In July 2020, I rode across the country from Philadelphia to Denver on my motorcycle. I had been planning to move west for more than a year but needed to sell my house in Philadelphia before I could make the change. I found a buyer, and my house went under contract in early March, just before the COVID-19 lockdown. A contract addendum allowed delay during the crisis, but by June, it was clear I had to complete the sale or risk losing money. In order to save the cost of shipping my motorcycle, I decided to ride west. What follows is an account of the journey, compiled from Facebook posts and notes I took during the ride.
I start my journey from a motel near the Philadelphia International Airport (PHL to aviation and travel buffs) because my house is empty. All my household goods, including my bed, have been sent to storage, even my camping gear. The air, at 7:30 AM, feels clammy, a weird combination of cool and very humid. But the sky is stunning, about fifty percent puffy clouds and fifty percent blue. Most of the clouds look like cotton balls, but a few heavier wads are dark with unshed moisture. As it turns out, I will thread the needle between potential storms all day and never get more than a few droplets on my windscreen.
It feels strange traveling the familiar route from Philadelphia to Altoona knowing I may never again ride in Pennsylvania. I chose to stop in Altoona because I wanted to revisit a few of my favorite train-watching locations: the Horseshoe Curve, the Gallitzin tunnels, and the train-watching platform at Cresson, PA. I have spent blissful hours taking photos of trains in these locations. Not a single locomotive appears at either the curve or the tunnels, but a mile-long consist of shipping containers rolls past the platform at Cresson as I get there.
My reluctance to leave Pennsylvania without train watching means a very long day in the saddle—nearly 12 hours, by the time I reach Wheeling, West Virginia. I take a shower, order dinner from a local Chinese restaurant, and go to bed. Make note, when ordering via Grubhub on the road, don’t forget to uncheck the box marked Save the Planet, which tells the restaurant not to pack utensils or napkins. Fortunately, the hotel staff in Wheeling saved me from slurping the beef and eggplant from the container like a hungry dog.
This morning, my route took me southwest along the Ohio River, down to Parkersburg, then west on Highway 50 to Chillicothe, Ohio. From there, I took faster roads to Bloomington, Indiana, because the mileage was a bit long.
In some dystopian future, when computers decide to rebel and dispose of the irrational and irritating humans that created them, my GPS will undoubtedly be an eager recruit. My habit, on motorcycle journeys, is to decide each evening where I want to stay the next night. I pick my route, then go online to make a reservation. However, I’m too lazy to program all the curvy, indirect, and out-of-the-way roads I want to take into my GPS, so I just program the GPS with my final destination. Then I proceed to ignore all the device’s instructions until the end of the day when I’m tired, and I reluctantly allow the GPS guide me through the remaining turns to my hotel for the night. The advantage of this approach that I can see the effect on my ETA of every decision I make. The disadvantage is that I spend the day ignoring my GPS’s frantic attempts to get me to make a u-turn or go around the block. Needless to say, I ride with the voice prompts off. If on some future ride a GPS I’ve driven mad guides me off a cliff, I have to think there are worse ways to go.
Having arrived in Bloomington, I stupidly order enough pizza for two meals from the local place recommended by the clerk at the front desk. He’s right about the pizza; the handmade crust is particularly spectacular. However, my habit of spreading the cost of delivery across multiple meals makes little sense on a solo motorcycle trip. On the other hand, the hotel restaurant and bar are closed due to the pandemic, so maybe having some cold pizza for breakfast isn’t bad. If you’re ever in Bloomington and have a craving for pizza, definitely look up Aver’s Gourmet Pizza.
The portion of Highway 46 from Bloomington to Interstate 70 is verdant and hilly. After leaving Indiana, I cross the great state of Illinois on Interstate 70, as it is humid and nearly 90 degrees, and I want to leave the flat farmland behind as soon as possible. Mesh riding gear can only do so much to combat the heat.
I’d hoped to get a picture of the Mississippi River at St. Louis. But the traffic is heavy when I arrive at the Gateway to the West, and my GPS screen is tough to read in the glare from the bright morning sun. Just as I reach the bridge’s approaches, I fall among a gang of Harley-Davidson riders who were traveling in the same direction. To be honest, I startle them slightly by tucking neatly into the middle of their group when I realize that I need to be in their lane at the last minute. Most of the group doesn’t seem to mind, and I respond to more than one friendly wave.
Waving, of course, is a thing with motorcyclists. I have perfected a languid single finger technique based upon God’s figure bestowing the gift of life on Adam as depicted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. I proceed serenely down the road, blessing my fraternal brothers and sisters on two wheels.
Just as we cross over the Mississippi, one of the Harley gang behind me decides he’s had enough of being separated from his pals, and he passes me on the right, in the same lane. Good thing I don’t drift right at that moment. Given the distractions of the traffic and GPS, I barely catch a glimpse of the muddy water below and the Gateway Arch on the far bank. Later, I calculate that it was my 22nd time crossing the great river—not including the times I’ve flown above it.
