WHERE’S YOUR ‘HEAD AT…?

Riding his Harley Shovelhead across the states and back was Todd Blubaugh's dream. And so began the hardest six months of his life...

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

by Todd Blubaugh |

On 1st June, 2013 I left my job as a commercial artist to pursue my passion for travel photography. I would ride across the country, documenting the adventure from atop my hand-built motorbike, nicknamed The Red Head. I had even planned a long overdue visit to see my parents, who had not seen me home for a Kansas summer in ten years.

One week before I was scheduled to leave, on the night of 14 June, 2013 my parents were killed in an automobile accident somewhere in Reed Springs, Missouri. They were en route to see my sister in Topeka, Kansas.

My sister, Nellie, and I suffered through a phone call we’re not likely to forget and I boarded a plane for home. During the next week, with the help of friends and family, my sister and I buried the two greatest people in our lives. I flew back to Seattle the following day. 12 hours later I packed my bike with tools and camera gear and left. I spent a total of six months on the road...

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

Time to leave

I stood in the dark staring at a beam of sunlight as it flooded through the open garage door and bounced off the oily concrete. My empty bag lay wide open in front of me, but packing was an impossibility. I couldn’t think through the blur of last week. There had been no time for bereavement. Planning an unexpected double funeral isn’t something I would wish on anyone. My sister and I did our best.

I got back to Seattle the day after burying them and I was struggling to do anything other than lay in bed. The original plan was to leave the next day, but my window for a dry departure was threatened by a big storm approaching from the north. Riding south for the Born Free Motorcycle show had become an annual migration for me and a small group of friends. The event gave us an excuse to survive the dark, damp Northwest winters. This year’s sojourn was different, as I would not be returning home with the group. The sound of their bikes pulling into the driveway broke my trance. They were anxious but did a good job of hiding it. I think my condition startled them a little. I hadn’t slept in a week.

Packing a bike is something to be taken seriously – poor planning can cost time, energy, friendships, and even lives. As my bag began to swell, so did my excitement. It was, ultimately, a restorative process and my focus returned. Tools went into my brake-side saddle bag: a set of box-end wrenches, 3/8 driver and sockets, screwdrivers, allens, a large adjustable wrench, zip ties, safety wire, nuts and bolts, a small tap set, extra wire and connectors, volt meter, extra bulbs and fuses. In my primary side bag went my camera gear and in my duffel bag clothes, first aid and another bag of extra parts. I rolled up my rain gear, overnight kit, and a towel into an American flag. I closed the zipper to my duffle bag and considered the question – shall I continue? I wished I could call my old man and ask. If I could, one last time, he would probably say, ‘If your brakes are working, keep moving, son. You can always stop later.’

Down the road in LA

Mid-afternoon in downtown LA was filthy. Heat danced atop traffic-choked lanes. Destitute figures occupied busy street corners beneath architectural monuments, all constructed from the spoils of a glamorous past. I took in vistas of the LA river, where a playground of dusty lots and abandoned corrugated warehouses expand beneath bridges and train yards. This is a city of indulgence and I stayed far longer than I had planned. Sun-drenched days of motorcycle mischief along bikini-clad beaches faded into wine buzzed nights sitting around campfires high in the San Gabriel mountains. I hadn’t spent much time with Magda before this summer. The two of us crossed paths a year earlier and discovered we had various social circles and interests in common. Her energy fascinated me. She kept her house impossibly tidy, even while boarding greasy bikers.

Then, halfway through July, the context of my journey changed when Magda introduced me to Ethan, who became my travelling partner. Ethan made a quiet, easy going impression – his is the kind of company you can take anywhere, but under his cool exterior are layers of complex insight. I could see in him the type of curiosity that gives men two choices: explore or go mad.

