John Smeltzer had another experience he needed to check off his bucket list.
His daughter, Lauren, had just graduated from high school and was looking for a big way to celebrate before starting college. Their solution was to take a cross-country motorcycle trip driving from Tennessee to the West Coast and back. The open road was calling.
The pair rode some 7,730 miles through different 23 states over the course of two weeks in July, and they stopped at 19 national parks along the way, including Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Grand Tetons national parks. They also saw well-known landmarks such as Mount Rushmore National Memorial and the Four Corners, the spot where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet.
They had pieced together a list of places they wanted to see and were also planning to attend a motorcycle rally in Reno, Nev., John said.
“When we planned the trip, I asked her what she wanted to see,” he said. “That started the ball rolling on the whole trip thing.”
A self-described “Army brat,” John grew up in a lot of different places, including a few places out West. He wanted to make sure they visited some of his old stomping grounds.
“It was something I wanted her to see,” John said, adding that the trip also gave him and Lauren some extra time to spend together before she would move away for college this fall.
The list of places kept getting longer and longer as they planned. They had originally allotted the time and money to travel an estimated 5,500 miles, but the trip grew.
The father and daughter live in Charleston, “on the edge of Cleveland.” John is a respiratory specialist and clinical coordinator of Respiratory Care at the main campus of SkyRidge Medical Center, where he has worked for 33 years.
Lauren, 18, graduated from Walker Valley High School in the spring and is planning to start her college career in a matter of days at Bethel University in McKenzie. She will study nursing on a scholarship she will receive for earning a spot on the college’s bowling team. Lauren and her father are both avid bowlers and have competed with bowling leagues in Cleveland.
They both began riding when Lauren was 8 years old. John bought a dirt bike for Lauren and his three older sons Sean, Ryan and Evan to share. He bought a motorcycle for himself around the same time.
Lauren said she graduated to riding street motorcycles four years ago and has been riding the roads since. Before her recent graduation, she was a “biker chick” who rode to high school on a motorcycle.
Even though just the two of them traveled together, they found a way to make people back home feel like they were part of the trip. Three days in, they began to use Facebook to share their journey with friends and family, posting status updates, photos and videos of where they had been that day. John said a friend a later told him it felt like he was making the trip with them.
“It’s hard to get 600 people on the bike,” John joked. “But we did it.”
Each of them had favorite places out of the ones they visited. The elder Smeltzer said he really liked driving through Utah for the state’s “great motorcycle roads” and rocky, rugged scenery.
“It’s hard to compare places like the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone,” he said. “Both [are] amazing in their own way.”
Lauren’s favorite part of the trip was riding on the Pacific Coast Highway in California.
“It was just really cool because you were on the mountain and could see the ocean,” she said.
While there were many things that could have gone wrong on a long road trip like theirs, the Smeltzers said they did not have much unexpected trouble.
Along the way, they had to have a new chain put on Lauren’s motorcycle. They also had a tire on her dad’s bike replaced, but that was something for which they’d already planned.
“We were well watched over,” he said.
They had to cross a destination off their list because of a forest fire and hit a rainstorm so bad they had to take a break under a highway overpass. However, both said environmental conditions were not too much of a concern, otherwise.
Each night, John and Lauren either stayed in a hotel or the tents they had brought along for camping. The two camped for five of the nights on the trip, stopping at some of the national parks they wanted to explore by daylight the following mornings. But John said the hard ground and some persistant mosquitoes made them appreciate hotels.
Before they left Tennessee, some friends and family had expressed concerns for their safety. John said one person suggested he carry a gun for self-defense. Still others were worried about the safety of being on motorcycles in general.
He said he thinks riding a motorcycle is only as dangerous as driving a car and that it all depends on the skill level of the driver. He and his daughter are both very experienced riders, he added.
John said there is a certain degree of camaraderie within the motorcycle community. When they would stop to refuel their gas tanks along the way, they would sometimes meet other bikers wondering where they were traveling. They got acquainted with one couple from Michigan who were traveling almost the same route they were — just in the opposite direction.
“You get a lot of questions,” he said.
John drove an orange Yamaha Raider, and Lauren drove a white and pink Yamaha FZ6R — complete with pink wheels. At one point, some Japanese tourists wanted to take photos of themselves with Lauren’s bike at one of their national park stops because they liked its colors, John said with a laugh. Another funny moment involved an Elvis impersonator in Las Vegas posing for photos on the back of Lauren’s bike.
After looking at a bunch of motorcycles at the rally in Reno, she later decided to trade her bike for a nicer upgrade.
John said he’s glad they got the chance to go on a vacation together before she starts college, and Lauren will have a unique response if someone at college asks what she did this summer.
“It was an amazing trip,” he concluded. Lauren nodded and smiled in agreement.