This Photographer Rode His ’76 Harley Across America For 6 Months, The Results Are Beautiful
Photography by Florence Walker
B&W Photos are courtesy of Todd Blubaugh.
One day English Literature Students in lofty ivory towers will study the themes surrounding road trips with the same intensity as they study gender in Twelfth Night and love in Romeo and Juliet. One of the works you could imagine them discussing late into the night is Todd Blubaugh’s latest offering, Too Far Gone.
Combining photography interspersed with short personal essays and select letters written while on this epic pan-American trip on a 1976 Harley-Davidson, Too Far Gone exemplifies the kind of documentation you wish you’d do when you took a road trip. But that isn’t its only outstanding feature. One of the themes of this book is bereavement; both of Todd’s parent’s died days before his long-planned journey. But rather than cancelling his plans, Todd set off with a new purpose: to keep going as a means of therapy.
Todd’s poetic language and candid photography is therapy in itself for the reader. For anyone seeking to understand man’s way of dealing with bereavement, this book is a must.
I got to sit down with Todd out in the high desert where he’ll be calling home until his next odyssey.
Florence Walker: How did you get into motorbikes?
Todd Blubaugh: The motorbikes were a proximity thing, there was a big field behind our house. People would come ride bikes, just to play round. All of the county roads started just at the edge of our house. It was the first thing that I became enamored with. Eventually my dad let me get a mini bike and after that, it was done – I couldn’t think of anything else.
FW: Did you fantasize about joining the circus or going on a road trip when you were young?
TB: Yeah, I did, I fantasized about that kind of thing all the time. I got my first dose of it at a very young age. My friends and I could ride around all those county roads by ourselves. It was pretty lawless now that I think about it. I was the first in the neighborhood to get a bike and as other kids got bikes we were this little wild pack of motorcycle kids, falling off… we didn’t even wear helmets or shoes some of the time. I don’t think our parents understood how much you could hurt yourself on one of those little machines.
FW: Was this your first road trip?
TB: No, but it was my first cross country trip, and the longest so far. I didn’t really have a timeline. As I got a little further along I decided that I wanted to stay out for the remainder of the year. I actually came home New Year’s eve, so I pretty much did that. I wanted to get back and get my life on track again. It felt like New Year’s was a good time to do that.
FW: Was there a goal to the trip?
TB: Not really. I just wanted to ride the coast to Los Angeles. I didn’t really have a plan further than that. But after my parents died it changed. When I got down to LA, I realized I’d severed communication with the rest of the world and felt O.K. with it and so I just kept on going. I’d always had the intention to document the journey so that I would bring home content but I had no structural concept yet. I was sort of hoping to come home and get my job back, actually. That was my contingency plan – thank god I didn’t need it – but once I got on the road it felt too good and too right and the concept was starting to take shape. This was a way of dealing with my loss. I describe it as displacement therapy when you take yourself out of your element. For some reason if you’re ever wanting to leave where you’re at, there’s probably something pushing you out. You might not know what it is, you might just feel like it’s time to go, but you have to listen to it. And when you do and get out there you’ll find yourself in a lot of places, often times places you don’t want to be and it forces you to look for something to ground yourself to. You end up finding a lot of similarities in relationships and places that you might never have expected.
The memories we collect, without the hard copy and documentation get blurry. They loose their shape a little bit and I felt an immense amount of pressure to stay sharp for my parents. I didn’t want them to get blurry, I didn’t want this time to get blurry and the people in my life to loose their shape. I just recorded things that would keep it sharp. I didn’t know how to arrange it I didn’t know what shape it would take. Whenever I felt a sense of urgency not to lose it I’d write it down. And another thing that really helped was photography. Having a camera is like having a time machine. When you look at a sharp image you revisit that moment.
FW: There’s very little by way of hard-core detail about the bike you rode, what are some details about it?
TB: The bike was originally a 1976 Harley Davidson FXE when I got it. I didn’t really ride it around much before cutting it in half. The hardest thing that I did was to shorten the frame. At the time my tastes were for much smaller, compact bikes and I didn’t want to waste any space so when I was mapping out the frame with the pieces I had, I figured out how I could arrange some of the big chunks to eliminate some extra space and I really shot myself in the foot because there’s a reason why that space is there – mainly to get tools to get in and out. For example, it looks very small yet it looks stock. That’s because there’s a inch taken out of the length which means it also comes down an inch… Which I had to remove from the height of the oilbag. Then I made the triple trees from scratch (well, on a c and c). It was my first solid works files that I experimented with and I made a set of forks that I based off of old Simons forks. I had access to a machine shop at the time and I cannibalized an XL 500 front end, cut it down 6 3/4 inches and used the lowers which had a leading axel… this put an inch back in the geometry, making the bike stable again. So it’s got a dirt bike front end, a shortened frame and it goes everywhere (mostly) that I need it to.
FW: Were there problems on the road?
TB: Tons. You wake up every day and there’s something. You really have to love it. It was smooth sailing down to Los Angeles, just a few little tune-ups to do along the way and then everything just vibrated loose. Everything I brought was either a tool for the bike or camera equipment.
Anything I didn’t use I either mailed back or threw away. I ended up rebuilding my entire motor back home in Kansas. I had to be there for some family business anyway and I had the resources to do it so I figured what the hell? It kept my mind occupied while I was dealing with my family mess, plus I had the open space and cool temperatures to break in a new motor… That can be frustrating in the city. By the time I got back to Seattle I had it all dialed in. It worked out perfectly.
FW: What was your most useful piece of kit on the road?
TB: I had a little timing advance tool that I acquired along the way. That locks your advance lobe forward and helps you set the timing on the bike. I static timed it the whole way, as I didn’t have a timing gun because it’s annoying to carry, but that little locking tool saved my index finger… And I converted from hydraulic to solid lifters half way through the trip. It felt like a significant upgrade.
FW: What’s your next trip?
TB: I guess their might be a sociopolitical current to the next trip… Last month I had an electrical short riding in the rain down the Oregon coastline. I didn’t have a voltmeter and I had blown through all my fuses. I was on the side of the road and this old fella in a green pick up truck with a tail gate full of trump campaign stickers pulls up and I thought to myself, “This is going to be interesting.” But this guy was awesome. We pulled fuses out of his truck, put them in my bike and found the problem. We ended up taking my headlight out and wiring it up as a continuity tester and found the short in my taillight. All this time we’re talking and making jokes and he’s a funny and warm character. We were six miles from the next town and he said he’d follow me there just to make sure I would make it. I was so grateful. I thought that it was so nice of this guy to go the extra six miles to make sure I was O.K..
So early on a Sunday morning, this Trumped-up pick-up truck is following me into the next town. We get to an O’Reilly’s and we get into the parking lot and he asks me if I’d like an ice tea, it was a little cold out but I thanked him and accepted. He gave me an ice tea and went to shake my hand. There was a twenty-dollar bill in his hand and he said, “Get home safe.” And then he just drove away. And I have to say that I love being wrong about people and I was totally wrong about him when he pulled up. He made my day, He saved me some major frustration and changed my mind. I’d like to take a trip that analyzes my misconception of others. Navigate the country based on these chance encounters… See where and what conclusions I arrive at. That will be my next big trip and my next book. I’ve already started working on it.