Ride West: Day 17 Part Two Begins
Jon and I parted ways today in Walsenburg, Colorado, as he headed east toward Wichita and I turned north to Westminster (Denver) where I would meet up with the Twisted Riders, nine friends of Brian Brannon and mostly from Indiana.
Before we split up, Brother Jon and I had another great ride through New Mexico and Colorado, though it was one of the cooler rides we had with temperatures in the low to upper 50s for much of the morning. Because of the temperature, and only because of the temperature, we thought it wise to stop about two hours into the ride and warm up. So, we each devoured a huge slice of warm blueberry pie and a cup of coffee at 9 a.m at the Elkhorn Cafe in Chama, New Mexico. Good thing the pie was warm because the cafe was as cold inside as it was outside.
Scenic Highway 17 in Mexico and Colorado was a real treat for our final ride through the mountains. We rode through several National Forests and over a 10,200 foot pass and, at times caught sight of a vintage coal-fired, black-smoke-belching excursion train chugging along its tracks hauling tourists to Chama so they could ride back down again. I’m sure their’s was a pleasant ride, but I prefer two wheels not attached to tracks.
Our final 2,000 foot dive out of the Rockies put us in Walsenburg, which didn’t seem to have any particular redeeming qualities, though I suspect the people who call it home must find it appealing in an odd sort of way.
Jon had planned on going only a few hundred more miles and finishing his ride home Sunday, but he called a little while ago from Wichita to let me know that he rode the more than 700 miles and was home by 10 p.m. Amazing what feats of motorcycle daring do can be accomplished on a new tire. Jon had a long first day ten days ago and a long last day today, but I think he eight pretty good days in between.
I arrived in Westminster about 3:30, 20 minutes after the 10 Twisted Riders checked into the hotel. Quick introductions were made and we saddled up and made a lightening run to Lookout Mountain in Golden, Colorado, which overlooks the entire city of Denver spread out below and the beginning of prairie extending eastward to Kansas. It is also the burial site of Col. William F. (Buffalo Bill) Cody and his wife; they must have liked the view from the top, but that was before Denver had spread out like an urban ooze.
The short ride to Lookout Mountain was a good introduction for me to the type of riding we’ll be doing in the next week. Aggressive, but not over the top. It’s going to be another great week on the bike. If tonight’s raucous dinner at the Bonefish Grill is any indication, this group is going to be a lot of fun.
Tomorrow: Into the mountains (again) and through Rocky Mountain National Park.
Ride West: Day 16 To Bloomfield, NM
I was looking forward to seeing Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Chinle, AZ. Beautiful views and a chance to hike down the canyon to visit up close and personal where Cliff Dwellers lived 5,000 years ago and where people have lived continuously ever since. That stop would have been the last for Jon and me since we left Wichita nine days ago, since tomorrow we go our separate ways. The ride, I knew, would be through desert scrub with an occasional rock formation or canyon to see as we went racing by. Not one of the greatest rides of this tour, but a good one anyway.
The day started out well. Early breakfast and on the road by 7 a.m. But during a rest stop 100 miles into the ride, I glanced at Jon’s rear tire. I thought I saw cords where I should be seeing tread. I looked closer. I saw cords where I should be seeing tread. Oh crap. Jon was riding on a tire that was not just bald but had worn the rubber all the way off. And we were about 150 miles from the nearest dealership. And more than 50 miles from the nearest town of any size and we didn’t know what we would find there.
We decided in short order that the Canyon de Chelly would have to wait until another trip. I called the Harley dealer in Farmington, NM, and located a tire and told them we would try to get there by 2 p.m. And then we began our four-hour slow-speed ride to Farmington, keeping the speed to about 50 mph the whole way. At a gas stop, Jon checked the tire again and had serious doubts that it would make the distance. But we pressed on.
Finally, at 2:45, we pulled into the dealership and the tech installed the new tire. He was also kind enough to replace a turn indicator bulb and add air to the adjustable shocks.
