Travel & Adventure Ten Countries, Five Motorcycles, and One Year: These Were The Best RidesMacedonia, Ecuador, Italy, and my other top-shelf rides this year.
- Words & Images Owen Clarke
If you ride motorcycles, your year is often only as good as the miles you’ve logged. Luckily, I’ve had a pretty good year. I rode five bikes in 10 countries. Here were my favorite rides.
In August, my girlfriend and I took a Pan America 2,500 miles across Italy and through the Balkans. We started in Rome, hit the Italian coast at Bari and went through Albania, Kosovo, Montenegro, Bosnia and Herzegovina, and Croatia, but the highlight of the trip for both of us was probably North Macedonia, particularly riding in Mavrovo National Park. This rugged, mountainous wilderness is densely-forested, laced with sharp gorges and soaring cliffsides, and littered with centuries-old monasteries. One of the coolest we visited was the Monastery of Saint Jovan Bigorski — built in 1020 AD — which perches on a cliff high above the valley.
Mavrovo, the largest of North Macedonia’s four national parks, also contains the highest waterfall in the Balkans (350+ feet) and is home to an eponymous 3,400-acre lake. The village of Mavrovo, for which the park and lake are named, offers sublime winter skiing and other outdoor sports year-round. Submerged in the south end of the lake is St Nicholas Church. This sunken church is normally only accessible by boat, but during summer droughts you can reach it on foot. Mavrovo is also the jumping-off point to hike the Golem Korab (9,068 ft) the tallest peak in both North Macedonia and Albania. I took the Harley up a steep dirt road to reach the settlement of Strezimir, the starting point to hike Korab. If you ride a bike in Mavrovo, that’s a must-do.
I rode my Triumph up to Reno from Las Vegas for a Protect Our Winters leadership summit earlier this year. With a few detours to dodge wildfire smoke and a short stop-over in California, I ended up clocking a little over 1,000 miles in a couple days of riding. I slept in the “Clown Motel” in Tonopah, haggled with a bald dwarf in Goldfield over the price of an “original” (yeah, right) picture of Butch Cassidy, stopped to pay my respects to the Paste Eater’s Grave, bivvied in an abandoned lot behind a gas station in Indian Springs, was nearly washed off the road by a hailstorm in Truckee, and inhaled enough wildfire smoke to kill a small animal.
Central Nevada is a good place to go to find nothing. Highway 50 isn’t called the “Loneliest Road in America” for nothing. But—at the risk of sounding corny—places with nothing are the best places to go to find something inside yourself.
At sunset, motoring back south from Reno, I came up over a rise and onto a flat, lonely stretch of road somewhere north of Boundary Peak. The tarmac stretched endless into the darkening horizon, dead straight. To my left, I saw a wild horse galloping across sagebrush-speckled desert flats. I pulled over, but it didn’t want shit to do with me and my noisy motorcycle. So I just sat there on a rock and watched it canter in circles, the sun setting fiery red behind it. There was nothing and nobody in sight except me and this horse. I felt something like bliss.
I rode the Amalfi Coast twice this year. The first time was with the same bulky, luggage-laden Harley Pan America I took across the Adriatic to the Balkans with my girlfriend. Earlier in the year, however, I cruised Amalfi on a 50cc scooter alone, carrying a pair of flip-flops, a towel, and not much else.
The social scene along the coast is a bit snooty, and you’re more likely to run into an Instagram model or fitness influencer than you are to meet a normal human being. But Amalfi and its precipitous, snaky coastal roads are world-famous for a reason. Stay in Agerola, just north of the coast at Conca dei Marini, for the cheapest lodging & food, and some of the best views on the peninsula. Campeggio Beata Solitudo is the spot to camp or hostel crash.
Ecuador is an underrated gem, often overlooked by the more well-known Andean destinations of Peru and Colombia on either side. It gets a bad rap because it’s likely the most developed country in the region, and as a result it can feel more “Americanized” and less authentic. But the wilderness in Ecuador is some of the most pristine and diverse in the entire continent. You can access high-altitude summits, dense tropical jungles, and sublime beaches and coastlines all within a few hours. Ecuador has 10 mountains higher than 5,000 meters (16,400 feet) and the Ecuadorian Amazon is only four (ish) hours from Quito by motorcycle. There’s also world-class scuba diving all along the coast, not to mention the Galapagos Islands.
My girlfriend and I lived in Ecuador for a little over two months this spring, and it’s pretty much impossible to mention every ride we did. One highlight was crossing the southern portion of the Illiniza Reserve, from La Maná to Zumbahua, soaring up above 10,000 feet across the verdant, windswept highlands. Another was taking a DR650 to Puerto Misahualli, a monkey-infested town on the banks of the Río Napo in the Amazon. Dirt roads and muddy jungle tracks spider out from the town on all sides, and I was able to ride for several kilometers along the riverbanks and into the jungle. Probably the coolest ride was rambling up to 15,000 feet at the refugio on Cayambe (18,996 feet). The steep, boulder-filled mud chute leading up to the hut was one of the roughest off-road tracks I’ve ridden—especially with my saddlebags heavily laden with climbing gear—and although I probably spent as much time pulling the bike out of mud as I did riding it, it was a treat. A snowstorm trapped me at the hut for the better part of the following day, but eventually the road melted enough for me to cruise down.
Moral of the Story: Check out Ecuador. (I also have to mention my friends at Sleipner (Ecuador Bike Rental), who know the best rides, restaurants, and lodges in the country.)
I’m freelance and work remote, so I often take a couple of months out of the year to visit my family in Huntsville, Alabama. While at home, I fired up my dad’s ’79 Shovelhead and rode the hilly backroads near my parents’ house, snaking through the wooded vales and sinks of Keel Mountain Preserve.
Even though I learned to ride on these roads and grew up a stone’s throw away, I think this was my favorite ride of the year. You never know what you’re going to see. You might come over a hill and find an abandoned ATV on fire. You might see a grown man playing inside a plastic kid’s playhouse alone in his trash-strewn front yard. You might see a driveway littered with dozens of open coffins. I don’t remember where I went or what roads I took. I didn’t take any pictures because, well… isn’t that the point?
After my ride, I went to Cycle Gear to buy my dad a chain brush and bumped into a guy grumbling about not being able to find the jacket he was looking for. He was griping about Cycle Gear having triple the selection at their San Diego location.
When I told him I was born in San Diego, but grew up here in ’Bama, he smirked in commiseration. “Fuckin’ sucks, right?” he said. “I can’t believe you left San Diego to come here.”
Caught off-guard, I gave a noncommittal shrug. “I mean, at least gas is cheap,” he continued, “but I can’t really think of anything else good to say. Nothing to fuckin’ do.”
This guy was riding a lime-green Ninja, wearing an Apple Watch, and his body had the beefy-but-formless, doughboy shape of someone who clearly eats their protein and hits the gym, but likely would have an aneurysm during a 50-yard sprint.
“It doesn’t have it all, but Huntsville’s alright,” I said. “You get out away from town and there’s some great riding on the backroads.” This guy didn’t care. He just shrugged and resumed shopping for a new riding jacket, one with bright green striping on the arms instead of blue, to match his Ninja.
Oh well. His loss.