My lips are gritty from the dust, and through the seat, I can feel my rear wheel dance a lazy samba in the loose gravel surface as it gains and loses traction. Brilliant blue skies peek through the tree canopy, and yellow wildflowers are blooming every-where. Farm scents mix with wild rose and honeysuckle, my entire being feels the delight…except my feet; they’re encased in squishy socks and waterlogged boots — a constant reminder of an earlier stream crossing. It’s spring in Tennessee, and I’m traveling by motorcycle on the Trans-America Trail.
This trail was blazed by moto-explorer, Sam Correro, a man who dreamed of crossing the country entirely on dirt roads. Years later, the passion has been converted to a business. His website, transamtrail.com, sells paper maps, paper roll charts, and GPS coordinates for a route that begins in Eastern Tennessee and terminates on the Oregon coast; a distance of nearly 5,000 miles of mostly off-pavement riding.
I’ve crossed the country twice by motorcycle by taking all paved back roads and it was amazing, but to do the same on dirt roads seems like stepping back in time, possibly 100 years or more. I mean, back in 1776 didn’t it take John Adams days to travel from his farm in Boston to Philadelphia to attend the Continental Congress?
Not sure if I wanted to go all the way on the Trans-America Trail (TAT), I decided to ride the four hundred mile Tennessee portion to see if I liked it. But, I wanted to feel like Lewis without Clark, so I decided to travel alone, ensuring that all the navigation (and whatever else should arise), fell to me. A decree to leave the cell phone behind, elicited a less than supportive spousal retort, so I would be taking my phone.
But…Christopher Columbus didn’t have an iPhone or GPS, so I opted for old-school roll charts to guide my voyage. A roll of cash register tape with hand written symbols, it sits in a plastic case displayed between two rollers. A twist of the knob advances the paper to the next waypoint…and there are many, as most intersections on the Tennessee section are a half-mile to two miles apart. This will keep my mind occupied, calculating mileages and looking for the next fork in the road, in addition to looking at scenery and piloting the bike.
The first day out is grey; I’m wearing all of my clothes to keep warm because I’d packed for the hotter weather near Nashville and Memphis. After a series of wrong turns, (definitely not used to roll charts!) I find the beginning of the trail; its pavement is cracked and laden with forest debris, then quickly becomes dirt. The route twists, climbs, and descends…so does the rain. I’m suddenly feeling very alone.
A few miles in, and the dirt road disappears under water — dark, still water — resurfacing 40 feet distant. What’s an adventurer to do? In my best Meriwether Lewis imitation, I dismount to check the depth.
I’m pleasantly surprised by the firm bottom as I wade into the shallow stream. I’m also complimenting myself on footwear choice: high, waterproof boots. Not very deep, my crossing is uneventful, as is the next one.
The third stream crossing is not wide, but the water is flowing quickly, and the bottom surface is algae-coated rock with jagged furrows running parallel to my path of travel. My friend, Russ, who has ridden the TAT all the way to Trinidad, Colorado, warned me about this river crossing weeks ago:
“You want to cross it on the extreme right, it’s a bit deep there, but it’s the safest way across.”
…or was he talking about the fourth crossing? Russ talked a bunch about one river, the details of which seem to have slipped my addled mind. Well, he must be mistaken, I think, because on the right side, there’s a beaver dam downstream and the water is really deep.
I find a better option on the left side: an 8” wide groove lined with sand. Perfect. I motor slowly, slipping the clutch, ready for anything, except…my front wheel being stopped entirely by something submerged halfway across. Instantly, I’m out of momentum and ideas, so I put one booted foot down. The rock is slick as ice and the water just as cold.
Foot sliding sideways, water cascades over the top of my boot, and that’s the moment I recall the rest of Russ’ warning. It was about a cleverly deceptive, sand-lined groove with a big obstruction in the middle, which I seem to have found. I arrest the bike’s fall and, with both boots filled, manage to herd my mount across to dry land and shut down.
Movement catches my eye. Across the river, another motorcyclist is gesturing, pondering which way to go. Clearly, I am not the one to ask. He tries a route to the right of center, and ten feet in, his eyes say ‘Oh, crap!’ and slowly, like a toddler in diapers, his bike falls…whoopsie-daisy! Gurgling noises arise from my boots as I wade back in.
