A weekend off the pavement opens our eyes to what matters most

Story by Mark Nielsen • Photography by Michael Nielsen

As our world moves toward the future, toward so-called progress, we may not like what we see: vast expanses of asphalt, new subdivisions taking the place of farmland, and a loss of the beauty of the countryside. Are we ready to see our land disappear? To no longer see the sun rise over a nearby pasture or set over a distant grove? In the world we live in today, empty fields are seen as a commodity rather than nature, and this trickles down into the general population. We throw away rather than recycle. Buy new instead of reuse. Houses lay desolate while new ones are built by the dozens.
The pace of progress has caught up to all of us. For our crew, our day jobs have become consuming. We work countless hours, through untold stress and frustration, grand success, and even failure. Yet as we drive home — past shopping centers, neighborhoods, and interstates — we seek adventure. Our eyes wander, and our minds quickly follow. We know there must be a detour, a diversion from this cluster around us. Not a road to nowhere, but a road to our ideals.
To get off the paved road and explore dirt roads is liberating. It transports you to a time and place that may only have existed in your imagination. But it’s there, and it’s real. And it’s right in our backyard. No traffic, no red lights, no trains. Only dirt, blue sky, and endless possibilities. This is what we came for. To get away and yet to be right here.
Then there’s the food. For us, food is the tie that binds. It’s an impromptu cookout after a scouting session rather than dinner out. A legitimate hot lunch on the trail rather than a granola bar or premade sandwich. Great food is such a tremendous part of our lives. We grew up in households anchored by a home-cooked meal, and that is one legacy we each pass along to our families. A meal from scratch is always worth the extra effort, be it at home, at camp, or here on the trail.
So here we are, huddled together on a particularly frigid Saturday, going over our route and plans in the dark space between night and morning. Now as we stand and eat homemade pop-tarts and bulletproof coffee, we laugh about how we get excited over a good break of pastry, or the perfect mug for a photo. Six men with a unified purpose — to have an adventure worthy of pictures, and pictures worthy of an adventure.
After a delicious and protein-rich breakfast we quickly load up and ride out, a race for the rising sun. Two motorcycles and a truck, all off-road ready and built for this type of adventure. There’s an excitement to setting off on any sort of journey, much less one that’s been anticipated for weeks, even months, on end. It’s an excitement that can barely be
matched, and we feel it immediately.
The cold cuts hard through our clothes, and the sun does little to make a difference. Thankfully there is only one stretch of road that requires highway speeds, and we get through it quickly. By the time many are just wiping the sleep out of their eyes, we reached our first waypoint, our destination for all the dirt roads we can handle: Green Swamp Wildlife Management Area. When most Lakelanders hear of Green Swamp, they may immediately think of deer hunters and tree stands. And they would be correct. As we enter this area on the last day of general gun season for deer, we see our fair share of rifles and blaze orange.
Now we roll off onto this leg of our trip, feeling the dirt beneath our tires. We drive until we find a spot for lunch, a grassy area with plenty of sun and a break from the wind. We set up a temporary camp with our field kitchen and cooking supplies, and quickly set to work on making a hot lunch. Homemade vegetable soup, made from scratch right on the trail, along with Shao Bing chicken sandwiches and some much needed beverages. We enjoy our break together, standing in the sun to get warm, telling stories, talking shop, and just being guys. We also have a good time making fun of ourselves, imagining the conversations in passing trucks as they see a bunch of dudes taking pictures of each other. A strange world indeed.
After lunch we’re off to lay tracks in the dirt, enjoying the sky above our heads and the dirt ’neath our feet. As we traverse our route, making wrong turns, dead ends, running out of gas, and burning leather on hot exhaust pipes, we grow stronger in our ties. These adventures of ours become our signature, an inscription of our time on this planet and our lives together. For as much as one can accomplish alone, we know of our strength in numbers. Our wisdom lies in our collective skills. Friends joined by purpose, bonded by story and adventure, and clear in intentions. As society hurtles on in progress, creating new technologies and necessities, we are sure to enjoy what we have around us, while we have it. Be that open land, friends,
or family. In our case, it’s all of those and more. Nothing can replace our time together, our time doing what we enjoy.
