In 2008, York-based training consultant Nick Gilroy gave up a good job to spend six months riding a motorbike 25,000 miles through every one of the USA’s 50 states. Now he has written a book about his adventure. STEPHEN LEWIS reports.
THERE was a small reception committee waiting for Nick Gilroy when he turned up at the motorbike dealership in Fort Meyers, Florida, to take delivery of his new BMW R1200GS Adventure.
It was February 1, 2008, and Nick was about to embark on the adventure of a lifetime: a 25,000-mile trek by motorbike through every state in the US.
The dealership’s sales manager had a route map draped over the front of the bike – and the machine even had a shark’s mouth painted on the front.
But despite the welcome, there was some scepticism about the task Nick had set himself.
“You’re going to do what?” asked one doubter.
“Do you know how big the USA is?” said another.
Nick knew exactly. He’d spent more than ten years planning the trip: and, in his late 40s, had given up his job with the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) so he could spend six months on the road.
A bike – even a big, powerful one – wouldn’t have been everyone’s choice of transport for such a journey. But Nick loved the freedom and independence of being on two wheels. “And anyway, people would be more interested in talking to a biker than someone driving a Ford,” he says, looking back on his adventure from the comfort of his York flat.
He was confident. He’d planned the route meticulously, so that he’d start in the warm south in February and criss-cross the country, heading gradually further north with each sweep, until he arrived in Alaska in August.
“When you do something big, like this, it’s the preparation that’s important,” he says. “I’d done the preparation.” As you’d expect of a man who’d done 26 years in the RAF as an air traffic control officer, followed by a further four years with the CAA.
He’d decided early on to do the journey on his own, so he’d be in control. He wasn’t worried about feeling lonely. “I’m a confident guy, and can talk the hind legs off a donkey,” he says. “I could never be lonely in a country with a population of 330 million.”
He ran his new bike in by tooling down through the Florida Keys, then headed north to the state capital Tallahassee to begin his journey proper.
His aim was to find the real America – to take in some of the stunning scenery, but also to talk to ordinary Americans: the people he met at hotels, bars and restaurants; at small towns or in traffic jams.
Every night, when he stopped in a hotel or a roadside motel, or with one of the many generous American families who offered to put him up, he sat down at his laptop to type in the experiences of the day.
It’s thanks to that discipline that his book – which runs to 500-plus pages – is so full of authentic-sounding encounters.
Early on in his journey, while skirting the flat, marshy coastline of southern Mississippi, he pulled into a roadside diner in a small town 20 miles west of Biloxi.
“It was like one of these scenes from a movie,” he writes in his book, Talking To Strangers. “The place went quiet and everyone looked around and stared at me, including the four police officers.” But he soon got chatting to the diner’s waitress about his journey – and before long most of the others in the diner were listening in too.
The waitress was a single mum, who could not remember the last time she left the county, let alone the state of Mississippi. “My juggernaut of a trip was not comprehendable,” he writes.
“As I left, she insisted that I return one day and tell her about my adventure. Even some of the locals that had frowned over their coffee and bagels as I arrived bade me a friendly farewell.”
In a Mexican bar in Amarillo, Texas, he found himself sharing cheap whiskies with a tall, well-built man in his sixties, who introduced himself as Danny Latham. Danny mentioned that he didn’t like flying – and gradually his story emerged. He was a former Vietnam War pilot who had nearly lost his life when shot down by a ‘spook’.
In his book, Nick lets Danny tell his story in his own words. It was his fifth mission of the day, at the peak of the war. He’d blasted off the runway, fully fuelled and armed to the teeth.
“Intel told us there were no spooks around, but I got a glimpse of a bright flash to my right in the woods and the missile hit the nose cone. I had recollections of my feet dangling in fresh air and that was it. Darkness. Next thing I knew I was waking up in a hospital bed quite broken up.”
He never flew again.
At the end of February, his face reddened by the cold, Nick was chatting to another waitress in another bar when a businessman from North Carolina sitting next to him joined in. They swapped opinions on everything from sport and religion to politics – it was election year in 2008: a year which was to see America’s first black President elected.
Every so often his businessman friend, Jim Trovato, would pop outside for a smoke, returning to announce it was still very cold out. “Yes, Jim, it’s been brass monkey weather today. Look that one up on Google.”
Jim provided Nick’s first experience of American hospitality – inviting him to visit his home near Raleigh, North Carolina. It was the first of many such invitations he was to receive during the 172 days of his travels.
Brits have a negative stereotype about Americas, he says. “But as individuals, Americans are frequently very funny, very friendly and very helpful.”
They also like the British, he admits – and during the course of his journey around the States he was often asked about his views on the US election.
One encounter in particular sticks in his mind. It was a rainy morning in June. He was approaching Montpelier, in Vermont. He passed through a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of broken windows, litter and wrecked cars. Then the smooth road came to an end, and he had to continue on a track of rubble and mud that was waiting to be resurfaced. In the middle of a heavy shower, he stopped at a traffic light – where he got chatting to the ‘stop-go’ sign man.
The man, who was clearly up for a chat to help wile away the day, told Nick he worked a nine-hour day for $9 dollars an hour – then launched into a diatribe against the state of the USA.
“How will the old people get through the winter?” he asked Nick.
“It is very extreme in this part of the USA, you know. We are very close to the Canadian border and winters are harsh. It’s all George Bush’s fault that the country is in this struggling position. Maybe you don’t see it being on your great journey, but we are in a hell of a mess and looking forward to the next President.”
That next president, as we all now know, was to be Obama.
Now his book is finished, Nick hopes to send a copy to the US President.
“I did the journey in the year he was elected,” he says. “So why not?”
• Talking To Strangers by Nick Gilroy is published by Nick, and printed by York firm YPS. It is available, priced £14.95 plus p&p, from YPS at ypdbooks.com
Nick began his journey in Florida in February 2008, and finished it six months later in Anchorage, Alaska, on August 11 – having ridden across a corner of Canada to get to the 49th state.
He then flew to Hawaii, where he hired a bike (a BMW naturally) to complete his journey through all 50 US states.
Now back in York, he works as an international training consultant. His job takes him all over the world, including the Gulf, Central Asia, and Russia.
He’s already planning his next great motorbike journey.
Watch this space.