For many years family and friends heard me say my goal upon retirement was to point my Harley west and keep going until the front wheel touched the Pacific.

Well, like they say, Father Time always wins.

I still love throwing a leg over the saddle of my old Heritage Classic. I trust the bike. It’s me that is less trustworthy for that kind of endurance riding over mountains and across deserts.

So my wandering spirit traded two wheels for the comfort of my four-wheel drive SUV. I recently returned from a 6,500-mile discovery tour of the great American West. I hope, at least once, every American eye may witness such breathtaking beauty.

I fell about 400 miles short of dipping rubber in the Pacific, but traversed 11 states on a meandering route. The destination was Tucson, Arizona, for a few weeks of trying out the snowbird lifestyle. Not surprisingly, I like it. A lot. So did sons Kyle and John, who flew in for a golfing break from the winter. So did the lovely wife, Stephanie, whose only complaint was she couldn’t stay longer because she’s still working full-time. Being older has few advantages, but retirement surely is one of them.

Tucson is a gem. Throw out every preconceived notion you have about the American southwestern desert. It is not endless miles of sandy nothingness. It is bursting with life and beauty.

A recent column spoke about my father’s 95th birthday, so the first leg of the trip was a visit to the family farm in downstate Illinois. My Wisconsin friends might say it’s flat. Boring. Not me. It’s the beauty of America’s breadbasket, among the country’s most productive farmland. A relative handful of people feed millions. America is only as strong as its farmers.

Next stop: Oklahoma City, for a few days visiting my sister, Kathi. She’s older but looks younger. Not fair. My bet is there are others in the readership who have siblings strung out across the country, seeing them sparingly. Make time.

By Oklahoma and then Texas, the scenery and the temperature changed. Still mostly flat; the plains stretch endlessly under a big sky. Less crops, more cattle. Fewer people. A growing sense of the nation’s size, of remoteness, of the relative smallness of mankind as humanity clings precariously to the soil.

I like to see the America that’s mostly invisible from the great superhighways, so I chose the old roads through Texas and New Mexico. A night’s stay in Roswell—yes, that Roswell—found a touristy town complete with small green statues of aliens everywhere. Even the street lights were painted to show an alien face. Or whatever we earthlings think aliens are supposed to look like.

From there the drive quickly shifts toward the spectacular, taking U.S. 70 across the Sacramento Mountains and entering the Mescalero Apache reservation. In preparation for the trip I devoured several southwest history books, all of which gave me a sense of what this land must have looked like when the only people here were what we call Native Americans these days. The inescapable truth is that those people were original inhabitants thousands of years before European explorers and later, their descendants, arrived to seize the land by any means necessary. In school we were told that was “Manifest Destiny,” a concept holding that the United States was ordained to become a continental nation stretching from the Atlantic to the Pacific. In practice, it amounted to the near-extermination of people whose misfortune was being in the way.

Connecting with Interstate 10 at Las Cruces, words scarcely can describe the remote desert landscape between there and Tucson. Signs warn of dust storms, telling drivers to pull over, stop the engine and wait it out. Fortunately, it was sunny and mild.

Tucson does not have a big-city vibe, because it literally stretches for miles across a valley surrounded by mountains and is built with respect for the natural surroundings. Tall buildings are rare. It’s a dark-skies city, limiting light pollution, so at night the stars are incredible. Golf is great. Mountain hiking is everything it should be. The Desert Museum is a must-see. Nearby day trips to Tombstone—the historic site of the OK Corral gunfight—and to places like the old mining town of Bisbee, or the Casa Grande ruins, or old Spanish missions, are easily arranged. Foodies will love Tucson, as my pathetic waistline attests.

There were places I wanted to see calling for a different return route, two-lane roads through towns like Globe and Show Low and Snowflake. Good decision. The natural beauty—whether along lonely desert stretches or into the high plateaus and mountains—is exceptional. My destination along U.S. 191 and a couple of all-but-deserted tribal roads was Chinle, Arizona, on the Navajo reservation beside Canyon de Chelly. It’s sacred land to the Navajo, containing ancient ruins. The grandeur, combined with the remote stillness, is spiritual.

From there it was more nearly vacant roads through Utah—a highlight is Moab and its surrounding national parks—then a white-knuckle crossing of the Rockies in Colorado. Remember those reports of major snowstorms in the mountains a couple weeks back? My timing was perfect. Let’s just say the four-wheel drive was tested topping Vail Pass summit at 10,600 feet.

Nebraska. Iowa. Illinois. Not much to say, except crossing the wide plains in a covered wagon must have been hell.

The point of this particular travelogue? Get out and see America. Ditch the plane ticket. Buy that expensive gas. Wander off the expressways. Read some history before you go. Measure the trip in sights seen, not miles crossed. Your soul will thank you.

William Barth is the former Editor of the Beloit Daily News. Write to him at