Erik Trautman logo crest shield seal

Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

20,088 miles, 136 days and 46 states: A Retrospective

It’s been a few weeks since I returned to Houston after almost five months on the motorcycle and I’m still not sure the full degree of what I did has entirely sunk in. I set out to do something epic, to see the most beautiful corners of the USA, and to get a feel for what lies in that vast space between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. I wanted to *live* America and capture a lifetime’s worth of experiences all at once.

I was advised by some to bring a gun, by others to bring a friend, and still others said I shouldn’t really do it at all. I’m sure that those who knew me best never expected me to hesitate on account of a few naysayers anyway.

I survived. To me, it seems a silly thing to say, but apparently there was some question about the probability of such a positive result. Despite temptation lurking around each corner and over every hill, I somehow managed to avoid knife fights, shootouts, robberies, brigands, thieves, drug runners, angry wildlife, angry mobs, backwater yokels, meth heads, marauding packs of wolves, high speed crashes and (fatal) freak acts of nature.

The reality is that we live in a fantastic country populated with amazing and generous people who are more than willing to go out of their way to help an unknown traveler. At almost every point, I was amazed by the openness of local folk to sharing their time and resources with no expectation of reciprocity. It humbled me and made ever more ridiculous the fevered nightmares of scared doubters who clearly expected nothing but the worst of their neighbors throughout the country.

And, Oh! What a country we live in.

I left Houston in early June with my girlfriend on the back seat and only a vague idea of what the next few months might entail. We stopped in New Orleans and strolled through the lively history of the Big Easy on our way up through surprisingly beautiful Mississippi on the way to a friend’s house in Franklin, TN. We rode the rolling hills of the Blue Ridge Parkway to the coast and I solo’d my way via DC and New York City to my parent’s house in Newport, RI.

There I spent a happy month of family time, one which may prove unique in the flow of the rest of my life, while I picked up front end web development and officially launched this website. I then set off on a winding, unexpected, but ultimately magnificant path to a wedding that was set in the verdant hills of West Virginia, nestled among cow pastures and family farmhouses. My route took me past Mammoth Cave, the Speedway at Indianapolis and up along the Great Lakes to the Rust Belt cities of Toledo and Detroit before pausing in Chicago. I pushed north past Milwaukee to the dairy lands of Wisconsin, where I had some unforgettable rides, and across the vast empty wilds of Minnesota to Minneapolis, Fargo, and down to Sioux Falls.

I braved the roaring winds of South Dakota to attend the Sturgis rally, immersing myself briefly in biker culture (much to my disappointment) and played in the Badlands and Black Hills for a week or so. Then came the West, where I breathed in the free mountain air of Wyoming until my lungs couldn’t hold it anymore. I had to remember to keep my wonderstruck mouth closed as my girlfriend and I rode through the Tetons and past the many canyons, geysers, and waterfalls of Yellowstone. The countryside just north of Mammoth Hot Springs literally took my breath away and I vowed to see it again.

We survived a dangerous ordeal in northern Montana to take the legendary Going to the Sun road through Glacier National Park and into the forested wilderness of eastern Idaho. We followed the rivers and hugged the curves until the whole world seemed crooked but emerged just in time for one of the happiest sunset rides of my whole trip. We dodged forest fires and stayed in teepees on the way into Salt Lake City, which provided the launching point for my solo marathon ride through the Great Basin and into Reno. I pondered a run into Oregon and Washington but had made that ride on a previous trip and so they were already crossed off the list. It meant I would hit 46 states on this trip but the ultimate total was 48.

I crossed the Sierra Nevada mountains and passed the clear emerald depths of Lake Tahoe on the way into California and spent a week in San Francisco to scout the place out before rolling south through Yosemite and the inferno of Death Valley on the way to the lights of Las Vegas. From there I crossed the Valley of Fire and spent a blissful week taking in the red rocks and desert heat of southern Utah and Colorado. I waded up the slot canyons and climbed the cliffs of Zion, hiked through the eerie orange hoodoos of Bryce Canyon, and saw the most beautiful place on earth (so far) at the Capitol Reef before meeting a friend of mine in Moab for a lesson on night hiking through the slickrock of Arches and some truly epic vistas at Canyonlands.

We rolled through the proud silhouettes of Monument Valley on the way to an incredibly difficult rim-to-river-and-back hike of the Grand Canyon (which was totally worth it for the views). We walked among the ghosts of the Anasazi at Mesa Verde and tackled the wrenchingly beautiful Million Dollar Highway through the Rocky Mountains before having the true pleasure of being stuck in Ouray, CO for a pleasant dose of Swiss-style charm. We finished our time together by climbing the massive Dunes and soaking up the curves on our way into Denver.

I battled my way across the windswept desolation of eastern Colorado, Nebraska, and western Kansas for several days before stopping off at the Kansas State Fair, the biggest carnival I’ve ever seen. I rode down memory lane in Kansas City and spent several days exploring the quaint midwestern cities of Des Moines, Tulsa, St Louis, and Little Rock. I checked out the Hot Springs “national park” and crossed a thousand miles of rolling forest on the way through Franklin TN and back into the equine holy land of eastern Kentucky.

