May 30, 2024

Springswines

The Tour And Travel Enthusiasts

Chasing My Heritage on a Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip

7 min read
Chasing My Heritage on a Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip

Chasing My Heritage on a Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip
Going-to-the-Sun Road in Montana’s Glacier National Park should be on every motorcyclist’s must-ride list. (Photos by the author)

As motorcyclists, we feel drawn to the open road. As Americans, we want to take in as much of what our country has to offer as we can. And as human beings – especially if we’re of a certain age – we want to see our family and friends face-to-face, to hug them and shake their hands and hear and tell stories new and old. Phone calls and texts help us stay in touch, but they are a poor substitute for the real deal. I decided to check all the boxes with a cross-country motorcycle trip.

I live in Southern California, and I have family and friends all over this great nation, from sea to shining sea. I’ve ridden cross-country many times before, but I was overdue for a special lap around America, one where I could see the sights and visit the important people in my life without a strict agenda or schedule. When I opened a Dove chocolate and saw the advice “Live every day with no regrets, it’ll be worth it” inside the wrapper, it felt like a calling. I packed my gear and headed east.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff
Visiting loved ones like my Uncle Bud in New York was the highlight of the trip.

Family Roots

Back in 1940, my grandparents loaded up their ’37 Packard with all their belongings, including my 10-year-old father, Mark, and his 7-year-old younger brother, Bernard (where I got my middle name) and headed west. Leaving Youngstown, Ohio, they made their way to Route 66 and followed it to Burbank, California, where Grandpa Seth got a welding and fabricating job for Lockheed Aircraft.

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Before long, my grandparents purchased a Texaco station that became the family business. Our family still owns the building, which now houses an auto body shop. My grandparents died just before I was born, but I believe I inherited my love and innate abilities for fabricating and restoring motorcycles from my Grandpa Seth. I still use his old Wilton bench vise, hand tools, and other equipment.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff
Leaving on Memorial Day, my first stop was my grandparents’ gravesite at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Burbank, California. I asked them to watch over me.

Time was of the essence with my own cross-country journey, some 82 years later. My dad was approaching his 95th birthday, and ol’ Uncle “Bud” (Bernard’s nickname) was pushing 92. They don’t travel anymore, and they hadn’t seen each other in over a decade. I decided to keep the trip a secret from Dad. My plan was to ride to New York and do a surprise video call between the aging brothers.

I left my house in Thousand Oaks, California, on Memorial Day and returned home in time to celebrate the 4th of July. Over a month and more than 10,000 miles, I passed through 33 states, visited and stayed with dozens of people who were already near and dear to my heart, and enjoyed meeting many new friends as well.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff Mount Rushmore
Reuniting with my old friend Carter Kirk in the shadow of Mount Rushmore.

To get ready for my journey, Alpinestars and Shoei/Helmet House provided me with gear, Nelson-Rigg set me up with a waterproof duffel, and my friends at Suzuki were kind enough to loan me a 2022 V-Strom 650XT with an accessory tankbag and panniers. The V-Strom 650 is one of the best bang-for-the-buck adventure bikes out there. It fits me like a glove, has a really comfortable seat, likes to go off-road here and there, and only asked for gas in the tank and PJ1 on the chain every now and again.

Related: 2018 Suzuki V-Strom 650XT vs V-Strom 1000XT | Comparison Review

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff New Mexico
High plains drifting in New Mexico. It’s fun to imagine what’s beyond the horizon.
Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff Zion National Park Suzuki V-Strom 650XT
On the second day of the trip I was tempted to do some off-road exploring near Zion National Park in Utah, but I had a long journey ahead of me, so I thought better of it.

With the bike packed, I said my goodbyes and my prayers, pulled in the clutch, dropped into 1st gear, and rolled away from home. It was a surreal feeling starting a ride of this magnitude, wondering what might be in store for me.

A Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip: Eastbound and Down

Before departing on this ride, I traced a big outline of the U.S. and each of the lower 48 states on a large sheet of heavy-duty paper, and at the top I wrote “2022 Friends & Family Ride!” I kept it rolled up in a cardboard tube and used it to document my route. Along the way, I had family, friends, and other folks write notes and messages on the map.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff
My homemade route map signed by friends, family, and others along the way is a special keepsake from my journey.

