Call it a stroke of incredibly bad luck. Leah Misch was on the road to recovery—she’d escaped from an abusive relationship, and she’d made remarkable progress in overcoming her weight problem. Then a split-second motorcycle crash in 2010 left her immobilized with a broken back. One day her goal was to run a marathon; the next it was to walk normally.
Some women would have given up hope—or at least motorcycles. Misch, however, is not only walking, but hiking and running. And she just completed a 10,000-mile trek around the United States on an Indian Scout motorcycle.
For someone as goal-oriented as Misch (she’s constantly refreshing her bucket list), the motorcycle trip came about fairly spontaneously. She’d been to the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, S.D., and she’d been admiring a Scout she test-drove there. Back home, she learned that her full-time job as a nurse was going to part time—and remote via computer. “I figured, I have my computer, I might as well work from the road.”
The first leg of the trip was to Colorado to a friend’s wedding. The Million-Dollar Highway—legendary for its steep switchbacks and lack of guardrails—was en route. From there, she figured, it was a short hop for her and her bike (which she named “Scout”) over to the Grand Canyon, another destination on her bucket list. Somewhere along the way she learned of a wilderness medicine conference in Big Sky, Mont.
“That was my sign,” she says. “I was actually heading back home, but I was praying for a sign. I decided to stay on the road and make it to that conference.”
So began a crisscross journey through Oregon, Idaho, California, Washington and many more states. She covered miles on her bike, but took time to hike and kayak and see the sights of the American West. Her adventures spill out. At Glacier National Park, for instance, her hike ended with an evacuation. What she thought was campfire smoke was in fact a massive forest fire—another narrow escape.
She also became a magnet for attention from strangers. Typical for Misch was the older woman who offered a bed and a meal saying, “You remind me of my daughter. I wish that I’d had the courage to do what you are doing when I was young.” Even the police officer who stopped her for speeding (she was trying to beat a big storm in the Dakotas) let her off with a warning—as well as a high five for her moxie.
By the time she reached Sturgis—a year after she’d test-driven her first Indian—news of her solo journey across the country had spread, and she was met with broad support. Most bikes at Sturgis are tricked out to a shine; with the mud and wear of 10,000 miles, Misch’s motorcycle was hardly showroom. Still, she entered Scout in the Indian ride, and won the Field Award. “I told them I better get it all clean and nice to show, but they said they liked it that it had mud all over it.”
When Misch left the rally en route to her home in La Crosse, dozens of bikers took to the road and accompanied her for the first few miles as an entourage to salute her on the final leg of her journey.
Back home in La Crosse, she says that while she understands her journey was inspirational to others, her primary motive was simple curiosity. By the time she’d entered college, she’d been to just three neighboring states. “I had never really traveled,” she says. “I had to go to Chicago for a class, and I was like, whoa! There’s this whole other world where other people live. Different ways of living and thinking. I like learning about other people. There’s so much more out there.”
And to all those who’ve heard her story and found it inspirational? Misch hopes it serves as fuel for them to take their own journey—wherever that might lead. “Accept yourself,” she advises, “and go for what you want.”