Deep in South Carolina’s Lowcountry, I pulled my 2011 Harley-Davidson SuperLow 883 Sportster over to the edge of a back road. I took off my helmet, listening to the wind whispering through the branches of the tall, slender pines. It was just my motorcycle and me, and I couldn’t have been happier.
This was the second day of a 1,900-mile solo journey from Ohio to Florida and back for Daytona Bike Week. This trip would be more about the journey itself than the annual spring gathering of thousands of bikers, though. I needed to challenge myself, see if I could do a long solo trip, and leaving the chilly north behind for Florida seemed like a good way to test my mettle.
I live in the quiet village of New Concord, on the edge of the Appalachians in southeastern Ohio. I’d been riding for several years, taking short trips around Ohio, but I’d never taken a lengthy trip alone. Some friends said I was crazy, but I knew I could do it. I spent weeks preparing, getting heated grips and a tankbag, studying the map and making arrangements for my kids. I kept an eye on my weather.com app, which didn’t predict any snow, just cold temperatures on the journey’s northern leg.
The sunny, 45-degree Friday afternoon when I left found me both excited and apprehensive. I put on several layers, loaded up my motorcycle, pulled on my helmet and jacket, waved good-bye to my daughter and headed south past Marietta and across the Ohio River. I was on my way.
My first stop was Charleston, the capital of West Virginia, an Appalachian river town that sprawls along the valley and up into the mountains that surround it. I checked into my hotel and wandered the downtown streets in the early evening, stopping for Chinese take-out. The next morning dawned brisk and cold. I bundled up and rode over to look at the gleaming gold dome of the capitol building and watched a coal barge making its way slowly down the Kanawha River, waiting for the bright sun to push the temperature out of the 20s.
I wound through West Virginia and on into Virginia’s Blue Ridge Mountains on Interstate 77, past redbud trees just starting to bloom in the cold spring air. On a motorcycle, you feel the rise and fall of the land. Crossing through Fancy Gap (elevation 2,920 feet) and descending 1,500 feet into the Piedmont region of North Carolina on the sharply curving interstate, I felt that landscape like I never would have in a car. The wind buffeted me about and, for the first time on the trip, the rush and roar of semis barreling down the mountain unnerved me. By the time I reached the coastal plain and finally Charleston, South Carolina, late that night, I collapsed in my hotel room from exhaustion.
One Charleston to another: 472 miles.
After breakfast the next morning, I rode over the bridge into the city where I met up with my friend, Jon, who teaches at the College of Charleston. Charleston is a beautiful old port city with historic homes, gas lamps, plazas, large trees and enclosed gardens. We wandered the streets, making our way to the Blind Tiger Pub, where we met some of his friends for brunch. I ordered blackened salmon, and we talked for several hours over a long, slow meal.
I had to get back on the road to make it to Florida by evening, so we said our good-byes and I headed south on U.S. Route 17, a two-lane road through the Lowcountry. I got off a few times to explore the pine forest, running across one road that simply ended in water. I didn’t know if it had been intended as a boat ramp, or if the water had simply overtaken the road.
The sunset stretched over the Georgia swamps, and I continued south on I-95 past Jacksonville, exiting onto Route 1 toward the coast. I saw the Iron Horse Saloon, packed with bikers in leather and jeans holding beers and laughing. I stopped for a quick photo and then made my way over to Atlantic Avenue to my hotel and sat on the deck, listening to the crashing waves and the roar of bikers heading up and down the avenue.
I might not be much for biker bars, but I had made it to Florida.
The next day was bright, sunny and 70 degrees—perfect for what I wanted to do: ride the Loop.
The Loop heads north out of Ormond Beach, through a canopy of Spanish m
oss-covered oak trees that drape over the road, creating a rich, green tunnel. It weaves through marshes and swampland lined with cypress trees and circles back along the A1A Scenic and Historic Coastal Byway back to Ormond Beach. I rode out on Route 1, stopping for an iced tea at Wild Bill’s Bar to talk with a few bikers starting their day early. The bartender told me that to get on the Loop I had to go a ways farther on Route 1, beyond Destination Daytona, and then turn right at White Eagle Saloon. I did as she said and found myself riding through the forest, along marshes through Tomoka State Park, and over to the bright sun of the coast before heading back down to Ormond Beach and stopping for dinner at a little restaurant in a strip mall near my hotel.
The next morning, I checked my oil and tire pressure, filled my tank and took A1A up along the coast toward St. Augustine. I stopped for lunch at the World Famous Oasis, where the waitress convinced me to stop a few miles up the road to see the lighthouse, which still lights up the coast for passing ships.
In Jacksonville, I cut across to I-95 north and then I-26 west over to Columbia, South Carolina, for the night. On the way, I stopped for dinner on the outskirts of Savannah. Late that night, I made it to Columbia, and as I checked into the hotel I found myself suffering from a severe allergy attack. The next day, I brushed a thick yellow coating of pine pollen off my bike, took a Benadryl, and headed north.
I went part of the way on I-77, got off on I-40 east, and then headed up U.S. Route 601 past sloping hills, red clay fields and piles of wooden tobacco slats ready to dry that year’s crop. I stopped for gas and listened to thunder in the distance, debating whether or not to put on my rain suit. Not wanting to rummage through my saddlebags, I didn’t. Instead, I got back on the road to Mount Airy and sure enough, about 10 miles from town, a downpour hit. I rode through the rain, hoping that the layers of 2.5-gallon Ziploc bags protecting my laptop and camera would do their job. When I pulled into the hotel on the edge of Mount Airy, I was soaked.
The next day would be my last leg. I headed up through Virginia and West Virginia, entering the familiar territory of mountains and winding roads once again. When I finally pulled into New Concord late that afternoon, I filled my gas tank at the Fuel Mart on the corner of State Route 83 and U.S. Route 40. On this trip, I’d developed an understanding of the hills around me that I’d never had before. I was on the Appalachian Plateau here in my little village and, for the first time, I felt it.
At once proud and spent, I backed the trusty little Sportster into my garage and fell into my soft bed, listening to the birds singing spring songs in the warm evening. I’d done it!