A Cross-country Motorcycle Trip

a motorcycle and tent in the wild

Photos by Aaron Randolph


With only 10 days to return to California before my graduate courses resumed, I set out on one of the most impractical and poorly planned motorcycle trips of my life. Needless to say, this isn’t an example you should follow in practical terms but maybe it’s an emotional guide to adventure. I was 26. I had $1400 in my bank account and an unreasonable obsession with motorcycles.

At the time, I was enrolled in graduate school in Los Angeles, but I was at home in Virginia visiting my family for the summer. I was making no money but my passion overruled logic and I found a motorcycle that actually ran for less than $1400 . My dad drove me one hour to a guy’s house where we bought a 1980 Yamaha XS850 for $1000 after 10 minutes of conversation. We loaded the bike into the back of the truck and I rode home excitedly, wondering if I’d made a mistake.

Aaron on his motorcycle in their yard in Virginia
A man and a motorcycle.

I had just gotten my motorcycle license that month, and aside from a few lessons from my dad, I probably had 5 hours of riding experience. I had absolutely no idea how to work on a motorcycle or diagnose mechanical issues when they arose, but I didn’t care. The road was laid before me.

I’ve always been an avid adventurer, so I was well equipped with camping gear, which I attached to the back of my motorcycle with some straps from a hardware store along with one extra gallon of gas. My dad gave me a helmet he’d had since the 1980’s. I spray painted it yellow because I liked the look. He had removed the foam from the inside and lined the helmet with a plastic bag to accommodate his big head. The helmet had no face covering so I was wearing cheap goggles I’d purchased online. I had leather gloves that were meant to be worn for work, leather desert boots, and a rain jacket meant for camping.

Two days later I set off for California. I’ll never forget the moment I got on the interstate. The wind was incredible. I thought to myself “ Am I going to feel like I’m skydiving all day?”

The answer was yes, and I was beaten by the wind all the way to Colorado before things really started to get wild.

I was traveling west on interstate 70, the weather had been clear and beautiful most of the day, but ahead of me I could see dark clouds in the valley I planned to drive through. The storm ahead was so localized that it’s perimeter looked like a gray curtain. As I approached, it’s power became more apparent to me. I pulled over. I found myself wondering once again what to do. By this point in time I had about 4 days left to make it to Los Angeles. I suited up with all of my rain gear and decided to attempt to push through the storm.

When I crossed through the curtain of the storm the wind was so powerful I had to lean my motorcycle to my right to maintain balance. There was no rain or hail, but ahead of me the clouds only looked darker. I rode for an eternal minute, determined to break through the storm.

I drove slowly, maybe 25 mph until I saw a piece of tin roofing fly across the interstate.

It felt like someone had turned on the special effects. I decided I’d rather lose some time than be impaled by a rogue object in the wind.

I turned around with the intent to wait out the storm in a town called Silt. This is when I experienced an eerie phenomenon I doubt I will ever experience again.

As I traveled in the opposite direction, there was absolutely no wind. My jacket wasn’t fluttering in the storm, there was no resistance against my body and the sound of my engine was the only thing I could hear. I was confused as to how this was possible, to be traveling in a vacuum. The silence was unsettling. The sky was still as ominous as it had been before. The trees lining the river were violently bent in the direction I was traveling.

It finally dawned on me that I was now riding with the wind to my back, and the wind speed was roughly the same speed I was driving. This meant the storm was moving at about 60 mph. This moment has remained one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was just another object moving in the storm.

When I reached the exit for the last town and slowed down, the wind grew more intensely against my back.

Towards the bottom of the exit ramp my clutch cable snapped, causing my bike to stall and shut off, leaving me stranded. To get it off the road I had to pull the severed end of the clutch cable with my hand and put the bike in neutral.

I turned around to see the storm approaching quickly. I called my mom to get an idea of this storm’s size because I had no smartphone at the time. She looked on the computer and said, “Yeah…so it says online that it’s a ‘supercell thunderstorm.’ It’s not very big but it looks dangerous!”

Within minutes of walking my bike to the side of the road, the storm descended on me in a flash of lightning and hail. The hail was so painful I put my helmet back on–along with every article of clothing I could easily access–to serve as padding. I huddled next to the motorcycle on the ground to escape any sideways hail I could.

