There are two things to know before taking a cross-country motorcycle trip. First, take the back roads, not the interstate highways. Second, don’t let your motorcycle break down once you’re on those back roads.
When Hillsdale College President Larry Arnn took a motorcycle trip from Michigan to California this past summer, his group let the second rule slide — three times.
“It was a complete disgrace, it was wonderful,” Arnn said regarding one of the incidents.
Arnn had considered a motorcycle trip several times in the last few years, but college duties prevented him from making the trip a reality. When Hillsdale College Board of Trustees member Bruce Sanborn suggested the trip this summer, Arnn was prepared to decline again. He ultimately decided to go for it to celebrate the 30th birthday of his son Henry, who had never been on a motorcycle trip before.
The Arnns and Bruce Sanborn were joined by Sanborn’s son Ted Sanborn, Vice President for External Affairs Doug Jeffrey, Chief Administrative Officer Rich Péwé, and Arnn’s longtime friend, Greg Palen.
“A long motorcycle trip is hard,” Jeffrey said. “You go through bad weather and it’s not always fun. But when you get where you’re going at night, there’s a great feeling of satisfaction. And when you’re with a whole bunch of guys like that, there’s a lot of banter along the way that’s funny, amusing, and sometimes intelligent. It was a manly crowd.”
It was particularly easy to joke around as the crew stopped time after time due to motorcycle challenges. When Péwé experienced electrical issues, Jeffrey commented, “When you go with anyone driving a Harley Davidson, you’ve got to expect that.”
Palen, Victory Motorcycles Chairman, was riding the newest Victory Motorcycle available. When he lost his key fob, which was necessary to start the bike, there was nowhere he could go for a new one. He decided to try the alternative method, a push code, but didn’t know the numbers to press. It was only at Arnn’s urging that he hung up the Victory Motorcycles hotline and called his old secretary there instead, speeding up the process.
While Palen dealt with the key fob, Arnn bought his son a new bike, a more comfortable alternative to the cruiser bike he had been using.
“If you sit on these motorcycles all day long covering a lot of ground with the wind blowing, you need a big bike, and you need the right bike,” Arnn said.
Only the two Arnns stayed for the entire weeklong trip. Although many of them had traveled across the country on motorcycles before, they still requested certain stops. Péwé asked to stop at Mount Rushmore, Jeffrey wanted to see the Custer Battlefield, and Arnn caught his first glimpse of Old Faithful.
They spent an entire day in the Black Hills of South Dakota enjoying the waterfalls, winding roads, and at one point, an elevation of almost 7,000 feet.
“When you’re on a motorcycle, you can smell things that you can’t smell in a car,” Péwé said. “You can see things you can’t see in a car. Your perspective is different. So if somebody’s got a fire in their fireplace, you can smell it. You can feel the temperature changes. If you’re going down, you can feel the air change, you can feel the mugginess of it, and you can kind of sense your environment. And when the roads are windy and the scenery is beautiful, it’s almost sublime.”
In addition to the views and the time to think, Arnn enjoyed seeing buffalo.
“Do you want to be a buffalo rancher?” He asked. “’Cause I do.”
He’s seen buffalo several times before, but was still thrilled to be only 30 feet away from one of the “majestic” creatures.
“He was eating a little, but mostly he was just looking. Noticing me was quite beneath him. He snorted one crisp morning and there was a big cloud, and I thought to myself, ‘I’ve got to get one of those,’” Arnn said.
He spent most of his time thinking, but many of the others listened to books on tape, particularly Larry McMurtry’s “Lonesome Dove.” A western novel detailing a group of retired Texas Rangers driving a cattle herd from Texas to Montana, the book was appropriate for the trip.
“In a lot of ways, people describe riding a motorcycle as riding a horse,” Péwé said. “When you’re riding a horse, you can’t let it be in control. If you’re riding a motorcycle, you can’t be a kind of halfway about it. You have to take control of it and be confident.”
They ate at unique diners and stayed at cheap hotels. When all of the restaurants were closed one night, they ate gas station food.
“We had a six pack of beer so it was fine,” Jeffrey said.
The weather provides a challenge and as Péwé pointed out, “you gotta like yourself,” since you spend so many hours with your thoughts. Though the 10 hours of driving were long, Arnn said it was worth it for the fellowship.
“I loved all of it — I even liked the prairie, although not while we were doing it,” Arnn said.
“If you have the right people (and these are all friends of mine, wonderful people), it’s hard and it’s funny.”
Despite the challenges, Péwé, Jeffrey and Arnn all agreed it was worth it.
“You’ve got to take care of yourself. If something happens to your bike, it’s bad for everyone,” Péwé said. “You’re kind of exposed to the elements, and there’s a camaraderie about that.”