Southern Motorcycle Diaries

Memories, mishaps, and meals from a Richmond boutique owner’s sixteen-city tour of the South

Photo: Nolan Beck-Rivera

Often the best inspiration to travel is a taste of someone else’s travels. Earlier this year, Richmond designer and shop owner Nolan Beck-Rivera found himself stirred by the words of Elspeth Beard, the first British woman to cross the globe on a motorcycle. In her 2017 memoir, Lone Rider, Beard wrote: “The truth is, you will always be able to come up with reasons why the time isn’t right. Put aside your fears and just go.”

A self-described Army brat with an itinerant childhood, Beck-Rivera planted his flag in Richmond two years ago after a decade-long stint in Cleveland. He opened a boutique of handcrafted home goods in the city’s Broad Street arts district and, embracing his Southern address, named it Jolene. A grand tour of the region, he thought, would be a way to meet makers for the store and to learn about the place that, in its infinite complexity, felt like home. “I was born in Germany, my sister was born in Honduras,” he says. “My family history is very multifaceted, and I feel that reflected in the South.”

Nolan Beck-Rivera.

It was also a chance to eat good food, catch up with old friends, and bond with his “pride and joy,” a 1972 BMW R75/5 motorcycle. So he carved out all the spare time he had—exactly seventeen days—and hit the road, logging 4,200 miles and stopping in sixteen cities. 

The going wasn’t always smooth: He broke down within two hours of leaving thanks to a minuscule ball bearing that popped out of his engine. Rerouted around bad weather to the tune of nonrefundable Airbnb fees. Failed to reroute around bad weather and found himself driving through rainy Birmingham in yellow dish gloves. “Plan for it to not go according to plan” is Beck-Rivera’s advice for anyone considering their own motorcycle trip.

But there were stretches of riding that lived up to every wanderlust-fueled fantasy—like crossing the Tennessee River on a thin ribbon of road surrounded by big green mountains. There were many amazing meals, including several iterations of ribs. And there were revelatory moments, in particular a brief stop in Montgomery that would prove his most memorable.

Like Beard, who took a hiatus from her job as an architect to embark on her global tour, Beck-Rivera brings an artist’s eye to travel. He kept a journal, pressed flowers, and snapped copious photos, a sample of which are shared below in the hope that it might spur the next person to just go.

Beck-Rivera’s first stop was in Raleigh, where he visited the North Carolina Museum of Art (pictured: “Untitled” by Daniel Johnston). “When you pass from Virginia into North Carolina, there are a lot of boulders and dogwoods and it’s just a beautiful, forested landscape,” he says of the scenery that accompanied the start of his journey.

While in Raleigh, he dined at Brewery Bhavana, a craft beer and dim sum spot that also sells flowers and books.

Beck-Rivera appreciated the “complicated” beauty of Charleston. A rooftop cocktail at the Dewberry hotel (pictured) loosened him up enough to book a spontaneous stay.

A closeup of bricks in Charleston’s Philadelphia Alley shows the fingerprints of the enslaved child who crafted them.

Beck-Rivera snapped this live-oak-framed shot not far from Beaufort, South Carolina. “The drive between Charleston and Savannah was one of my favorite days of the whole trip,” he says. “It’s just a beautiful landscape.”

In Bluffton, South Carolina, he stopped for lunch with his friend, chef Kaylah Thomas, at Lowcountry Fresh Market & Cafe.

Meals in Savannah included dinner at the Grey—“[Mashama Bailey] just won her second James Beard Award, so she doesn’t need me to tell you how good it is”—and a home-cooked dinner (pictured) prepared with friends Arlene and Royden Watson: grit cakes with local shrimp and vegetables. “I love to cook, and I love learning through cooking,” he says.

In Atlanta, Beck-Rivera stopped by the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park and saw the birth home of the civil rights icon—a moment that would come full circle later in the journey, when he visited the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, where King was assassinated.

And he reconnected with his college best friend, Quentin Spencer, whom he hadn’t seen in several years, over dinner at Marcel.

Outside Birmingham, Beck-Rivera couldn’t resist a stop at the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum to check out the motorcycle collection.

He also paused for a drink at Birmingham’s Juniper, a cocktail bar with a gin focus.