All ended well, but it could have disastrous. A blown tire in the desert would be a problem. A blown tire on the Coronado Trail in the White Mountains yesterday could have been serious in the extreme. No harm done, and Jon learned a valuable lesson about checking his bike thoroughly before taking off on rides to the mountains. And for those of you reading this who ride, please do a thorough TCLOC before you get on your bike.
As for the ruins as Canyon de Chelly, they’ve been there for 5,000 years (though I guess they weren’t ruins when they were first built). They’ll be there the next time I’m in the area and I’ll hike down the canyon to see what’s there.
Tomorrow: Jon and his new tire head back to Kansas and I begin the second part of the Ride West as I head to Boulder to meet the “Twisted Riders,” a group of a dozen riders from the midwest that Brian Brannon rides with . Stay tuned.
Ride West: Day 15 Coronado Trail Loop Ride
Six years ago, riding the western states on my ’03 Road King, I found a road that will always be a Top 10 Ride: The Coronado Trail (US 191) in the White Mountains of Arizona. Since then, I’ve said that if I’m anywhere near that road I’ll ride it again. So, when I planned this year’s trip, I made sure it was on the itinerary.
Despite last year’s devastating fires in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (the worst fire in Arizona’s history), most of the 90 mile ride from Alpine south to Morenci was through the lush, sweet-smelling mountain pine forests and high meadows I remembered. In the first 1/3 of the ride, though, we did see once-green mountain littered with the charred standing skeletons of lofty pines. It will take decades for the scarred forest to recover, or longer if drought conditions and warmer temperatures continue and grow worse as climate scientists predict they most certainly will.
About 9 a.m., an hour into our ride, we stopped for coffee at Hannigan Meadows Lodge and Cafe. (Coffee alone, however, didn’t seem to justify the stop, so we each had a generous slice of warm, melt-in-your-mouth Dutch Apple Pie.)
We talked with the waitress there about last year’s fire and she shared an album with hundreds of photographs taken of the fire and the firefighters whose courageous work saved the structures. To have been in the middle of that inferno must have seemed like descending to the depths of Hell. It’s hard to express how grateful the waitress and all who worked there were to save not only their jobs but the historic structures that would have been irreplaceable.
For more than two hours after our coffee break (OK, our pie break), Jon and I rode the literally thousands of twists and curves through the White Mountains on the Coronado Trail, the least-used US highway in the country. Until the early 1990s, that road had been designated US Highway 666 and given the sobriquet “The Devil’s Highway” because of an unusually high fatality rate in New Mexico. US Route 666 no longer exists.
Some readers of this blog have ridden the Tail of the Dragon in North Carolina/Tennessee for 11 miles. Imagine a Tail of the Dragon that goes for 90 miles (with no Tennessee Highway Patrol) and you’ll get a feel for the Coronado Trail. I rediscovered today that when they mark a hairpin turn at 10 mph, it’s hard to take it at more than 20 and still have floorboards on which to rest your boots. Oh, and did I mention there are no guardrails anywhere along the road? The White Mountains are vast and beautiful, but you won’t see much of them riding on US 191 unless you pull off at one of the occasional turnouts. Your focus has to be constantly on the black pavement between the white and yellow lines or you’ll see parts of the mountain you don’t really want to see.
I’ve ridden the Coronado Trail twice. The next time I come to Arizona, I’ll ride it a third time.
At the southern terminus of the mountainous Trail, the road opens up on the most amazing, and perhaps incongruous, sight: A huge, open pit copper mine that has ripped the tops and sides off several mountains for more than 100 years. It’s impressive. But it’s ugly. More than 2000 workers, some operating shovels the size of apartment buildings which fill trucks the size of houses, move millions of tons of rock and dirt to get to the blue gold buried beneath. It is what it is and if you enjoy electricity (passed through copper wire) you have to put up with what they do to the earth.
South of the copper pit and the company towns of Morenci and Clifton, we reached the southern-most point of our Western Ride and turned northeast for a short ride into New Mexico where we steered north on US 180 to complete our day’s loop. As with the ride on US 191, I wondered what we would see, since the Gila National Forest’s Whitewater-Baldy fire earlier this year had been almost as severe as the Arizona fire had been last year. As it turned out, most of the fire was east of where we were riding. The biggest concern now, it seems, is flash flooding which results when there is no undergrowth to slow the rain water down and allow it to seep into the ground. Already, many of the streams are clogged with silt and ash and the fish in them are gone. And so are many of the tourists.
