Don’t apologize for humble road trips

Kyle Smith

It is early afternoon on day two of a four-day adventure-bike ride across the upper peninsula of Michigan. My friend and I have just finished setting up camp. The only thing louder than the lightly crackling fire is the scurry of chipmunks preparing for the fast-approaching winter. Red is in the trees, orange soon to follow. Fall happens fast up here.

There are only five of us taking up provisional residence in this 18-spot campground. The camp host in his medium-sized fifth-wheel, someone in a nice conversion van a couple spots over, and a mountain biker with a nice tent set up in the back of a suspiciously clean Jeep Gladiator. Then our motorcycles, my friend’s as-yet unscratched Tenere 700 and my KTM, which leaves blue paint chips wherever I go, like a molting snake.

My friend left me to start the fire—he wanted to ride about a mile down the road to attempt to catch fish from the nearby river. His exact words as he rode off: “I’m so excited to not catch any fish.”

UP campsite on ADV trip
Kyle Smith

At our site, a pair of heavy riding pants hangs off a low tree branch. Another pair is folded over the handlebars of my KTM 950 Adventure S, which sits between my slim one-person tent and the small horseshoe road that circles the private campground. A mountain-bike trail establishes the back side of our temporary plot of land. Sipping beer while seated in my spindly camp chair, I recall something I once read years ago, in which the author argued that you can’t own land. I’ve never agreed more. How could I possibly claim this spot as mine? It’s best shared.

The soft thump of tennis shoes draws my mind back to the present. It’s mountain bike guy, complete with local IPA in hand. No coozy, just to make sure you know it’s something brewed right here in the 906. My single 25-ounce can of Budweiser sits next to me like a sign on a stake saying I’ve all but given up on craft brews. These big single cans are the easiest thing to grab and carry from a gas station when traveling by motorcycle. One can—you don’t even have to drink it all—and you’re good all night. Less waste, easier transport. Win-win.

He asks where we are from. I love a good opportunity for a “from under the bridge” joke, and so do the locals. Conversation starts.

I’m only here on a motorcycle because a bicycle takes more effort, literally and theoretically. The KTM can transport itself the 5.5 hours required to get here from home in Traverse City. To get to the Upper Peninsula with a mountain bike would mean 5.5 hours in the big red penalty box of my Express van. Not the worst situation, but the thrill needs to be worth the punishment. When traveling by motorcycle, the punishment becomes part of the adventure. Our adventure included some punishment, don’t get me wrong: The quarter-mile sand section that buried one of our motorcycles yesterday proved that most people who say “journey is the destination” likely wear rose-colored glasses.

KTM and Yamaha Tenere 700 on trail mechanical sympathy motorcycle road trip epic drive ride
Kyle Smith

After my “under the bridge joke,” and the standard pleasantries about the weather, mountain bike guy asks, “So what do you guys do?”

Before my brain realizes he is referring to our jobs, I blurt out, “Fun stuff.” As we chat about my KTM and the mountain biking trails my friend’s Tenere 700 idles into the campground. No fish, as he expected—but we weren’t really prepared to dress and cook a fish anyway.

Mountain bike guy’s question sticks with me long after he returns to his Jeep. It was a legitimate question: It was 3 p.m. on a Monday afternoon. Two 30-somethings sitting around a middle-of-nowhere campground during business hours reeks of startup money, Daddy’s money, some type of money that is something other than hard-earned.

We were two friends who threw a dart at a calendar, packed some luggage, and rode north. Vacation time exists for a reason, and I had been banking it, waiting for something worthwhile. Turns out that time didn’t need to be spent in some grand manner. The destination is not special. Just somewhere there rather than here, transported by something interesting and engaging, with friends, stories, and brats around a fire.

During that UP trip, my friend and I rode around more or less aimlessly for two more days, picking destinations by a range of fuel and time to ensure we would always arrive somewhere with cold beverages. Wake up, find a spot for coffee and breakfast an hour away, then find lunch within a three-hour range. No terrain was off limits: We followed snowmobile trails marked with a translucent green highlighter on the pages of the outdated atlas which is near-permanently installed in the right pannier of the KTM. We arrived home tired, yet recharged.