The night before I left town I stopped at the neighbourhood watering hole, expecting to find friends and say my goodbyes. The place was unusually crowded with strangers and I had been entertaining myself by eavesdropping on conversations. Ethan found me at a small table in the back. We talked for a while and then I casually suggested he ride with me to the Atlantic Ocean and wherever else, and that was that. We left LA the next night...

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

The Valley of Fire

I climbed high into the rocks. Below me, the landscape broadened into a deep, windswept valley shadowed by layers of rigid peaks. I faced what remained of the sun and confronted the voice that had been haunting me. My mother always had the worst timing. And for whatever petty reason I wasn’t very accessible during the last month of her life. Our differences had only grown over the past decade, while my energy to defend them had not. I wanted to talk, but I just didn’t have the endurance for a 45-minute conversation. It resulted in a long list of voicemails I couldn’t bear to hear.

After a motorcycle accident in 2012, my parents were inspired to plan a family trip. We met in Vegas, rented a car, and drove through the nexus of State and National Parks strewn across the Southwest. My mom was especially fond of Valley of Fire National Park in Nevada. The sheer walls of prehistoric sand dunes vaulting hundreds of feet above the desert floor left her awestruck. Somewhere back near Big Sur, I resolved to listen to and delete those voicemails here, atop these majestic formations – the last place I saw her and my father alive. I had revealed this pilgrimage to Ethan back in LA, so when we arrived just before sunset, he fell back and gave me some time. Up until this point I had tried and mostly succeeded to outrun the pain of loss. But here I sat, choking on the finality of my circumstances. It hurt like hell, but at least I actually felt it.

She sounded confused and disappointed in message after message, begging me to call her back. But no matter how many times I listened, it was too late. I sat there drowning in an ocean of sudden understanding: after years of thinking otherwise, my mother and I weren’t actually that different after all. I had left home, and she had sought reassurance. I could have easily supplied it, if only I had picked up the phone. We made camp in the park that night and I lay awake with my tent flap open. I could almost see the gears of the universe turning and I finally felt they were gone. I determined that it would be a mistake to carry this with me. I would leave the regret here.

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

Utah

Arches National Park was further down Hwy 191 than Ethan and I had calculated. We ascended a winding path of cracked blacktop onto the elevated landscape. Silhouettes of sandstone giants grew from the horizon as we rode through the darkness. The temperature was perfect. I checked the field thermometer hanging from my handlebars... it said 85 degrees, but it felt cooler at 65mph. Ethan and I pulled to the shoulder beneath a huge boulder left balancing a hundred feet above on a needle of sandstone. The ride here had been exhausting, but we couldn’t sleep through a night like this. We were the only visitors at this hour, and it felt as if we were exploring an alien planet left all to ourselves.

The excitement revived us and we continued through the canyons and mesas. We left the bikes behind some evergreen shrubs and hiked into a canyon. Ethan dropped his pack under a low hanging Utah Juniper while I found a soft pocket of Indian Rice Grass. We made camp. That night I dreamed about my parents: they were still alive, and I was standing in the yard of our old house. We were separated by a crowd of people and I was unable to get their attention as they climbed into that fateful silver Toyota Camry... We mounted our bikes early, just after the sun crested the walls of our canyon. This land was just as magnificent in the daylight, and we continued exploring despite the morning heat and lack of coffee. We pulled over and investigated every structure. Standing beneath the towering stone architecture felt like a ritual, the atmosphere thick with spirituality.

Love comes calling in Kansas

The door creaked shut behind me as I moved into the small café on Massachusetts Street. I spotted them nearby, chatting quietly in a window seat. I’d spent many frustrated hours studying here during my time at the University of Kansas. I used to pore over my history papers sitting at my preferred table in the back. She sat across from him in the watery light. Ethan introduced us as I pulled up a chair. She had bright green eyes, shaded by curls of light red hair. Her name was Ariele. Somehow Ethan had found a mermaid in Kansas. My first impression was that these two had known each other for years. The comfortable chemistry between them suggested a history. I was shocked to learn they had just met the day before. When examined, the events leading to their encounter seem coincidental. That morning, Ethan decided to skip my nephew’s Pee Wee football game and go and explore the town of Lawrence, Kansas – the next one down the road from Topeka. And if he hadn’t doubled back to look for his missing gloves, and Ariele hadn’t ventured into a café other than her usual, they never would have met.