After riding across the Mojave Desert to Las Vegas, I continued northeast and rode through Zion National Park in Utah. I meandered east to Four Corners, got off my bike, and managed to be in all four states at once with my feet in Arizona and New Mexico and my hands in Utah and Colorado. In New Mexico, I visited friends in Farmington and Tucumcari. As the trip unfolded, I found that most of the time there was another friend or family member with whom I could stay within a day’s ride.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff Four Corners
Spreading out over four states at once at Four Corners (Colorado, Utah, New Mexico, and Arizona).

I blazed across the Texas Panhandle on my way to “McDonald Land,” the nickname for where Norm and Lucy McDonald live near Tulsa, Oklahoma. Norm is the “N” in K&N filters, which nearly everyone has run in their bikes or cars at some point. I used to pitstop there in the early ’80s when traveling around the country during my AMA roadracing days. I met the McDonalds through their son, Sam, when we were both novices in 1980. Through K&N Yamaha, Norm and Lucy sponsored countless racers over the years, with Malcolm Smith being one of the most notable. They are wonderful people whose friendship is precious to me. Staying with them again like in the good ol’ days was very special.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff Korner Shop Cafe West Virginia
It didn’t take long to become friends with Susie at The Korner Shop Cafe in West Virginia.

After visiting other friends in Memphis, Tennessee, I skipped across the tops of Mississippi, Alabama, and Georgia and made my way up into the Appalachians and onto the Blue Ridge Parkway. Rider magazine readers have seen plenty of great ride stories from this area, and now I got to do the riding!

See all of Rider‘s touring stories here.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff Suzuki V-Strom 650XT Maggie Valley Overlook
The views are endless at the Blue Ridge Parkway’s Maggie Valley Overlook.

The weather was perfect, the scenery was beautiful, and I took some side trips on the 650XT down small roads and trails. In Maggie Valley, North Carolina, I stopped at the Wheels Through Time Museum. I love old bikes and old American stuff, so this place is like heaven to me. Dale Walksler has passed, but his son Matt has taken over and is doing an awesome job keeping the museum going.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff Matt Walksler Wheels Through Time Museum
With Matt Walksler at the Wheels Through Time museum.

Heading North

I rode up Skyline Drive and into Virginia, where I spent a couple nights at Brian and Betty Richardson’s 19th-century sheep farm. Rider’s former editor-in-chief, Mark Tuttle, connected me with the Richardsons back in 2009, and I raced Brian’s homebuilt Moto-Electra electric bike in the TTXGP series for a few years. In 2013, we set the coast-to-coast world record for electric vehicles on the same bike by crossing the U.S. in 84.5 hours. Brian and I became good friends, and for years I’ve been telling him I would ride up to his farm one day. I finally did, and we spent a day riding together on awesome backroads.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff
Spending some time relaxing at Brian and Betty Richardson’s sheep farm in Virginia.

I left the farm in the morning and was soon greeted by a dramatic change in scenery. By midday, I was taking a selfie in front of the Capitol in D.C. I wished I could help straighten things out there, but I decided I’d rather ride my motorcycle. I hightailed it out of D.C. and crossed the Delaware Bay on a ferry from Lewes, Delaware, to Cape May, New Jersey, which is the oldest resort town in America and a neat place to stay.

Cross-Country Motorcycle Trip Thad Wolff Suzuki V-Strom 650XT
Cows sure are big in Pennsylvania!

Another special thing about New Jersey is one of its residents: Gloria Struck, the first lady of motorcycling, who is 97 years young. I wrote a story for Rider (March 2013 issue) about Gloria and the Motor Maids, and we have been close friends for a long time. We first met years ago at Daytona Bike Week, where I noticed her Harley had Clorox bottles cut in half and strapped to the handlebar as wind deflectors. I had done that before myself, but when I found out it was Gloria’s bike and that she had ridden from New Jersey, where she had to shovel snow to get out of her driveway, I immediately developed a deep fondness and respect for this woman.

I arrived home in time for my dad’s 95th birthday, and he ended up passing away peacefully two short weeks later. The timing for this trip was perfect, and I’m glad I was able to make it happen rather than make excuses. In the end, our faith, family, friends, and the memories we’ve made (many with handlebars in hand) are all we have. Nothing else matters.

Don’t wait. Just go.