Many Happy Returns

One man, three motorcycles, and 70,000-plus miles of roadworn bliss.
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Motorcycle Diaries

Photograph by Aaron M. Conway

Merrill Glos throttled his black Yamaha Super Ténéré 1200 through the center of a shallow sand rut, gripped the handlebars tightly, and counter-leaned his 240 pounds to keep everything upright. Those squishy six-inch-deep grooves plowed by truck wheels in the Gobi Desert made riding tricky, even for a seasoned 68-year-old biker like him. One of his two younger companions had already gone down several times. They’d be traveling in and out of these ruts on the southern Mongolian sand prairie for seven days and a thousand miles, passing through small towns and villages on their way to the Siberian city of Barnaul. If they held true to their GPSs, topo maps, and sun clues, they’d eventually see the snow-capped peaks of the Altai Mountains greeting them over the horizon. Wander off course by even a degree and they could empty their gas tanks in a part of the planet that is too far from everywhere to walk for help. The back of the back of beyond.

Once, in the Gobi Desert, he crept outside at 3 a.m. and was awed by the night sky. “There’s hardly a black spot left to put another star,” he wrote.

In the lead was Uwe, a burly 46-year-old German trucking entrepreneur, riding a KTM 990 Adventure. He kept blasting out ahead so he could stop to smoke cigarettes while his fellow riders caught up. Glos rode cleanup to keep an eye on less experienced Cornelius, a slightly built 56-year-old native Dutchman now living in Germany where he owns and runs a dental clinic. He was on a Triumph 850 XC, and the harsh Gobi landscape had more than once thrown him, his motorcycle, and his gear into a pile. In an e-mail to his wife Diane, Glos told how he’d teamed up with Uwe and Cornelius and described their wild Gobi crossing. “The physical hardship of the riding becomes a mental stress as well,” he wrote. “It’s obvious early on that this task will not be easy. We take it seriously and all contribute…sharing everything, food, drink, advice, righting a fallen bike…we’re a team and it’s an experience that brings back some (few) good memories of Viet Nam.”

The letter reveals, in part, what moved Glos to tackle a 29,695-mile round-the-world (RTW) motorcycle adventure that ultimately took him over four continents, through 34 countries, and across international borders 94 times. “Travel’s my thing, and I love motorcycling, so I decided to combine the two,” he told me back at his kitchen table in the carriage house he designed in Blue Ash. Downstairs was a spacious wood shop where three motorcycles and an antique truck are kept out of the weather. The road being the road, sometimes his experiences on an extended trip can morph quickly from challenging to flat-out scary. When he met Uwe and Cornelius—who had ridden to Ulaanbaatar from Germany and would loop back when they got to Barnaul—Glos asked if he could join them on the daunting southern dirt route instead of taking the paved road farther north. “I would never have tried that route by myself,” he told me, a somewhat surprising admission for a guy who’s logged more than 70,000 miles of solo rides. But with that much mileage comes wisdom. “I need alone time and I don’t like to compromise,” he said. “My riding friends are too into miles. I want to see and experience the culture.”

 

Glos started riding in 1972, four years after getting out of the Marine Corps. (He served in Viet Nam from 1967 to 1968.) His first motorcycle was a Honda 450. When he married Diane in 1974, they began to tour America and Canada two-up until he took a break from riding in the mid-1980s. After he retired from a full career as an engineer with Formica, he returned to motorcycling and his mile math went off the charts. Blame a rider he and Diane saw roll up to an outdoor café in the Yucatán Peninsula in 1985 where they were touring by rental car. The dude was riding from the top of Alaska to the tip of South America. “I told Diane, ‘Someday I’m going to do that,’”  he said.

In November 2003, he made good on his promise, saddling his year-old BMW R 1150 GS Adventure and heading south. His destination? Ushuaia, Argentina—sometimes called el fin del mundo (the end of the world). It took him six months and 25,370 round-trip miles. He planned to continue his Pan-America expedition by heading to the top of the world at Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, but his mother’s failing health pulled him back to Cincinnati for a while. In 2010, after her passing, he got back on his bike and rode north, the final outbound stretch taking him up 800 miles of mostly dirt and gravel that Alaskans call the “haul road,” from Fairbanks through Cold Foot, past the Gates of the Arctic National Park and the Alaska National Wildlife Refuge, alongside the undulating Alaskan pipeline and over the Brooks Range to the frigid surf of the Arctic Ocean. By the time he got back to Blue Ash, he’d ticked through another 10,000 miles.

