Narration by Frank Glamser, Hattiesburg, MS (’04 BMW R1150RT)
Photos by Craig Miller, Hattiesburg, MS (’06 Honda ST1300A)
Craig Miller and I have taken long rides together a number of times. Our most ambitious adventure was our trip to Newfoundland six years ago (report here!). This time we would be heading for the west coast. Neither one of us had ridden Route 1, the coast highway, in southern California. I had ridden in the redwood area near Eureka as part of a trip to the Canadian Rockies and a visit to a gathering of IBMWR folks organized by Scott Conary near Mt. Shasta. I also wanted to see Yosemite for the first time.
Until recently, Craig had ridden a 1997 R1100RT, but the loss of our local BMW dealer, the general lack of dealers in many areas, and its advancing age nudged him over to a 2006 Honda ST1300. It’s a very sharp looking bike with lots of power.
We headed north for Jackson on a Wednesday morning, and the weather was perfect. There, we picked up I-20 to cross Louisiana on our way to Texas. We weren’t very far west of Mississippi when the heat and humidity kicked in. Summer touring is always tough in this region because it will be hot no matter which direction you head. As usual, the truck traffic was heavy, and the Louisiana portion of the road was beat up. Our objective on day one was Sherman, Texas, which we reached by heading northwest from Tyler. That kept us out of the orbit of Dallas. We stopped at a nice motel on Rt. 75 where Rt. 82 crosses, and we ate at a really fancy Mexican restaurant in the southwest quadrant of that intersection.
On day two things were much more pleasant. Heading west on 82, population density and traffic fall off precipitously. We went through the German town of Muenster and the cowboy boot town of Nocona on our way to Wichita Falls. It was almost 30 years and 30 pounds ago when I lived in Denton that I ran a 10K in Muenster. As we headed west and gained a bit of altitude, the humidity dropped and the horizon expanded. Our objective was Clovis, New Mexico, to be followed by a run across New Mexico on Rt. 60 to visit with IBMWR President Bob Straubinger in Arizona. We continued northwest on 287 just past Childress where we picked up Texas 86 west. I had crossed that way from the other direction last year after Branson with Harv Read after our tour of northern Arizona and was impressed with its scenery. There is some really rough canyon country along that road as you transition to the high plains.
The most notable town along 86 is Turkey, Texas, whose claim to fame is as the home of the late Bob Wills, a very famous early country star of the 30’s and 40’s. His best known song was “San Antonio Rose.” Many of the street signs in town are wrought iron depictions of western life. We took a break, and Craig asked if I had enough gas to get to Tulia, the next town about 55 miles west. I said yes based on distance traveled and bars showing. I hadn’t thought about the cross winds we had experienced all day. No sooner had we left town than my gauge dropped to two bars. About 30 miles later it dropped to one bar. It was very windy. As all of you have done I started doing the math in my head over and over. I was pretty sure I was okay, but it was really desolate country; I was far from home, and my imagination was working overtime. Bob Malehorn entered my mind.
About 10 miles from Tulia, I pulled into a really ratty, really old gas station and bought one gallon of gas. Craig and I could fill up in Tulia and be back together on fuel stops again. I bought premium which they probably rarely sell. I’m guessing they don’t sell much of anything. This may have been my downfall.
We had lunch at a Subway in Tulia next to I-27 and filled up at a modern Phillips 66 station. It was a buttless sunny sky at this point with temperatures in the mid 80’s. This was wheat country, and the cultivated fields were huge and stretched to the horizon. The road surface was good and wide with those breakdown lanes along the right of way. The speed limit was 70, and there was no traffic. For that matter there wasn’t much of anything. Twenty miles west of Tulia I was running behind Craig when suddenly my engine became an anchor with no life as if the ignition had been turned off. Then for about three seconds, the engine fired up with full power only to die forever. I hit the emergency flashers and coasted off the side of the road. Things got very lonely all of the sudden.
It didn’t take Craig long to figure out that I had disappeared from his mirrors. In no time he was on the side of the road with me offering calm, helpful observations. We checked all the fuses, wiggled the ignition switch, toggled the kill switch, and moved the sidestand up and down. I put the multimeter to the Gerbing’s plug, and voltage was good. Nothing worked to bring my 600 lb. paper weight back to life. My guess at that point was the Hall effect sensor given how suddenly the engine quit without a cough or sputter. In retrospect, I realized that I should have listened for the fuel pump when turning the key on. Of course, that would not have got me underway.
We were clearly in trouble. I knew that Lubbock used to have a BMW dealer and hoped that there was an independent wrench working there. That was about 95 miles away, close by west Texas standards. Given where we were and the desolation all around, I was very pleased that our cell phones worked at all. Come next February that won’t be the case when the analog towers are turned off. I contacted a fellow in the anonymous book who was very helpful. He advised me that the guy who did work on BMW’s had just had heart surgery and could not work. He also said that Santa Fe BMW had some good mechanics. Going to Lubbock was not going to do me much good.
Our plan was to try to try for a tow to Amarillo and a motel with phones and food. As a town on I-40, a major east/west interstate, towing options would be good. I called the BMWMOA service to get a tow. The young man who answered had a strong south Asian accent causing me to fear that he was in Bombay. After asking me if I was out of harm’s way on the road, he asked what the address was. I tried to explain that there were no addresses where I was. There was nothing but acres and acres of wheat. Because we had just bought gas and my trip meter had been zeroed out, I knew that I was 21 miles west of Tulia, Texas, on Texas Rt. 86. Looking at the map, I calculated I was 10 miles east of Dimmitt, Texas. He said he would try to find someone in Amarillo to come get us. I stressed that we had a motorcycle and would need a flat bed truck or trailer and lots of tie downs. We gave him Craig’s cell phone number.
In fairly short order they called and said they had found someone, and it would be an hour or so. Shortly after that, a fellow called and said he would be coming for us. Not long after, a woman from Ricky’s Towing in Amarillo called to say that they would be sending someone for us and to confirm where we wanted to go and where we were. This caused a bit of confusion because she seemed not to know that the guy had called 15 minutes previously. We finally sorted it all out and commenced to wait in the wind (there’s always wind out west) and the sun. For the record, you can get sunburned standing around on the side of the road. My bucket hat packed for just such an emergency helped immensely, but my arms took a hit. Craig’s head got much vitamin D that day.
In about an hour a young fellow showed up with a flat bed tilt truck. I always travel with four soft ties for just such occasions which help immensely. He slid the bed down and we ran the bike up onto the smooth steel deck. He said if we got the rear wheel fully on the deck, he could raise it up, and we could roll the bike all the way forward and secure it with his tie downs and my soft ties. We stowed all the riding gear and luggage on or in his truck and prepared for the 64 mile ride to Amarillo. I know it was 64 miles because the MOA service pays for 50 miles at their contract rate (something over $2.00), and I paid for 14 miles at $5.00 a mile. I subsequently learned that President Greg Deckrow was once stranded in Amarillo on his GS.
I thoroughly enjoyed the air conditioning in the cab while Craig followed us on his ST1300. I nervously watched the bike in the right side truck mirror anticipating disaster at any moment. The young fellow was quite an interesting guy. He was a former Army sniper, and former cattle truck driver. He was a big Oregon State fan, so I’m glad the college World Series is going his way. The plan was to get to a motel on the south side of town to plan our strategy. We would be out of the weather and would have full telephone capability. We clearly had hit a snag, but Craig kept reminding me that no one got hurt and it was not dark or raining. Craig was a real rock throughout all of this.
Unloading the bike from the truck was a little bit of a project. The side covers and cases had been removed to tie it down, and there is always the fear you will drop the bike when releasing the tie downs and taking it off a truck or trailer. When you back off a tilt truck, there is the point when the rear wheel is on the ground and the front wheel is well on the bed, which means the center of the bike is much farther from solid footing than normal. Everything went well, and I only had to pay $70 for the 14 miles the MOA towing service did not cover.
By the time the paper work was completed, and we were in the motel room, it was late afternoon. My first priority was to find if a dealer would take us the next day if we could get there. Based on the recommendation of the fellow from Lubbock, I first called BMW of Santa Fe. That is a car/bike dealer, and I got the service manager from the car side. I explained my situation and asked if they could take me. He said most of the bike guys had left but that he would call them and get back to me later that evening. I tried to call the Albuquerque dealer, but got no answer. I was pleasantly surprised when the Santa Fe guy called half an hour later and said they would take the bike if I could get it there the next day. That was cause for celebration for sure. Now all I had to do was figure out how to get the bike the 280 miles to Santa Fe.
Craig and I brainstormed a bit and considered renting a truck. I was not comfortable with the idea of the narrow, steep loading ramp and the inability to see the bike in an enclosed truck. If the bike had already been wadded up in a wreck that might have been a more attractive an option. I have GEICO insurance which includes a towing service. They pay for pick up and loading charges and the first 75 miles of towing. It was clear that I was going to be spending a lot of money to escape the BMW black hole of west Texas.
I called GEICO, and they were very helpful and friendly. The guy I spoke with said he would check out the possibilities with their contractors. Eventually, they found a company in Amarillo that said they would take me to Santa Fe, but the cost was outrageous, including a highly irregular $500 fuel surcharge. The cost to me was going to be $1200. At that point I was working with a woman who was very sympathetic and less than pleased with what looked like a rip off. She said she would talk with her supervisor to see if they couldn’t find a better option. A bit later she got back to me with some good news. They had a guy who they were very high on who had a towing service in Santa Fe, and the cost to me would be about $800. He said he would come get me and could leave Santa Fe about 6:30 in the morning. That would put him in Amarillo about noon and would put me in Santa Fe near the end of the work day, which was Friday. We had a three way conference call, and I stressed the need for tie downs. I asked if he could start a little earlier, and he said he could get up at 5:00. His name is Paco Cordova and his company is Reliable Towing. I was extremely pleased with him and the GEICO people.
On Friday morning the phone rang at about 8:45. It was Paco. He said he was about 45 minutes out of Amarillo. He said he had awakened at 3:00 a.m. to come get me. Paco pulled in with a beautiful, new diesel crew cab Chevy truck with a utility trailer with a wide ramp. He had four nice, new tie downs to go with my four soft ties. In no time we were loaded up. Craig was going to ride his ST1300 and meet us in Santa Fe. After such a hot day with south winds on Thursday, it was 46 degrees with a north wind that morning. Craig had his Gerbings on and was ready to head out. Things were looking up.
We were running about 75 the whole way with only two brief stops. Paco had brought his ten year old daughter along in the back seat for company, and we had a lovely visit. It turned out that Paco owned the company which has lots of equipment and employees. His father had been a high official with the New Mexico State Police. I had to say I was impressed that the boss was the one to drive almost 600 miles for a motorcyclist. I later learned he had a couple of Harleys and had ridden for many years. I’ve already sent him a gift tin of Mississippi pecans. I can’t say enough about him.