The storm only lasted something like 5 minutes. There was a patch of dry ground beneath where I’d waited out the storm, and dime size balls of hail everywhere. Almost instantly, the sun emerged and beautiful weather returned.

I had no time to wallow in misfortune. I had to figure out what to do with my motorcycle and where I would sleep. I called a tow truck and when he arrived, he said the highway to the closest motorcycle repair shop had been rendered impassable by a mudslide that resulted from the storm. Cars were buried in mud and I was lucky not to be in the same situation.

When the tow truck arrived, the driver explained that we would have to take an alternative route between Silt and Grand Junction to circumvent the mudslide.

Grand Junction was the closest city with a motorcycle shop.

The road between Silt and Grand Junction was covered in mud, but apparently not as much as the interstate. There was a group of motorcyclists ahead of the tow truck and I remember one guy going down while trying to get through a particularly bad spot. He was going slow and his friends helped him up. Despite the fact that my time was slowly waning, I felt grateful for the refuge of the tow truck. It gave me a chance to relax and close my eyes.

The sun had set when we reached Grand Junction. I told the driver to just drop me off at the motorcycle shop. I couldn’t waste any of my money or time on hotels. I unrolled my sleeping mat and crawled into my sleeping bag near the entrance of the shop.

a motorcycle and a tent
Tent camping on a cross-country motorcycle trip.

A guy who must’ve been about my age, gently woke me up around 7 a.m. asking, “Hey brother, rough night? Want some coffee?”

I gladly accepted. He unlocked the door and welcomed me inside as I explained the dire straits I’d landed in. I usually hate to ask for handouts or help, but I told the guy that I needed to spend as little money as possible. He looked up the clutch cable for my bike and of course, they didn’t have it. Normally they would order the part, but I obviously needed a quicker solution if possible.

As the guys working at the motorcycle shop slowly started trickling in for their shift, there was a growing sense of excitement and sympathy for the guy who’d just slept out front that night.

Eventually they found a clutch cable that was meant for a different motorcycle and somehow made it fit mine. They had to alter the cable in some ways, but I was fortunate they were enthusiastic about helping me.

After repairing my bike they charged me $45, which they felt guilty about. I realized however, that this was an unmatchable deal. I didn’t have a credit card at the time and that $45 was a pretty large chunk of whatever money I had left.

a sign reads Leaving Colorful Colorado
Leaving Colorful Colorado

I left as soon as they fixed my bike, feeling oddly blessed and concerned at once. What would be the next thing on my motorcycle to malfunction?

It was the battery cable. It happened somewhere in Utah. But, this wasn’t a terribly difficult fix. I had pulled into a gas station, filled up the tank, and the bike wouldn’t start. When I took off the seat I saw that the cable had severed. I went into the gas station and bought some electric wire that wasn’t nearly big enough to do the trick. I twisted the two wires together, covered them in tape, and kept going.

The next time I stopped for gas I checked the wire to find that the electrical current had melted the plastic sheath around it. I replaced it with a new section of the wire I’d bought and just kept going.

driving through a mountain pass on a motorcycle
Motorcycle roadtrip.

I had to do this a few times over the next two days that it took for me to drive to Los Angeles. I slept both nights behind a gas station. In both cases I asked the gas station attendant if I could just sleep on the ground outside. There isn’t much in the desert and people are remarkably accommodating if you’re just honest about your situation.

When I arrived in Los Angeles I had around $30 left. I think driving through LA traffic on a capricious motorcycle was actually the most stressful part of my entire trip. The never-ending lights and traffic marked my re-entrance into an atmosphere of domesticated and predictable city life. I parked my motorcycle behind the van I lived in at the time and went to sleep. The next morning, my motorcycle wouldn’t start.

It was as if some spirit had animated my bike just long enough to get me across the continent and vaporized upon my safe arrival. In fact, I felt like I’d floated across the U.S. on a cloud of kindness and good will. I never drove that motorcycle again. I sold it to a guy named Dougal from London for $700.

As I reflected on my journey I realized how stupid I had been. Still, I felt like a new person. I’d unknowingly synthesized some rite of passage. The angels and fairies of my trip had all been gas station attendants and strangers.

As haphazard as my adventure had been, I wouldn’t change a thing because I learned that you’ll never actually be completely ready for anything. If I had waited until I had more money or a better motorcycle, I wouldn’t have seen how gracious people can be when you need their help, or how resilient I was.