We stopped for lunch at the internationally famous (just kidding) Blue Front Bar and Cafe in Glenwood, NM. The cafe has the distinction of bridging a creek that runs beneath it. According to one of the locals, the cafe had once been smaller and was built between the road and the creek. When they expanded it, they just built the rest of it over the creek. It’s not spectacular, just interesting. I ordered the Burro. I think that’s a big burrito or at least mine was. I ate it. All of it. But I was disappointed that I no longer had an appetite for the “Homemade Pecan Pie” scribbled on the menu board.
Sated and back on the road again, we saw rain ahead of us and stopped for wet weather garb, not knowing the extent of the rain. Five minutes later we were in light rain and five minutes after that we were in “can’t-see-the-freaking-road” rain and being blown around by winds which we couldn’t see either. Back to light rain five minutes later and then off-and-on rain for the 50 mountainous miles back to our starting point in Eagar.
If I had ridden no other road on my Ride West than the Coronado Trail, this year’s trip would have been a success. But, as faithful readers will note, all the rides have been good.
Tomorrow: Chinle and its ruins, 4 corners and New Mexico again.
Ride West: Day 14 to Eagar, AZ
Today had its highs and lows. High of 9,200 feet in the White Mountains. Low of 2,100 feet at Roosevelt Lake. High of 100+ degrees in the desert. Low of 60 degrees during the morning mountain ride. High of about 90 mph passing some law abiding citizens dutifully observing the speed limit. Low of zero mph sitting peacefully on my bike staring at the endlessly beautiful scenery.
Yes, it was another great day. Although I had ridden before on many of the roads I’ve been writing about, today’s ride, which included the 4,000th mile since I left home, was on all new roads to me.
We started by taking the Mary Lake Road south out of Flagstaff through the Coconino National Forest. What a way to start the day. Towering pines, cool temps, and gently twisting roads to get you going in this verdant, high-elevation forest. Continuing south on AZ 187, our route wound through the mountains and Tonto National Forest at elevations from about 8, 000 to 6,000 feet.
Just south of Payson, however, the road was all down hill, taking us into the desert, domain of saguaro cacti and potentially punishing conditions. In an hour, we went from temperatures in the mid 70s to over 100 degrees. But even from the desert we could always see mountains nearby and knew that we would be back into them eventually.
We stopped at the Roosevelt Lake Visitor’s Center (assuming correctly that it was air conditioned) and went through the interpretive exhibit. I love to learn new stuff. I learned that the Roosevelt Dam had been constructed in the first decade of the 20th century and was the first major project of the newly created federal Bureau of Reclamation. The dam impounds water from the Salt River and provides irrigation and hydroelectric power for much of central and Arizona. Currently the water level is at 50% percent capacity because of the growing drought. It took six years to build and was finished one year before Arizona entered the Union as a state. The project resulted in the creation of a small town where there had only been rocks, cacti and native Apaches before. This 450 foot high dam was constructed in the middle of the desert with labor largely imported from outside Arizona. Not that you’ll ever need to know this stuff but I learned it so I thought I’d share it.
Today’s ride was in the form of a “V,” with the point of the V at Globe. After a good, authentic Mexican lunch we went north up the other side of the V, climbing again into the mountains. Once there we came on an unexpected treat: The Salt River Canyon. Although not nearly as impressive as the Grand Canyon, the Salt River Canyon does have a road that goes down one side and up the other. It provided great views of the canyon and, of course, twists and turns down the declivity and up the acclivity on the other side. The canyon depth was probably about 1500 feet, compared to the 5,000 feet of the Grand Canyon, but still pretty spectacular and a great ride.
We broke out our rain gear at one point as we rode through the Fort Apache Indian Reservation and the Apache National Forest. But the shower was brief and probably didn’t warrant suiting up. It was hard to tell how big the storm was and we wanted to make sure we didn’t get caught in the rain and then ride for several hours with wet, cold clothes.
