Getting my kicks on Route 66

P1000446One minute I’m planning a motorcycle tour of Scotland’s west coast islands, the next minute I’ve signed up to ride America’s iconic Route 66.

Not quite sure how it happened but it did – my riding buddy Jeannie planted the seed in my head – and within hours, decision was made and I’d paid my deposit.

That was just over a year ago and on 6 June, having ridden just over 2,800 miles, I arrived in Santa Monica – a very different person from the one who left Chicago a couple of weeks before.

I wasn’t sure what to expect and decided to do as little research as possible so as not to have any preconceived ideas. Anyway, most of the time before we left I was stressing about the bike – a Road King. Despite being a Harley by name, I’ve never ridden a Harley Davidson before, let alone a cruiser. It’s a completely different riding technique required as I realised. A quick coaching session over the phone on the first night from my husband (a seasoned cruiser rider) had me back on track and I soon got to grips with the bike.

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Each day was filled from start to finish under the expertise of our English tour guides Nige and Jan from Hadrian V-Twin. We were spoiled – all our accommodation was taken care of, they told us where we were eating, they sorted out fuel and they carried our luggage (and extra luggage – too many souvenirs) and even arranged beer at the end of each day. It was perfect. All we had to do was literally sit back and enjoy the ride.

I knew that the ride was going to be physically demanding – from 125 to 300 miles per day in temperatures we can only dream about here in Scotland. I had knee surgery 18 months ago that went wrong and am avoiding my surgeon who now wants to do a bone graft and some other stuff. I have other injuries, which mean I don’t find riding long distances easy. Although I’ve fallen in love with the Road King as it was very comfortable.

For the last week of the trip I had constant nosebleeds as my body was simply not prepared for the altitude from when we reached Santa Fe in New Mexico. And there were times I was so hot I felt sick – thank goodness for hyperkewl clothing, which when dipped in ice helped to lower our body temperature. My family are from Papa Stour a small island that forms part of Shetland – think it will be many more generations before our bodies become accustomed to heat.

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I was completely unprepared for the mental challenge. I just assumed it would be physical. And as usual I spent the days, weeks and months leading up to the event focused on work so I wouldn’t have had time to give it any consideration or prepare myself.

Riding through abandoned buildings on Route 66 was emotional. I hate to see wastage. There were of course some fantastically preserved buildings and museums but those abandoned buildings were often to be found hidden among new developments. They’re being left to decay – their moment of glory long gone and forgotten and it left me feeling sad.

Of course Route 66 wasn’t really romantic – it developed out of great sadness and those early travellers, seeking a new life would have endured much worse than me. So then I started to feel guilty for feeling so pathetic – I’m sure by the time I got to the Mojave Desert, the hours I’d spent alone with my thoughts and the road had turned me slightly mad. Imagining John Wayne on his horse riding alongside me probably confirms I was more than slightly mad.

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Never has my mind been so focused on one thing for so long before. I’m used to chaos all day every day – there’s usually two phones ringing, people at my desk, emails to answer, meetings to attend and so on. So the focus on only the bike and the road was mentally exhausting – it made me wonder, how much I actually focus on in my normal life. And perhaps if I did less I’d do more.

Each night at the end of the ride, we’d eat and fall asleep – even when we took a detour to Las Vegas for a day off – we were in bed early.

As a vegan getting food on the trip was challenging and while everyone else was complaining of putting weight on, I managed to lose some – never a bad thing. However even the hunger couldn’t compare to the sheer terror when riding the San Bernardino Mountains in California.

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I actually cried most of the way down. Fine going up, in fact I was having a great wee blast up the hills and round the bends. I couldn’t see much apart from the long winding road in front. Coming down was a different story – my vertigo kicked in. I felt sick and seeing the sheer drop at the side of the road left me shaking – not great when you are trying to steer a big Harley Davidson cruiser round some pretty tight hairpin bends.

A changed person

At times I didn’t think I was going to make it. The rest of the tour group were so supportive and gave both me and my riding buddy lots of encouragement. And our tour guide was a great leader – he inspired us to continue and we trusted him implicitly. We didn’t know the road in front of us but we were on the journey and we knew our destination. I practically ran up the Santa Monica Pier to touch the end point of Route 66 – finding that last burst of energy after what felt like hours of stop, start riding in searing heat along Los Angeles congested interstate network.

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I learned a lot about myself on the journey and I like what I learned. So what’s next? Well first up I’m now ready to read John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath – I’ve made the journey as a pampered tourist, and when I read it I’ll wonder what the story is behind the cars we found abandoned along the historic Route 66. Then after that – well who knows… the motorcycle adventures are only ever just round the corner.

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