So while today’s road takes us to a friend’s house to meet our families and enjoy a delicious dinner spent around a campfire, tomorrow’s road takes us somewhere completely different. And that, our friends, is why we do this.
We chose clothes we’d want to wear every day. Clothing perfect for the trail or dinner around the campfire. We didn’t want to look like we strolled in off the motocross track or walked out of a bar during Bike Week. Not that there’s anything wrong with either of those. We just preferred to be guys wearing regular guy clothes. Simple, understated, a little rugged. Boots from our friends at Danner, helmets from Biltwell, good pants, thicker shirts, and custom sweaters.
There’s a time and place for being dressed up. If you know me, you know I like to be dressed well most of the time. Usually nothing that takes an inordinate amount of effort, but just a level of attention above the norm. However, dressing up isn’t for all of us. I’ve even found it’s not for me as much as it used to be. As with any aspect of style though, if you pay attention to some of the details and make conscious choices in what you wear, your style will come through. Like good boots, slim pants, a bandana nonchalantly stuck in a back pocket. Try
some things, but overall you have to let yourself come through. I don’t ever want to tell someone they have to wear a certain brand or look a certain way. Just make sure your clothes fit, that they’re good quality, that they match at least somewhat, and that you like what you’re wearing. Because if you’re just trying to copy someone else and you never feel good about what’s on your body — if you never feel like you — then it isn’t right, and you’ve missed the point.
I’m probably supposed to tell you that leather jackets and some sort of a biker look is “in” right now. But to be honest, none of that really matters to me. It never has. These kinds of looks work because they’ve got purpose. Heritage. We just mix them up in a way that feels right and is uniquely us. Maybe a leather jacket isn’t for you, but I’m here to recommend at least giving it a try. And if you walk into Red Door for dinner one night wearing a motorcycle jacket and a good pair of boots, you’ll probably get some looks. But my guess is that’s probably what you were hoping for.
This type of adventure calls for a specific breed of motorcycle. Some call them enduro, some dual-sport. Whatever the case, a heavy street bike or crotch rocket won’t cut it. A relatively lightweight bike is needed, with long travel suspension and off-road tires. We rode on a KTM 250 XCF, specially modified to be street legal and meet DOT standards, and a BMW F650. Both were extremely capable machines that served us well.
In addition to an abundance of camera and video gear, we brought our trusty Kanz Outdoors Field Kitchen with a propane stove, some simple cookware and enamel cups, and a cooler.
Tools for emergencies (which we didn’t need) and extra gas (which we did need). Translation dictionaries for the local language cash for negotiations signal mirrors, and carrier pigeons (kidding).
As we scouted our route we were nearly overwhelmed with inspiration as to what we should cook. From the newly found peach orchards, the orange groves, and blueberry farms, to the cow pastures, the broken-down cabbage truck, a side-of-the-road vegetable stand, the smell of brewed coffee in the air on that cold morning, then finally raving about our favorite restaurants on the way home, the menu was almost written for us.
Cooking the way we do, on the road, doesn’t have to be a daunting task. This menu was composed to use as few cooking utensils as possible. If you eat your breakfast at home, you can leave all that mess behind. If you eat it by the fire, all the cookware needed is the coffee pot. The only tools we brought along were a large stock pot, a large cast-iron skillet, a cutting board, a mixing bowl, and an all-purpose knife. We weren’t sure how well the kitchen at the end of our journey would be stocked, so the best course was to count on it being bare and to have confidence we could succeed in any condition.
Everything here was prepared with only those items at our disposal and only the food we actually brought. We always seem to forget some key ingredient that could theoretically make or break a meal. When the dust settles, the tendency is that it works out in the end and we instantly forget all the hiccups along the way. To be able to create and change recipes that have already been set in your mind takes a great deal of practice. Keep in mind, most recipes are truly just strong suggestions to guide you along the path. Here is what we came up with for this adventure.