Going South on an Antique Motorcycle

Philip Gulley shares his somewhat dubious plan to ride a 1974 Triumph Bonneville 2,000 miles along the Mississippi River.

(Amanda Bixler)

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A woman in our town recently told me I should run for president, which of course would be flattering had she not also told me Elvis was alive and farming in Iowa. Nevertheless, it made me think what I would do if I were president, and I decided I would have the government buy everyone a motorcycle. I’ve been riding motorcycles since 1977 and in that time have not committed a single act of murder, theft, or treason. From this, I can only conclude that the average motorcyclist is a model of rectitude.

I’ve owned 13 bikes, a mix of Japanese and British manufacture, so can declare unequivocally that while Japanese bikes are more reliable, British bikes are more ­exhilarating, given their tendency to break down 100 miles from home, stranding the rider on a lonely roadside an hour before dark. This summer, I’m riding south along the ­Mississippi River on my 1974 Triumph Bonneville, a trip I’ve been planning for some time. I use the word riding in the loosest sense, since the chances are good I’ll be marooned beside the river, brought to a halt by one of a dozen maladies that regularly infect a vintage Bonneville. I’m going alone, unable to persuade any of my friends to accompany me on a trip that will likely end in shame, the bike sold for scrap in Louisiana, with me hitchhiking home.

When I was 14, I read Huckleberry Finn and realized, even at that tender age, that no man should die without at least one epic journey in his repertoire.

The idea for this odyssey came about when it occurred to me that after writing 22 books, I had never written one about riding 2,000 miles on a 44-year-old motorcycle. I own a brand-new Triumph Bonneville that is utterly reliable. I could, of course, ride it, but it would make for a dull story. Nothing quite hooks a reader like chaos, danger, and suspense, all of which are guaranteed when one goes forth on a vintage Bonneville. To heighten the drama, I’m packing only one change of clothes, making no reservations anywhere, nor consulting any maps, gauging my direction by the position of the sun and the moss on trees.

I’m doing this not only for reasons of livelihood, but also because I’m staring 60 in the face and the time is fast approaching when such journeys will exceed my reach. Plus, when I was 14, I read Huckleberry Finn and realized, even at that tender age, that no man should die without at least one epic journey in his repertoire. After all, one day I’ll be drooling on myself in a nursing home and will need something to think back on and smile.

I mentioned this trip to a man in our town who has lived his whole life with an upraised and dampened finger, testing the wind, looking for storms.

“People these days are crazy,” he warned me. “You shouldn’t do that. You might get killed.”



I have a higher opinion of my fellow citizens, having always relied heavily upon their kindness. I look forward to spending hours each day in gas stations, roadside diners, and tow trucks, getting to know them better. By the end of my expedition, I predict I’ll have an even more favorable view of my countrymen, and will eagerly be planning my next sojourn into America’s heart, riding out to Iowa to see Elvis. Like he said, it’s now or never.

Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor and the author of 22 books, including the Harmony and Hope series featuring Sam Gardner.

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  1. Wonderfully inspiring! I should not let my great age keep me from driving my old PT Cruiser whose A/C is not working from getting on I-465, joining the hell bent race, to get to Meeting on time. Thank you, Phil!


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