With the extra hour we gained with the time change, we pulled into the BMW lot about 2:00. The Santa Fe guys took the bike as soon as a lift was free. They allowed me to put all my gear in the back room for safe keeping, and no sooner did I walk out of the service area than Craig pulled up. He wasn’t more than 20 minutes behind us, and that was with stops for pictures. There was a motel across the street and lots of restaurants in walking distance. We headed out and waited for news at the motel.
The news came in little over an hour. The good news was they found the problem — the fuel pump. The bad news was they did not have one. They said they would try to get one Fed Ex Overnight but that Saturday deliveries did not always work out, especially late afternoon orders. They advised me that they were closed Sunday and Monday. If the delivery didn’t work out, it would be Tuesday before they could get to it. Things were looking grim, and I felt bad that Craig was getting caught up in all of this. I suggested that he tour old Santa Fe Saturday morning while I was awaiting news of my fate. I also said I knew lots of good places for him to ride in Colorado if I was going to be stuck there for three days. We walked to Appleby’s for dinner.
After walking to Appleby’s on Friday night, we did laundry and made phone calls. It’s amazing how walking at 7,000 feet tuckers us swamp residents out. I had to call Bob Straubinger in Arizona to tell him we would not be swinging by his house in Pine Top because of our swing north and loss of time to my adventure. I also called David Brick in Santa Cruz to tell him our plans were on hold. He had offered to put us up a night after we toured the coast highway. I’ve corresponded with David for about ten years, but had never met him. I really looked forward to meeting him in person. Right now our plans and schedule were in the hands of Fed Ex. I also called the company that handles my extended warranty. They told me the dealer had to contact them before doing any work.
On Saturday morning Craig headed out on his Honda for downtown Santa Fe to check out the old city. He would return at lunch time. Craig and Greg at the BMW shop had told me that Fed Ex deliveries usually came in around 10:00 to 11:00. Because they would be closed on Sunday and Monday, we could be looking at three days in a rather pricey motel if the fuel pump did not make it. I arranged for a late check out at the motel and killed some time sorting out my gear until 10:00. Then I walked over to the dealership to await my fate. I gave Greg the necessary information to call the warranty company and went over to the lounge. I was sitting in the lounge which is located in the car showroom feeling like scooter trash when I saw the Fed Ex truck roll by at about 10:30. It looked like it had stopped in front of the car side of the facility and was now driving off. He rolled right past the bike side of the building.
I was not encouraged. So as not to appear anxious, I waited about 15 minutes before walking into the bike showroom to confirm the bad news. Greg looked up at me and smiled. He said this was my lucky day and pointed to a small open box. “There’s your fuel pump.” Thank you, Jesus! They said they should have it all put together in a couple of hours. Things were suddenly looking up, but my natural pessimism began to creep back in. What if the fuel pump wasn’t the only problem? Was the bike going to run? Would I head out for the New Mexico and Arizona deserts with confidence?
I headed back to the motel to pack up and meet Craig for lunch. He had really enjoyed himself and had taken some great pictures. He had also bought a nice pair of turquoise earrings for his lady friend. I felt good that at least my problem had enabled him to visit a beautiful city that was not on the original itinerary. For the second time in two days, we ate at the Mexican restaurant across the highway from Santa Fe BMW. It’s that good. My only complaint is the portions are too generous.
After lunch we went over to the dealership in anticipation of resuming our trip. At one point I saw one of the techs ride by on my bike sans side fairing. The bike was clearly running. In fairly short order they had the bike together and sitting outside the service bays. They checked all the lights and the horn and gave the bike a quick wash. Wow, what a classy place. While this was transpiring, I was going over the paper work with Greg. They had replaced the fuel filter and lots of little seals and clamps as necessary. He had talked with the warranty people, and they were going to cover about $600 of the $800 bill. That was very good news in light of my heavy towing expenditures.
It was about 2:00 and time to pack up and ride off. I was pumped but a little trepidatious. As I pulled out and down the service road the bike felt a little sluggish. Maybe it was cold. Whatever. It was rolling and we were headed for the Pacific Ocean. We headed south for the Interstate to Albuquerque. It was hot and there was a stiff headwind. The bike still felt a bit sluggish when it hit me that I was at 7000 feat above sea level, not the 90 feet of Hattiesburg. Traffic was heavy as we approached Albuquerque, and the sky was threatening. The forecast had mentioned thunderstorms. We were rolling, and our trip was back on track.
As you go down I-25 to Albuquerque you lose about 2000 feet elevation and congestion grows along with the temperature. There are about half a million people and not many major highways. That makes for heavy traffic. On the Interstate the overpasses and retaining walls are painted a light terra cotta with various Indian graphics, but I was too busy to enjoy the view. We were looking for the I-40 west exit to be on our way. To add to the distractions the sky was getting dark and foreboding, and there was lots of construction with the concrete Jersey barriers we all fear. Thunderstorms were in the forecast, and the heat of the afternoon gave the forecast credence. After being laid up for two days, we were just thinking about moving on.
As soon as we made it through to the west side of the city, Craig signaled to exit for gas. It was a large, truck stop kind of station, and the pump area was packed with people waiting in line for gas. This was something we saw often on our trip. Gas may be expensive, but the stations were often full of customers. After gassing up, we took a break to discuss our plan. The next exit of any consequence was Grants, about 80 miles west. We would get off there and decide what to do next. If the lightning got scary or the weather got violent, we would leave the slab ASAP.
Back on the highway it was obvious there was lots of bad weather all around. It was particularly dark both north and south of us. Straight ahead far in the distance there was a light area just above the horizon. Maybe we would be lucky. No sooner was I enjoying a bit of optimism than we began to get buffeted by a strong and gusty south wind. Craig is a very experienced and skillful rider, but he had never ridden in the west with its ubiquitous winds. As we were getting hit pretty hard from the left I noticed that Craig, who was leading, was slowing down appreciably. With all the heavy truck traffic on I-40 making the turbulence even more unpredictable, there wasn’t much room for error. I’d been in worse winds the year before with Harv Read in Arizona, but this was pretty rough. We were getting hit with some light rain, but nothing serious. It was just enough to wet the pavement and raise doubts about our tires’ ability to deal with the lean angles required to stay in the lane.
With lightning on both sides of us in the distance, suddenly the wind shifted to the north, and the temperature dropped at least 20 degrees. My right arm and shoulder became chilled as my mesh jacket was instantly breached by the cold rain. I just kept looking at that light area far ahead and hoped there was good news in our future. Unfortunately, the lightning in the distance could be in our future as well.
We pulled off in Grants and changed riding suits. The rain wasn’t bad, but it was getting relatively cold. Both of us had brought a mesh outfit and a regular riding suit. The first thing Craig said was that he had almost lost his nerve back there with the violent winds. He said that he just had to slow down. I assured him that it was pretty bad. The first time I had crossed New Mexico in strong winds, I was puckered up real good, and I’m not talking about my lips. The next town of any consequence was Gallup. I suggested that Craig pick a motel on either edge of town, because the town has struck me as a bit seedy the two times I’ve stopped there. You know how we riders always worry about our bikes.
After about 60 miles, we pulled off on the far side of Gallup. There is a major motel strip there in what the sign called West Gallup. As we pulled up to the Day’s Inn the rain kicked up again, but we were done riding for the day. Across the street was the “Olympic Restaurant.” I was wondering if there could be a Greek restaurant surrounded by Indian reservations. There can be. They also have an Italian and Mexican menu. The place was packed with locals, and for good reason. I had the stuffed grape leaves to go with my beer, and Craig had a gyro sandwich. All the bad times and anxiety of the last two days were washed away, and we were only ten miles from Arizona.
For most of the trip we got up at about 5:00 am to beat the heat and have plenty of time at the end of the day to find a motel. This Sunday was no different, but heat was not an immediate problem. It was 46 degrees when we headed out for the interstate, and we were pleased to have packed our Gerbing’s jacket liners. The sky was a clear blue from horizon to horizon, and the wind was nowhere to be found. This was starting out to be our best riding weather so far. Throw in the lighter truck traffic of a Sunday morning, and we were in “high cotton.” Not being tossed about and having no wind roar in the helmet was a real treat.
Gallup is at 6500 feet elevation, but in pretty short order you drop to 5000 feet as you head west to Holbrook and the Petrified Forest National Park. From there the slow steady climb to 7000 foot Flagstaff begins. Just north of Flagstaff is Humphrey’s Peak, the highest point in Arizona at 12,633 feet. As you head west through the Arizona desert you can see that snow capped mountain for a very long time before you get to Flagstaff. Then you begin to see conifer forests as you have gained altitude from the desert. Traffic was a bit heavy in the Flagstaff area, but we cruised right on through enjoying the scenery.
On the far side of Flagstaff we stopped in Williams for a late breakfast at the major exit for folks heading north to the Grand Canyon. We were fortunate to get our order in just before a tourist bus disgorged its load of Japanese tourists. The men were very taken with our bikes, and I couldn’t help but wonder what they thought of the relative merits of the Honda and BMW parked in one space. While the tourists were eyeballing the bikes, Craig and I were eating and planning our next move. Our initial plan was to stop in Kingman early and then get up in the middle of the night to cross the dreaded Mojave Desert which could be 110 degrees in June. We were making such good time that Craig suggested we get off the slab to check out historic Route 66 which begins at Exit 139. He pointed out that if it turned out to be too rough we could get back on the slab at Seligman before 66 diverged from I-40. That would still get us to Kingman with time to spare.
The original Route 66 number was assigned in 1926 as the highway from Chicago to Los Angeles. It connected small towns all along the way providing for economic development. The road was fully paved by 1938. The road was featured in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath which came out in 1939. By 1970 all segments of Route 66 had been bypassed by modern four-lane highways, and in many cases the old road bed was used for the new roads. Route 66 was officially decommissioned in 1984 and interest in its history waned. The road was a major factor in the development of motels, cabins, camp grounds, and purpose built service stations. You can find a brief history at http://www.national66.org/66hstry.html. In recent years there has been a resurgence in interest in the history and legacy of the road. States have designated surviving sections as Old 66 or Historic 66. In Arizona it is the latter.
Looking at the map it was clear that we had better gas up at Seligman before we took our little 90 mile detour through what looked to be open and inhospitable country on the map. As it turned out, I saw no gas or food along the route. Seligman, which is just off the Interstate, was a real tourist Mecca with lots of traffic and an amazing number of motorcycles — mostly cruisers piloted by helmetless riders. At the large general store you could by all manner of Route 66 memorabilia. Once we were out of town, traffic fell off appreciably, but the motorcycle traffic coming toward us never eased up. Given that the local area is largely unpopulated, the old road must be the place to go with your Hog on the weekend, and I can see why. The road generally followed the terrain which provided some mild hills and gentle curves. The surface was excellent. Often we could see railroad tracks off to the side, both old and new. That is something I’ve seen throughout the plains and the West. The railroads preceded the roads in many areas as towns grew up along the tracks. Later on, the roads were built to connect the towns. Then the Interstates bypassed the towns which went into decline. We could see the abandoned gas stations and the collapsed motels and cabins along our route.