I arrive at my lodgings in Rolla, Missouri, early, avoiding the thunderstorms predicted for the afternoon, and even have time for a relaxing nap before dinner.
My Independence Day starts before dawn when I stumble out to the parking lot to load the saddle and tail bags on my Kawasaki Versys 650. Once fortified with coffee, I love to ride in the early morning. There is little traffic, the air is fresh, and I swear it even smells sweeter. It’s also the best time of day to see wildlife. There is fog in the clefts between the Missouri hills when I leave Rolla. Leaving the interstate, I turn north on Highway 7 and spy a pair of spotted fawns sporting in the tall grass beside the road. A few miles on, an enormous, bald-headed Turkey Vulture picks at a dead Armadillo. A bright red Cardinal swoops past. Later, I avoid an intrepid—or possibly suicidal—snapping turtle in the middle of the highway. He responds to my approach by retracting his head and limbs into his shell. I stop a few miles later to snap a picture of a particularly scenic creek and see more turtles sunning themselves on a submerged tree branch.
Leaving Missouri, I pause in Fort Scott, Kansas, for a water break. I take a picture of the historic fort in the center of town. By 1853, the fort had been abandoned, but the Union Army reactivated it again to play a significant role in the Civil War.
Back on the road, I pass through Butler County, a region famous for the beef cattle that are driven there to be fattened on the lush prairie grass, before reaching my destination for the night at Hutchinson, Kansas.
After watching an excellent display of municipal fireworks from my 4th Floor motel window, I go to bed early, planning a dawn start for Colorado. Rising with the sun, I hit the road about 7:20 AM, only to find myself slowed to a crawl by dense morning fog. The moist air condenses water on my helmet visor faster than I can wipe it away, forcing me to ride with the shield raised. I creep on for 90 minutes, my frustration relieved only by the sight of a wild turkey and jackrabbits foraging beside the road. When the sun finally begins to warm my back, I am more than ready to hit the interstate. Afternoon thunderstorms are predicted for my destination of Colorado Springs, so I decide on a quick blast across Kansas. The planning pays off because the storms arrive at my motel near the Air Force Academy shortly after I do.
My first day in Colorado offers a ride I’ll remember forever: a blue sky dotted with only enough clouds to keep it interesting, a comfortable temperature, and spectacular mountain views, starting with Pikes Peak. I have traveled to Colorado for this. My route takes me west on Highway 24 to Woodland Park, where I stop for a cup of coffee and a bagel sandwich, and north on Route 77 (Tarryall Road), which I follow almost 50 miles to Jefferson, Colorado. Route 77 has to be one of the prettiest roads I have ever ridden. It passes by China Wall, a particularly spectacular peak of yellow and red rock rising above slopes of green pine, and a popular hiking destination, judging by the parking area where I stop to take pictures.
From Jefferson, I turn west on Highway 285 and follow it to Highway 9. Turning north, I pass through Alma, Colorado, which at 10,578 feet, advertises itself as the highest elevation incorporated municipality in the United States. From there, I continued to the summit of Hoosier Pass, elevation 11,539 feet. Stopping for a picture, I am pleased to note that I do not suffer from altitude sickness. I remember the advice of an old fellow with whom I spoke in eastern Ohio, during a water stop. Upon hearing of my destination of Denver, he recommended that I purchase some oxygen. People get altitude sickness there, he said. You should buy oxygen. I wasn’t sure whether he expected me to carry a green bottle of compressed gas on the bike? In any case, I politely thanked him for his advice before continuing on my way.
From the summit, my route took me down past the Breckenridge Ski Resort, and then east on my old friend, Interstate 70, over Loveland Pass. Just past Idaho Springs, I cut north on the Central City Parkway. I wanted to see the gambling town of Central City, which seems to be the Atlantic City of the West. Due to the pandemic, it seemed more ghost town than gambling haven.
Heading east again, I finish my ride with a lovely drop through Clear Creek Canyon, on Highway 6, arriving in Golden Colorado just as the day becomes hot.
On this trip, I covered 2,281 miles in six days, for an average of 380 miles per day, and passed through eight states.
On Traveling During the Coronavirus Pandemic
I wouldn’t have taken the journey during the COVID-19 pandemic if my house hadn’t already been under contract when the lockdowns started. Ultimately, I could not afford to do otherwise. On the way, I was concerned to see how inconsistently the country coped with the virus. Mask usage was spotty in every state. In some towns, restaurants were open. In others, establishments offered only takeout and delivery. Most motel staff wore masks, but many customers did not. I ate in my room at night, and I tried to wear a mask consistently when in public, but I’m no paragon. I forgot at least once. During the day, I just kept my helmet on!