We arrived in Eagar, AZ, after about 9 hours on the road. Since both bikes are Ultra Classics and it’s hard to tell them apart when they’re both brown, we washed them to return them to their original red and blue colors.
Tomorrow: A loop ride through the forest-fire scarred White Mountains in Arizona and New Mexico.
Ride West: Day 13 to Flagstaff, AZ
I didn’t think today’s ride would be able to match yesterday’s travels. I was right. Instead of Absolutely Spectacularly Magnificent, today’s ride was just Great.
Leaving the incredible scenery of Zion, including the view from our hotel window, the view from the place we had breakfast and the view riding down the main street of Sprindale, was difficult. It’s a cliche, but words really can’t do justice to what nature has wrought in Zion Valley. But leave we did, beginning with a reverse traverse of the same set of great switchbacks into the tunnel that led us in to the Valley of Zion yesterday.
We headed south and east toward Arizona, driving much of the time in desert or near desert conditions, though mountains nearby make the ride easier to take. I had originally planned to go through polygamous Hilsdale/Colorado City where Jon and I could check into some Sister Wives, but we went another route instead.
The clerk at the hotel at Zion had given me a couple of tips on places to visit along the way on US 89A and we took advantage of his advice. He mentioned the Cliffs of Vermillion, which I thought was a natural/scenic site and which turned out to be a very small town (50 people) with one restaurant where we stopped for coffee. Great conversation with the CoV native behind the counter who regaled us with stories of the area, including throwing burning bales of hay and flaming tires off the Navajo Bridge, which spans the beginning of the Grand Canyon near Lees Ferry more than 450 feet above the Colorado River.
The bridge was built in 1929 and discontinued as a vehicular bridge in the late 1990s when a replacement was built about 100 yards downstream. Note: Lee’s Ferry was the only crossing of the Colorado River for more than 660 miles until the Navajo Bridge was built. Lee’s Ferry is currently the site where they launch rafting trips down the Grand Canyon, and we saw several boats/rafts beginning their semi-perilous journey down the gorge.
Riding once again in triple digit temperatures, we headed to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon (where it was only about 85 degrees.) We had both been there before, but the Grand Canyon is worth seeing as often as you can. Incredible views from a dozen vantage points, many with interpretive information provided by the NPS. Once again, I was struck by the shear size of the place and the time scale involved to carve a gorge a mile deep and almost 20 miles wide in some places.
While at the Grand Canyon I was struck by the number of languages being spoken, with English definitely not at the top of useage popularity. While there today we talked (sort of) with folks from Italy, Germany, France and Croatia. Also represented were Chinese, Japanese and Korean. I would be surprised if there weren’t at least 50 different languages spoken at the Grand Canyon today, though I have nothing but my instinct to guide me on this guess. So why don’t more Americans visit the natural wonders in their own back yard? Too busy going to Disney World, Branson, and the Mall of America I guess. My language skills (Russian and Spanish) are rusty and other languages are all Greek to me, but I still think I heard a lot of Wow! today in several tongues.
Tomorrow: Arizona Deserts (or desserts if I can find more boysenberry pie)
Ride West: Day 12 to Zion National Park/Springdale, UT
Ho hum. Today’s ride was boring, boring, boring. Same thing mile after mile: Gorgeous view, gorgeous view, gorgeous view, gorgeous view. Broken occasionally by a spectacular view. And of course there were several “Holy crap did you see that!” views. Air so clear mountains 75 miles away provided the final backdrop for a grand vista. Colors so vivid several probably don’t have names. Deer and big horn sheep grazing by the side of the road, indifferent to our trespass on their turf. Rock formations that have been a work in progress for hundreds of millions of years.
Maybe tomorrow will be better. But I doubt it.
Almost from the minute we started south on Utah highway 12 out of Torrey headed for the Dixie National Forest, incredible scenery unfolded in front of us as if each turn was a new act in a reality play of a thousand parts. We climbed steadily to 9600 feet, taking frequent advantage of the well-spaced view points that offered an horizon of nearly 100 miles across a landscape broken by mountains, mesas, ridges and hills, each a different color of yellow, gray, red, orange and green. Normally I’m a rider who generally exceeds mandated limits, but today I slowed the pace to below (hard to believe) the speed limit just so I could extend the experience.
