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Erik Trautman

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

Two Cylinders, Two Wheels and the Double Yellow Line

I think I caught my first whiff of the romance of travel during a family road trip through the Southwest from which I can remember little but the hot dusty smell of desert air and a sense of the vastness of the world beyond the comforting woods of New England. It was an early memory in a growing chain that would eventually stretch from the glowing volcanoes of Hawaii to the old world restaurants of Italy to the gentle midnight sun above Sweden’s northern horizon. I got comfortable living small in a foreign land and it became a hunger that followed me as I came of age and began to travel on my own.

When I finished college, I celebrated by organizing a sailing trip through the Saronic Islands in Greece for myself and about a dozen others. A couple of my future roommates and I parlayed that into a three week Euro-trek where we managed to absorb a surprising amount of local culture in between run-ins with random acquaintances from back in the States.

The travel bug had settled deep, though, and the itch got harder to scratch. I missed out on the hike to Kilimanjaro and so was doubly enthusiastic for our ten-day trek through Patagonia. That was quickly derailed by a killer bacterial infection and a natural gas revolt which eventually resulted in an air lift from a refugee camp”¦ a long story for another day.

That last experience, though, spurred more than just a healthy fear of airline food. It shaped the realization that I was traveling thousands of miles to explore foreign countries when I hadn’t even seen half the states in the US. The time I spent in Texas, in particular, made me appreciate how fiercely I love this country. I eventually decided that, whenever life gave me the chance, I would travel from coast to coast and experience the lives of people everywhere in between.

When I first got my bike, it was the fulfillment of one of those giddy boyhood fantasies that are so often set aside just as one attains the means to give them life. Pretty much everyone thought I was nuts. My mother, were she still with us, would have never EVER allowed such a thing to happen. Maybe it was a growing sense of restlessness and rebellion that had been stirring inside me or perhaps it was just sheer folly, but the deed was done and I knew I wasn’t going to waste the opportunity. Two weeks after I got my license, I set off on a 3,000 mile solo road trip from Houston to Seattle.

I baked in the desert, I froze in Cali, and I soaked through my raingear in the Northwest. I dropped the bike several times (in the service of taking awesome pictures) and got stranded for half a day somewhere just over the New Mexico border and outside of cell range. But I made it to Seattle in one piece and I can hardly describe a more appropriately personal journey than that. At that point in my life, I was beginning to struggle with a lot of existential questions and I needed the abiding stillness of the open road to quiet my thoughts and settle my energy. I found the peace but not all the answers I’d hoped for. When those unanswered questions discovered me again a little less than a year ago, their answers demanded the changes I’ve made since.

I’ve got some kind of chip on my shoulder and it constantly makes me want to test myself in new ways. It’s that same crazy feeling that people must have when they run off to climb mountains or break endurance records or go join the military to “see what I’m made of.” In my particular case, it is counterbalanced by the meticulously logical side of me, which says, “Hey idiot, you’re broken enough as it is. There’s no added value in climbing that. What are you going to do? Pee on it?”

The battle between the “conquer stuff” and “think it through” sides usually results in some sort of compromise, like “okay, I’ll swim all the way out there and it’ll be hard but, unless the sharks are hungry today, no one’s probably going to get killed.” Thrills become calculated risks. But as fun as that is, sometimes the gorilla man wins out and I need to do something a little wilder than the usual flavor to satisfy the urge.

When I left my career, it was a given that I’d take some time off. I knew I wanted to see the rest of the country. I also, frankly, wanted to something epic that most people wouldn’t have the balls to attempt. It shouldn’t be too hard to see how it all converged on a massive solo motorcycle trip. To make the most of the experience, I came up with the following rules:

  1. Use only the bike. None of that tour bus crap.
  2. Ride through at least one major city or landmark in every state in the continental US (that hadn’t been a part of the previous West Coast trip).
  3. Record and publish the experience. Take amazing photos.
  4. See every major epic national park and natural wonder along the way.
  5. Get a feel for locals in each place, how they live their lives, and how those lives can potentially be improved.
  6. Stay with family and friends wherever able along the way.
  7. Continue the coding and business education. Try to squeeze in a few side projects too.
  8. Don’t pick fights with hobos or rednecks; they have nothing to lose.

I knew I had to start and end in Houston (where my stuff is stored), I needed at least a week along the way to scout out San Francisco and connect with people there, and I wanted to spend at least a month with my family in Newport. It made sense to do a northern leg early on while I’d still have the warmth of summer to work with. I also made sure to see New England in the autumn, despite the potential cold, because I’ve dearly missed my last decade without a real fall. I plotted who I knew around the country and began to connect the dots.

After all that, what I’ve got on the docket is ~15,000 miles of road, 4 months of travel and 44 different states. I have no doubt that the experience will run the spectrum from inspirational to demoralizing, cathartic to infuriating. In the 3,000 miles I’ve already accomplished since leaving Texas in the end of May, I’ve managed a pretty healthy blend of those things. I’m experiencing America in 4-500 mile gulps, dotted with friends, family, and a lot of people I’ve yet to meet in a lot of places I’ve never been. It’s the trip of a lifetime, it’s crazy, and I suspect that by the end of it, I’ll understand why this is such a fucking sweet country in a way I never have before and most people never will.