Easy rider: Kiwi's epic solo motorbike ride around North America

Heath was drawn to quirky attractions such as the Extraterrestrial Highway in south-central Nevada.
Heath Ling

Heath was drawn to quirky attractions such as the Extraterrestrial Highway in south-central Nevada.

It was his second day in New Orleans after a long, hot ride from Mobile, Alabama and Heath Ling had given himself a job to do.

Since setting out on his epic five-month, solo motorbike ride across Canada and the US, he'd been collecting small, giveaway items from motels. He put them into bags for the homeless.

Checking out the sights of the French Quarter and Garden District the previous day, he'd been shocked by the number of people sleeping rough.

Heath only loosely planned his journey, giving himself the freedom to follow locals' suggestions.
Heath Ling

Heath only loosely planned his journey, giving himself the freedom to follow locals' suggestions.

And so, after a quick breakfast at his campsite, he packed up the bags and headed back, scanning the narrow streets of the city's oldest neighbourhood for "that homeless girl with the sad eyes".

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He didn't find her among the tourist throngs but, remembering an underpass where he'd seen a group of homeless people previously, he headed there and got talking to a man with an artificial leg perched on a crate.

Heath said he "never had one bad experience" on his five-month journey.
Heath Ling

Heath said he "never had one bad experience" on his five-month journey.

The man, Tim, told him that he'd been living on the streets since his divorce four months ago. As they chatted, a guy with a crutch who Heath judged to be in his sixties introduced himself as Dwayne, saying he'd been on the street for six months, also after getting divorced. As Heath told them about the bags he'd prepared, Dwayne picked up one filled with toiletries for women and placed it near a lady asleep on the concrete nearby.

"He didn't have anything but he didn't want her to miss out," Heath said. "That really touched me. I wish I could have done more but, at that moment, I was pleased to have been able to do something."

Now 48, Heath has come to believe that while we can't all change the world, we can all strive to have a positive impact (big or small) on those we come into contact with.

Heath shipped his bike from New Zealand to Canada.
Heath Ling

Heath shipped his bike from New Zealand to Canada.

Born in Sydney and raised in the UK, Heath moved to Christchurch eighteen 18 years ago, determined, after his own divorce and the death of his stepson, to devote more time to the things he loved best: reading, writing and photography.

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Enthralled by Magnum photographer Eugene Richards' Below the Line: Living Poor in America, Heath dared to dream that he too would one day be able to use his talents to raise awareness of the inequality that still exists in so many sections of society.

But after the massive earthquakes that shook Christchurch in late 2010 and early 2011, killing hundreds and harming many more, everything changed. Like the crumbled central city itself, Heath felt a fractured version of the man he once was; was forever fearful that everything could come crashing down at any moment.

Heath shipped his motorbike, a 2002 BMW, and trailer from New Zealand to Canada.
Heath Ling

Heath shipped his motorbike, a 2002 BMW, and trailer from New Zealand to Canada.

He spent three years helping victims of the quakes - as a volunteer and then as an earthquake support coordinator and insurance claims specialist - but, suffering from bouts of depression, realised he needed to do something to help heal himself too.

Inspired by the late Christchurch biker Mike Hyde's Twisting Throttle, he decided a solo motorcycle tour of the US could be his saving grace.

He initially dreamed of breaking the Guinness World Record for the longest motorcycle journey in a single country and enlisted in a boxing boot camp to develop the physical and mental toughness he believed he'd need to complete his mission (and raise funds for teen cancer charity CanTeen along the way).

Heath said people tell him his trip was "extreme" but he'd recommend everyone do something similar.
Heath Ling

Heath said people tell him his trip was "extreme" but he'd recommend everyone do something similar.

Not naturally sporty, Heath felt sick to the stomach every time he had a sparring session, when he would inevitably end up "getting pounded". Fractured ribs and concussions are among the injuries he sustained during the eight-week course, which culminated in a professional-style fight.

"Every time I got in the ring I felt physically sick because I knew I was going to get hurt; that I wasn't good enough. But I did it anyway because I knew that if things got tough on my trip I'd need to be able to carry on. It taught me confidence and perseverance."

Raising about $600 for Canteen from his final fight, Heath realised he'd need to make serious financial sacrifices if he was to break free of the nine-to-five rut he felt was contributing to his depression and set out on his journey.

Tim (right) and Dwayne (centre) said they'd been living on the streets since their respective divorces.
Heath Ling

Tim (right) and Dwayne (centre) said they'd been living on the streets since their respective divorces.

And so he sold his house, cleared his debts and arranged for his bike - a 2002 BMW he'd picked up secondhand - to be shipped to Canada telling himself that, even if he didn't manage to break a world record, his journey would still be meaningful.

"I thought that if I could make a positive change to someone's life just by saying hello, taking the time to talk to them or buying them a coffee or a meal, that would mean more to me than any accolades that may be gained from a world record."

