as well.

9. Make the best of it

I come from the American Midwest, having grown up in the southeast Michigan area. There is something about Midwesterners that relishes a challenge. Maybe it’s a pathology, but I’ve always done hard things not in spite of the challenge, but because of it. This trip is but one of many examples of things I’ve done which I positively hated in the moment, but will grow to revere as among of the better days of my life.

10. This is all worth saving

There is so much about this country that is pretty damn great. I’m no nationalist weirdo, but I consider myself quite lucky to have been born here. I have access to some of the most awe-inspiring public lands in the world. People travel from all over the world to visit the lands that we take for granted every single day. Whether the threat be fascism, global climate change, economic crisis or a damn virus, we need to act because any one, or all of them combined, could take this country to its knees. And dammit, I really like it here.

Whatever we’re doing right now isn’t working. Everything is a mess. Over a quarter of Americans are out of work. Millions have been infected with a deadly virus, which is as of this writing the No. 3 cause of death in this country. Half of the country is on fire, the other half is getting pummelled with hurricanes. And Nazis are back for some fucking reason. I don’t purport to have all the answers, but I know for a fact that life in this country has gotten worse in recent years. What the fuck are we going to do about it?

I guess I’ll think of this motorcycle trip as something of an exploratory surgery. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I’m not entirely sure I found it, but I couldn’t know for sure what the problem was until I rooted around inside for a while looking for what’s wrong. I can tell you that it isn’t the land that’s the problem. So maybe do something small today to push things in the right direction. And keep doing small things every day to make sure we don’t go over the brink.

Get a National Parks membership. Recycle some stuff. Fix something instead of throwing it away. Buy solar panels, or an electric car, or ride your bicycle to work. Vote. Compost. Organise a protest. Punch a Nazi. Wear a mask. Keep your distance. Don’t go to a holiday party. Who knows? Whatever your small thing is, please do it, because this place is worth saving.

A closing note about the current state of travel in the pandemic-ravaged United States:

Aside from widespread intentional ignorance of coronavirus mitigation recommendations the further I got from the coasts, I saw nothing that would keep me away from these areas in the future. I kept my distance from others, stopping only for fuel and sleep, packing all of my food with me from home, carrying disposable gloves for handling disgusting fuel pumps, and frequently sanitising my hands and bike. Any time I had to go inside, I tried to select places which would be clean and open, while obviously keeping a mask over my nose and mouth. Several weeks later, it seems as though I managed to safely traverse the country without infecting myself or others.