About 40 miles into the ride we stopped for a break at the Anasazi State Park in Boulder, UT, where a well-done display showed off a 1950s archaeological dig that uncovered a community of approximately 200 Anasazi People who lived there for 50-75 years almost a thousand years ago. The interior interpretive center and the exterior dig site gave a nearly complete picture of what life was like in the Utah mountains for these early people. Once again, I was reminded that my place is small and my time is brief.
We continued on Highway 12 through the Escalante Grand Staircase National Monument, captivated by the ever-changing views that had a commonality of exceptional beauty.
Rounding one turn we saw a structure sitting atop a hill next to the road that looked not at all out of place and a sign that read “Kiva Koffeehouse.” We stopped. It turned out to be a restaurant/coffeehouse built by an artist/engineer who wanted to build something that blended into the rugged rocky environment using all native products and that provided a unique resting place for travelers. The coffee was good as was the not-to-be-resisted fresh-baked good that called to me from the display case like a Siren enticing a Greek sailor.
Back on the road and with several more stops where we properly stood in awe before the awesome, we finally made it to Bryce Canyon National Park. I took advantage of my elderly status and Senior National Parks Pass to freely enter the park while Jon, a youngster at only 60, had to shell out $12 to drive out and back on the 15 mile park road.
We had both been to Bryce Canyon National Park before and knew what to expect, but even experienced Bryce visitors are amazed each time they happen on the misshapen hoodoos rising prodigiously from the canyon floor. After being properly amazed, we returned to the park’s entrance, noting the gray clouds and lighting flashes to the west, our direction of travel. We pointed our ponies west but rode for only five miles before stopping to put on rain gear. As luck would have it, the fortuitous choice of a parking lot for suiting up was at an eatery whose aged window sign advertised fresh baked pies. We decided it was fitting to support the local culinary economy and ducked inside. Jon chose for his contribution a slice of warm apple pie, while I, the more daring of the duo, opted for boysenberry. Sipping our coffee slowly, we gazed out the window as the wind driven rain pelted our parked ponies and, after 30 minutes, finally petered out. And down the road we went.
After various road side attractions, pastry pauses, and slow riding, at 4 p.m. we entered Zion National Park (where Jon again dispensed his $12 fee as I waved happily to the toll collector in the Smokey Bear hat).
The ride into Zion NP from the east is highlighted by huge, multi-hued rock formations and the one-mile Mt. Carmel Tunnel that ends at an incredible set of switchbacks that descend the mountain to the floor of Zion Valley. Again, both of us had seen the main tourist attractions at Zion National Park, which can now be reached only by riding a bus because of the overwhelming cage traffic that clogs the road and befouls the air, so we called it a day and headed for our hotel.
Tomorrow: Into Arizona, the desert and the Grand Canyon.
Ride West: Day 11 to Torrey, Utah
Just finished several beers, including an interesting local brew labeled “Polygamy Porter,” and enjoyed a 30-minute soak in the hot tub at the hotel where we’re staying on the edge of Capitol Reef National Park. Pretty damn good way to end a day that included some spectacular riding.
(I know that first paragraph is killing my riding friends, but everyone had a standing offer to come ride with me.)
We got another 7 a.m. start, which is always a good time to start riding. You have to be more vigilant regarding forest creatures and cows on the open range (i.e. no fences along the road) but morning air is always crisp and your senses are as fresh as they’re going to get. We headed south out of Rangely. Like yesterday, I expected to be on s0-so roads, and like yesterday I was pleasantly surprised as we rode through interesting terrain, including some ups and downs and tight corners over a mountain pass that produced the first of the day’s several floor-board scraping leans. At one point, on the downhill side of the pass, we stopped at a pullout to survey the panorama spread below and in front of us. Several hundred yards below in an open area on the side of the mountain, a doe warily crossed the meadow, grazing here and there and then finally, with several bounding leaps, disappeared into a draw and some scrub pine. It was a nice off-bike interlude.