Straining against the torrent, we hoist. Eventually his bike emerges, water coursing out of everywhere. I got off light, I think. Together, we urge it to the other side, and suddenly, I’m not feeling so alone. His name is Kevin; we ride together for a few miles.
The fourth crossing is easy, and eventually, Kevin rides off, while I stop to drain my boots in the gathering sun. Surviving my baptism and helping another rider leaves me with a confidence borne of hubris. My name is Lewis, but you can call me Meriwether.
Robert Pirsig, in his philosophical treatise, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, says that if travelling by car is to watch a movie, then piloting a motorcycle is being in the movie.
Really? What’s so great about that? There are no buttons to control the climate, the rider is exposed to the weather: when it’s hot, you sweat; when it rains, you get wet: when it’s cold, it’s very cold due to the wind chill. If a car skids, it’s not big deal; if a bike skids, it’s not big deal either, as long as the rider’s skills are sharp. Uncertainty lurks around every corner, which is the point after all.
Think back to trips you’ve taken and the stories you’ve told about them. Sure, the rooms were luxurious, the umbrella drinks plentiful, and you had the island to yourself. But, don’t those memories of the ‘Good Life’ begin to dissolve even before you’ve unpacked?
I’ve discovered that my most-cherished travel memories are borne of the uncertain moments, the unexpected disappointments, which can lead to something better. Taking a ‘wrong turn’ puts you off your itinerary, yet you see something or meet someone special.
Racing nightfall one evening on the TAT, I miss a turn, round a corner, and in the failing light a horse lopes across my path and stops me. He wears no halter, no rope dangles from his neck; I’m a rare sight in his world, apparently, so he’s checking me out.
His octogenarian owners, and hoarders, it would appear, begin to shout and wave hands at him, as if he were the disobedient family dog. As they retake their seats in front of the single-wide trailer, I turn around and ride out the way I came, waving enthusiastically.
World-circling motorcyclist, Renee Cormier, in his book, The University of Gravel Roads, advises the reader not to prepare too much for a trip because there is magic in getting lost. For him, machine break-downs in the middle of nowhere, though frightful, would usually become miraculous moments where Renee was humbled by the kindness of strangers.
Piloting my motorcycle and camping along the way is addicting. I get a feeling of deep satisfaction knowing that my bags contain all I need; I can stop where and when I want, fall asleep, then keep going the next day. The scenery goes by faster or slower with a twist of my wrist; it’s a blast.
It’s the second morning on the TAT, and I’ve been riding on gravel for miles. Looking at the roll chart, I see that my next turn is a left between two churches. Churches? I muse; I’m in the middle of nowhere! Their steeples appear, I slowly roll between them and look right: the road disappears into a deep, fast-flowing river.
Glad I’m not going right, I think.
I go left; a thousand feet later, the road bends to the right, and suddenly disappears into the water. Uh-oh, my hair stands up on end. Wherefore art thou, now, my plucky explorer?
Before I can panic, a battered Toyota, its roof laden with inflatable water toys and filled to bursting with passengers, bounces and squeaks across the stream, water lapping at the door bottoms.
“Piece of cake,” mutters the driver as he rolls past me. Do I look that nervous?
Moments later, a pair of open-cockpit Jeeps splash through the water, slowing as they parade by me. An over-caffeinated youth hops out and volunteers to shoot pictures of my own crossing. My bike plies the river water effortlessly. It feels so good, I turn around and do it again for the camera.
It is Sunday, and this last water crossing seems to be the entrance into a designated Off Highway Vehicle (OHV) area, a place where non-registered dirt vehicles can legally play. The road turns from gravel to fluffy, red clay with numerous corners and hills.
A red rooster tail is visible in my rearview mirror. The air all through the woods is glowing red in the hot sun; apparently, I’m not alone in this dusty playpen. A squadron of motocross riders in helmets and goggles materializes out of a crimson cloud, then vanish just as quickly, engines echoing like ripping canvas.
I come upon a conga line of families in four-wheelers promenading majestically in the red dust, seemingly oblivious. They’re all dressed for Sunday church, and no one, not even the baby, seems to be bothered by the suffocating red air. It’s a carnival atmosphere where everyone is having some sort of motorized fun on the dirt.
