CLEVELAND, Tenn. -- Lauren Smeltzer never had a chance to become a girlie girl.
She is the youngest of five children and the only girl. So, when her older brothers all got dirt bikes, so did she.
"Most [girls,]" Lauren said, "think they'll be the ones on the back [of the motorcycle]."
But not her. Lauren has been riding four years and got her first new bike in 2009.
When her dad, John Smeltzer, suggested a motorcycle trip across the country after her graduation from Walker Valley High School in May, she was all in.
Mom Darlene was a little less enthusiastic but eventually came around.
"She was sort of freaking out about it," Lauren said.
The three-week, 23-state and 7,735-mile excursion -- John on a limited-edition orange Yamaha Raider and Lauren on a white Yamaha FZ6R with helmet and gloves trimmed in hot pink -- produced only a few scares and a couple of rainstorms but a lifetime of memories.
"She's a good wingman," Smeltzer, 51, said of his daughter. "When you're riding with somebody, you've got to watch out for each other. She's a great riding partner."
The trip took in White Sands National Monument, Petrified Forest National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Bryce Canyon National Park, Grand Canyon National Park, Los Angeles, the Pacific Coast Highway, San Francisco, Reno and Las Vegas, Nev., Grand Teton National Park, Yellowstone National Park, Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area, Badlands National Park, Mount Rushmore National Monument and the Gateway Arch.
Lauren, 18, who'd never been farther west than Arkansas, said the country seemed to shrink before her eyes.
"I always thought California was so far away," she said. "I don't really think that now."
While some daughters might look upon such a trip as a bonding experience with their dad, Lauren and her father have been connected at the hip for years.
He's been her basketball, softball and bowling coach, they rode on a bike together to Naples, Fla., and they cruised the Blue Ridge Parkway on separate bikes last summer.
"We've been running together a good bit," Smeltzer said.
The pair took backroads most of the way west to San Francisco and interstate highways most of the distance back east.
They took camping gear, Smeltzer said, with the idea of camping most nights. However, that was a bit ambitious, he said. They wound up spending five nights in a tent, including one in which "mosquitoes nearly carried us away."
"My body said camping every night was out," he said.
Their worst weather, Lauren said, was a rainstorm they encountered heading into Las Vegas. It blew in from the side, she said, and happened all of a sudden.
"We pulled off in a hurry and put on our rain gear," her dad said.
The Smeltzers communicated via Bluetooth headsets but passed most of the nonscenic time on the road with personalized music playlists accessed through their phones.
One instance where they kept up the chatter, Lauren said, was The Strip in Las Vegas, which her dad had previously seen and which often produces gawkable moments.
Their scariest incident, Lauren said, was when they barely avoided a dozen deer who darted out from the underbrush near the north rim of the Grand Canyon. She also had to have a chain replaced in Los Angeles and was lucky enough to find a bike repair shop open on Sunday and a mechanic on duty.
Overall, said her dad, a respiratory therapist at SkyRidge Medical Center in Cleveland, "everything fell into place."
On the way back, in Nashville, Lauren even traded in her Yamaha FZ6R for a sportier red Yamaha R6 she'd seen on Craigslist. She'd had her eye on an R6 since she attended a bike rally with her dad when she was 16 and wasn't allowed to ride one.
This fall, she'll take it and her car to Bethel University in McKenzie, Tenn. She'll attend on a bowling scholarship and plans to major in nursing.
In the future, Lauren said, she'd like to take a second bike trip out West. And even though she treasured the time with her dad -- calling it a great experience "seeing everything together" -- she'd like to add hiking to the agenda. So Dad won't likely be along.
"I think my hiking days are over," Smeltzer said.
Clint Cooper is the faith editor and a staff writer for the Times Free Press Life section. He also has been an assistant sports editor and Metro staff writer for the newspaper. Prior to the merger between the Chattanooga Free Press and Chattanooga Times in 1999, he was sports news editor for the Chattanooga Free Press, where he was in charge of the day-to-day content of the section and the section’s design. Before becoming sports ...