For me, the highlight of our run along Historic 66 was an old gas station from the Thirties that is now operating as a tourist attraction. It is now a museum, a convenience store, a memorabilia cache, and an architectural relic. The proprietor told me that it had served as a bar, a restaurant, a general store, or a gas station since 1937. Parked in the overhang that connects the abandoned gas pumps to the front door is a 60’s vintage Corvette reminiscent of the old TV series we old guys recall. It would take hours to see all the antiques on display. The town on the map where the store is located is Hackberry, but there is no town. But there was shade, benches, and cold drinks.
By the time we made it to Kingman we had dropped almost 4000 feet from Flagstaff, and it was plenty warm in the sun. We stopped to review our plans in the shade which was very misleading. It was early afternoon, and any mileage we could make today would put us closer to the desert
for our early morning run. On the other hand, the next motels and meals were in Needles, the land of triple digit temperatures which we old fat guys don’t handle well. Craig, being much younger and fitter than me was undaunted. He had a plan. The 60 miles to Needles could be broken up into 20 mile sprints separated by water breaks and soaking our tee shirts.
We soaked our shirts with a hose and headed for Yucca, which I would discover, is a dusty, God forsaken settlement. By now the constant southwest wind was strong and hot requiring a substantial left lean to go relatively straight. At one point I experienced something new to me. With no traffic around me, there was a sudden blast of wind from the right that caught me totally unawares. As soon as it came it was gone. Later, Craig confirmed he had the same experience and it was an attention grabber.
The little weathered convenience store in Yucca appeared to be the only commercial establishment. We parked parallel to one of the walls to catch a little shade in what had become the high 90’s heat. We talked to a couple of locals who were very friendly and helpful with directions as to what was ahead. We soaked our shirts in the rest room sink and headed for the last exit on the Arizona side which was the access road to the Colorado River. By now it was really hot as we lost altitude going down to the river. I counted the mileage markers down to one in what seemed a lot farther than 24 miles anticipating an air conditioned convenience store. We exited and started looking, in my case frantically, for the mythical gas station. What we found was a very hilly, steep, curving, canted road down to the water’s edge where it was really hot. We stopped and drank some of our own warm water, and decided to tough it out the 11 miles to Needles. Either that or we could just expire there.
Craig said he wanted to get a couple of pictures up top of a large rock formation and the river. I was going to wait a few minutes in a tiny patch of shade I’d found while he took the pictures. When I was about half way up, I met Craig heading down to find me. Then over the crest of a hill came a giant RV taking up most of the road. It startled me, but we missed each other. I got to the top and waited for awhile. Then I went slowly toward the Interstate on ramp waiting for Craig to catch up. After quite a delay we hit the slab for Needles.
Did I mention it was hot? I later learned it was 105 in Needles that day. A 60 degree swing in one day was too much for my body to grasp. I really wanted to get off that bike and into a cool place, but no sooner did we get into California than I saw the large sign saying all traffic must exit for agricultural inspection. Damn! This ten mile sprint was going to get ugly. I slowed as I approached the lanes and picked a lane. As I was about to stop the woman motioned to me to go through. Thank you, Jesus! I really did not want to stop. As I pulled away I saw my temperature gauge go up to six bars for the first time on the trip.
I checked the mirrors and saw that Craig had been waved through the inspection station as well. Now all I had to do was spot the blue sign with all the motel logos before I passed out. One way I can tell that it is really hot is if it feels better to have my face shield down and barely cracked rather than partially open. When the hot air hitting my face feels worse than being closed up on a hot day, I know I’m in trouble.
In about five minutes I saw the exit that promised relief and took it. From the ramp I could see the “golden arches” up ahead. It would be air conditioned and would have water. After negotiating a rather steep, torturous road and driveway I stopped the bike and jumped off. Hurriedly, I took off my helmet, jacket, and gloves while I waited for Craig who was close behind. He pulled up behind me and parked. As I was ready to rush inside, Craig told me he had dropped his bike back at the last stop. That monster RV that startled me did the same to Craig who was in a slow, off camber, steep uphill left turn just as the RV appeared above him taking up the bulk of the roadway. Craig hit the binders and put out his right foot. He caught all air and went over almost striking a parked car with his body. His right mirror housing was shifted, the blinker inside was displaced a bit, and the mirror was smashed. The side bumper engine guard was scraped quite a bit, and the right bag was scratched over much of its area. The bike is only six months old, so I knew he was really upset. Fortunately, he was physically okay. A couple of bystanders quickly came to his rescue and righted the bike. As bad as it was, it could have been way worse.
Craig was going over all the details blaming himself for not straightening the front wheel before he braked. I pointed out that we had been riding since 6:00 am, and it was over 100 degrees. The off camber road meant he couldn’t reach the ground the way he would expect. Plus, the damn RV was a shocker and hogging the road. I felt guilty that he had gone back down the hill to check if I was all right. We went inside and collapsed in a booth. After recovering a bit we got an “ice cream” cone and some ice water. I must have sat there for an hour barely moving. If Needles, California isn’t the end of the world, I’ll bet you can see it from there.
A motel was in plain sight across the parking lot, and Craig volunteered to check us in. Throughout the trip we took turns paying for the room. That’s much simpler that splitting the bill every time. By the time I joined him in the lobby there was some kind of problem going on. As many of you touring riders have discovered, sometimes the credit card companies shut off your card for suspected fraud because of the frequent small gas purchases. In this case it was a debit card, and it was Sunday. His bank would have to sort it out for him on Monday. I picked up the room, and Craig picked up the next two nights. One more hassle Craig did not need.
Over the spring I had really built up this Mojave Desert bogey man. I find the southwest foreboding anyway with its dryness and lack of vegetation, but this was the mother of all dryness and heat. Our plan was to fill our tanks that evening after dinner and turn in early. We would get up at 3:00 am and head out at 4:00 am across the desert and the 90 miles before human habitation and gas could be found in Ludlow. That would beat the heat and disappoint the buzzards. Eating at Denny’s that evening we could look out the windows and see the dust and desert grimness all around. Needing nurturance I got the meatloaf dinner with mash potatoes and gravy. At least I wouldn’t have to look at it in the darkness.
Back at the motel Craig had removed all the shattered glass from his right mirror pod. It was likely to fall out anyway, so why not do a clean job? This left him totally without a right mirror which is a real problem on multi lane roads. His plan was to find an Auto Zone store somewhere along the way to see if they had some kind of mirror he could stick to the black plastic mirror backing which remained intact. It would be challenging because the backing had lots of ribs on it for strength which meant it was not a smooth surface. Craig was pretty upbeat about the whole thing, but I had my silent doubts. At least we knew there would be plenty of Honda dealers along the way. Craig’s ability to deal with setbacks with equanimity is a great asset in a riding partner.
Given all the excitement of the past couple of days, neither one of us got much sleep before the alarm went off at 3:00. The night before we had bought a couple of pastries and some juice for our early breakfast. We were cleaned up and packed up before 4:00 when I noticed the thermometer on the bike. It said 78. That did not feel cool. Craig has double head lights and Motolights and younger vision than me, so he would lead the way to Ludlow 90 miles down the road. We would run about 60-65 to give ourselves the illusion of being cautious. I really fear road debris and animals at night, but it was that or the 100+ degree desert.
We pulled out on the slab heading west across the desert we could not see. There was some truck traffic, but not much. The bike was running smoothly, but I could not help having nagging doubts. If you broke down along this road, it would be a long night and a crappy day. Droning along down that tunnel of darkness with nothing to think about but things that could go wrong, I was imagining all sorts of things. How would I deal with a flat in the dark? Did the heat of the previous day produce lots of truck gators? Are there animals out here? Ninety miles down the road there was a town. That was the focus.
As soon as you leave Needles, you begin to climb a bit. In the dark it was hard to tell what was happening, but there was a long truck lane on the right, and I was passing trucks and seeing trucks in my mirrors for awhile until they disappeared from view. Also, the temperature seemed to be falling a bit. Later on Craig mentioned that his trip computer was indicating bad mileage which made him wonder what was happening. Apparently, there is a long steady grade heading that way.
Having picked up another hour and entered a new time zone, we had no idea when there would be some light. I was pleasantly surprised about 5:00 am when I detected a hint of light as I became aware of silhouettes along the road. Soon I could see rock formations away from the road and a horizon. This was big! Things were looking up with only 30 miles to go before civilization. As we could see more and more, my morale improved greatly. I could see mountains now. By the time we took the exit for tiny Ludlow, visibility was pretty good, and we were treated to the beginnings of a dramatic sunrise. With the worst behind us without incident, we went in the convenience store for a drink and potty break. The clerk asked us where we were headed and where we were from. People are usually stunned when we say Mississippi, but this guy just said he was from Tylertown, a small town 40 miles west of Hattiesburg. How the hell he landed there must be a good story.
Our next objective was Barstow where we would stop for breakfast and look at the map. We needed to pick up Rt. 58 there to go to Bakersfield. You go from I-40 to I-15 to 58. After initially taking a wrong heading on I-15 we got to mix it up with morning traffic a bit before we figured it out. I was a bit surprised at how uneven the quality of 58 is given that it is one of the few east-west routes in that part of the state. The pavement was beaten up in places, and the little settlements along the road looked less than prosperous.
As you approach the town of Mojave, you can see the mountains in the distance that you will be crossing before you drop into the lower reaches of the San Joaquin Valley. The highest pass is almost 4000 feet and the road is excellent with plenty of sweepers and golden hills all around. As we entered the outskirts of Bakersfield, we started to see big time commercial agriculture along the road. In pretty short order I decided the ugly part of California was behind me as I entered the home town of the late Buck Owens. My favorite song of his was ” I’ve Got the Hungries for Your Love, and I’m Waitin’ in Your Welfare Line.”
Bakersfield is a town of a quarter of a million, and the lunch time traffic was pretty intense. Craig was in the lead, and I was trying to maintain contact. People who have ridden with me know I’m not very good at that. Suddenly, Craig dove off an exit with almost no warning. His blinker went on about the time he started to turn. I made it off wondering what was up. A block later I saw the Auto Zone sign.
A talent that Craig exhibited throughout the trip is the ability to find shade — no mean feat in many western areas. As we turned into the Auto Zone lot, Craig headed for a far corner near a clump of trees. Since crossing the mountains on the south end of the valley, we had dropped to about 400 feet elevation, and it was getting warm. He headed for the store to see what the possibilities were for mirror replacement while I watched the bikes. Craig returned with a flexible sheet of mirror like plastic which could be cut to fit any shape mirror. He also had found some foam backed double sided tape. He removed the mirror backing plate so we could trace its shape on the sheet. With a borrowed scissors, he cut out a “mirror.” He used a couple layers of tape to fill the low areas between the support ribs, and then he pushed the custom made mirror onto the tape. It was also possible to secure the edges of the mirror inside the lip of the plate. That lip is what originally held the ill-fated glass mirror in place. The new mirror was a bit wavy, but it would work. From ten feet behind the bike, it looked normal. I have to say I was impressed with Craig’s ingenuity.