I can’t say I’ve ever witnessed a moment like this between two people. The change in Ethan was palpable, and though I didn’t say anything then, I could tell this was the beginning of something different for him. I sat across from these two and recalled a conversation he and I had somewhere back in Utah. He had told me he was coming to terms with his general incompatibility, and that he felt content being alone. After coffee we went back to Ariele’s house on Indiana Street to get Ethan’s bag and say farewell. Our plan to cross the country would continue, even though part of him would remain here.

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

Ohio bike night

Ethan and I hoisted our plates of BBQ and pushed our way through rows of custom bikes. The atmosphere smelled rank with leather and rubber, a perfume of petroleum floating off into the backlit tree line of Dayton, Ohio. Beer toting devotees kicked at tyres while barrel chested enthusiasts greeted each other with brugs (‘brother hugs’). Past the rows of chrome stood an outdoor stage, made from telephone poles, sheltering a covers band specializing in Creedance Clearwater Revival songs. Leather ladies danced while their counterparts watched from wooden picnic tables, all of them sleeveless. A stranger we’d met at a gas station along Hwy 40 suggested we come here. We’d been travelling mostly in light rain and mist since we’d left Kansas, so we looked pretty weathered. The man was riding an enormous bagger. He commented on our custom rain gear (plastic garbage bags) and went on to tell us about a ‘bike night’ that was happening just up the road. We set off.

Something familiar started to surface as I watched the North American full moon settle over this bike night. I know a church when I see one, and this felt like the biker equivalent: with a rock and roll choir, deacons greeting members as they rode in, prophets baptizing with burnouts. Ethan and I talked, our conversation turning back towards Kansas. Crossing paths with Ariele had stirred a change in him. Their connection seemed to be deepening as the distance between them grew, and reaching the Atlantic was becoming less important than getting back to her. Even though we continued east, all roads seemed to be pulling Ethan Fowler back to Kansas...

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

End of the road for Ethan

A sharp September afternoon crept over the fields and mountains of Pennsylvania as we watched the countryside pass beneath our tyres. We crossed over creeks on wooden bridges with the sweet smell of bustling agriculture in our lungs. Enormous stone barns flashed in and out of sight. Daytime temperatures were getting noticeably cooler. The yellowish tint of maple, ash and box elder leaves was signalling the onset of another beautiful autumn. I could feel a sense of urgency in Ethan, and knew it was something other than the change in barometric pressure.

We pulled off US 30 at a gas station to consult the map. The plan was to weave through the state along the two-lane options, avoiding toll roads. But I could see Ethan was conflicted. Our leisurely pace had been eating away at him. He told me he was eager to get back to Ariele and needed to put down some miles in a hurry. We stood there silently between parked cars, staring at our motorbikes as if to give them a moment to say goodbye. I started my bike and tightened my helmet.

As we set off, we glanced at each other from across the narrow median for just a moment before the highway that had brought us together, now divided and pulled us apart. I didn’t feel defeated by the fork in the road, but it did take me a few miles to stop looking over my shoulder. I was happy for Ethan as I imagined him speeding towards Ariele. We had travelled a long way, and he had finally found a place he truly wanted to be. But I wasn’t too concerned – change was happening everywhere and my motor was enjoying our pace through the cool, dense, autumn air.

