America: Off-Road, And Off The Grid

Egle Gerulaityte takes a trip of a lifetime as she rides the USA’s Trans America Trail.

Deep into the night at a small campground in Ouray, Colorado, I had the weirdest dream: our tent was drowning in strange elvish light pouring down from some unknown source. Tall, menacing shadows were shuffling uneasily around our tiny abode, yelling for us to get out. 

Dazed, I realized this wasn’t a dream – someone was flashing their light at our tent and trying to get our attention. 

Annoyed – this was 2 am, after all! – Paul and I jumped out of the tent expecting to see some drunken camper lost in the dark. 

“You guys! Your motorcycle is being eaten by a bear!”, declared an excited silhouette which turned out to be our campsite neighbour. Stunned, we surveyed the scene: my beloved Suzuki DR650 was lying on its side, the outer layer of the soft pannier hanging in tatters.

“I heard a strange noise, so I got out of my tent and pointed my flashlight at your bike, only to see a face of a huge black bear staring straight at me! The bear was sitting on your bike, tearing into the pannier. Seeing the light, he looked at me for a moment, then slowly walked away”, recounted my bike’s savior, breathless. 

Gingerly, I picked my bike up and tried to assess the damage. The outer layer of my pannier was ripped apart, and its inner waterproof bag bore teeth and claw marks on it. 

Admiring the Shafer Trail, Utah

This was my last week riding the United States; Colorado was supposed to be the grand finale of riding the Trans America Trail and looping back via the Northern States before turning our tyres south and heading for the Mexican border. I expected technical trails, hard riding, and questionable weather – but a black bear attack? What was the universe trying to tell me? 

Bracing for the Quest 

I have a little confession to make. However much I try taking this riding around the world business seriously, most of the time, I fail. Miserably! I’m not very good at planning, and my usual modus operandi for deciding on RTW routes, itineraries, and inspiration is a simple but elegant (in an idiot-savant sort of way) principle of “why not”. 

“Why not”, I thought to myself before setting out on a 24,000-mile journey across South America on a Chinese 150cc motorcycle; “why not” got me riding as a pillion passenger from England to Nordkapp to Crete. So, when my partner Paul suggested riding North America on dirt, sticking loosely to the Trans America Trail, my natural response was, “of course, why not!”. 

Most of the time, people ride the Trans America Trail from North Carolina to Oregon. But because our newly acquired Suzuki DR650s awaited us at a friend’s house in Arizona, we figured we’d do it the other way round and, incorporating some of the Back Country Discovery routes, ride it backwards instead.

Our destination was New York, from which we’d continue North towards Newfoundland, loop back via the Trans Canada Trail and finally reach Oregon before winter. We had two sturdy dual-sports, a three-month visa limitation and 5,000 miles of dirt ahead of us. 

The New Mexico Backcountry discovery route

Here’s another confession: I’d never ridden dirt on a big bike before. Sand and mud were plentiful in South America but, riding a small 150cc bike and taking it slowly, I was just fine. Now, I had a mighty 650 which I lovingly named Lucy, short for Lucifer, and a much more experienced rider to keep up with.

There would be rocks, sand, mud and self-doubt to overcome, and although I trusted my “why not” attitude, I felt a tad uncertain. Was I up for the challenge? Will we make it in time before my visa runs out? Is the TAT going to turn from an epic adventure into an epic impossibility?

Most importantly, would there be pancakes along the way? 

An American Welcome 

As luck would have it, I unexpectedly got an invitation to participate in a two-day off-road training event in Santa Fe, New Mexico, just before we set out on our TAT quest. Dusty Wessels, the heart and soul of an off-road training and tours company, West 38 Moto, was organising a beginner’s training weekend, and I was a perfect candidate. “Come on over. We’ll come up with stuff, and it’ll be awesome!”, said Dusty cheerfully, and I was sold. 

This was my first experience riding in the States, and it was well and truly American – in a big way: wide Californian smiles, high-fives, and cheers accompanied every drill and task, and the group of riders who turned up for the training included an FBI agent, a competitive eater and a New Yorker with an attitude.

It almost felt like being in an American movie, complete with the surreal landscapes of the South West and the warm New Mexico spring. 