While we were in the parking lot, we called the local Honda motorcycle dealer on the odd chance that he had a mirror in stock. He did not, but gave us the name of another dealer 30 miles north of town. They didn’t have one either. At least there were dealers nearby if we had needed a tow. After stopping at the McDonald’s next door, we headed north on Rt. 99. The reader may note that I’m a fan of the golden arches when I tour by motorcycle. It’s true. They have big booths in which you can lay out all your riding gear. The johns are big enough to change clothes in. The parking is visible from inside, and they have “senior” coffee.
Although California presidents David Brick and Greg Deckrow do not agree with me, I found California drivers to be very predictable (in a good way) and not overly aggressive. I was mentally prepared for much worse. Heading north on Interstate quality 99 was not particularly challenging. Maybe all the crazies have moved to Atlanta. We exited on Rt. 46 west to cross the valley. This was a very busy flat, straight, two lane road with plenty of truck traffic. I have to say it traversed the most extensive agricultural area I’ve ever seen. There was field after field of neat rows of all sorts of crops for over 100 miles. The speed limit was 55, and we tried to keep it below 65. The locals run much faster than that.
About half way across the valley near the town of Cholame, I had an unsettling experience. I saw lots of traffic approaching from the right at a very acute angle while there was a long line of cars facing me waiting to make a left turn across my path. I slowed and tried to figure out what was happening. I looked for a traffic light or stop sign, but saw nothing. I had my brakes covered because it just did not feel right. After clearing the area, the traffic thinned out and we climbed the first hill we had seen in a long time. We also saw a little cafe on the right, the first chance for a break on a hot day in quite awhile. When we entered, I noticed the walls were covered with James Dean memorabilia. That intersection that troubled me so was the one where he died in a car wreck. I got a large ice tea and Craig got a slice of berry pie. As we were talking, Craig mentioned that it was fun to ride with three people. He said that he would look back with his new mirror, and there were three of me. We laughed about that one for awhile.
As we continued west we could see mountains in the distance, and we were entering wine country. There were some very nice estates along the way near the town of Paso Robles. The town itself struck me as very upscale with lots of trendy tourist shops and eateries. Even the McDonald’s was well appointed (late evening ice cream cone). We stayed at a very nice motel and had a light dinner. The bikes were running strong and the bad memories were fading. We were almost at our trip objective — the Pacific Ocean. In the morning we would cross the coast range on 41 to Morro Bay where it would be cool.
Today was the day we would achieve our goal and see the Pacific Ocean from the famous California Highway 1. We headed south from Paso Nobles on Highway 101 in what was clearly morning commuter traffic. There aren’t any big towns around there so I assumed we were seeing the legendary long California commutes. We still had to cross the Santa Lucia coastal mountain range to get to the coast, and we were going to do that on Highway 41. This would take us to Morro Bay which is usually listed as the southern end of the most scenic portion of Hwy. 1.
The road over the mountains is rather narrow with very tight blind curves and lots of vegetation. There was lots of early morning traffic going both ways. Craig really likes this tight stuff while I worry about people coming across the center line or finding a surprise around one of those blind curves. The distance from Hwy. 101 to Hwy. 1 there is 17 miles, and all but a couple miles were twisties. When the road finally straightened out we could see a huge 500 foot high monolith in the bay.
The first few miles north from Morro Bay are divided four lane and flat, but soon it narrows and the traffic disappears. The first and last town of any consequence south of Monterey is Cambria.
I also think it’s the only traffic light. If you need gas or a snack or a pit stop, this is when to stop. The terrain was very rugged with homes and cabins jammed all over the hillsides at precarious angles. Craig took a left at the light toward the now out of view water to check it out. I didn’t realize how much elevation we had gained until we went down the steep, crooked streets toward the coast. There was a maze of streets and intersections, many of which lacked stop signs for either street. We worked our way down to a little public park half way expecting a pile of cheese at the end of the maze. I was hoping we could find our way back out. Just before the park I had noticed a porta-potty in the drive of a house under renovation. Having not had a stop since the motel, I told Craig I would go back to see if I could use it. A carpenter working in the garage gave me the okay. Fortunately, there were a number of signs to Hwy. 101 at key intersections. The roads out were very steep, and we had to almost stop at cross streets because of the lack of stop signs. The tall first gear of my R1150RT was no help here. We got back to the highway and headed north again.
After Cambria there was very little traffic or human habitation. A few miles down the road we saw the entrance to the famous Hearst Castle built in the Forties. We thought we could get a peek from the parking lot, but it’s much more involved than that. We headed back down the entrance road and continued north where we saw a very large parking lot on the left overlooking the sea, but not from very high. This was the San Simion area known for large sea lions. There are railings right above the coastal rocks running for hundreds of yards. You can see the sea lions in the water jousting with each other in the surf, and you can see scores of very well fed sea lions sunning themselves in pig piles. It was a very impressive sight, but it sure did stink.
From here on the route gets more dramatic. The winding road is cut out of the cliffs on the right with a spectacular view of the ocean spray breaking on the rocks below. Many of the curves are very tight and blind. The impact of the 4,000 foot mountains juxtaposed with the sea below is awe inspiring. It’s for good reason that this stretch of “highway” makes most lists of scenic roads. Just think Blue Ridge Parkway with ocean views on one side rather than valleys, or the Maine coast on steroids. While the traffic was light, there were plenty of motorcycles and convertibles. That seems to be the way to see this area. The more challenging parts of the road were completed in 1937 as part of a major depression era project. The famous Bixby Creek bridge you see on post cards and in magazines was completed in 1932. Unfortunately, as you cross its 260 foot high and 700 feet long single span, you can’t see it because you are on it.
A fellow on a KLR 650 visited with us back at the sea lion lookout and told us about a place to stop for coffee near Ragged Point. He was headed for the dirt roads in the hills for the day. He also said the gas there was sky high. He was right — $4.59 a gallon. Fortunately, we had filled up back at the motel. There was a very nice looking restaurant there as well as a convenience store of sorts. You can get relatively cheap coffee there. If you walk through the complex toward the water, you will be rewarded with some great views from a substantial elevation. There are lots of outdoor tables and chairs for a break.
Continuing north we periodically pulled off to see great vistas. At one point there was a road down to the sea where surfers could park. Craig took advantage of this to walk down to the water and rocks for a photo op. The section of the highway from Morro Bay to Monterey we were focusing on is about 100 miles, so you can imagine how many great seascapes we saw. Craig particularly liked the large rock formations well off the shore with each being unique. We also noted that the golden grass covered hillsides of the early part of our route gave way to forests of redwoods. Then we began to see some cabins and houses. There are a couple of state parks in the Big Sur area where camping is possible if that’s your style. As we approached Monterey the forest largely obscured the ocean view. We saw a little restaurant tucked among the trees and thought lunch would be a good idea until we checked out the menu. Regular sandwiches were ten bucks. We decided to press on until we saw something more reasonable.
When you get to Monterey the highway becomes a major four lane artery with traffic to match. Craig pulled off the freeway in Seaside, and I followed through some real city traffic. He finally spotted a KFC and pulled in. I hate to admit it, but I had a barbecue chicken sandwich at KFC. We also took a long break there to compare notes on the day. We weren’t expected at David Brick’s house in Santa Cruz until much later, so we were in no hurry. With time on our hands we figured it was laundry time. The waitresses gave us great directions to a nearby laundry and off we went. That would kill a couple of hours and set us up for the long trip back east.
Doing laundry on a long motorcycle trip always gives me a feeling of accomplishment. It is a regeneration of sorts that projects your focus into the future. Clean socks, underwear, and tee shirts for another four days say that you will be heading down the road for awhile. Craig and I both carry a baggie of laundry detergent so we can take advantage of a laundry opportunity as it arises. In this case we had to kill some time because David Brick was working and would not be home until later in the day. We called David from the laundromat in Seaside, and he advised us he would be home by 7:00.
We had finished drying and packing our laundry by about 4:30, and we were only 50 miles from Santa Cruz where David lives. Craig likes milkshakes and I like soft ice cream, so we decided to stop at the McDonald’s we saw when we got off the freeway to discuss our route. Throughout the trip I would plan the day’s route and discuss it with Craig who would lead the way with his younger eyes, quicker reflexes, and Motolites. Rt. 1 in this area is a multi lane freeway which we anticipated would be challenging so late in the day. David had given us very detailed and straightforward directions which involved a couple of exits to stay on the route number 1.
At first traffic north was moving very well, and I had no trouble maintaining contact with Craig. I have trouble doing that with anybody in heavy traffic because I like to leave a cushion in front of me to spot suddenly appearing debris. Once in Pennsylvania I rounded a curve on an urban Interstate to find a mattress in my lane. Just ahead was a beat up van with ropes hanging off the roof over on the shoulder. Of course, in heavy traffic people are always jumping into my cushion, and I fall behind my partner. We were doing fine until around Watsonville when what had been a wide fast moving traffic stream became a slow rolling parking lot. We were barely moving when a motorcycle squirted past me in my lane. Wow! I was in the land of lane splitting. With the traffic crawling it really took me by surprise. From then on I stayed in the center of the lane. I must say that the California drivers around me were very predictable and courteous. A number of times I signaled for a lane change and people let me in. Without getting into specifics, there are lots of places where that is not the case.
By now Craig and I were hopelessly separated and there were splits ahead that were critical. Traffic was very heavy which meant you had to be in the correct lane when a choice presented itself. Craig had no written directions, only our discussion which stressed staying on Hwy. 1, and I assumed he was way ahead of me. The really counterintuitive split occurs where Hwy. 17 peels off to the north. To go west on Hwy. 1 you have to exit right and go around a near 360 degree ramp which puts you on a very busy urban thoroughfare. The next turn to be ignored is Hwy. 9. David said right after that is Mission Street where I was to make a left into his neighborhood. I was hoping to stop at that intersection, but there was no gas station or store. As soon as I turned, I spotted a bicycle lane along the curb and stopped there. It was getting very warm and traffic was very heavy, including lots of bicyclists who must have wondered what the hell I was doing parked next to the curb.
I quickly took off my helmet, gloves and jacket and dug out my cell phone. No sooner did I get it out than it rang. It was Craig. He had been in the wrong lane at Mission and had to make a right and continue until he found a stopping place. I told him where I was, just one block south of Hwy. 1. A little while later I saw him go through the intersection heading back south on Hwy. 1. He had been in the left only lane and couldn’t go straight. Then he couldn’t find a place to turn around to get back to me. All this screwing around took about 20 minutes. Thank goodness for cell phones and sharing numbers before the trip.
