Motorcycling Across America with Gary McKechnie and Jamie Jensen: Part One

Photo of Gary kneeling with his helmet at the edge of a vista.

Gary McKechnie. © Nancy Howell.

Summer is here, and it’s the time of year to hit the road. Our Road Trip USA author Jamie Jensen took the time to interview Gary McKechnie, the author of the best-selling guidebook Great American Motorcycle Tours. Bored with his 9-to-5 job, McKechnie sold his house and set out to write America’s first nationwide motorcycle touring guidebook, embarking on an 18-month journey across the United States. He shares his favorite rides and pit stops, as well as some thoughts on the demographics of motorcycle riders.

It’s wonderful to be riding past fields of corn and wheat and often reaching areas where you can stop, park, look around, and realize it’s only you and your bike in the middle of 900 square miles. The solitude is spiritual.

Jamie Jensen: I know you’ve ridden all over the country. Do you have a favorite route, especially for summer rides?

Gary McKechnie: One of my favorites is riding the Blue Ridge Parkway from Mount Airy, NC, (hometown of Andy Griffith and the model of Mayberry) all the way down to Hendersonville, NC, near Asheville. This WPA project is a wonderful two-lane road that doesn’t allow semi trailers, has a very sensible 45-mph speed limit and stunning overlooks, and comes equipped with perfectly placed exits that allow you to drop into small towns, cool diners, craft shops, general stores, and even into the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. In the summer, the mountain breezes and elevation keep things fairly cool.

A second favorite is a ride across northern Kansas from Concordia to Oberlin, the majority of which is on Highway 24. It’s wonderful to be riding past fields of corn and wheat and often reaching areas where you can stop, park, look around, and realize it’s only you and your bike in the middle of 900 square miles. The solitude is spiritual.

JJ: What are some of the most memorable biker-friendly bars/restaurants/diners you’ve found on your motorcycle tours?

GM: In general, I’ve found riders are like everyone else in the sense that they look for great diner food—especially when it’s good, affordable, and served in a cool setting. Some of my favorites across America are the Plain & Fancy Farm in Intercourse, PA. This is Amish Country and the buffet meals here are so large, they’ll demolish you. In Hendersonville, NC, Harry’s Grill & Piggy’s Ice Cream are side-by-side so you get great diner food plus a chance to cool off at the old-fashioned soda fountain.

In Memphis, The Arcade has been going since 1919, and it’s a great place to order up meatloaf or chicken or a burger—plus it’s right around the corner from Beale Street. In Ludington, MI, the House of Flavors is an independent diner where the style is retro ‘50s and the ice cream is made on site. Sister Bay, WI, is in beautiful Door County and is where you’ll find Fred & Fuzzy’s, a bayside restaurant where they’ve put tables and chairs on the sloping lawn that leads down to the water. The view (and the food) are supernaturally fantastic. Another favorite is in Page, AZ. It’s the Glen Canyon Steak House and I remember arriving there after a long ride from the Grand Canyon and being thankful that they serve huge steaks, baked potatoes, and homemade soups. The service was wonderful (and they have a bar).

JJ: How are the demographics of motorcycle riders changing? I remember back in the 1980s there were all these “executives” riding Harleys, like Malcolm Forbes…

GM: Spot on. I’ve said that in the 1980s when Malcolm Forbes started bringing attention to Harley-Davidson, the image of riders changed from Marlon Brando to Marlin Perkins. At the same time, H-D was beginning to get its house in order and started building better bikes so when they became “the” American success story, movie stars and celebrities and musicians were racing to put on leather jackets, get on their gleaming motorcycyles, and be photographed riding throughout Hollywood and arriving for premieres. That was fodder for magazines like People and the boom really began as a lot of middle-aged executives saw motorcycles as a time machine that would erase years off their lives.

From the Hell’s Angels to Hollywood, there was a constant shift in attitudes about riding and the appeal seeped into Middle America. Today, no one gives a second look to a housewife or a senior citizen riding a motorcycle.

As far as demographics, that depends on who’s riding. Touring riders who need larger bikes and are more prone to explore—in very broad strokes—are generally better educated, have more disposable cash, and can afford the larger bikes. On the other hand, riders from their teens to early-30s, say, are drawn to the fast street bikes that give them all the speed they need.

Continue to Part Two →

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