I hear the sharp pop of metal moving. An orange flash falls into the maple tree, getting caught on the handlebar like a makeshift kickstand. The bike has fallen against the tree, settling into it's final resting place. This is a fairly good outcome, as the tree safely separates the crashing bike and the tumbling rider, like a referee breaking up a hockey fight. This is the rider's second attempt charging up a steep hill through the woods; she has bypassed the trail, which is in worse shape than the wild forest floor. We are in a deep gulf somewhere near Slade, KY, with no cell service. The only way out is up.
The old logging road—it’s gracious to call it that—is so washed out that the “easier” option is to attempt to cut around the problem via better traction in the thick leaves and forest floor, skipping the slick, polished rocks and wet clay swept clean by one of the wettest springs we have had in recent memory. The rider is Marisa McInturff (aka “she_braaps” of Instagram fame). Her husband and head mechanic on our trip, Caleb, scurries up the hill to assess the bike as Marisa has already shown us the “I’m fine, but frustrated” body cues. Setting my camera down, I join to help pick up the bike. The GPS mount is broken, and the unit is hanging from its charging cable.
The handlebar has slipped forward from the impact of the tree, but it is loose, and the stem bolts are stripped. Luckily, Marisa’s last-ditch push launched the bike near the top of the hill, and the three of us are able to success-fully push it the rest of the way back onto the trail, completing the bypass. We now have to get Caleb’s bike up the hill past the problematic area. Between the three of us, we are able to ride/push it up to the top. It is now time to discuss a plan and drink some much-needed water.
The Kentucky Adventure Tour
This has been one hell of a trip! We are all pretty beat at this point, waking up at Paul’s Motel in Jackson, KY, on the sixth day of our journey on the Kentucky Adventure Tour, or KAT for short. The trail follows a naming and branding scheme of the more well-known Trans American Trail. The goal of the KAT, similar to that of the TAT, is to tie the most extreme off-road trails with the least amount of pavement using small country roads as connectors. In theory, that sounds perfect, but in reality, it may not be, depending on your tolerance for adventure. The off-road sections can be difficult, as Marisa’s crash proved. Ninety percent of the ride is in Kentucky, but the KAT is loosely framed in by West Virginia, Virginia, and Tennessee, so you technically will be riding in four states on this ride.
The trail, which covers more than 900 miles, is supposed to take five or six days to complete. That might be possible if you like to ride fast don’t break down, and have good weather. I would recommend allowing for nine days. A100-mile-a-day average gives you time to stop and smell the roses (or fix your bike, take pictures, and not be rushed when setting up and breaking down camp). This type of riding requires a high-performance single-cylinder dual sport, like a KTM, Husqvarna, or Beta. I wouldn’t even recommend a DR-Z400 for this route. However, the off-road sections are spread out, which requires riding your dirt bike on asphalt sections for sometimes 60 miles at a time. This burns up your tires and quickly puts hours on the top end; with every drudging pavement mile, that mandatory rebuild looms closer and closer. On top of that, you will be riding through some of the most beautiful countryside in the East, so camping to fully enjoy the experience is highly recommended. That all requires more gear, which means more weight. Now you have one heavy dirt bike that, on the pavement, will vibrate your hands and arse to sleep, and still frustrate you on the steep, slippery off-road hill climbs.
In short, this route will test you. If that is your idea of fun, you will be on cloud nine. If not, there are thousands of other routes to ride that will all be easier on you, your bike, and your repair bills. I happen to be among the strange group of motorcycle enthusiasts who enjoy the suffering rides. I’m sure my therapist could explain why I pursue difficult things. It’s probably like the emo songs from the ’90s that deal with cutting yourself just to feel something. I realize that’s a little dark, but there are more people out there like that than we think. I would argue that most riders are plotted somewhere along that spectrum. Whether it’s just the desire to feel the stiff wind on your face, the vibrations of the motor pulsating your body, or pushing hard into the corner until you finally feel that peg scrape, which instantly curls your lip up into a smug grin. The KAT is that peg-scraping ride, day in, day out! It’s no Sunday afternoon cruise to the local Dairy Queen.