Craig finally found me, and we decided to go toward town to find a place to eat. Craig led the way, and the main drag was only a few blocks away. It was a picturesque tree lined street with benches and outdoor cafe seating. Craig spotted a parking place right in front of a sandwich shop that had tables on the sidewalk. We backed into the single parking space and dropped some money into the meter. Before we were even settled, a young woman on a Kawasaki crotch rocket wearing a pink leather jacket stopped and tried to back into the end of the space. However, she was headed directly at Craig’s front wheel until we provided some spotting assistance. The sandwich shop was very impressive with a wide range of choices and incredibly reasonable prices for California and normal prices for Mississippi. Craig and I got a sandwich and drink and sat by our bikes enjoying the diverse parade of pedestrians. The temperature was perfect, and the ambiance was laid back. As we were sitting there I gave Greg Deckrow a call to see if he could come down from Los Gatos which is 20 miles north. Greg is the perennial winner of the distance award at the Blitz to Branson and a really nice guy.
At a little before 7:00 we headed out for David’s house. His directions were perfect, and as we approached his house, we saw him waving us to his garage. We pulled the bikes in and piled our gear on the bikes. I have corresponded with David and read his thoughtful posts for at least ten years. It was a real treat to meet him and his wife in person for the first time. We closed the garage door and headed inside. David had a room prepared for both of us in his large home. As soon as we were settled, David offered us a beer (me) or soft drink (Craig), and the gab fest began. Greg had called David and said he would soon ride down on his GS. He arrived shortly after we did.
We had a great time as we talked about places we had been and places where we were headed, all of which were familiar to those two Californians. Our next stop was Yosemite and then Nevada. They gave us some very helpful route advice through the valley and Greg warned us about speed traps in Tonopah. He said if the limit is 35, you can probably go 33. (More on this later). Both guys recommended the section of Hwy. 120 east of Yosemite that goes to Benton. It was a thoroughly pleasant evening of fellowship. Those guys had to work the next day, and we had lots of miles to cover if we were going to ride through Yosemite and go over Tioga Pass the next day. We turned in early in anticipation of a 6:00 wake up.
As we slowly backed out of David’s driveway I sensed this was a big day. When I take a long motorcycle trip I am acutely aware of going farther and farther from home until I reach the tipping point. After that I am getting closer to home with every mile. It’s almost as if I am stretching a bungee cord which finally pulls me back. Although there were still lots for us to see and miles to cover, when I made the right turn on to Hwy. 1 south, we were heading toward home.
Our objective for the day was to cross California, ride through Yosemite National Park, and then cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains via the famed Tioga Pass. David had called the highway department to confirm the pass was open, so our primary concern was possible crowding at the park. Air cooled motorcycles don’t like stop and go traffic. We were hoping for the best because school had only been out for a few days. That would keep the RV traffic down. Well aware that we would be crossing the valley again with forecasts of high 90’s, we wore our mesh riding gear. Relief would come late in the day as we climbed into the mountains.
Traffic was moving well down Hwy. 1 toward our exit at Watsonville where we stopped to gas up and get a snack at a convenience store. Right across the street was a BMW motorcycle dealer. We picked up Rt. 152 east for awhile until we had to cross the mountains just the far side of Gilroy. The turns were very tight, the road surface was bumpy, the curves were blind, and the traffic coming toward us was heavy. David and Greg had both said this was a fun road. Craig probably agreed. As we approached the valley, we entered an area of golden hills and long vistas. We passed a very large and picturesque reservoir before we hit agricultural country. Then things got very flat with a fair amount of truck traffic. If you check out a map of California you’ll see there are not a lot of major east west highways which puts trucks on two lane roads. Following David’s recommendations, we headed north briefly on Rt. 33 to Rt. 140 east. That would take us all the way to the park. We made good time toward Merced and Mariposa. The elevation of Merced is only 88 feet, so things were warming up by mid day. The agriculture in this area was not as intensive as we had seen farther south, but this was clearly farm country.
When we got to Mariposa, we stopped for lunch. It was getting hot, but I figured that relief was just ahead as we would be into the foothills. I had forgotten that Greg mentioned something about things heating up when you go down to the river the other side of Mariposa. About ten miles the other side of town you drop down to the Merced River and a series of canyons. The road and the scenery make for great riding, but by then it was in the high 90’s with no relief in sight. The road follows the river all the way to the park entrance. Prior to that you are at the bottom of a very deep, narrow, hot canyon. At one point we came upon a long line of stopped cars with a flag man up ahead. Apparently, a rock slide had taken out the road which was on the south side of the river. I could see a temporary bridge up ahead leading to the other side. I shut down my engine and checked out my thermometer. It was showing 100, and we would be there awhile in the dead air. What felt like an eternity was probably 15 minutes until the scout vehicle appeared on the other side with the west bound cars in tow. Eventually, it was our turn to cross the one lane bridge and to crawl down the other side of the canyon for a short distance to another temporary bridge back to the main highway. We soon came upon a gas station near El Portal closed for lunch which meant we could park under the pump canopy for some shade. The rest rooms were open, and there was a water hose out front for dousing tee shirts.
In no time we were at the park entrance with no line to the gate house. Things were looking up. We flashed our passes and drove right onto the valley. Traffic was light and shade was everywhere. We stopped for a good look at Bridalveil Falls, which drops 620 feet to the valley floor. Standing in that area the view is staggering in all directions. The scale of the vertical faced mountains is overwhelming. We also stopped to take pictures of El Capitan. We rode slowly through the valley rubber necking as much as could be done safely. It’s a very special place, and we were so lucky to see it when traffic was light. I don’t think it’s quite up to the grandeur of Glacier NP, but Yosemite is clearly one of the biggies.
The road through Yosemite Valley is a long, narrow loop which flanks either side of the Merced River. The elevation is about 4000 feet with the surrounding mountains about 2-3000 feet above that. The road is one way in and then one way out after you reach the end of the valley where Yosemite Village is located. There are lots of places to pull over to take in the majestic view. A motorcycle or convertible would definitely be the vehicles of choice there because you do lots of looking up. Some of the more impressive sights would require a bit of walking to get the best view, but we were just passing through.
Prior to reaching the main exit, we peeled off to the north on Rt. 41 to reach Rt. 120 which would take us over the Sierra Nevada Range. As you climb along this connector road, there are plenty of scenic views off to the left, but the road is narrow and winding which takes a bit of attention. There is also a very long tunnel. I learned the hard way in Rogers Pass, British Columbia to remove sunglasses before entering long, dark tunnels on bright days, and this is a long one. The climb up to the main road is substantial. When you reach the intersection of 41 and 120 there is a convenience store and gas station. Heading east from there, this would be the last gas for about 60 miles, but we had filled up at lunch. The range of my R1150RT approaches 300 miles and Craig’s seven gallon tank does a little better than that. My first western trip on a K75RT with its 200 mile range was much less convenient.
The road across the park to Tioga Pass was unlike most passes I’ve crossed. Usually you have a series of switchbacks as you continuously climb to the pass and then a similar descent on the other side. On the Tioga road you are at higher elevations the whole time as you slowly gain altitude. It’s not hard to believe that the road is closed in winter. At times the road is fairly level and you often descend for short stretches. Most of the road is heavily wooded which means you can’t really see the mountains around you much of the time. Eventually, things open up a bit as you see the very blue Tenaya Lake off to the right is surrounded by polished domes and cliffs. In some ways this stretch was more impressive to me than the valley because of its brightness and scale. You are surrounded by 11,000 foot peaks as you view the water from above. About five miles past the lake, you come upon the Tuolumne Meadows, a very large grassy area surrounded by peaks. There is a visitor center there with lots of traffic and activity. Apparently, it’s a center for hiking and horseback riding. Heading east you continue to climb as you approach the far edge of the park and Tioga Pass, which is a few feet short of 10,000 feet. Once you leave the park, there is much less vegetation and you descend rapidly. This reminded me of crossing Glacier NP from west to east on the Going to the Sun Road. Once you cross the pass, you drop down rapidly. In this case we probably lost about 3,000 feet by the time we hit Rt. 395. There we took a left to the town of Lee Vining.
The town was founded in 1852 as a mining town by a guy named Leroy Vining. With the growth and popularity of Yosemite NP, it has developed as a tourist town. Across the highway from the town is the very large Mono Lake. There are plenty of motels, restaurants, and gas stations along a walking distance strip. Later in the day, the town seems to fill up. Our motel was booked up within half an hour of us stopping at about 5:00. It had been quite a day beginning on the Pacific coast in Santa Cruz. We had gone from an elevation of less than 100 feet to nearly 10,000 feet and crossed two mountain ranges, all on two wheels. We had also crossed California.
Our next objective was Utah, with a crossing of Nevada required. I had already crossed Nevada once on the famous Highway 50, the so-called loneliest road in America, and we were well south of that anyway. I figured we would take Rt. 6 through Tonopah and then the Extraterrestrial Highway (375) to 93 and then 319 to Cedar City, Utah. Both David and Greg had recommended we take the little section of Rt. 120 that goes from 395 just south of Lee Vining to Benton, California. We did. It was a hilly forested area which gave way to very open country with great vistas, and it was very cool early in the morning. We had the road totally to ourselves. Later Craig told me he saw 36 on his bike thermometer. The most striking characteristic of this road was also its most entertaining. We came upon a sign that said something like dips next five miles. It was a series of closely spaced, small but very steep hills that approximated a roller coaster. What a hoot. If you were running fast enough, you would be airborne at times. You could not see the bottom of the hill until you were well over the crest. If you get a chance, don’t miss that road.
As we got closer to Benton, it was clear this was ranch country. There were houses and out buildings and vehicles. The town is really just an intersection with a post office, cafe and gas pumps. The pumps and concrete around them looked very new which made me feel good after my Texas experience. It was at least 80 miles to Tonopah, so we gassed up.
We headed north on Rt. 6 out of Benton for a few miles before turning east and quickly hit the Nevada border. The state of Nevada is over 90 percent federal land, so there is lots of open country. No sooner were we in Nevada than the horizon opened up and the road straightened out. It’s a bit of a paradox that Nevada is covered with mountains, but the roads are largely flat and straight. You are always looking at mountains in the distance, but rarely have to go over them in a dramatic fashion. There are “passes,” but they tend to be abbreviated in that you quickly go up a thousand feet or so and then drop back down to the high desert. On Rt. 6 we could see some very substantial mountains off to the south, one of which was Boundary Peak, the highest point in Nevada at 13,143 feet.
