Voices from the Road

A 5,000-mile family road trip on 70-year-old motorcycles where nothing goes as planned

Any roadtripper knows that unexpected challenges on a trip are, well, expected. Whether it’s a flat tire, a missing tent pole, or a thunderstorm on a predicted sunny day, you learn that these experiences are all part of the adventure, even if they may not seem like it at the time. Sometimes it’s those exact moments that end up being your fondest memories—those “we can laugh about it now” tales of the road. 

I’ve been told by countless friends that I have an unwavering ability to keep a positive attitude during less-than-fortunate situations. I fully credit my many years of road trips for this undeniable character trait. My family has been going on road trips together for as long as I can remember. We started out in the back of my dad’s old Chevy van and eventually upgraded to an RV. Now, we’ve left the comfort of four wheels and do all our adventures on two. 

Mechanical difficulties

My family and I ride motorcycles cross-country together every summer. I should probably include the important detail that these motorcycles date back to the 1940s, ‘50s, and ‘60s. Riding old Harley-Davidsons long distance is not only slightly less comfortable than four-wheeled travels, but also adds extra unexpected-expected challenges. We spend months preparing ourselves and, more importantly, our bikes for this annual 5,000-mile trip. From purchasing spare parts to making sure the bikes are ready for the long haul mechanically, a lot goes into trying to avoid any mechanical difficulties. With that said, there are always mechanical difficulties.  

For years, this trip was a couple’s trip that my parents took each summer. Three years ago, I started to tag along as their third wheel (or fifth and sixth wheels?). This past summer, my brother joined for the first time. With each additional bike comes the added likelihood of breakdowns. Now, factor in that my brother finished building his bike the night before we left on the trip, and we were pretty much asking for issues. 

Day one, we were leaving our homes in Los Angeles County and headed for Mammoth, California. We left at the crack of dawn for the 350-mile day in an attempt to make it through the desert before the 115-degree heat hit. The plan was for my parents and me to meet up with my brother at a parking lot just north of L.A. We arrived at the lot at the scheduled time only to find out that my brother was still at home; his bike wasn’t starting. Uh oh. This should have been our first indication as to how this entire trip would progress. 

He was able to get his bike going and met up at the lot a couple of hours later. So, at this point, we were already running behind schedule. All four of us got on the road, eager to start putting down some miles. About an hour later, it was time for our first gas stop. Pull off the highway into the gas station and—guess what? His bike wouldn’t start. Strike two. I made three trips to the local auto parts store and we were finally able to get back on the road. 

The kindness of strangers

Less than 20 minutes later—you guessed it—bike troubles. We were now in the city of Mojave, right in the middle of the desert in the dead of summer, exactly what we were trying to avoid by leaving early. At this point, my brother felt defeated and said he would call for a tow and head home. But what if it was something simple that we were missing? We wanted to share this adventure as a family, so we talked him into continuing on. My brother adjusted the timing on his bike, hoping that would do the trick. The journey from Mojave to Mammoth was mostly open desert, with small towns scattered sparingly. So, of course, the next time my brother’s bike broke down was in the absolute middle of nowhere, right on the side of the highway, in the middle of the desert. No shade. No food. Very little water. This time, the belt on his bike snapped and we couldn’t make the repairs with the tools we were carrying. Time to call for a tow truck. Thankfully, we each have AAA, so it should be easy, right? Of course not!

The woman on the phone let me know that it would be at least a couple of hours before anyone could get to us and, due to the pandemic, my brother would need to call an Uber rather than ride in the tow truck. Call an Uber in the middle of the Mojave Desert?!

I tried to calmly explain our current predicament to the operator, but she was having a difficult time grasping why we may experience some issues trying to get an Uber to our location and to then ask them to drive nearly 200 miles. We ended up calling the towing company directly and the driver agreed to take my brother as long as they both wear their masks throughout the course of the drive. My brother was more than happy to (and would have required that anyway). The wait for the truck’s arrival continued. 

The sun was beating down; it was well over 100 degrees outside and we were nearly out of water. Just then, our guardian angel with an Idaho license plate pulled over and asked if we were thirsty. (Reminder that there are wonderful humans in this world.) He opened his trunk, handed us each a cup individually wrapped in plastic that he admitted to taking from his hotel room the night before, and poured water from one of the five gallon-sized jugs he had (at least someone came prepared!). We all quickly began chugging to quench our thirst. He topped off our cups and went on his way. I didn’t catch his name, but I will forever remember his kindness. 

The sun began to set behind the mountains and the temperature began to drop. The desert is fascinating in that sense. It can drop from 115 to 60 in a matter of minutes. The light began to fade and our already unsafe side-of-the-highway location was beginning to feel even more sketchy. Big rigs flew by us, with no knowledge of our presence on that few feet of shoulder. And then, we heard it—the tow truck was here!

One mile at a time 

Once the bike was loaded, we were off. Now just myself, mom, and dad, and about 10 hours behind schedule. The darkness surrounded us. This area of California is captivating to watch as the scenery changes from the barren desert to flourishing forests. As we continued, the air grew increasingly damp; I could feel the environment changing around me, but we were surrounded by blackness. We pulled off into a small town for gas, realizing we hadn’t had any food that day. I grabbed a banana and a caffeinated Vitamin Water, just trying to give my body enough energy to make it the last leg of the trip. 

The road began to change: the once straight and narrow highway became one of twists and turns. As I’m familiar with the area, I knew we were beginning to head up the mountainous pass, wishing I was able to see the trees I knew were surrounding me. Too dark to see through the tinted visor on my helmet, I had to ride with it up. The dew from the air collected onto my yellow glasses and my nose was stinging from the cold. It was nearing midnight. 

We did our best to follow the reflective markers that lined the road. My eyes started playing tricks on me, making it hard to decipher if the turn ahead was going left or right. Following my dad, I could tell that he was experiencing the same optical illusion, slowing down cautiously before committing to the turn. We were cold. We were wet. We were tired. At this point, it had been nearly 18 hours since we left home. We found a hotel in town and I was more than ready to enjoy a good night’s sleep. It was only day one of our 20-day, 5,000-mile adventure. The fun was only just beginning.

Some roadtrippers choose to plan each minute of their upcoming trip. Through our years of motorcycle trips, which come along with quite a few unexpected-expected challenges, we learned that minimal planning is what works best for us. We had hopes to get to Mammoth by the early afternoon, enjoy the local brewery, explore the town, and relish in the freedom of our first day of vacation. 

When it became clear that our day was not going to work out that way, we weren’t too disappointed. We don’t set high expectations, very rarely any for that matter. We knew we were sure to have more challenges, but with that came meeting new people, seeing new places, and riding new roads. We took it one mile at a time and had the best family road trip we could ask for. A road trip will always have a mind of its own; we’re all just along for the ride. 

Megan’s trip

Meet the Roadtripper

Megan Margeson