According to the online forums, the Tennessee TAT has the least amount of dirt roads when compared to the other states. Maybe 50% of the route is paved, but these are not just connectors back to the dirt roads. Sam has chosen them carefully for their beauty and lack of traffic; they’re all small.
They are roads that you’d never take unless you lived nearby. Some are derelict of care; cracked, broken, and covered in debris, they require dirt-bike riding techniques. Some are brand new; the scent of fresh tar rises from the smooth, hot, surface, tires hissing effortlessly.
The longer I ride this canned route, the happier I feel. I do not possess the patience nor commitment to lay out such an energetic path. Mr. Correro made all the decisions for me. Every intersection has been defined for 400 miles, and I didn’t have to spend days poring over a maps with a magnifying glass to find the best, least-used roads. The TAT is a bargain.
On this ride, I experience a side of rural Tennessee I’d never see, except by motorcycle. The roll chart sends me down public roads so narrow, I keep thinking I’m in someone’s driveway; and sometimes, when I make a wrong turn, I find that I am in someone’s driveway.
At a stop sign, a pair of 14 year old boys pull up next to me, riding in a very high performance, four-wheel woods vehicle, every inch of which is encrusted with mud. Around here, they can use public roads without much chance of getting nabbed by the police.
To my right, a hillside is crammed with cows. Three of them have escaped and are on the road; I slow to avoid a collision, they stop and turn to look at me. I move forward, they move forward, then turn around to look at me again. I stop. We keep up our little dance until they become used to my bike and let me pass. How often does that happen?
I ignore street signs (targeting truckers) saying things like: “Your GPS is Wrong! Turn around and go back”, but I don’t have to, my roll chart guides me from gravel to paved and back, treating my senses to the sights like startled red tailed hawks in low branches, or a stunning black colt happily cantering across a wildflower hillside.
At another intersection, I turn onto a half paved road bearing a large warning sign: “Road Closed. No Turn Around.” I recheck my map and odometer, then I proceed. Besides, I’m on a dirt bike, I can turn around anywhere, I reason. The road narrows, houses vanish, and pavement ends. Here, I realize the sign was right: a four-foot high red clay berm has been built across the path.
But, this is the TAT, so I ride over it, and discover a wonderfully rickety, wooden bridge on the other side, not a problem for a lightweight motorcycle. The forest ends at the bridge exit, opening onto a sandy, golden road painted between expansive green crops. Is this Oz or the Silk Road? A mile later, massive farm equipment blocks the road, and the attendant farmer stops pouring chemicals into a hopper, stands, and waves me around like a neighbor.
[quote float=”left”]I’ve discovered that my most-cherished travel memories are borne of the uncertain moments, the unexpected disappointments, which can lead to something better.[/quote]
At mile 403.22, the Mississippi border passes unannounced and the roll chart has no more to tell me. The Tennessee segment of the Trans-America Trail ends here. This has been the most unique travelling experience to date. A sense of accomplishment fills me; it’s the perfect ribbon to wrap my collection of new memories. I don’t want the ride to end.
Roll charts cannot be followed in reverse, so I venture to take smaller paved roads home, meandering up the Natchez Trace toward Franklin, Tennessee; east through Murfreesboro, and back to Tellico Plains. It’s a lovely ride on pavement, with little traffic and beautiful things to see, but something’s not right. I should be happy, I think.
Meandering long stretches of country blacktop is not the same as riding a rabbit warren of intersections. Riding the TAT, I felt as if I were travelling inside Tennessee, as opposed to rolling over her pavement. The ever-changing route was an amusement park ride, a tunnel without walls; it was magical. Following the roll chart was so engrossing that time seemed to stand still, and the course it followed so remote that I often had no idea where I was relative to the landmarks of Knoxville, Nashville, or Memphis.
I vow to retrace the route soon. But next time, when I reach mile 403.22, I’ll not be turning around. Instead, I’ll replace the Tennessee roll chart for the Mississippi, and follow its magical trail to the Arkansas border, where it too will be replaced. And, in this way, my bike and I will leap frog, roll by roll, following the enchanted ribbon of paper for five thousand miles until we reach the Pacific…just like Meriwether Lewis.
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