From my experience the roads in Nevada are very good with 70 mph limits on the two lanes. I’m guessing the good surfaces are the result of very light traffic. It can be a long time between cars and a longer time between visible human settlements. I find it simultaneously awe inspiring and foreboding. When you are cruising along at 75 for hour after hour, you have to wonder what kind of man it took to cross the whole state riding a horse for the Pony Express. Somebody must have worked out where the water was, because it’s not very obvious from the saddle of a motorcycle. I carry extra water in Nevada. Tonopah was the only town of any consequence on our proposed route for the day, and its population is only 2,500. We stopped at a new, large truck stop on the west side of town for gas and a water break. It had been only 80 miles since we filled up, but I knew to plan way ahead for gas in Nevada. The next gas along our route was 145 miles, and that was an assumed best case scenario because that was not discovered until we got there. It could have easily been 190 miles based on the next town after that. After filling up, we crept through town at 25 mph. Greg Deckrow had warned us that every time he went through Tonopah, he saw lots of cars pulled over. As he put it, if the limit is 35 you can probably do 33 safely. If you do a Google search on Tonopah + “speed trap,” you get 144 hits. It is very difficult to do 25 on an oilhead with its tall gearing, and the limit extended well out of town on the far side.
Running along Rt. 6 we would occasionally see a road sign warning about low flying aircraft. Little did we know that there are a couple of very secret Air Force bases to the southeast of Tonopah. If you look at a map of the area south of Rt. 6, east of Rt. 95, and west of 375 and 93, you will note that there are large areas referred to as bombing ranges or test site. Unlike any other large area of the state, you will not see dirt roads, or any roads. You will also not see the location of large runways. Until I got home and did a little research, I was blissfully unaware of all of this.
About 40 miles east of Tonopah is a town called Warm Springs and the turn off for Rt. 375. Be not fooled. It is a ghost town which consists of the shell of an abandoned restaurant and some very old, dilapidated out buildings. The springs are still there, but not much else. Over a hundred years ago, it was a stage coach stop. This was a good lesson we did not need because we had filled up just 40 miles ago. In the west you may see the name of a town on a map, but there may not be a town, or it can be a couple of mobile homes and a few shacks. Don’t count on gas, food, or water.
We took a right on 375 and saw a sign welcoming us to the Extraterrestrial Highway. I had heard stories about the mysterious Area 51, and the conspiracy theories about hidden UFO’s and alien bodies, but I didn’t know much about it. More important to me were the signs warning that this was open range country and the sudden appearance of lots of cattle along the road, and I really mean along the road. Craig had not ridden in the west before, so this really caught his attention. He pulled over and said he wanted to take some pictures, I was to go ahead, and he would catch up. Every now and then a big cow would stand up and waltz across the road, in one case followed by a calf. I was going slow and enjoyed the show. We were going down a valley between some large mountains, and there were a few ranches. Up ahead I could see a small cluster of buildings far in the distance. It’s amazing how you can see things miles away and misjudge just how far they are. In this case it took awhile to get to the town of Rachel, population 98.
There appeared to be one commercial establishment with a large parking lot. The double wide based building houses the A’Le’Inn (alien), a restaurant emphasizing the mysterious aspects of Area 51 and the rumors of UFO’s. The decor featured drawings of ET looking characters and various Area 51 warnings and references. It’s definitely worth a visit for lunch. The Alien burger was very good. While we were there, a couple of friendly state highway workers came in for lunch. We talked about all kinds of things, and learned there was a swimming pool at Warm Springs fed by the springs that locals used. One fellow told a story of getting a speeding ticket in Tonopah and going in to pay it. The clerk had a large stack of tickets on her desk. The guy asked if that was from the last month and was told it was from the last week. Enough said.
I did not know it at the time, but just west and south of Rachel is a super secret area for military activity and research. There are Russian fighter aircraft flown and evaluated there. The secret base was used for the development of the U2 and SR71 spy planes as well as the stealth bombers. There are no signs to the area on Rt. 375, and the two dirt roads that go there are not on the regular road map. There is very heavy security around the area with all sorts of high tech surveillance. If you wander in you will find yourself face down and handcuffed. Lethal force is authorized in the area. The main base with large runways is near Groom Lake. That small square is referred to as Area 51. Do a Google search on
“Area 51” and you will find some interesting reading and satellite photos and maps. To the west and south of that area is the Nevada Test Site where the nuclear testing of the Fifties was done.
As we were finishing lunch, a fellow who looked to be a tourist came in and asked the waitress where the nearest gas was. He was told it was 108 miles to Tonopah heading west or 44 miles heading east to Ash Springs. I’ll bet they get that question a lot. When gas stations are over 150 miles apart, you have to plan ahead. The area is so desolate I had to ask how kids in that area went to school. I was informed that they went 50 miles one way to Alamo four days a week.
Going from the air conditioned restaurant to the sun drenched gravel parking lot presented quite a contrast. I’m always struck at how powerful the sun is in the low humidity and altitude of the west. It was getting very hot, and it would only get worse as the day progressed. We lost at least 1500 feet as we approached Hwy. 93 and Ash Springs, and we could feel the temperature rising. At 3500 feet that area has to be one of the lower ones in Nevada. Before we reached the intersection, we saw a rest area to the left with many large, lush trees and lots of parked cars. At the time I had no clue what those cars were doing there, and we hadn’t seen trees all day. There had to be a spring there. Now I know the cars belonged to people who catch the special bus for employees at Area 51. It seems that Ash Springs and Alamo are where most of the base employees live.
The temperature was pushing 100 which, means I take lots of breaks for water and air conditioning if possible. We pulled into the gas station on Hwy. 93 in Ash Springs. Craig spotted a large white bucket sitting under a water spigot. He took his shirt off and submerged it in the bucket. I saw what he was doing and quickly followed suit. Putting the sopping shirt back on I was stunned at how cold it was, almost painfully cold at first. We headed back to the highway heading east on 93. The soaked tee shirt served me well for about 20 minutes, and we were gaining a bit of altitude. We stopped at Caliente, Nevada for gas and an extended break. Caliente is Spanish for hot. The town looked fairly prosperous, and the convenience store was doing a land office business. An older fellow was sitting at one of the slot machines at the front window, and he had seen our bikes. He asked where we were from, and I said Mississippi. He said he was from the Mississippi Gulf coast, and he had lots of family and relatives there. The Air Force had sent him to Nevada as a young man, and he kept returning. Small world.
After soaking the shirt again, we continued to Panaca and then headed east for Utah on Hwy. 319. I’ve noticed that small towns in Utah often look like an oasis relative to the surrounding desert. Grass is green and trees are ubiquitous. Irrigation is widespread. I think it may be a Mormon thing of turning a desert into a garden. Whatever it is, I’ve seen it time and again. This was the case in Newcastle where we stopped at a convenience store for a cool drink. Some young boys in their early teens were leaving as we went in, one of whom owned the little dirt bike outside. In short order they returned to talk to us about our bikes. Craig and I did our best to entertain them, and they were suitably impressed. The boy with the dirt bike was the big cheese and spokesman.
Distances in the west always fool me. We could see Cedar City in the distance for what must have been ten miles before we arrived. There are lots of motels and restaurants which looked doubly impressive in juxtaposition with the vast wastelands of Nevada. There was also lots of traffic. Hot and tired, we were disappointed that the first two motels we stopped at were full. The Utah State Games were being held that week. We got the last room in the third place we tried. We unpacked and walked over to Denny’s for dinner. This Denny’s was unlike any I’ve ever seen. All the waitresses were young and good looking. Perhaps the high fertility of Utah creates lots of competition among young people for jobs. Whatever the explanation, Craig and I discussed the phenomenon at length for strictly intellectual purposes. Sitting there it was hard to believe that we had gone from 36 degrees that morning to close to 100 that afternoon. I much preferred the former.
This day in Utah was going to be one of the high points of the trip. I told Craig that the scenery would knock his socks off. I had been across Utah on a bike a couple of times, but the places I had in mind are worth repeated visits. Much of the route includes roads that Bob Higdon rates as among the best in America for motorcycles. For some vivid descriptions go to the Iron Butt site and find his “Summer Trip.” First on the agenda would be Zion National Park. We got an early start and headed south on I-15 looking for the exit to La Verkin and Rt. 9. The early morning air was cool and traffic was very light. The only excitement was the large metal drawer sitting in my lane at one point. I had plenty of time to avoid it, but wouldn’t have seen it in the dark. A number of the exits were labeled “ranch exit” and “no services.” This was pretty open country.
We got off the slab and immediately were in the technicolor world of southern Utah. I’ve heard it said that you could throw darts at a map of Utah and select the sites for a national park. As we approached Zion NP from the west, the rock formations got bigger and the range of colors grew wider. There was lots of new commercial development since my last visit about seven years ago, and traffic was heavier than I recalled. If you are flying low like we were, you can cross the park on Rt. 9 and stop as you wish. The road takes you through a canyon surrounded by huge, brightly colored vertical monoliths of various shapes. The impact is nothing short of stunning. Toward the far side of the park you climb through a series of switchbacks until you face a long tunnel heading east. Take off your sunglasses as it’s very dark. In my judgment, Zion is one of the most beautiful parks in America. There’s nothing like it.
At the intersection of Rt. 9 and Rt. 89 is the town of Mount Carmel. On the corner is a gas station and souvenir shop as well as some restaurants. The shop has very good prices on tee shirts for the kids or grand kids. The station has a large wooden bench which is in the shade in the morning. I recommend it. From there we headed north through a very lush valley which contained a picturesque meandering stream and lots of ranches. About 45 miles north of Mount Carmel we headed east on the very famous Rt. 12. Almost immediately you are in the Red Canyon area which I rate as one of the most beautiful areas in Utah. There are all sorts of unique rock formations that are a bright orangish red. It’s testament to the beauty of Utah that most people don’t even mention Red Canyon as they focus on Bryce Canyon just down the road.
The lookouts in Bryce Canyon are at about 8,000 feet, and the canyon area is huge. The floor of the canyon is filled with all sorts of rock formations including sculptured multi-colored vertical rock spires reminiscent of stalagmites in caves. These pinnacles are called hoodoos. I’ve never seen anything quite like it outside of caves. Craig took a bunch of pictures, and then we pressed on. In pretty short order we were losing altitude and the country became hot, dry and desolate.
Escalante is the only town of consequence on Rt. 12 so we stopped for lunch at a rustic cafe on the right on the far side of town. Looking for even a spot of shade, we saw two Honda riders parked under some small trees along the curb. They were both from South Carolina and very friendly. The guy on the Gold Wing wore a one piece Aerostich and sneakers. He was quite a character. The other fellow was on an ST1100 and wore boots with his ‘stich. As they pulled out we claimed the shade. The cafe was interesting with all sorts of humorous sayings plastered on the walls. It was a fun stop.
About ten miles north of Escalante is one of the most spectacular overlooks in America. You can see for miles and miles, and you can look straight down on the many switchbacks of Rt. 12 you will soon be experiencing. There is a large parking lot there and some displays explaining what you are looking at. It’s not exactly the Grand Canyon, but it’s in the top five views in the country. Get rested up and take a drink of water because the best is yet to come.
