By the time Ty Murray retired from professional bull riding, in 2002, the last thing he ever thought about doing with his spare time was traveling. He packed up his bull riding gear for the last time, in Billings, Montana, and went back home to Stephenville, Texas, where Murray and those who knew him best figured he’d spend as much time as he could working on his 2,400 acre ranch.
He and his best friend Cody Lambert had driven and flown hundreds of thousands of miles from one pro rodeo to another and eventually crisscrossed the country after co-founding the PBR with 18 other bull riders; so the cowboys had seen more than their share of truck stops and airports.
For Murray, it was time to settle down and become more of a rancher than a rodeo athlete, who had become widely known as the “King of the Cowboys” during his years of riding bulls, saddle broncs and bareback bucking horses. At that point, he was done and the transition to the next chapter of his life was an easy process.
In fact, when he wasn’t mending fences, doctoring calves or tending to his horses, Murray took to the skies and discovered a passion for piloting a powered parachute.
He and Tony Anderson, who lives about 40 miles east of Murray’s ranch, would spend hours each day flying hundreds of miles over the countryside deep into the heart of Texas. Anderson, 66, recalled one problem: wind. If the wind got to be too bad they couldn’t fly, so the old timer told his recently-retired pal, “When the wind’s blowing we can go cycle riding.”
Murray, who turns 46 in October, wasn’t into the idea.
“He’s a cool old guy and a friend of mine,” said Murray, of Anderson. “I have a lot of respect for him and I like him a lot. He came over one day and said, ‘I’m buying a motorcycle and you ought to get one too.’ I was like, ‘What in the (heck) am I going to do with a motorcycle?’
“He wasn’t much for it at all,” recalled Anderson, who tried to convince the nine-time World Champion rough stock rider to “travel around.”
“Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do after I spent my whole life rodeoing,” Murray sarcastically quipped. “The last thing I want to do is travel around.”
Five years later, Murray surpassed 100,000 miles on his BMW R1200GS, which is substantially more miles than he’s driven in his pick-up truck, and Anderson said he was recently joking with Murray’s mother Joy, “Now I can’t even get Ty to go flying no more.” She laughed and explained that her only son – Murray has two older sisters – puts his heart into whatever is right in front of him. Anderson said it made sense, “When he was rodeoing he put his whole heart in it, when he was flying he put his whole heart into that and now that he started riding a motorcycle he puts his whole heart into it. To me, that explains the thought process of a World Champion.
“I learned that,” continued Anderson, who admires Murray like a son and is glad to be among his closest friends, “and I appreciate it and respect it.”
Asked how he went from being so adamantly against getting a motorcycle – he wasn’t the least bit interested until Anderson, who like Murray is salty and honest, likened riding one to being as enjoyable as sex, “only it lasts a lot longer” – or leaving his ranch for days, weeks and sometimes months at time, Murray only laughed and shrugged his shoulders. A few moments later, he said, “One thing led to another and, well, I don’t know.”
When Murray finally relented, he called his future wife Jewel to tell her he was on his way to buy a motorcycle. Part of him thought she might try talking him out of it, so he was surprised when the folksy multi-platinum singer quickly said, “Get me one too.”
As it turns out motorcycles and the sport of motorcycling are a lot like horses and the horse world. Just as there are different horses from Arabians to Clydesdales and cutting to trail riding horses, there are different types of bikes for just about every application from showing off cool paint jobs on a tricked out bike and riding fast to being comfortable and riding long distances—some or most which might be ridden off-road on gravel in wilderness or dirt out in the desert. The latter is what eventually caught Murray’s interest.
The Phoenix, Arizona, native sits upright on his steel horse, which he described as a cross between a Jeep and a Swiss Army knife, with his legs and feet straight down under his shoulders as if he were actually horseback.
“I like all of it,” said Murray, of his newfound passion for adventure biking. “I love riding a motorcycle and I love being engaged. I like the way you have to set your bike up to handle any and all situations in any kind of terrain or climate. Rodeoing, I traveled all over the place, but I was just traveling to a rodeo.
Rock stars do the same thing. It’s not like they’re on vacation or just out enjoying it. They’re either on a plane or a bus, then they’re on a stage and then back on a plane or a bus. Well, it was the same thing for me.
“I’ve only (traveled) in the United States,” added Murray, who is hoping to ride his bike north through the western provinces of Canada and on into Alaska or, perhaps, south of the U.S. border, through Mexico and down Central and South America, which is similar to what British actor Ewan McGregor did in the documentary series Long Way Down when he rode from London to Cape Town, South Africa, “but the places that I go and the roads that I take are where you really experience what the culture is where you’re at.”
Initially Murray and Jewel, who rides her own Can-Am Spyder, traveled together on smaller bikes. After taking a few short practice runs on a pair Honda 250’s – the smallest street-legal Rebels you can purchase – their first long distance ride was 3,000 miles without ever leaving Texas. Then in 2010, a year before she gave birth to their son Kase, they packed up their bigger bikes and spent more than two months riding from Texas up to Montana and down to Colorado before going up through and eventually over the Rocky Mountains. They camped many of those nights and only got hotel and motel rooms some of the time.