But back to the problem at hand . . . Fortunately, the three of us muster up enough enthusiasm-based energy as a team to literally get out of the woods, but mentally we are about finished. After the initial get-off, Marisa notices that her knee, which she had injured years ago, feels funny. The weather forecast for the next two days is solid rain, and rear tires on two of the bikes are nearly bald from all the pavement sections. We decide the smartest move is to call the trip. At this point, we are starting to run a little more on luck and less on prepaid measures. We made it through 80% of the route. Maybe one day we will go back to finish the western segment that runs right through the Daniel Boone National Forest. However, I learned a lot from this ride, and this is really what I want to share.
Things I learned on the KAT
1. Don’t force it. The older I get (I turned 36 in August), the more I don’t like to force things. I like to plan hard and play hard, but the best things that I have accomplished in life had more of an organic quality to them. Things that I have forced—relationships, housing projects, trendy diets—have not been as successful. Yes, we could have finished this trip by digging deep, but at what cost? I’m all about progression and growth, but it needs to happen with a solid plan and in realistic steps, and not be done recklessly by trying to use shortcuts that don’t exist.
2. It’s teamwork. There is no reason to be a lone wolf on the KAT. You can be, but that would make the ride harder for no reason. With three people we can divide and conquer together. Marisa was on navigation duty. She put in all the hard work of downloading routes to her GPS, managing waypoints and recalculations, and making great on-the-fly adjustments. Caleb was our head mechanic. Never a day passed that he didn’t make use of his tool roll—either for simply tightening loose bolts or doing a complete valve check in a parking lot. If there is a way to keep the machines running, Caleb will find it! Me, well . . . I just take pictures and attempt to live in the moment. I do bring some other things to the table and can sniff out the local spots like you won’t believe.
3. Be humble. I am a huge researcher, so I love to pick the best bike, the best gear, the best everything. I get just as much fun sitting behind a computer planning as I do sitting behind the handlebar. No matter how much I plan, or how much I think I know, I do not know it all and I will always have more to learn. Caleb and Marisa are extremely talented and knowledgeable riders. On this trip, we taught each other many different things. From my rock stack “kickstand” trick to Caleb’s complete lecture on the different types of carburetors out there and how they work, we all learned a lot. When gearheads get together, it can sometimes turn into unhealthy debates of what is better and why, but on this trip, everyone was open to new experiences and learning from each other. That requires a healthy dose of humility.
In short, this trip was all about delayed gratification. I am slowly forgetting about the suffering: waking up at 5 a.m. and riding in 35-degreeweather to the top of a frigid mountain to get a sunrise photo, for example. I am forgetting about the countless stops on the side of the road to fiddle with carburetors. I am almost forgetting about my numb butt from riding 150 miles at 70mph on knobbies.
As I sit comfortably in a coffeeshop writing this story, I pause to look at the beautiful photos that you can only get from a ride like this. I flip through photos of wild horses running through the open steps in West Virginia. I remember Caleb’s look of accomplishment as he navigated a questionably deep water crossing successfully. I especially remember limping the damaged bike and our battered bodies out of that deep Kentucky gorge on the last night of our trip. Caleb and Marisa, thank you for inviting me on this crazy, unforgettable route and teaching me a few humbling lessons along the way. To every-one else, get out there and experience something on your motorcycle!
Facts & Info
Distance: Approximately 900 Miles
The route is focused on connecting off-road sections with minimal road sections. The natural result of that goal takes you away from civilization and puts you deep into the backcountry. Supplies are more challenging to come by. Motels, food, and gas are available, but they’re all limited and more spread out. Definitely plan ahead. The best time to travel is when it’s dry. With the pop-up storms in the mountains, it’s hard to predict when it will be dry. You will probably be caught in the rain at least one day, but that just adds to the adventure. I would recommend this route when the leaves are still on the trees, which means early spring to late fall. Keep in mind that the wetter the season, the deeper the water crossings will be. There can be flash floods in the area, so water crossings can pose a rare but real danger.
Roads & Biking
The off-road terrain is challenging. To keep the ride fun, you should take the lightest street legal bike you can get your hands on. What is optimal is a single-cylinder KTM, Husqvarna, Beta, or the new Honda CRF450L. I would discourage taking any other bike. The level of difficulty is advanced, and you should definitely know your way around a tool roll. The road sections are fantastic: all the turns you could ask for, and virtu-ally no traffic. The fact of the matter is that you are in some of the most sparsely populated and remote areas that the route builder could find. I mark that up as a huge win for this ride! Well done.
Motorcycles & Gear
2005 KTM 400exc
2007 KTM 525exc
2019 Honda CRF450L