“And did you travel anywhere else while you were in Portugal?” Can’t answer this question without getting into The Story. The Customs & Immigration official was amazed that I’d go on such a trip alone. I didn’t bother mentioning that, statistically, I was just about to enter the most dangerous country on my route. With a THUD of a rubber stamp I’m back in the land where I understand the menus, speak the language and know the traffic rules. There wasn’t any shock to this…I just slid back into the familiar sights and smells, like hooking up with an Ex. Sitting behind the wheel of my rental car, I did crack a grin at the thought of simply driving: No bulky riding gear. Tunes, snacks and a beverage within easy reach. Cruise control. I wouldn’t even have to bother changing gears. After parking, a button on the key fob would make my possessions relatively safe. I was struck by how easy it is to travel by car. (There was a GPS/nav system, but I didn’t want to complicate matters.)  The plan was to drive to western Maryland to spend a week with my mom & siblings while the bike was in transit. I enjoyed the home cooking, the massive DVD collection, the claustrophobic chaos that can only come from three generations living under one roof. After a few days I drove to my old home town in West Virginia, and unexpectedly found myself at a party surrounded by friends I hadn’t seen in many years. It was a  somewhat surreal experience, but I couldn’t have imagined a more heartwarming welcome. A few dozen scenic miles south in Marlinton, I had an excellent visit with Jeff and Sarah and their growing family. (Sarah is one of those women that other women tend to secretly hate — even 7 months pregnant, she’s tending a huge lush vegetable garden, not missing a beat, making it all look  easy.)

After a few days, I drove back to BWI airport, dropped off the rental car and after a few hours of rigamarole, was reunited with my moto.

The crated bike at the Forward Air facility at Baltimore-Washington Airport.

But I couldn’t ride off into the sunset just yet, and not just because it was cloudy and raining. I wasn’t allowed to uncrate the bike at the Forward Air offices, so I had to rent a small moving truck. (This involved hitching a ride into Baltimore proper with a hotel shuttle. The kindness of strangers continues to impress.) With the bike forklifted into the truck, I drove back to Hagerstown and with help from my younger brother, the bike was uncrated & unloaded. She’d made the journey unscathed, and the freighting company in Lisbon had done a bang-up job securing the bike and my riding gear. A few more days of R & R, and I was itching to make miles!

The first stop on my route home would be Blacksburg, Virginia to spend a few days in the loving bosom of the Leland family. Not being one to have an idle mind or body, Jarrod dragged out a canoe, called some of his amigos and we spent time paddling on the brown, swollen New River.

Paddling on the New River.

Not surprisingly I ended up in the water, busting my shins bloody on the rocks.  (My first injuries of the trip!) Later, back in the Leland garage I took the opportunity to change the motorcycle’s crankcase oil and filter, and give the drive chain some love. With psychic batteries thoroughly recharged, I headed west, stopping in Beckley, West Virginia for more hospitality from a friend who has known me for decades. This included a stop at the famous King Tut Drive-In for chili dogs; I love these local, character-filled eateries.

I continued on a westerly course, stopping at Rockford, Illinois to visit another friend and her husband, catching up on life and telling war stories from the road. Leaving Rockford I realized that the next familiar scene would be when I saw my bus…home sweet home. But there were lots of miles between here and there, and I plied the backroads through Rock Falls, IL; Cedar Rapids, IA; Dodge City, KS; a slice of the OK panhandle, finally back to New Mexico.

Grain elevator in Kansas.


New Mexico welcome sign. The bullet holes tell me I'm almost home!

On the morning of my last day on the road, I woke up in a $25 room on the retro hotel strip in Tucumcari, which is not retro in the cool and fashionable way, but in the dusty, sunbaked,  depressed, decaying and declining way that is common in the southwestern desert. It was a long, uneventful slog to Silver City, and I expected the overlanding gods to take notice of how far I’d come without a major mechanical failure and ground me with a flat tire or mysterious electrical problem. But even though my Tourance tires worn to a square profile (they’d lasted since Kazakhstan!) and the bike had spent most of the last 10 months being mercilessly flogged across the Asian landmass, I found myself entering the city limits well before sunset. Turning onto the last street, then the gravel drive, then parking and killing the engine at the point where I’d started was chock full of anti-climax. My friend Randy came out of his workshop, smiled and asked, “Been out ridin’?” I climbed off the bike, gave it a pat and a smooch on the headlight shroud for its yeoman’s service. From a few hundred feet away my cat observed my presence with no outward sign of interest; within a few days I’d be forgiven and employed again as her door opener-closer, food dispenser and water changer. It’s a good job to have.