Having brushed up on my off-road riding skills and experienced American hospitality first-hand, I now felt much more optimistic of my ability to complete the Trans America Trail. Sure, I still couldn’t power-slide, hop over logs, or wheelie, but I felt balanced enough to give the Trail and the BackCountry Discovery routes my best shot.

Colorado’s Engineer Pass

Cowboys, Mustangs, and Rattlesnakes 

“Looks like someone chopped off its head and took its rattle”, said Paul, pointing at a lifeless body of a rattlesnake that had met his doom on a sandy track. “Probably the local ranchers”. 

Feeling a little sorry for the creature while simultaneously hoping I wouldn’t come across a live and angry one, I couldn’t contain my excitement. This was the real deal: the deserts and mountains of New Mexico, the land of real cowboys and Indians, cattle ranchers and rattlesnake hunters! Everything in the States felt a little surreal, a little déjà vu, a little like I’ve seen it in a Hollywood director’s cut. 

In New Mexico, the movies all came to life: cowboys dressed in denim and leather would gallop along a herd of cattle on their fiery mustangs, waving to us as we rode slowly by. Local ranch owners would race by in their huge rusty trucks, kicking up clouds of dust; perfect blue sky glittered above yellow and red rocks, giving way to green prairie in the valleys below. I’ve never seen such vast, open spaces before, and freedom on two wheels has never felt so delicious. 

Dusty’s lessons were giving me wings: Lucy was nimble but sure-footed at the same time, and miles disappeared effortlessly under my tyres. Even when a sandy track suddenly turned into a slippery nightmare of mud on a rainy day, I managed to stay upright: battling torrential rain and soapy road surfaces was a challenge, but a challenge that I was ready for.

True, we didn’t finish our ride that day because the mud got so thick and slippery that even our knobbly tyres couldn’t cope, and we ended up setting up camp in the rain and spending the night in a soaking wet tent listening to the howls of coyotes nearby – but it only added flavour to the adventure. 

The incredible Panorama from Colorado’s corkscrew pass

Zigzagging all over New Mexico, Arizona and Utah, Paul and I camped under the stars, soaked in the sun and took in the dizzying beauty of the Canyon Lands. “You could ride in the West for a whole year and only barely scratch the surface. No wonder Americans travel less – the country is just too beautiful to leave”, remarked Paul as we sat on the edge of Canyon de Chelly, one of the most spectacular canyons in the States. 

I couldn’t help but agree. My “why not” policy, I knew, was paying off once again.

Finding Bigfoot 

After thoroughly testing ourselves and our DRs in the sand and mud of the Canyon Lands, we were now ready to take on the Rockies. Aiming for Antonito, Colorado, we set off for the mountains, climbing higher and higher on the twisty back country roads.

Coyotes and rattlesnakes were replaced by elk and deer, dry prairie grass gave way to aspen and pine forests, and the warm Utah sun began flirting with dark heavy clouds blanketing the snow-capped peaks in the distance. 

“In the winter, the world turns blindingly white here, and it’s easy to get lost if you don’t know your way”, explained Troy, Paul’s friend from Antonito who invited us to stay for a couple of days.

Freelancing as a snowmobile guide in the winter, Troy hunted elk and hiked the surrounding hills in the summer: looking more like a weary fur-trapper or a soldier of fortune from the nineteenth century than a modern adventure rider, Troy preferred to live off the grid. “I track elk, observe the mountain lion dens, and know every nook and cranny of these mountains.

Sometimes, I’m gone for days – there’s always something new to discover. Once, I found a set of strange footprints by a stream. They were way too big for a human, and anyway, people don’t venture out that far into wild country”, he whispered mysteriously. 

Whether he had really discovered Bigfoot’s lair, or was it just another elk hunter, I’ll never know, but the wilderness of the Rockies left me breathless. And it wasn’t just the altitude: even after riding the Andes in Peru, Bolivia and Chile, the Rocky Mountains felt like a new wonder of the Earth.

Although we couldn’t complete our off-road trail here – the higher mountain passes were still covered in ice and snow – we hoped to come back the next time and explore Colorado’s back country again.