Most bikers would be happy to die with 35,370 long distance miles on their tombstones, but Glos was just warming up. “Once you’ve done that trip, the RTW is the natural next step,” he said. So last April, he rolled out of his driveway on his new Ténéré—a more reliable ride than his BMW—and headed out U.S. Route 50 to California. From there he cut north to the Canadian coast, shipped his motorcycle to South Korea, and from there rode on through Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Georgia, Turkey, Bulgaria, Greece, Romania, Hungary, Slovakia, Ukraine, Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Germany, the Czech Republic, Austria, Slovenia, Italy, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, France, Spain, Morocco, Portugal, and Great Britain before picking up his bike in Maryland for the final 500-plus mile leg back to Blue Ash.

Riding through all those places in the open air, in all weather conditions, on pavement, across creeks and rivers, and over snowy mountain ranges and arid steppes is unfathomable—not to mention exhausting—to most four-wheel-loving humans. But Glos nearly doubled the required miles. “A direct ride around the world on my course would be about 15,000 miles,” he says, “but I went off that route so many times to see other places in the vicinity that interested me that it took 29,695 miles.”

By the time he pulled into his driveway last October, he had experienced six months of serendipitous surprises, grandeur, and simplicity. No matter where he ventured, whether through desolate backcountry or great, ornate cities, he made a point of staying out in the open where his senses were constantly stimulated. The epiphanies came at odd moments. One night in the Gobi Desert, staying in a rented room above a karaoke bar without indoor facilities, he crept outside at 3 a.m. to take a leak in the yard and was awed by the clarity of a night sky unsullied by any manmade light pollution. “There’s hardly a black spot left to put another star,” he told his wife in an e-mail.

His first impression of Ukraine came from the decor of a border crossing. He felt it looked tired and cheap compared to the border crossing of its neighbor, Poland, which to him seemed to be uplifting and energetic. “Poland has big plans,” he wrote to Diane, “Ukraine has mud.” But then he rolled into Lviv and sent a second message. “The warm sunny blue skies and this beautiful city have made a 180-degree turn of my mood and my opinion of Ukraine. What a difference a day makes.”

Sometimes the unexpected can put Glos on edge, like the time his fork seals failed due to a build-up of gunk and wintry sand. Or the time a huge truck nearly rear-ended him in Turkey. Or the young Russians who liked to get dangerously close in their expensive new cars. Things never really got tense, though—except for a brief moment at the border of Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan. “The Passport Control guy inspects my passport and declares ‘Problem…problem,’ ” he wrote. “What problem? Seems I neglected to register with the ‘Immigration Police’ which was required on stays of longer than 5 days…. This was day 6. My pleading didn’t work; he phoned someone in the ‘big office,’ who came and collected my documents and left me waiting.” Not for long. “Fifteen minutes later he returns with a thumbs up and says, ‘OK.’”

Back in Glos’s kitchen, I asked Diane what she thought of her husband going off on epic adventures all by himself. “I think it’s wonderful,” she said, conceding that her riding days are behind her. “It’s his adventure.”

 

One of the quandaries in motorcycle travel is what you can’t take. A bike has only so many panniers, nooks, and secret hiding places. Glos long ago figured out how to use everything at his disposal. For the RTW, he had to keep it lean: two T-shirts, two pairs of jeans, and socks; Teva sandals; meds and toiletries; a deck of cards; clean bandanas; a Mountain Hardware Gortex parka for cold and rain; some basic tools; a tire repair kit; a small bicycle air pump; rain pants; gaiters; light overboots to keep his feet dry; a small camera (he shot more than 4,000 photos); an emergency change of clothes; another rain parka with a hood that went under his helmet; credit cards; tissues; a compass; a laptop and its accessories; glass cleaner in a small squeeze bottle; guide books; a roll of Gorilla tape; and $1,000 in cash hidden in the foam of his bike seat. “Electronic crap and medications required half my storage space and weight,” he said—none of which went on his trip to Patagonia 10 years before.

I asked him how he swung his leg over the back of the bike each time he mounted with all that stuff packed on. “I’m getting older,” he said. “I grabbed my boot and lifted one leg over the seat.”

