Filmmaker Sterling Noren rides all over the United States on his motorcycle. Always on the lookout for the best rides. And always alone. Here, he talks about his motivation, his feelings and the deeper meaning behind his extensive tours.
The sun has not yet climbed over the horizon, and my motorcycle is already parked under the pale neon sign of my old motel in southern Arizona. The engine is burbling along in neutral while I give my luggage the usual once-over.
I’ve performed this ritual many times. Check-list ticked off before dawn. Do I have everything I need? Does the motorcycle have enough petrol? Where are we going today?
I accelerate and the boxer rolls onto the old highway with a dull growl. I think of the journey ahead of me: a solo trip through North America. My body and my motorcycle glide as one entity through the rapidly fading darkness of this morning. The air is already warm, but nothing compared to the heat that will later prevail in the desert.
Ever since I can remember, I’ve always wanted to live a life dedicated to travel, adventure and creativity. The combination of riding and film making gave me that opportunity. I’ve had memorable adventures on my solo motorcycle tours across the United States, and film making has given these journeys a deeper meaning.
I shot my first motorcycle travel film in 1998, the very year I bought my first adventure bike, a BMW F 650 GS. I’d chosen this bike specifically because of its offroad capability and robustness. I wanted a machine that could handle the rough tracks of the western United States and carry my camping and camera equipment at the same time.
Although I’ve since filmed many motorcycle trips around the world, some of my most lastingly impressive trips have been solo rides through North America.
My home at the Jonquil Motel in Bisbee, Arizona, is an ideal base for exploring the United States on a motorcycle. I’m surrounded by the beauty of the desert in the south-west, and Mexico is only a stone’s throw away. In the summer, I ride north to the Rocky Mountains or further into Canada. There are so many fantastic routes on my home continent!
I prefer to avoid the major interstates and ride almost exclusively on secondary roads. I especially enjoy following bumpy tracks that not many other people use. And by the way: these tracks often lead to the most interesting places.
I ride up to the crest of a hill range and pause in awe of the vastness that spreads out all around me. Ahead of me lies a descent of almost 2000 metres into North America’s deepest gorge. I can literally feel gravity tugging at my motorcycle as I carefully steer down the rocky slope. All around, the canyon walls rise into the sky. I realise that not a single person in the whole world knows that I’m here. I’m in an ocean of loneliness and my motorcycle is my lifeboat.
Riding alone is a completely different experience to touring with someone else. For me, it’s the purest and most authentic form of motorcycle travel adventure. When I’m alone on the road, I’m on a quest for personal and spiritual renewal. If I’m lucky, the gods of the road will grant me this experience.
The feeling of freedom I get from riding alone is an incomparable experience. And it’s this beauty of unlimited freedom, which I believe can only be found on motorcycle trips, that I want to convey to my audience.
Without companions to take into consideration, I can ride as much or as little as I want, stop as often as I want, or ride all day long without stopping at all.
But I do stop frequently to take photos or fly my drone. And I find this much easier when I’m on my own. It just works better, because I’m not interfering with what any fellow travellers might like to do. I enjoy this duality of riding and photographing. If I have a good day, I take a lot of photos that I know will make a good story.
Although documenting a motorcycle adventure is a lot of work and affects the whole experience of my trip, I’ve found that I enjoy this extra challenge because it gives my solo trips a deeper meaning every time. I can share my stories with the world and inspire other riders.
I leave my campsite and ride to a very remote part of the desert. The track turns into an endless succession of climbs and steep descents over loose and rocky ground. I fall several times and have trouble picking my bike up again.
There’s no shelter from the merciless sun here. The surroundings are parched and I drink my last water. This is the low point of the journey: I’m exhausted, dehydrated and miles away from a suitable campsite. It’s not unusual for people to die under such circumstances.
The emotional experience of crossing the United States completely on your own is as rich and varied as the terrain itself. Things that influence my mental constitution during a ride include the condition of my motorcycle, the condition of the route I’m riding along, the weather, my diet, obstacles and difficulties along the way and, of course, the thoughts that are going through my head. There is so much that influences my feelings during a solo ride.
Sometimes my mood changes several times during the day, other times a gloomy emotion settles over my feeling of well-being like a blanket and lasts for days. Riding alone has taught me to understand and accept the variety of emotions that come up when I’m on the road. I try to be present with my feelings all the time, without judging or trying to control them.
Travelling solo on a motorcycle is fraught with quite a few problems, especially if, like me, you enjoy travelling in remote parts of the country. The biggest challenges include technical defects, accidents, medical emergencies, bad weather, wild animals, navigation and communication. I’m not too worried about any of these things, but it goes without saying that one should be prepared for the unexpected.
However, the rewards always outweigh the downsides. One of the most rewarding aspects of a solo motorcycle adventure is the opportunity to experience being thrown back on yourself and the satisfaction that comes with that.
I set up camp on the shore of a lake. The surrounding rock faces glow orange in the late afternoon light. The air is soft and humid, and I can smell the opulent scent of the desert rain. Birds flutter around on the shore while insects buzz and hum. The only unnatural noises to be heard are the ones I make while setting up camp. I have the ingredients for a good meal and a full bottle of wine with me. Stretched out in my hammock, my motorcycle parked in the fading desert light, I watch the sun set. This will be a good night.
Every journey has its geographical and emotional turning points, and I look forward to the challenges of riding alone through the hinterland of the United States. When I take time out from the rest of the world for a longer period of time, my inner self can calm down, relax and find the freedom that’s out there, everywhere.
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Sterling Noren was born on 20 August 1968, in Grand Haven, Michigan. After studying communication sciences (with a focus on film and video) at Grand Valley State University in Allendale (MI), Sterling worked in the video industry as a cameraman, editor and producer.
Sterling has been shooting motorcycle films since 1998. Many of his films, which are not only about motorcycle travel, have won awards at international festivals.
In 2018, he and Eva Rupert took over the Jonquil Motel in Bisbee, AZ, from where he sets out on his solo journeys.
If you want to follow Sterling’s adventures, visit the Motorcycle Travel Channel on YouTube or his website www.norenfilms.com