Battling the heat in Moab

The Lullaby of the Great Plains 

“Once we descend from this last hill, you won’t see another rise in the land until Arkansas”, warned Paul as we rode down into a big green valley. “This is where the Rockies end. From now on, it’ll be straight lines, cornfields, and farmlands”. 

Deviating from the TAT slightly as the snow in the mountains had changed our route a little, we clipped the corner of Kansas and, riding steadily along white gravel tracks, rolled into Oklahoma. 

This was the beginning of the Great Plains – a massive expanse of prairie covering the midsection of America. Home to roaming herds of wild horses, the Cherokee, and the last bison, this whispering sea of grassland stretched endlessly into the horizon, making my head spin. 

But the novelty soon wore off: days and days of riding straight farmland trails, crisscrossing the enormous grass pastures and cornfields, soon morphed into one monotonous, sleepy lull. So, when we finally reached the first foothills of Arkansas, I was over the moon: the wild horses and the boundless green country is a sight to behold – but preferably, in moderate doses if you’re on a motorcycle. 

In Arkansas, we deviated off the Trans America Trail again. Paul wanted to visit friends in Louisiana, and I knew I had to see New Orleans, even if it meant sticking to paved roads for a while.

The Deep South 

“Y’all be careful on them things now”, exclaimed a little blonde woman wearing a crispy white polka-dot dress in a parking lot of Lake Charles, Louisiana, pointing at our motorcycles. The legendary Southern hospitality here was in full swing: treated like long-lost relatives by friends and new acquaintances alike, we were enjoying Louisiana to the fullest.

Sampling alligator stew, local peach moonshine and gumbo added color to the experience, but the most thrilling part was yet to come: Paul’s friend Pat kept a whole arsenal of guns in his house, and I was promised a shooting lesson. 

Snowy trails in the rock mountains

Gun ownership is a subject of much debate in the States, and I won’t get into it here. When asked why they have guns, most Americans will answer, ‘because I can’ and in most cases, those guns never leave their safes. In Pat’s case, his collection of weapons was used to shoot plastic ducks in a pond, and I was offered to try it out. 

I’d never shot a gun or held one in my hand before, so the plastic ducks stood a fair chance. Following Pat’s instructions, I tried both the hand revolvers and the semi-automatic rifles, hitting a few unfortunate targets, missing most; other guests joined in, offering me to try their guns, too, and before I knew it, we were all filling Pat’s pond with bullets.

“Is there a zombie apocalypse y’all are training for?”, inquired Pat’s neighbors via a Facebook message, while his buddy Wade lamented the fact that we didn’t have any explosive targets to stick onto trees, “now that would have been some serious fun!”. 

Louisiana was the craziest state so far – but it was also the most hospitable and most welcoming, and New Orleans with all its jazz and its magic found a very fond place in my heart. 

After saying our goodbyes to the state of Louis XIV, we headed to Mississippi and, crossing Tennessee on the back-country roads, into the Appalachians. 

Once the Movies Over 

In the East, our luck seemed to have run out: heavy rain followed us wherever we went, messing up our TAT route and forcing us to detour on paved roads. Hurrying across South and North Carolina and West Virginia, we stopped briefly in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, only to run into more bad weather as we crossed the New York state line.

The day we reached the Big Apple was bright and sunny though, and we made our way slowly through the traffic. Riding our filthy dirt bikes across Manhattan felt like traipsing on polished parquet in muddy Wellingtons, but we couldn’t care less: the mission was completed, and we were in New York – New York! 

After the ecstasy wore off, we headed north for Vermont and Maine, and for the next couple of months, our adventure continued on the Canadian side. But we still had some unfinished business in the States, and after crossing the border again in September, we headed straight for Colorado again. 

The mineral creek trail

The blue Wyoming sky felt like a hearty welcome, and soon enough, we were riding the Rocky Mountains again. This time around, we were aiming for the Engineer Pass and the surrounding peaks. Back in May, we were too early, and now, in September, we were too late: it was already snowing in the high passes, and the nights were freezing.

“Let’s just reach Ouray, and after that, we’ll turn south again”, encouraged Paul. Engineer Pass and Mineral Creek were some of the most spectacular trails in the San Juan range, and snow or no snow, we were determined to ride them. 