After hours of time alone in a helmet with my thoughts, that question at the campground still hadn’t left my mind. What am I into? What makes me happy?

Not everything needs to be epic. A weekend ride or drive is time doing what we love—near or far. We can dream of the cross-country trip all day but in reality a humble drive is the easiest route to finding something epic. It requires doing the thing we love more often. I would rather drive my Corvair once a week to get coffee I could have made at home rather than take it out only once a year for a big road trip. Every trip creates a memory, and they all are valuable.

If we never get out the door for the humble trip, we will likely never have the confidence or preparation to go out and do the big thing. The most fun stories are ones when things go better or worse than expected, right? Go out and do something, anything, and you’ll likely have a story to tell.

Yamaha T7 and KTM 950 in UP mechanical sympathy motorcycle road trip epic drive ride
Kyle Smith




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    Hear, hear! Great attitude.
    When I read the first sentence, I thought, “upper peninsula – this time of year?” – then I read the second and said, “aha, he DOES know that winter is coming any second now”. I have loaded camp gear into saddlebags on a motorcycle many times, just to ride to “somewhere” and be alone, eat meager meals, drink coffee with grounds in it, and sleep uncomfortably in a popup tent. Done the same in my 4WD vehicles, too. Coming home to heat, shower stall and comfy bed always makes me feel human again, but I admit that the time spent out roaming the countryside (especially the mountains – I LOVE the mountains) has been when I’ve felt most alive.
    Now, I’ve never thrown camp gear into my classics, but I’ve definitely taken what can be called “humble road trips” in them – even sometimes to the point of sleeping in the back seat and hoping I can find a cafe within reasonable distance to get coffee the next morning.
    I am in complete agreement with Kyle about using vacation time. When I was in the workforce, I never understood those folks who never took time off, often “not using it and losing it”. Work and career advancement are fine, but man is basically nomadic and just “going somewhere to go somewhere” is baked into our DNA – we just need to not let it get buried and ignored.
    Road Trip? Heck yeah!

    Yes, the UP is especially beautiful in the fall. I’m a Honda Goldwing guy, but rode up there with the BMW crowd since one of my coworkers was involved in one of their groups. Copper Harbor, Lake of the Clouds, and all of the other memorable places.

    Used to take sudden and barely-planned short camping trips with a few buddies – up to 5 – on our motorcycles, usually to Sequoia, Yosemite, or the desert. We’d ride an odd assortment of my Z1R, a Gold Wing, a GS1000, and whatever the others rode. Great times, and not always in specified camping spots: we wanted what I guess you’d call Maximum Nature. (We made sure we left no disturbance of our ad-hoc site.) Some epic rides in beautiful places are food for the soul.

    Last week I decided on Tuesday to ride on Wednesday. Had a gorgeous day; from Traverse City, backroads to Petoskey thru Tunnel of Trees (no traffic!) and along lake shore to and through Wilderness State Park, through Mackinaw City, then down US23 along Lake Huron to Alpena, then back across to TC. 420 miles. Lots of varied pavement and a little dirt. My longest single day ride on the Guzzi V85TT, it performed beautifully. I’m confident there will be a few more rides before the snow flies.

    Thanks for that little relief from my day to day chores. My getaways tend to be taken in a truck camper, lately. Plan Thursday and off to the river or ocean on Friday. Saturday relaxing or playing and back to reality on Sunday. Wouldn’t want to do life without these moments of memories & true bliss!
    God bless

    Hi Kyle,
    Just read your short story during my morning cup of coffee. It reminded me of my thoughts during the previous weekend camping trip, which was the last of the season and on our Thanksgiving weekend in Canada. Friends and family had gathered together in a park on Cape Blomidon despite remnants of hurricane Philippe creating some concern. In my younger days I would travel long distances in Canada, USA and Europe to feed my wanderlust but in recent years it occurred to me that there was as much to enjoy and discover in short drives around my Nova Scotia home.

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