Even though Beck-Rivera only passed through Montgomery, Alabama, the city proved his most moving stop thanks to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice. Inside the memorial, each of more than eight hundred steel monuments represents a United States county in which a racially motivated lynching took place, with names of victims inscribed on the columns. “I was like, ‘Am I crying?’ Because I don’t cry very much,” he says. “I’ll remember it my whole life. It was a paradigm shift sort of experience.”

In New Orleans, he stayed at the Hotel Peter & Paul, situated in a former school and church not far from the French Quarter.

And he learned to make maque choux, gumbo, and bananas foster from chef Dee Lavigne of Deelightful Roux School of Cooking, New Orleans’s only cooking school owned by an African-American native of the city.

New Orleans to Houston was Beck-Rivera’s least favorite driving day. “It was just oil derricks and machinery—I can tell it used to be beautiful,” he says. A bright spot, though, was stumbling on a Honduran restaurant, Coco Bahia, and enjoying roadside baleadas, pupusas, and horchata.

His partner, Cameron Billinghurst (pictured right), met him in Houston, where they spent time with Cameron’s family, including his grandmother, Eddie Mae (left).

It was outside Austin, Texas, that Beck-Rivera began pressing flowers in his journal. “The wildflowers were so beautiful, and the cows—I know they’re all probably beef by now—but the cows were pretty,” he says.

While in Austin, he stopped in a dimly lit speakeasy known by its street-facing signage, Floppy Disk Repair Co.

A forecast of tornadoes spoiled Beck-Rivera’s plan to visit Tulsa. He headed instead for Shreveport, Louisiana, first stopping for lunch at Stanley’s Famous Pit BBQ in Tyler, Texas. “My partner’s vegan, so I went from not having ribs for three years to having ribs six times in a week,” he says.

In Shreveport, he was able to book a last-minute Airbnb reservation at the 1897-built Logan Mansion.

The house boasts many original Victorian furnishings, including gas lamps. Beck-Rivera paid for the stay via barter system, helping the owner’s son get his vintage Honda motorcycle running.

On his way to Memphis, Beck-Rivera stopped in Little Rock, where he paid a visit to Little Rock Central High School, where the “Little Rock Nine” famously desegregated the school in 1957. (He also “rolled on past” the Designing Women house.)

“Memphis has a nice grit to it that reminds me a little of Cleveland,” he says of that city, where he dined at an alleyway barbecue joint, Charlie Vergos’ Rendezvous

The next day brought more classic Southern fare when he made a pit stop at Edley’s Bar-B-Que in Nashville, pairing hot chicken with banana pudding and skillet corn. “I love living in the South partially because I love corn and there’s a million ways to eat it here,” he says.

Because his bike’s performance had begun to suffer, Beck-Rivera had to spend two nights in Chattanooga, lingering to take a shot at the necessary repairs. He stayed at the members-only Common House, “an old YMCA building with beautiful Spanish Revival architecture,” he says. “A lot of people were kind of fancy, coming in to sit by the pool, and I was coming in and out covered in grease.”

While he wasn’t a fan of the vivid lighting at Chattanooga’s Ruby Falls (“it would have been dramatic enough on its own”), he was impressed by the attraction’s stunning geology and scale. 

Beck-Rivera’s single favorite day of riding was on the Cherohala Skyway, which stretches forty-three miles from Tennessee into North Carolina and crests to 5,300 feet in elevation. “You’re winding through beautiful rocks and trees and then you realize you’re extremely high up. It’s kind of a gradual reveal,” he says. At this point, his fifty-year-old motorcycle was crawling a bit, but no matter: “I never was behind anyone and no one ever passed me. I kind of was alone up there. It was a good day.”

Descending on the Skyway, he stopped at a produce stand and picked up some heirloom lima beans to take home and boiled peanuts for a quick snack. “I freakin’ love boiled peanuts. They are one of my favorite ways to consume peanuts,” he says. “Peanuts and corn—I really do fit in here.”

On his final night, he was disappointed to discover his motorcycle wouldn’t make it up the steep gravel road to his cliff-top Airbnb outside Asheville. “I tried for like forty-five minutes and eventually I could smell the clutch and realized this was going to do damage.” He backtracked to the city to “a basic hotel” and refueled in the morning with eggs over grits at Benne on Eagle.

On his return leg on the seventeenth and last day, he ditched the scenic routes for a rainy ride on the highways. He made it home to find Cameron and Cameron’s mom waiting for him: “They told me we had dinner reservations in thirty minutes, so I had to go upstairs and shower,” he says. “I fell asleep on the plate.”