These days, Murray does much of his riding with his friend Mark Harrier, who is a member of the PBR television crew, and another friend of his named Steve Schweidel, who manages the alt-country rockers The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Murray met Schweidel when he worked as Jewel’s tour manager. At the time, Schweidel had a Harley Davidson that was given to him by Big Kenny Alphin of the country duo Big & Rich. However, like Harrier, Murray convinced his pal to buy a bike identical to the one he had.
“Ty would send me these photos from his trips,” Schweidel recalled, “and I was like, ‘God, that just looks like so much fun.’” Eventually he test rode a bike and the two spent that day biking on backroads. By the time they returned to the BMW dealer, several hours later, Schweidel arranged to purchase the bike and said, “Now it’s all I can do not to ride. When Ty and I talk and we’re not riding, it’s like when can we ride? We look at our schedules and it’s like what can we do to get on our bikes? It truly is adventure biking. We don’t really have a set plan.”
Murray and Schweidel have been darn-near everywhere together.
Over the past few years, they’ve cut across the Midwest, ridden down the East Coast – Murray has gone as far south as the Florida Keys – explored the beautiful backroads of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, the Southwest, Pacific Northwest and just about everywhere else they found with gravel roads and dirt trails. Murray, who would rather travel alone than with more than two others at any given time, would also rather ride a few hundred extra miles out of the way – “that’s the fun of it” – if it means avoiding interstate highways.
He and Schweidel biked and camped along the Mexican border – which Schweidel recognizes could have been dangerous given the immigration and drug trafficking issues – in route to California, where Schweidel helped Murray’s ex-wife Jewel with some shows in California. During that trip, Murray spent time with his now 4-year-old son. From there, they rode up the Pacific Coast Highway, through Sequoia National Park and then down across Death Valley, where they spent one night at The Ranch Motel in a cabin once occupied by the late Howard Hughes.
Earlier that day, when Murray and Schweidel inquired about a place to stay and mentioned they had just passed The Ranch Motel, they were told it was the worst place within miles of where they were.
Naturally, when they got back on their bikes they nodded and both agreed, “Lets go back to The Ranch.” When they pulled in, it was deserted and Schweidel recalled “crazy looking guy” behind the counter reminded him of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. When they asked if there were any rooms available, he replied, “All of ‘em.”
When the sun goes down it gets cold in the desert and the cabin was without a heater, but it was only $65 for the night and came with firewood. That night they made dinner – a dehydrated meal – on a tiny propane stove they each travel with that boils water in 30 seconds. Afterward they had Jalapenos for dessert and Murray, who had ridden through Death Valley once before, told Schweidel about the wild coyotes that are likely to come right up to their bikes the next day begging for food. They never fed them, but they snapped photos of one another with a coyote that had come looking for food.
“Every day is different,” explained Schweidel, who said the old abandon ghost towns were amazing sites to see. Murray added, “You might get to where you thought you were going and you’re like, ‘Nah, I’m going to go left now.’ That’s the fun of it.”
They’ve spent more nights camping in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana and Idaho then they have in motel rooms. Murray prefers a picturesque scene “off the grid that people can’t get to” in which he’s camping next to a trout stream surrounded by mountains and taking in the smell of pine trees.
Once he strips his motorcycle of all his travel gear, it’s a lot like a dirt bike and he’ll head out from camp and ride even deeper into the wilderness on a day trip. Three time’s ridden through Yellowstone National Park. Murray said buffalo are like bucking bulls in that if they decide to hook you, “they’ll just hook you,” but he like vulnerable feeling of being there on a 700-pound motorcycle.
“I knew there were bears out there and he was camping by himself out in the wilderness, more less, I said, ‘What are you going to do if a bear comes up,’” Anderson recalled. Murray shrugged off the concern, “Awe, there ain’t no bears.”
The next day he texted Anderson a photo of a bear from his cell phone.
“The type of traveling I do reminds me of back before fences when you got off on a horse and you could go out West or whatever,” Murray said. “It’s that same sort of thing. You’re part of your surrounding and you have to deal with the elements. You’re out in it. You don’t go, ‘Hey, it looks like a pretty day. Lets go ride.’ When you’re on a 6,000 mile trip you’re going. When you leave it might be 100 degrees and where you’re going the lows might be in the 40s, so you have to be able to deal with all of that.”
For Murray, that’s allure. It’s the unknown. It’s like climbing into a bucking chute to sit atop a 2,000 pound bull, taking your wrap, calling for the gate and then countering the bull’s every move with one of his own. Adventure biking, which clearly comes with its own inherent set of dangers, has proven to be as close to rough stock riding as he’ll ever get.
“It’s dangerous,” Murray concluded. “You have to remain in the moment. You have to pay attention. You have to think clearly. You have to make split-second decisions correctly to not get hurt. I think that’s the similarity.
“I could go out for a year,” concluded Murray, with a steely look in eyes. “I really could.”