Heath admits he had no idea what to expect when he set out that first afternoon from Langley in Canada's British Columbia under a rainy sky. It didn't help that his GPS began to malfunction as the city streets gave way way to wild landscapes he describes as "like New Zealand but ten times bigger".

Biking enabled Heath to take in the "phenomenal" North American landscapes in his own time.
Heath Ling

Biking enabled Heath to take in the "phenomenal" North American landscapes in his own time.

"My friend said it was like watching a little bird leave the nest. I thought "what have I done? Where am I going?""

But he quickly settled into life in the saddle, striking up conversation whenever he could in an effort to uncover "the real America".

He'd half expected gangs and gunfire, but everyone he encountered was extraordinarily friendly, from fellow travellers and local waitresses to Hells Angels bikers.

Despite sleeping in areas home to bears, snakes, spiders and scorpions, Heath said he never felt afraid.
Heath Ling

Despite sleeping in areas home to bears, snakes, spiders and scorpions, Heath said he never felt afraid.

"When you're a biker and especially when you're on your own, people, especially women, will come up to you, ask what your story is and then send you off with a "honey, ride safe"."

Caught in a rainstorm en route from Yellowstone to Red Lodge, Montana, he pulled up alongside a biker who made his heart skip a beat when he stared at him intently for a few long seconds before reaching into his bag and pulling out, not the weapon he'd feared, but a Bud Light.

"He said you look like you need it buddy," Heath laughed.

Heath trained in boxing to develop the stamina he felt he needed for the journey.
Heath Ling

Heath trained in boxing to develop the stamina he felt he needed for the journey.

The two got chatting and Heath ended up staying with the biker's family in South Dakota for about a week who, in turn, told him he had to see the Rockies. Later, he took a couple he met part way through a 100 kilometre run up on their offer to stay with them if was ever in their hometown of Madison, Wisconsin.

Driving into Centralia, Pennsylvania - a ghost town which has had an old coal mine fire smouldering underneath it for more than half a century -  he managed to hit the only pot hole on the road, breaking a wheel on his trailer.

Deciding to take his chances waiting by the side of the road for someone to drive by, he couldn't believe his luck when the first vehicle to appear was a tow truck.

There have been countless reports of UFO sitings at the mysterious Area 51 military base.
Heath Ling

There have been countless reports of UFO sitings at the mysterious Area 51 military base.

"He gave me a ride into the local town and a couple of days later the trailer was good to go," he said.

Heath found himself overawed by the landscape wherever he went, from the vast open spaces of what he calls "big sky country", where frequent thunderstorms supercharged the already electric atmosphere, to geological marvels such as Devils Tower in Wyoming. Rolling up to the 264 metre pile of magma as lightening bolts illuminated its lined facade, Heath felt like he'd stepped into1977 sci-fi classic Close Encounters of the Third Kind.  

A fan of film and Americana, he also sought out offbeat attractions such as the Extraterrestrial Highway which runs through a moon-like desert landscape past Area 51, a top secret military base which has spawned countless conspiracy theories, particularly of the alien kind. 

Heath made it his mission to discover "the real America".
Heath Ling

Heath made it his mission to discover "the real America".

But he found America's uglier, darker sides just as compelling, saying life in the "grim" trailer parks and poorest neighbourhoods made him realise how good we have it in New Zealand.

"America can be a bit oppressive in some ways. The ads will say things like "Do you have grey hair? Then you may not be competitive at work ..." There's a culture of fear mongering. Yes, bad things happen but your chances of being shot, for example, are probably a million to one. Having been through the earthquake, I have a different perspective. You don't know what's going to happen tomorrow. You can't live life saying "what if?"".

Making good on his promise to connect with others, he did good turns wherever he saw the opportunity, giving his bas (and camping equipment) to the homeless and offering words of kindness and encouragement where he could.  

Noticing the waitress who served him one evening had a "really amazing aura", he casually mentioned as much and, getting up to leave, noticed she'd written "thank you for making my evening" on the receipt. 

"It's just the little things sometimes. Doing whatever it is you can to make a difference."

In Las Vegas, after 123 days on the road, he decided to cut his trip short and head back to Vancouver, having stretched his budget to the absolute limit. He'd hoped to find work in England for a while but, after applying for some 150 jobs and getting just six responses, he decided to return to New Zealand, the country he calls home now.

"It's where my genuine friends are. In England, I'm still mates with people I went to school with but after travelling to New Zealand, the quake ... My whole perspective on life has changed."

Back in Christchurch, Heath is looking for work and planning to write a book of his more than 35,000 kilometre American odyssey in the vein of Bill Bryson's popular travel books. 

"The trip made me realise that it's not the big bad world people make it out to be. I've had my challenges, like the depression, but I haven't let them stop me. I'd love to be able to pass on what I've learnt through my writing."

 - Stuff

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