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

Todd's turning point

Sausalito, California: he walked up the waterfront in the cool of the morning. I could tell he was a traveller by the way he was dressed – practical clothing worn to its very ends. A warm hooded jacket over a long-sleeved flannel tucked into blue jeans. A heavy waterproof backpack hung low over his shoulders. I imagined it held all he needed to exist. He crossed the street and eyed me curiously before entering the café... He walked out and sat at a table next to mine with his back to the sun. Holding his coffee he turned towards the street, lifted his creased eyes, and looked at my motorbike. He asked simply: ‘how long have you been travelling?’ He was measuring me up, cutting right through all the small talk.

I stalled, counting backward, and told him it was going on six months. His gaze turned to the ocean while he considered, then he said: ‘you’re at the crossroads then.’ I asked him to explain what this meant – crossroads? He told me that if I stayed out any longer, I might not go back at all. His comment was well-timed – in the past few days my return to Seattle no longer seemed so urgent or, frankly, necessary. The sailor explained to me that six months is a turning point – just enough time to fully detach. After six months of travelling, anything unnecessary becomes worthless and is left behind. What remains is all you need.

Motioning to my bike, he asked me if I had packed anything I didn’t regularly use at this point. I said no, realizing that I had given away everything that wasn’t crucial a while ago. Everything on my bike had purpose and value and this old sailor could see it. He related his own experience: when he was a young man he moved onto his small sailboat up in the Pacific Northwest. The sailor started staying out at sea longer and longer until after a six-month voyage he decided he no longer wanted or needed to return, to anywhere. He’d circumnavigated the globe several times and lived on his boat for over 40 years. I sat there dumbfounded.

I asked him what he was doing here. He said he was waiting for the right conditions to move on, a lull I had come to know very well. But this old sailor was too far gone in the one direction and it made me uncomfortable. If I were to continue my travels I would likely end up similar to the old sailor – adrift, detached, sailing toward my own extinction. It occurred to me that a man can easily sail out further than is good for him. As I watched him walk down the street and back to his boat, I thought I was in a good spot: riding somewhere but not yet lost to the sea of detachment. I finally felt ready to go home...

Todd Blubaugh Too Far Gone

The place you call home...

A mist heavier than rain hung in the air, collecting and streaking in blurry beads across my glasses. I had ridden between Portland and Seattle several times in the rain, but never on the final day of December. The extremity of the temperature froze me into a full-body clench. Finally I rounded the corner of I-5 south and there it was, the place I had started from, Seattle. I took the Michigan exit and dropped into Georgetown for a drink at my favorite bar, the 9lb Hammer, my link to a social life for the seven years I lived in the neighbourhood. The light is always dim, but illuminates just enough to identify all the regulars from across its two rooms. The taste of a Georgetown microbrew had followed me since I left back in June, so it seemed like a good way to finish my trip. It had only been six months, but already the neighbourhood felt different...

I sat down and ordered, looked around at the familiar faces, and discovered that nothing had changed. Sitting there with my glass of Chopper’s Red Ale it occurred to me that while I had gone on a life-changing journey, the rest of the world had not. There was something about coming back that didn’t satisfy. The old sailor in Sausalito had been right – something had shifted in the last six months, and Seattle had lost its hold on me. I thought about Ethan and Ariele in Kansas, and about my Mom and Dad and the beautiful home they had built and lived in for nearly 40 years.

Picking a place to call home is not a decision to be taken lightly, considering you might end up staying there the rest of your life. Seattle had been good to me so far,but I was too far gone.I found new insight once again under the roof of the 9lb Hammer, and now I knew the significance of home – sometimes you’ll run from it, and other times you’ll run back to it. I walked out into the rain feeling a renewed sense of calm and saw my bike loaded with nearly everything I needed. I knew I would find a place to call home eventually, but for now, The Red Head felt close enough.

The full story...

The full, un-edited, version of this incredible trip is available in Todd’s book - Too Far Gone.

Available at all good book shops and online. Or direct from distributor Turnaround. Email: orders@turnaround-uk.com or call 0208 829 3002.

Home: Sometimes you'll run from it, other times you'll run back to it.

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