Photography: Courtesy Steve Schweidel
Photography: Courtesy Steve Schweidel

After his championship days in the arena, the rodeo great took his passion for an intense ride to the back roads of America.

By the time he retired from professional bull riding in 2002, the last thing Ty Murray 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 2,240-acre ranch.

He and his best friend, Cody Lambert, had driven and flown hundreds of thousands of miles from one pro rodeo to another, eventually crisscrossing the country after co-founding the PBR with 18 other bull riders. So the pair of 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. At that point, the guy who had become widely known as the King of the Cowboys during his years of riding bulls, saddle broncs, and bareback bucking horses was transitioning to the next chapter of his life.

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 neighbor 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. About the only thing that would ground Murray from his new passion was wind. Anderson had an antidote for that: “When the wind’s blowing,” he told his recently retired pal, “we can go cycle riding.”

Murray wasn’t into the idea. “[Tony] 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?’ ” Still, Anderson tried to convince the nine-time world champion rough stock rider to try traveling around on an iron horse. “Oh, yeah, that’s exactly what I want to do after I spent my whole life rodeoing,” Murray remembers thinking at the time. “The last thing I want to do is travel around.”

But after Anderson likened motorcycle riding to sex (“only it lasts longer”), Murray ended up trying it and getting hooked. When he called Jewel, his wife at the time, to tell her he was on his way to buy a motorcycle, he thought she might try talking him out of it. So he was surprised when the Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter and poet quickly said, “Get me one, too.” Five years later, Murray has surpassed 100,000 miles on his BMW R 1200 GS — substantially more miles than he’s driven in his pickup truck.

As Murray has discovered, 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 type of rider. Riding fast on a tricked-out bike sporting a cool paint job didn’t really pique his interest. Adventure biking — riding long distances, mostly off-road on gravel in the wilderness or on dirt in the desert — did.

The Phoenix native sits upright on his steel horse, which he describes 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 love riding a motorcycle, and I love being engaged,” he says. “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.”

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 of Honda 250s, 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 the occasional hotel or motel room.

Thus far, Murray has only ridden his bike in the contiguous United States, but he’s hoping to head north through the western provinces of Canada and on into Alaska or, perhaps, south through Mexico and down into Central and South America. These days, he does much of his riding with friends Mark Harrier, who is a member of the PBR television crew, and Steve Schweidel, who manages the alt-country rock group 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 recalls, “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 back roads. By the time they returned to the BMW dealer several hours later, Schweidel arranged to buy the bike. “Now it’s all I can do not to ride,” he says. “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.”

Over the past few years, Murray and Schweidel have cut across the Midwest, ridden down the East Coast — Murray has gone as far south as the Florida Keys — and explored the beautiful back roads of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina, the Southwest, the Pacific Northwest, and just about everywhere else in the country where they could find a gravel road or dirt trail. The two have biked and camped along the Mexican border en route to California, where Schweidel took business meetings with a member of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band while 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 a practically deserted Ranch Motel in a cabin once occupied by the late Howard Hughes.

When the sun goes down, it gets cold in the desert, and the cabin was without a heater, but it was only $65 and came with firewood. That night they cooked up a dehydrated meal on a tiny propane stove that boils water in 30 seconds. They had jalapeños for dessert, and Murray, who had ridden through Death Valley once before, told Schweidel about the wild coyotes that were likely to come right up to their bikes to beg for food. The next day, the brazen coyotes were true to form. The riders didn’t encourage or feed them, but they did take the opportunity to snap some photos.

It’s just one of the hundreds of stories they tell about their biking adventures. “Every day is different,” says Schweidel, who especially loves exploring ghost towns. For Murray, it’s the call of the open road, the lure of the unknown, and the thrill of spontaneity all at once: “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.”

The friends have spent more nights bike camping in New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho than they have in motel rooms. Murray’s preferred campsite is a picturesque scene “off the grid that people can’t get to,” where he can set up next to a trout stream surrounded by mountains and take 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.

Murray likes the solace of a lengthy trip. Whether he’s alone with his thoughts and appreciating what’s left of the wild frontier or engaged in long talks with Schweidel about life and growing old, the experience of adventure biking is far removed from the fading memory of rodeo arenas, where he once thrilled audiences with 90-point rides and caroused with fellow cowboys in the beer garden. Sober for the past seven years and adapting to a “loving” split after six years of marriage, Murray is generally on his bike traveling whenever his son, Kase, is with Jewel. If he has two days, he makes it an overnight trip. If Kase is on tour with Jewel, Murray is off and riding and will plan to periodically intersect the tour schedule to spend time taking his son to local zoos or having a picnic in a nearby park.

He’s ridden through Yellowstone National Park three times. “I knew there were bears out there, and he was camping by himself out in the wilderness, more or less,” buddy Anderson recalls. “I said, ‘What are you going to do if a bear comes up?’ ” Murray shrugged off the concern and texted back, “Aw, 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 on a horse and you could just go out West,” Murray says. “It’s that same sort of thing. You’re part of your surroundings and you have to deal with the elements. You’re out in it. You don’t go, ‘Hey, it looks like a pretty day. Let’s go ride.’ When you’re on a 6,000-mile trip, [you don’t have a choice] — 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 the allure — it’s an adrenaline rush that sometimes recalls the intensity of bull riding. He likes the vulner­able feeling of being out there on a 700-pound motorcycle in a face-off with the elements, the animals, nature in general: “It’s dangerous. 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,” he says with a steely look in his eyes. “I really could.”


From the November/December 2015 issue.

Explore:Living WestTravel