As soon as you pull out of the overlook you begin a steep descent via a series of switch backs into the Escalante Canyons. The road through this slick rock area was built by the CCC in 1935, and it was not paved until 1971. The canyon is deep and narrow with huge boulders on both sides. The temptation to gawk was overwhelmed in my case by the lack of shoulders and guard rails.
This was particularly the case as you pull up and out of the canyons on to a section of the road known as the hogsback or Little Burma road. The road is on top of a ridge line with 1000 foot drop offs on both sides and, again, no shoulder. If you run off here, they wouldn’t miss you or find you. The last time I rode this section of Rt. 12, I was really puckered up. This time I was “focused” and doing my best to keep up with the two-up Harley in front of me. How embarrassing.
The next town you will see is Boulder. It is an isolated ranching community that received its mail by horseback until 1935 when the CCC road reached them. There is an upscale tourist restaurant there, a gas station, and green grass with horses in view. Past Boulder the highway begins the climb up Boulder Mountain which is part of the Aquarius Plateau. This part of the highway was not paved until 1985. In pretty short order you are in a dense aspen and pine forest, and the temperature is dropping as you climb to the pass at 9200 feet. The peak of the mountain is 11000 feet. Based on the one deer I saw in the woods, I’d guess there are plenty of critters up there. There is a turn off at the pass which offers the reverse of the view you enjoyed at the Escalante turn off. On a clear day you can see forever.
Craig and I pulled off for a break and some pictures, and we were soon joined by the Honda guys.
Again, we had a very pleasant visit before we headed down the back side of the mountain toward Torrey. The descent featured lots of curves and good pavement, but we had to surrender the cool air. Highway 12 ends at Torrey and Rt. 24. I’ve seen Rt. 12 referred to as the most beautiful road in America in a guidebook. If you add up Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon, the Escalante look out and
canyons, the hogsback road, and the Boulder Mountain climb and view, it’s a reasonable claim.
There are a couple of new, modern motels at Torrey and a gas station. As we were resting at the gas station, we had to decide whether to hang it up or press on. Our route would take us east on 24 through Capitol Reef National Park towards Hanksville. The last time I was through here, Hanksville was almost a ghost town. I asked one of the clerks in the convenience store if Hanksville had a motel, and she assured me it did. It was the bird in the hand thing. Two modern motels next to us and maybe one in Hanksville. If there was nothing in Hanksville, we would be screwed because there is nothing past there short of well over 100 miles. As we rested on the bench, the sky had become overcast, which lowered the temperature a bit. It didn’t seem that hot, it was only five o’clock, and Hanksville was less than 50 miles down the road. We gassed up and headed out east. About two miles down the road the sky cleared completely and the temperature went through the roof. This was going to be unpleasant.
The Capitol Reef National Park is another stunner. Its uniqueness rests with its massive scale. The colorful rock formations are huge. Think Yosemite in color with lots more rock. The name comes from the similarity of some of the great rock domes to the capitol in Washington. The road cuts right through the large formations with steep walls of multi colored rock on both sides. While the view was spectacular, it also produced a furnace effect on a very hot day. I kept looking at my trip meter, and it kept getting hotter. The road was laced with tar snakes that could not be avoided, and the road was very curvy as it followed an ancient canyon. We really wanted to hurry, but the tar snakes were melting enough to cause some serious twitching anytime you were leaning even a bit. Between the heat and the twitching, the fun meter was dead.
Hanksville is what a Canadian friend used to call a poke and a plum town. You poke your head out the window and you’re plum out of town. The major industry appears to be providing gas and boating supplies for people headed down to Glen Canyon. The activity is clustered around the intersection of Rt. 24 and Rt. 95. The first motel we saw looked like the kind that rents by the week or the hour. We cruised right on by. We took a right at 95 and saw the Whispering Sands Motel at the far end of a huge dusty gravel parking lot. Apparently, this was for boats and big rigs. The motel looked fairly new, and it looked like prefab or modular construction. The name was so incongruous in that dust bowl that it stuck with me. They have a website if you want to take a look. But, at that point I just wanted out of the brutal sun. As it turned out, the inside of the room was very nice and clean and the AC could gin up a blizzard. As I was prostrate on the bed checking out the Salt Lake City TV news, I saw the current temperature in Hanksville was 103. No doubt it was worse in the Canyons of Capitol Reef. No wonder the tar snakes were melting.
After unpacking and getting our strength back, it was time to eat. The town had two places to eat, and the one that looked to have been a real restaurant was out of business. The one across the street called Blondie’s was a cafe and souvenir shop. There wasn’t a soul in there other than the two high school girls who appeared to be in charge. I can’t imagine being a young person in that “town.” It’s a world I don’t know anything about. After dinner we walked next door to the convenience store to get something for breakfast. The entire store interior was carved out of a huge boulder. I’m not making that up. The floor, walls, and ceiling were solid rock, and the place was packed with people getting supplies for their campers and boats.
At this point we made a change in plans. The original route was to take us south on 95 to Glen Canyon and then over to Blanding, but the heat was building and the next day would be over 100 down there. I really wanted to get east to Colorado and some altitude. If you are out that way,
Rt. 95 to the water is a fabulous curvy road with sweeper after sweeper and some great red rock canyons. The view of the shore line from the east side is spectacular at sunrise, and you can camp on the shore. From there go east to Natural Bridges National Monument and then south on 261 to Mexican Hat. That will take you over the infamous Mokee Dugway–a tight series of switch backs that drops you vertically about 1000 feet down the face of the cliff. Long vehicles are not permitted. From there you can check out Monument Valley. Our new revised plan was to head north on 24 to I-70 and then east to Arches National Park.
If you look at 24 on the map, you will see it is very straight, and it is not marked as scenic. I figured it would just be flat desert and nothing special. We headed out very early and had the road entirely to ourselves. There was no sign of any human habitation or activity along the way. It was straight and largely flat as I anticipated, but there were interesting large rock formations most of the way, especially to the west. Most anywhere else this would be a park of some sort, and there is a state park down a dirt road to the west. We hit the Interstate and boogied east. Scenic Utah was no more. This was desert with nothing but horizon to see. There were many long grades that required a drop to fifth gear for me. Craig’s ST1300 pulled top gear all the way.
We took the exit for Arches and covered the 30 miles to the entrance, the last part of which is very scenic. We hit the park before it got too crowded and headed right up into the rocks. It’s amazing how each park can be unique when they all are made up of rock. This park is the result of eons of wind and water sculpting the rock into unique shapes. This can create what looks like chess pieces or hoops or pillars. It’s a very special place. After looping the park, we headed to Moab to gas up. It was getting hot again. The plan was to take Rt. 128 along the Colorado River canyons to Cisco and the Interstate. This is reputed to be one of those very special roads. We got a couple miles in and saw a sign telling us it was local traffic only because the bridge was out. Actually, I saw the sign and Craig who was leading blew right on by. I pulled off into the rest area to consult my tank bag map. It would have been 30 miles before we hit the bridge and thirty miles back out. There are no alternate routes. Craig eventually noticed that he was alone and returned to get the story. We returned to Moab into what was getting to be heavy traffic. We headed north on Rt. 191 to catch the Interstate. It was time to head to Colorado.
The bulk of our adventure was behind us now, and the focus was on getting home fairly directly. It was 50 miles to the Colorado line and the last 45 of that were without services or much worth seeing, and its hot desert. It’s another 20 miles into Colorado before you can find a meal, which we did at Fruita. You can get off the Interstate there to ride through the Colorado National Monument on the Rim Rock Drive. Its colored rock formations are very impressive if you have not seen Utah. Even then, it’s well worth a visit. I camped out there almost 30 years ago with my Yamaha XS750E right before I lost 2nd and 4th gear My trip to the Canadian Rockies ended abruptly there as I did a U turn and limped home to Denton, Texas, in constant fear of the tranny locking up.
In Grand Junction we picked up Rt. 50 which would eventually take us across much of Colorado. The highway goes right through town, but the lights are very well timed. The heat and the traffic were the major concerns. We continued south to Delta before we took a break. Craig sarcastically remarked how much cooler it felt since the temperature had dropped from 98 in Grand Junction to 95 in Delta. I wasn’t impressed. We continued on to Montrose where we headed east. We had already picked up about 1200 feet and would pick up another 2000 by the time we hit Gunnison. The horse was headed for the barn as we could see the mountains in the distance. It began to sprinkle, and we loved every minute of it. There was some ugly lightning and dark skies, but it was short lived. If we had not been out of touring mode, we would have stopped at the Black Canyon of the Gunnison. It is an extremely deep but narrow chasm. The visitor center is on Rt. 347. On the north side of the canyon, Rt. 92 provides some spectacular views. We did stop at Cimarron, which has a little museum and some old narrow gauge railroad cars and track. Check it out.
The ride up to Gunnison is beautiful with lots of curves and hills and mountains in the distance. The vegetation is a very lush green in contrast to all the desert terrain we had been through. For much of the ride you will have an elevated view of the Blue Mesa Reservoir, a major center for boating and fishing. Gunnison is a college town which often is listed as one of the cold spots in the nation. At 7700 feet, it’s not surprising. We had a bit of trouble finding a room because a softball tournament was in town. We found a “quaint” motel that has Swiss in the title that was owned by an eccentric older woman. Right next to our room was a couple of Gold Wing riders from Oklahoma whom we enjoyed talking to. Across the street was a very unpretentious Mexican restaurant staffed by college kids (really cute). The menu was painted on the wall, and you ordered a la carte at the cash register. I had eaten there once before about seven years ago when I was touring on my K75RT with Mark Austin. That time it got down to 30 degrees overnight in early June.
Craig likes to take walks around town when we stop, and I like to rest. Aging is not for sissies. He volunteered to take our stuff to the laundry a few blocks away before dinner while I took it easy and shot the bull with the Gold Wingers. I wrote some post cards and caught a little TV. I really get irritated when there is no Weather Channel. Like I said, it was quaint.
It got down to 40 that night, and we were loving it in the morning. We headed east toward Monarch Pass. That one is the real deal. Up and up and up on switchback after switchback. Lots of third and fourth gear for me. At the top of the 11,300 foot pass we pulled off, and Craig went to get pictures of the snow hidden under the trees and between the rocks. We ran down the other side toward Salida for a snack and coffee at the Burger King. I asked the clerk if they had senior coffee like McDonald’s. She said she didn’t know what McDonald’s did, but theirs was free. We continued east on what must be one of the more entertaining riding roads around. The road followed the racing Arkansas River and offered curve after curve through the canyon. We were looking to pick up Rt. 69 as a short cut to I-25. I had been down that road once before and was very impressed with its scenic beauty.
