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In Praise of the Long Straight Backroad

Curving, winding blacktop can be busy places mentally. Sometimes a long straight backroad, an empty stretch, is just what the doctor ordered.

the view through a fairing down a long straight backroad

My wife Arlene and I were on the homeward leg of a relatively short 4,000-kilometre jaunt through the northwestern corner of the US. Our front wheels had rolled over as many new roads as we could seek out, some mountainous, but the majority of the ride seemed to be over high, flat plains: mainly US395 and 50 in Washington, Oregon, California and Nevada. 

There were some great stretches over mountain passes, but contrary to normal biker logic, we had also come to love every mile of those mostly straight, flat roads across the high plateaus. We fancied ourselves High Plains Drifters, albeit on our black and chrome iron horses. 

But here we were on I-84, heading for the barn on a long, straight road over yet another high interior plateau. For self-preservation our focus was our immediate surroundings—unlike those solitary roads that reach beyond the horizon.

The logic is intuitive to any rider who seeks the backroad and byway, that a freeway just doesn’t cut the mustard. But here on this slab, I had to ask myself, “Why?” What are the check-offs the sub-conscious brain makes to prefer the long, straight, two-lane road through central Nevada to a long straight backroad road in southwestern Washington? 

The answer is simple, really. Freeways are “destination riding.” Get the job done, time to get goin’ home. In contrast, the long, straight, lonely backroads are themselves, all about the journey; what riding is all about.

The long straight backroad represents all that is riding. As it stretches to a pinpoint at the horizon out of sight, it beckons. It seems to say, “Ride…and ride some more. I have more to share. All you have to do is follow that front wheel.”

When everything is right (read: no wind), contemplation eventually gives way to meditation. Thinking about something other than the line through the next corner is a luxury afforded by a straight, unpopulated road. 

parked along a long straight backroad in the desert

A winding road is a blast but it’s a busy place mentally, even if you’re the only bike. I welcome the calm of the endless ribbon after leaving a busy town or twisty pass. My brain has a chance to rest. I find inspiration in the plains and deserts, as I am sure others could too if they allow themselves that luxury. Because I am a maker of things, the colours, shapes and textures that surround me fill my brain rather than empty it. A twisty mountain road offers an equal amount of brain candy but it’s a completely different entrée as you work at staying between the ditches.  

I’ve often said to folks who complain about the boredom of the plain or desert, “You’re either not looking close enough or not far enough away.” It’s a frame of mind. If you want to be bored or someone told you it has to be boring, you’ll be bored. If you want to see all that is there, there’s so much you can’t possibly take it all in. Your surroundings become your focus rather than “how far it is.” It’s truly all about the ride.

Don’t we all enjoy a good story? I’m a bit of a Nosy Parker so anything like a working farm or ranch, abandoned building, old machinery or people working tend to draw my interest. Abandonment offers the brain a lot more to chew on than a scene that tells all at a glance. Old, sunburned, solitary buildings battered by time beg the questions, “Why did they come? What did they do? Why did they leave?” Delicious little mysteries. I am reminded of a little sharecropper’s shack backed by a vast cornfield that we rode by in the flat, Deep South delta region of the US. Leaning to one corner, weeds through the porch, broken windows and four battered crosses in the side yard spoke volumes. I was captivated by the image for miles, as I still am today.

A strange thing happened on US50, “The Loneliest Road in America.” I gave a car driver the biker wave—and he waved back! It was instinctive, no different than I would have offered to a fellow biker. I surprised myself really, and was even more surprised when he waved back in the same way, lifting two fingers off the wheel for just a moment. I caught the hint of a smile as we passed. I tried again and again and got a wave back every time. The “brothers of the road” feeling was clearly shared by all and I am certain that, car or bike, the road and everything it had to offer put us in the same peaceful frame of mind. 

While overnighting in Ely, Nevada, we chose to cut our journey short, taking a pass on Utah, Colorado, Kansas and the Dakotas (our original plan was to ride the Black Hills not during Sturgis Bike Week). We realized that we had gotten what we came for already. Had we focused on the destination or allowed ourselves to feel like we hadn’t yet reached our goal, we would have completely missed the obvious. 

The ride thus far had worked its magic. We shared a special time on new roads, saw new sights, went from butt-weary to happy-hour cheery as we relived each day and just generally felt like we were right with the world. All thanks to the marvelous long straight backroad, the never ending backroads. High Plains Drifters, we were.

by Ed Pretty Canadian Biker Issue #318


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