Rut Roh! Long Haul Paul’s MS (dirt) Path

motorcycle parked on a thin farm road surrounded by rolling green pasture

Riding  a motorcycle across the country certainly offers many opportunities to experience the potholes riddled across our roads and interstates. I often use these asphalt craters as a metaphor of dealing with the often sudden changes living with a disease such as Multiple Sclerosis can bring. Just as hitting a foot deep black hole that appeared out of nowhere while traveling at 80 miles an hour, symptoms of chronic illness can appear without warning and create an ugly dent in our daily lives.

I travel the freeways because I am on a schedule needing to be somewhere to share my story or promote my fundraisers. Although my Yamaha Tenere 700 is an adventure bike capable of off-road and trail riding, I have it set up for long distance touring. I do enjoy riding off-road, I just don’t get much opportunity because my days are long trying to put down the miles to the next gig. I ride because I am on a mission, not a vacation!

My motorcycle weighed just 450 pounds when new, but after adding all the crash bars, hard luggage and tons of accessories, it’s much heavier. Put me in full riding gear and my luggage and we are over 800 pounds rolling down the freeway! Adventure bikes come stock with tires that have lugs designed for dirt and gravel, but would not last long enough for a trip across the country, so I use street tires. All motorcycle tires are soft compounds so they flex and grip in the corners and street tires usually last me around 7000 miles, or just over a week of long travel days.

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I had the opportunity on a recent trip home from the Touratech Rally in Plain Washington to include a few hours out of the way and off the highway to revisit a gravel road I found by accident a few years ago. East River Road runs along the river all the way down to the southern Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota.  Incredible views and nothing but cows and wild horses along the way. No mail boxes, no telephone poles and best of all, no interstate potholes!

motorcyclist waiting for cows to cross the dirt road

I stayed in Williston ND and mapped my way south to the start of the scenic dirt road. It was 5:00 am and I did not have much time to waste, as the plan was to ride the 100 mile dirt road and then hit the highway hard for 800 miles to make Chicago by nightfall. From Chicago, I could make it home in one day saving the expense of another day and night on the road.

 It looked like about 150 miles to get to where I wanted to start, but my mapping app on my phone and my GPS unit were in disagreement of the best way to get there. I tried to zoom in on both devices to see the actual route, but finally had to make a decision while moving and chose to trust the GPS which said I could save 30 miles and reach the road I wanted from the west side of the river through a series of very small roads. ROADS, not goat paths or trails or a river crossing, actual roads!

Cyclist watching sun go down over distant green hills

The first road started off beautiful, with the sun cresting on the horizon stirring up feelings of new opportunities that only a fresh day can bring. The state had just laid fresh crushed stone and oil or “fresh chip seal” as they like to caution drivers. It was actually not as slippery as I have experienced in the past and I enjoyed the crunchy sucking sound as my tires rolled through the coat of damp oil.  I turned onto the first of many gravel roads. It was well groomed and I was able to maintain freeway speeds. The views were getting better, but more remote and the roads were getting narrower. After 100 miles or so, the one lane road began to get a bit rough, with ruts from the tires of trucks and farm equipment getting deeper and deeper. A week earlier, it was all mud, and would have been impossible for any street vehicle to travel.

Despite the wrong tread on my tires and being overweight, I knew keeping my speed up and trying to get the weight rearward with my body was important to keep from crashing. Of course there was no cell service or ability to get help should I have an incident, so I concentrated on staying upright and going forward as my favorite road was just a few miles ahead. It began to get hot. The ruts got deeper and once I got stuck riding in one, I was there for ever, unable to get out! My bike has a seat height of 33” and my inseam is 28”. Duck walking the bike at slow speeds wasn’t even a possibility, so 20-30 mph was my best chance of getting through the miles and miles of ruts.

Perspective from the ground, motorcycle parked in a mud groove on a dirt road

By the time I reached a stop sign, I knew I was in trouble. It wasn’t octagon shaped, it was a herd of cows grazing on the road refusing to get out of my way! I had enough time to look at my GPS and realized it said I had passed the turn about a mile back, but I was certain there had not been a turn for dozens of miles! I was able to find a clearing where I could turn around without having to bounce over foot deep ruts and went back the mile. There wasn’t even a path between the trees where a rat could crawl, never mind a legal roadway! Now my GPS was insisting ahead was the way I needed to get across the river. Again, it led me a few miles deeper and to another non existing road. The entire two hours I was riding in the ruts, my mapping app on my phone was screaming at me to turn around and go back the other way.

As I realized I could not get to East River Road continuing on the goat path I was riding, I understood I would need to back track the entire way and would then have to hit the freeway to make Chicago. Riding one of my favorite roads was out of the equation. I turned around and backtracked a couple of hours, feeling depressed and defeated. The rutted section of the road seemed tougher and much longer the second time around. At one point I slowed to take a photo, but couldn’t get my kickstand to swing out as it was hitting the edge of the ruts. By the time I needed to pee, I decided to just stop and let the bike fall over on it’s side so I could get off of it! I had a good laugh and suddenly a huge sense of relief. (Not just my bladder!)

motorcycle loaded up with gear, laying on its side on a grooved mud road

Was it such a big deal? I rode a few hours in the wrong direction, orchestrating my overloaded camel through a rutted, muddied dirt road. Sure, but actually, it was a really awesome scenic side trip. Accepting I wasn’t going to make Chicago unless I rode straight till midnight, I decided to finally listen to my phone’s directions and go the other way to ride the entire route that I had originally planned.  East River Road to Teddy Roosevelt National Park. I didn’t care how long it took me, I was already adding an extra hotel night to my ride home.

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I was finally out of the rut!

Sure, I ended up riding about 7 hours in the gravel and dirt without getting any closer to Chicago or home, dropping the bike and getting myself a bit overheated, but I’m so grateful I did not skip one of the most scenic backroads I have ever traveled.

Getting ourselves out of rut that seems to get deeper and deeper isn’t easy.

Sometimes in life, we get so fixated on the outcome, we don’t realize we are drowning or burying ourselves deeper and deeper, riding in a rut that seems impossible to get out of.

A rut can be a routine or course of action that we follow blindly without listening to the voice of reason or accepting the obvious signs that we have screwed up!

Just like that pothole that we can steer around, we can get out of a rut and recalculate our life’s road to take us we want to go. Sometimes we just need to pay attention to the advice from the second voice in our head to get there!

rear view of man on motorcycle loaded with gear driving toward mesas on a red clay dirt road


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