I discovered Rt. 69 in Colorado a few years ago when I was returning from the Top of the Rockies rally in Paonia. It looked like a more direct route to Walsenburg and I-25 than going over to Pueblo. As I soon discovered, it is a very scenic route that is lightly traveled. The road runs down the center of a wide flat valley with the Rocky Mountains to the east and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains to the west. The latter form a long line of snow capped peaks that are reminiscent of the Tetons in Wyoming, and the tallest peak, Crestone Peak, is taller than the Tetons at 14,294 feet. The spectacular view to the west runs for about 50 miles.
When we hit the town of Westcliff, Craig took a right to get a better view. The road dead ended in a few blocks and we were looking right at the mountain range. Very impressive, indeed. The town itself looked very upscale and perhaps was a summer residence for some people. Once out of town we were in ranch country, including a buffalo ranch. The road has lots of gentle curves and some mild elevation changes, but it’s best suited to cruising.
We stopped in Walsenburg for a break. In the back of the large truck stop station is an A&W shop. We both had a root beer float. It’s been at least 20 years since I’ve done that. We hit the Interstate and headed south for New Mexico. Traffic was very heavy as might be expected. The climb up to the Raton Pass (7834 ft) on the border is quite steep and curvy for an Interstate, and the 1000 foot descent down to Raton in heavy traffic is even more entertaining. We got off on Rt. 87 to head for Texas. We stopped for gas for the first time since Gunnison, and I got the best mileage of the trip, 55 mpg. Heading to Clayton was high desert and lots of road construction and bumper to bumper 45 mph traffic. That continued well into Texas where things get flat and less than scenic. West Texas is bleak to my eastern eyes. We used to joke in the service that if you went AWOL in west Texas, they could see you on the horizon a day later. I don’t know if its world agricultural markets or oil, but going through Dalhart and Dumas I saw lots of new buildings and businesses. A couple decades ago that area looked like black and white scenes from the movie The Last Picture Show.
We stopped in Dumas to plan where we would be stopping. I like to get on the far side of cities when I stop for the night to avoid crossing a city during the morning rush hour. We decided to go into Amarillo and then east through town on I-40 until Rt. 287. We would get a motel on the far side of town and gas up in the morning. As we sailed through Amarillo on I-40, we saw every brand of motel at least once and lots of restaurants. That is a major east-west artery that has replaced the old Route 66. We pulled off the Interstate at 287 and suddenly we were in rural west Texas with no sign of commerce or population. It was like throwing a light switch. Civilization just stopped. Craig was in the lead for about ten miles of that, and we saw nothing other than a billboard advertising a motel about 70 miles down the road. I didn’t have that much gas. After awhile Craig motioned me to take the lead. I think he was giving up. No sooner did I pull around than my fuel light came on. These situations always get magnified in your mind, but I was concerned. We had been running about 75, so I slowed a bit to conserve fuel. Before long I was running 60-65, staring into the distance for salvation. Craig told me later he knew what my problem was. What seemed like an eternity was probably 15 minutes. Then, far ahead I saw the familiar Shell sign and was greatly relieved. It was the town of Claude, population 1262.
I pulled up to one of the pumps and flipped my tank bag and opened the gas cap. Craig pulled up next to me and said he had spotted a motel sign up ahead, and he knew I did not like to fill up right before I parked the bike. It was 6:00 o’clock Sunday night, and the next motel we knew of was 40 miles down the road. If it was full, we had a problem. I followed Craig down the main drag to the motel. It looked pretty grim to me, and the restaurant next door had long been out of business. The name of the place was the LA Motel. What the hell that meant, I don’t know. Let’s just say it was a real bargain. The owner told Craig there were lots of places we could eat — the Shell station, the burger place, and the Dairy Queen. After we unpacked I suggested we get moving lest our options narrow further. As it turned out, the burger place was closed or out of business, so the Dairy Queen was it. They were doing a brisk business, and the burgers and fries were good.
When we returned to the motel we discovered that a major rail line was across the street, and it was very busy. After thousands of miles and weeks on the road, you get a little goofy. We laughed about the motel and we laughed about the all-night trains. Seeing as we alternated picking motels and paying, I joked that I was going to find us an even rattier motel next time. Craig assured me that I couldn’t do that. We laughed and I poured a stiff one over some ice.
When we got up before sunrise, there was a heavy dew on our bike covers, the first in a long time. It was also comfortably cool. We headed east on 287 toward Wichita Falls. Texas roads are among the best in the U.S. with wide paved shoulders, good surfaces, and reasonable speed limits. We were running along at 70-75 with the road to ourselves. The sunrise across the fields to our left revealed a great deal of butt cover which might have been related to the early morning dew. Suddenly we hit a heavy fog, and Craig’s tail light disappeared. I hit the flashers and slowed down. I really didn’t expect that in west Texas. Between the dew, my butts, and the fog it was clear that there was more moisture in the air than normal.
Before long we broke out of the fog and continued to make good time. A number of the small towns on our route had motels, but that is hindsight. We had a lot of fun joking about the LA Motel, anyway. About the time we were passing through Wichita Falls the sky began to look very ominous, especially to the north and east. When we stopped for gas on the far side of town, I pulled out my weather radio from the tank bag. They were issuing severe storm warnings and tornado watches for many of the counties in north Texas and south central Oklahoma, and it was getting very humid. We continued east and saw no rain, just lots of very dark butts.
As we approached Gainesville on Rt. 82, it was time for lunch. We pulled into a KFC and discovered it was out of business. You don’t see that very often. We also noticed there were lots of puddles around suggesting the rain had been through there. We decided to go on to Sherman for lunch. On the way between the two towns, we saw that streams and rivers passing under the road were high and roiling. There was standing water in some of the parking lots and grassy areas. About five miles west of
Sherman, we crested a hill to find both lanes of east bound traffic stopped for as far as we could see. Ahead of us was a long, downhill grade. We checked with the truckers to see if they heard anything on their CB. They told us the road was under water ahead. We did not know it at the time, but this was the Monday that violent storms caused flash flooding in the early morning hours that resulted in at least two deaths. It was obvious we weren’t going anywhere for awhile. We had just passed a freeway entrance so there was a very wide shoulder. I suggested we pull way over to park and put our mesh gear on. Then we could decide what to do. We couldn’t cross over to the west bound side because of the dipping grassy median, and we couldn’t go forward.
We were standing there when a fellow in a Buick came backing by up the on ramp. I waved him on and asked if he was from around there. He was. I asked if we went back up the on ramp if we could go under the highway to reach the other side. He said yes, but if we wanted to go to Sherman we could take a left, south, on the road past the entrance ramp and go to state Hwy. 56 and then east to Sherman. We hit the flashers and crept up the ramp on the outside edge and followed his directions. All along 56 we saw rivers and streams up to the top of their banks and running swiftly. The railings on bridges had debris draped over them. There were large flooded areas on lawns and fields. They obviously had a major rainfall that morning. Where Rt. 56 meets Rt. 75 we stopped on the far side at a really good barbecue place with a free ice cream cone with lunch. They had little cable TVs in the booths where we could catch the news and weather, and both were bad. That’s when we learned about the deaths and devastation. We also saw rescue squad teams come through for gas and a sandwich. There was still lots of dangerous weather around.
Our original plan was to pick up Rt. 69 on the far side of Sherman and head south east to Tyler. A very helpful trucker advised us that the storm had gone through that area, and a friend of his had reported bad
flooding in Bonham. He was concerned that there would be debris on the road. Also, the worst weather was in north Texas, and it was cool and sprinkling in Sherman. We decided to head directly south toward Dallas on 75 and then east on Rt. 380 out of McKinney. That should miss the worst of it. As we approached McKinney it got very hot and humid, suggesting we were past the front which produced all the drama. We went east to Greenville where we picked up 69 to I-20 near Tyler. From the heat and humidity I could tell we were getting closer to home. We continued east to Longview in some pretty hectic and heavy traffic, and we exited for a nice motel in Kilgore with a restaurant next door. Any old guy who used to watch bowl games can tell you about the Kilgore Rangerettes. Life was simpler then.
Given where I live, the last day of any summer trip is going to be unpleasant riding. If I head west from home, I must cross some of Mississippi, all of Louisiana, and much of Texas, which goes on forever.
If I head east, I’ll be crossing some of Mississippi, most of Alabama, and much of Georgia. Due north 300 miles gets me only to Memphis. When I return I get to repeat the sauna treatment. This trip would be no different. The climate, topography, and flora of east Texas are similar to that of Louisiana and Mississippi. For our last day toward home we would be only a couple hundred feet above sea level, and the roads would be relatively flat and straight.
Today would be a light day of riding for about 350 miles and only one turn. We left Kilgore and got on I-20 east. Like most Interstates these days, the truck traffic was very heavy. One has to believe that is an indicator of a booming economy for somebody. Texas roads are among the best in the country and that was true of this one in spite of the beating it takes. The high gas prices don’t seem to make a dent in
travel these days. Before long we hit Louisiana which has some of the worst maintained roads in the country. People in the South understand why New Orleans is taking so long to recover from Katrina. We managed to hit Shreveport at rush hour and the drivers there are a little scary. Between the broken up pavement and the erratic drivers racing to work, this would be the riding low point of the day. Once in the clear, we stopped at a little country cafe attached to a gas station and got a late big breakfast. With so little mileage to cover we could take our time and enjoy the air conditioning.
Crossing northern Louisiana on I-20 is a numbing and mindless experience. The road is straight and flat, and the humidity is stifling. And of course, the road has a rhythmic undulation. We dialed it in on 75 and aimed for the Mississippi River. We crossed the big river at Vicksburg where it is very hilly and continued on to Jackson. There we picked up Rt. 49 south toward Hattiesburg. Just as we hit town Craig pulled over at the Stuckey’s so we could say our good-byes for the day. It was a great 5000 mile trip across some of the most impressive scenery in North America. Craig had been a super riding partner, and he was a rock to lean on when things had turned sour for awhile.
I pulled in to take a break before I headed for home on the west side of town. An older fellow came up to me with the story of his BMW boxer days. That took awhile, but it obviously meant a lot to him. Meanwhile the sky was getting really dark and threatening. I called the wife on the cell phone to announce my impending arrival and to ask if it was raining. It was not — then. I headed out on the familiar roads to my house as the sky got very dark. Gulf area storms can be really entertaining. About two miles from home I could see the lightning and hear the thunder. This was going to be real close. As I made the turn down the road to my neighborhood, all hell broke loose. I was getting drenched in my mesh suit and violently blown from random directions. This was a bad one. I had my flashers on and was trying to stay in the lane. Water was flying everywhere as I was doing barely 25. I don’t really know because I couldn’t look down. My mind was racing with thoughts of the irony of surviving 5000 miles without a scratch and then crashing a mile from home. No sooner had the mayhem started than it waned to a sprinkle. I was soaked but unhurt. I pulled in the drive and into the garage. I was thoroughly spent.