The putative wisdom of age may also be why Glos chose to ignore the common backpacker’s mantra that “cotton kills”—because it doesn’t dry fast and traps moisture against the skin, inviting hypothermia—and stuck with his usual uniform of jeans and cotton shirts, rather than synthetics. “I refuse to wrap myself in plastic,” he said. Though he bent that rule slightly for his ever-present top layer—his old, dependable BMW Santiago riding jacket, made of a heavy and powerful synthetic fabric called Dynatec—both for comfort and protection from road rash if he went down, which he never did. He also wore a full protective helmet at all times.

Each day he simply let events wash over him, never fretting about where he’d eat or sleep, or what dangers he might meet. He used guidebooks and maps but carried no camping or cooking gear, relying instead on people and places along the way to meet his human needs. He learned from his Pan American ride that sleeping quarters could be found in the remotest places, even if that meant sleeping in a yurt, as he once did in Mongolia.

In a way, the peak moments never stopped coming. Some were sublime, others more pastoral: Motoring through the stunning spires of the Dolomites in Italy’s Val Gardena area; checking Mont Saint-Michel, an ancient island fortress town on the northwestern coast of France, off his bucket list; exploring the colorful architecture of St. Petersburg, where Diane flew to meet him for an anniversary celebration; and traversing vast tundra in Siberia. But some of the most lasting, and most pleasurable, experiences came out of the blue, like the meal he had in Tamchy, a lakeside town near the Tian Shan mountains, at the end of a long day. “I walk to town and find a nice alfresco restaurant,” he related in another e-mail. “The gas stove is on the sidewalk, there’s a wok full of veggies and meat, and the soy sauce catches fire as she flips the wok…I point to the wok and then to myself and take a seat…. This will be the best meal of the trip…meat and veggie stir fry, flat bread, and a cold Coke, four bucks.”

“Traveling by motorcycle is different than sitting in a car,” Glos said. “There’s eye contact, handshakes, thumps on the helmet. No barriers.”

He’ll never forget seeing a family with three small children navigate their open truck, carrying everything they owned, over a high pass in Kyrgyzstan, presumably on their way to a high summer camp to graze their animals. Or registering the culture shock as he rolled through the cosmopolitan, tree-lined streets of Almaty, in Kazakhstan, teeming with beautiful women, lots of skin ink, and outdoor cafés alongside designer shops like Tiffany, Cartier, and Emporio Armani. Or the dark visit to the Battle of Stalingrad State Museum in Volgograd, Russia, which intricately detailed the horror of World War II’s biggest battle, in which nearly 2 million people died. “There was a 30-foot-long diorama showing nothing that wasn’t bombed out,” he recalled, “and I thought, How could anybody think that they ‘won’?

 

Glos has wandered farther from home and encountered more than most people on Earth. And he didn’t do it blending into the background. A 240-pound guy on a new, albeit dusty, motorcycle stacked high with gear won’t get mixed up with the oxen drivers at the waterhole. What had he learned?

In the end, he told me, his travels have made him less obsessed with stuff. From an e-mail: “I’ve been living out of a small pack, no wider or longer than my pillion seat for over five months…. I don’t need any more than what I’ve got.” And he was repeatedly surprised by the kindness of strangers. From another RTW e-mail: “I never met anyone who treated me badly or tried to cheat me…. Alexander and Mikhail who led me to a warm bed my second night in Russia…and Misha and Andrew in Almaty, who repaired my bike for ‘gratis’—WOW. What kind of people do that???? Damn good people.”

Are there any more heroic two-wheeled expeditions in his future? During the RTW, Glos had moments that gave him pause, times when he worried about getting sick, dropping his bike, or losing his passport due to a senior moment—any one of which could suddenly turn a serendipitous escapade into a nightmare. “On previous travels, I had the comfort of knowing that if I really liked a place, I could always go back,” he reflected at one point. “Those days and thoughts are over. This is it, baby.”

Not quite. When I tried to reach him for some pictures for this piece, I learned he was headed for Mexico with a couple of friends. Another 6,000 miles? Seriously? I pressed him on the big why.

“Traveling by motorcycle is different than sitting in a car,” he said. “It puts you face to face with the natives. People engage you. There’s eye contact, handshakes, pats on the back, and thumps on the helmet. There are no barriers.” He’d also discovered something else: “The less people have, the more they give.”

Glos is 69 now, the age when lots of guys start thinking about parking their cars by the retirement home dumpster. Not him. He hopes to visit a new country every year for the rest of his life, whether he arrives on a motorcycle or not. With 89 nations already checked off his list, he figures he can coast downhill on any number of wheels from here on.

Originally published in the May 2015 issue.

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