Eventually, Colorado cost me a few good scares – unexpectedly hitting a wet, slippery patch of deep gravel on a steep turn, I nearly went off a cliff – and a pannier which ended up being chewed by a hungry black bear, but if I could, I’d do it all over again: the Rockies are the ultimate adventure riding playground, and whatever your skills or your bike, it’s a must-see for any motorcycle traveller. 

Before I knew it, my visa was about to expire again, and there was nothing left to do but head for the Mexican border. As we cut the corner of New Mexico before heading to Arizona, and tread through the bulldust and gravel again, I remembered my initial feeling of being in an American movie. 

The movie was over now: I’d grown accustomed to the big smiles, the vast open spaces, the cowboys and the wild horses, the Great Plains and the dreamy Appalachian forests, the heat of Louisiana and the magnetism of New York, the dainty houses of Vermont and the lobster boats of Maine. I got used to the hospitality, the madness and the generosity of America, and what once felt surreal was now a very palpable reality. 

“Why don’t we hop on a boat, sail to the Caribbean, and ride Cuba and Jamaica next? And once we’re done with Central and South America, why don’t we come back and ride the States again?”, suggested Paul as we waited for the customs officer at the Tecate border crossing. 

“Why not”, – I said, grinning.

5 incredible places to visit on the Trans America Trail

Canyon De Chelly, Arizona


To me, it was more magnificent than the Grand Canyon itself. Canyon de Chelly isn’t as well-known and therefore has virtually no tourists flocking to its rim daily. You can enjoy the breathtaking view in perfect silence and solitude, and there’s a quiet little campground nearby to spend the night. You can’t go down the canyon on your motorcycle unless you get a permission from the local Navajo tribe as it’s in the Navajo Nation country, but if you do, riding the bed of the canyon is an incredible experience!

The Shafer Trail, Utah


This is one of the most breathtaking rides on the TAT: starting near Moab, Utah and zigzagging down and across a dry canyon bed, the Shafer Trail is a spectacular half-day ride that takes you through Mars on Earth. Red rock formations, miniature canyons and salt water pools make it a magically surreal place – just make sure you have enough water with you as the trail can get technical and the temperatures can reach over +40C!

New Mexico back country discovery route


New Mexico is a vast, wild country, and riding it feels like being on some nineteenth-century discovery expedition. Wild-camping is available anywhere, and the incredible nature is just aweinspiring. Beware of rattlesnakes and mountain lions in very remote areas!

Ouray, Colorado


Ouray is a perfect base to explore the surrounding San Juan mountain range and its high passes: riding California, Corkscrew, Hurricane and Engineer passes is a rite of passage for local adventure riders, and if you’re feeling really confident, have a go at the Black Bear Pass – a steep, rocky track that cuts across the mountain face offering an adrenaline surge and incredible views along the way.

Want to ride this route on your own bike?

Riding the Trans America Trail is on the bucket list of many riders, but renting a bike for the whole journey can be troublesome and costly. Not only that, but an adventure is always better when done in the saddle of your own steed, and so transporting your motorcycle to the States is your best bet.

Currently, depending on your start and endpoints for the ride, the average costs for return freight from the UK to the USA is £2,200 with Moto Freight.

Visit for more information.

The Bike

Before I learned to ride a motorcycle, I was an avid horse rider and trainer, so to this day, I can’t help but compare bikes to horses!

My Suzuki DR650 is not an elegant Arab (like, say, a KTM500), a fearless Irish hunting horse (like the Tenere 660) or a gentle Shire giant (like the BMW GS 1200) – it’s more like a sturdy, furry, stubborn Shetland pony that looks a tad ridiculous and will never jump high or gallop fast, but it will trot happily and endlessly on, sure-footed, steady, and reliable on any terrain and in any weather.

What it lacks in speed and power it more than makes up in lightweight, reliability and simplicity; I love that it’s nimble and agile enough on sand, bulldust and deep gravel but steady and sturdy enough on uphill switchbacks and rocks. It currently has 46,000 miles on it and I’m sure I’ll triple that number in the following years without any trouble! 

New York New York!