On Trails

In the early 1950’s I read a series of worn-out library books on early American heroes including Daniel Boone, who blazed the Wilderness Road through the Cumberland Gap into Kentucky, a route that was eventually followed by over 200,000 settlers.

Now 60 years later, I’m reading On Trails, by Robert Moor and learning that the woods of North America were loaded with trails long before any Europeans arrived. The land that had already supported a vast native culture for thousands of years was covered with trails.

There is 13,000 year old evidence of early Asian-descent North Americans in the Paisley Caves of Oregon and from Montana’s Clovis child, but the time span doesn’t really sink in for me, although it’s starting to. What were these people doing all this time? They were continually moving over the land, for one thing.

All over North America there were hundreds of tribes we can now name, each utilizing very large tracts of land. The Cherokees alone covered the area now occupied by four states: Georgia, Tennessee, and North and South Carolina.

Moving with one foot in line with the other, a typical Indian footpath was only 5-6 inches wide and soft moccasins typically landed on spots that were already flat. Little crushing of the natural texture of the land. Trails were marked with broken twigs and the positions of sticks.  Natives could read these signs and even send messages up and down the trail using them. But the paths were nearly invisible to Euro-Americans. The woods were impenetrable to newcomers only in the sense that you could easily get lost in them.

In fact, the forests were historically managed by the natives. They burned them regularly, eliminating undergrowth and preserving plants and shrubs that were useful to them and the local animal population. Europeans marveled at the “natural” openness of the woods, almost like parks, thinking the land only needed their vision to develop it properly.

Existing indigenous use of the land and the trails was obscured by the untouched appearance. The newcomers naturally thought it was empty, pristine wilderness, new land to be claimed. But it was definitely being used already and used in ecologically sound ways.

Now, according to Moor, most of the paved-over roads in the USA are located on top of Native American trails. Over the recent centuries of expanding European-style culture, the trails have gradually been “improved” into the roads we use today.


I75 runs the length of Michigan on top of 5 Indian Trails


US Route 11 in Virginia runs along the Great Indian Warpath, or Seneca Trail, part of a network of trails that ran from upper New York State to Alabama.

There tends to be an optimal path though the landscape, depending on the purpose, and many such trails are apt to stay put indefinitely.

So now I’m liking the idea of back-roads motorcycle rides,  the feeling of moving over the landscape in a very natural way along pathways that are quite possibly thousands of years old. And the human scale of a motorcycle seems right on.

On the other hand, when I more fully assimilate the idea of a vast, valid, pre-existing indigenous culture, and to some extent debunk the traditional Euro-American view of North America, I can only be sharply dismayed by the experience of Native Americans over the last many centuries.

Note: Every year now about 25,000 bikers attend the Trail of Tears Commemorative Motorcycle Ride across the Alabama section of the trail followed in 1838-39 when the Cherokee Nation was forced to give up their land east of the Mississippi and move to Oklahoma. The two-abreast stream of bikes is about 25 miles long.



“Got the wings of heaven on my shoes…and we’re staying alive, staying alive…” (the Bee Gees).

A motorcycle connects you to the world on a pathway to everywhere. It’s an unlimited opportunity for adventure that keeps you alive on every corner you lean into, every mile that zips by a few inches under your feet. North America has what is arguably the best system of roads in the world, a miracle really, all bought and paid for.  Why not make use of them on two wheels?

Well, it’s the literal sense of “staying alive” that creates a big weight on the balance scale, tilting it away from riding a motorcycle.  There are just too many stories of wreck and ruin.

That’s why I like Sonny Barger’s book Let’s Ride. He’s the one who lays down the hard truths about the dangers of riding and suggests some physical and mental rules to keep you on the list of the living.

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Sonny Barger is a 78 year old veteran of motorcycling, a 1957 founding member of the Oakland chapter of Hell’s Angels. When your life is on the line, it’s worth listening to someone with a visceral approach to living, and for motorcycles, Sonny Barger is that person.

“When riding on public highways, I recommend adopting the attitude that every single person on the road is a sociopathic serial killer who has just escaped from an asylum for the criminally insane. This might seem a little pessimistic, but you’ll live longer if you assume everyone else on the road is a homicidal moron whose sole purpose is to kill you.”

Ha! He didn’t say they are trying to kill you, he said it’s useful to think they are. Yes, the language is over the top, but it’s this line of thinking that I remember most about the book. The potential danger of other vehicles has stuck with me.

Not sure where I heard it, but I like the saying, “Any light danger, once thought light, is no longer light.” I’d be inclined to use that kind of language, but whatever it takes to get you to pay attention, in the moment, to the various ways you can be killed. You need a plan, an escape route, to avoid them.

In this wary scenario, a distraction can be lethal because it diminishes your ability to sense approaching danger. The distraction is occupying the conscious, main thinking thread in your brain, leaving your life in the hands of background processing that must then interrupt you in time. Don’t count on it.

In addition to many critical safety tips, Let’s Ride has an abundance of useful information on engines, bike types, how they work, how to ride, evaluating a used bike, buying a bike, advanced riding, maintenance, and the culture of motorcycling. It has the street credibility that’s good to have in a source of riding advice.

I like to think you should “step into” some problems and back away from others, or at least go around them. Motorcycle safety, the idea that you could get hurt on a bike, is an issue you need to step into and deal with. There is a threshold of behavior that qualifies you as a safe rider and you need to stay on the good side of that. If you find yourself crossing over to the other side, it’s time to stop riding. Let’s Ride can help you see where you’re at and where you need to be.



Book Review: Lois On The Loose

Pan American Highway

Lois Pryce quits her job at the BBC, buys a used Yamaha XT225 and heads for Alaska to start a solo ride to the southern tip of South America via the Pan American “Highway”. Guys, if you are married and dreaming of getting into motorcycling, ask your wife to get you this book from the library. She’ll love the idea that you are actually reading something and, wonders will never cease, it’s about a woman’s achievement! Only later will she realize she has brought you a book about motorcycles, and is already complicit in your dream. And kinda likes it. Compared to Lois, you are looking like mister reasonable.

In some respects the book is the flip side of The Long way ‘Round. Ewan and Charlie back each other up while Lois travels alone. A whole support team including a van and third motorcycle versus nothing for Lois. The guys are each riding a new BMW R1150GS, at the time the gold standard in long distance adventure bikes. Lois has her old XT. Displacement is fundamental in how much power an engine can produce and 1150 is over 5 times the size of 225. The unladen GS is over twice the weight of the XT.

It’s the minimalist approach that I find so appealing these days and Lois has nailed it.

By the time she has described her first night out camped beside a remote Alaskan highway with snow falling on her lonely tent, I am hooked for the duration. The book has excitement, technical details, humor, danger, tragedy and triumph. It’s wonderful.

It may also help you get your own bike.