I punched north through an ever-cooling season and discovered the quiet gem of the Cuyahoga Valley amidst the old industrial cities of Cleveland and Cincinnati. I was impressed with the powerful and beautiful character of the hill-bound steel city of Pittsburgh on my way up through the autumn-kissed woods of upstate New York to see an old friend in Syracuse. The next week was pure nostalgia as I rode through the exploding colors of New England, eating a lobster roll in Portland, traversing gentle mountains (White and Green both) and bicycling among the breweries of Vermont with my family for a celebratory long weekend. I learned the meaning of cold a dozen times over after waking up in my hammock amidst sub-freezing temperatures and having to spend full days riding through the seasonal rains.

I caught my breath in Newport before plunging south again, this time taking in the coastline as I rode through New York City’s motorcycle deathtrap, the Pennsylvanian Amish country, and a brief layover in Virginia for some seasonal fun. My bones slowly unthawed as I hit cotton country and the marshlands near coastal Charleston. I nighted in the Congaree Swamp and whiled away the afternoon beneath the shading willows of Savannah.

Southward I continued, through logging country and beneath pleasantly warm skies, as I made my way to Fort Lauderdale in the swampy southern tip of Florida. Through the Everglades and up the Gulf Coast, I dodged thunderstorms and passed through unexpectedly beautiful farmland on my way to the white sand beaches of Pensacola. The last days flew by as I raced west once again, stopping in New Orleans (for a different kind of experience this time around) but otherwise bypassing the industrial heart of the gulf on my way to the finish line. And, at long last, the journey found its conclusion where it began, in the late October heat of Houston.

I still struggle to put a sense of time to the mess of images I have jammed inside my head after so long on the road. Moments, both good and bad, stand out indelibly. Like when I lost the race with a thunderstorm in Pennsylvania, got stuck in a hail storm’s flash flood and couldn’t keep the bike from landing on its side in a veritable river of runoff. Minus the clutch handle (which is pretty important). Or when my girlfriend and I almost blew off the road in Montana during the most savage windstorm I’ve ever seen short of a hurricane. Both of those experiences set back the forward progress of the trip but both resulted in unexpectedly pleasant delays, each for its own reason.

The feeling of soaking in the warm sunset in the rolling hills of farm country is one that was repeated several times, be it Kentucky, Wisconsin, Idaho or Florida, and the memory of each causes a dopey smile to creep across my face, my eyes to close, and a wistful sigh to tickle in my chest. Many of those moments were so perfect, so dazzlingly sublime that I couldn’t interrupt them to stop and take pictures and so the fidelity of that memory is truly the only way they will ever live on. The same is true of the southern Utah national parks and the Rocky Mountain passes of Colorado and Wyoming, the epic splendor of which pictures are but a shallow reflection. To distill them down to a handful of images feels like a crime against poetry. Those memories are the ones I dreamed of prior to the inception of my journey and they didn’t fail to live up to inflated expectations.

Of course, it wasn’t all epic views, crazy times, and agrarian sunsets. The glue between the glorious highs and painful lows were hundreds of hours of deep conversations with myself, yelling songs at the wind until I grew hoarse, and perplexing various random people with the audacity of my journey or the oddity of wearing a leather jacket in 120 degree heat (safety first…). Sometimes, I couldn’t help but laugh at myself when things turned sideways. The weather seemed to be playing cruel games for weeks on end when I first started out, throwing thunderstorms my way just when I started to get comfortable and making sure I got all my rain gear on before baking me on 100 degree asphalt. I caught a bee up my sleeve in Pennsylvania. I destroyed three iPhones and a tripod and lost a KA-BAR knife, all my spare memory cards, backup batteries, saddlebag covers, a glove, a water bottle, sunglasses, and more than my fair share of dignity. I caught the string from my gator on the foot peg outside New York City and tipped over in traffic like a tree felled in slow motion. Thank goodness for the big hearts of fellow riders.

I set out to photograph the beauty of America and I think I managed a serviceable job of it. When I look back at the 6,713 photos (over 100GB worth) that I took, it further astonishes my sense of the linearity of time. Though I am weary in all kinds of strange and intangible ways, the deep seed of hunger for exploration that spurred me towards this journey has failed to dissipate and has instead blossomed into a mature sense of incomplete satisfaction. I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to see and do what I have, but there are also now a thousand places that I want to see/hike/stay… actually LIVE in order to truly soak in the depth of possible experiences. Such a lofty undertaking is impossible to accomplish within the mortal lifetime and so I am left with the knowledge that my ultimate satisfaction will never be met with some accomplishment of goals but through the continued quest for new places, experiences and people.

To my family and friends (and random acquaintances) who helped me along the way, spurred me onward with words of encouragement, or at least sighed and looked the other way while I dove head first into such questionable and potentially troubled waters, I am infinitely grateful for your support and love and certainly without it, I probably *would* have met my demise in a hobo knife fight by a dark country road or, worse, just continued to my new life in San Francisco safe and secure but ever wondering: “…What if?”

Thank you, Thank you. I love you all.