Outside Grand Junction, Colorado, the Colorado National Monument rises majestically 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, punctuated by a dozen steep-faced canyons that cut into the face of the multi-hued monolith. Fortunately for me and everyone else who visits there, a Depression-era Civilian Conservation Corps project built a road that winds along the edge of the canyons, producing awesome views and even better motorcycle riding.
This 25-mile biker’s dream is undoubtedly one of the great roads of my riding career. Jon and I liked it so much, in fact, that we turned around at the eastern terminus and retraced our route back to the western entry point. Including stops at view points and the visitors center, we spent almost 2 1/2 hours on Rimrock Road raving at the 75-mile views and reveling in the hundreds of twists in a road unprotected by guard rails and mere feet from a 500-foot fall to a canyon floor below. Coming around a turn with floor boards grinding and seeing nothing–I mean nothing–in front of you but air and the far side of the canyon 1000 yards away adds a dash of excitement to one’s retirement.
With our appetite for twisties sated for the time being, we headed west on I-70 in the afternoon with temperatures once again soaring into three digits. The highway ride and the first 50 miles off the highway were the low-points of today’s addition to the odometer of joy, but once we headed toward and into Capitol Reef National Park the road and the scenery improved dramatically.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of the newest National Parks in the system and has a rich cultural and geologic past. Jon and I took in both when we stopped to see petroglyphs carved by the pre-Columbian Fremont Peoples sometime between 700 and 1300 AD. The carvings were made on towering red rock walls that line the canyon.
Throughout today’s ride, Jon and I were continually amazed at the stark beauty of the Colorado and Utah wind-and-water sculpted landscape. We had been impressed with the 150 million-year old dinosaur fossils yesterday, but then came to realize the rocks we were seeing around us were formed around 1.5 BILLION years ago. Living mostly in cities, people today have nearly lost the ability to think in terms of a history that goes back more than a century or two. The history of much of the visible Rocky Mountain region of the United States is written with numbers that are hard to fathom. One of these days I’m going to plan a trip out west in the company of a Harley-riding geologist and archaelogist and really learn what’s out here besides awesome scenery and great roads.
Tomorrow: More of the same? Bryce Canyon and Zion National Park
Ride West: Day 10 to Rangely, CO
After several days of riding in the heat, waking up to overcast skies and 60 degree temperatures in Laramie was a treat. But I knew the ride to and in Colorado meant an elevation climb and a concomitant decrease in temperature. Sure enough, as we rode south and climbed to 7,500 then 8,000, then 8,500 feet the temperature kept falling until it reached 57 degrees on a bank thermometer in Walden, where we stopped for coffee at the throwback River Rock Cafe. We were prepared for cool weather, though, and pressed on, headed toward the Continental Divide at Muddy Gap and then to Steamboat Springs.
As we continued to climb, the gray skies turned darker and rain and mist obscured nearby peaks. We donned rain gear at a turnout on the side of the road; 10 minutes later we were in a light rain and low to mid 50 temperatures at Rabbit Ears Pass, a 9,400 foot summit that, like Muddy Gap, marks the Continental Divide. By the time we reached Steamboat Springs about 20 minutes later, the rain was gone and blue skies beckoned in the westward direction of our travel. The light rain would have soaked us without gear, but it really wasn’t much of a test for our rain suits, which were returned to the saddlebags 40 miles west of Steamboat.
I was pleasantly surprised by the terrain of western Colorado and eastern Utah; I had expected it to be flatter and uninspiring. In fact, we enjoyed a moderate roller coaster road that followed the curving contours of the Yampa River. To our right for much of the ride past Craig, Colorado, the Unita Mountains provided a scenic diversion when straight stretches of road afforded the opportunity to peek at the peaks. The Uinta Range is one of the few East-West mountain ranges in the United States and it has the highest elevation of all the East-West ranges. Located in a dry part of the country, though, there are no permanent snow covered peaks as there are in the Rockies, the Sierra-Nevadas, or the Cascades. Temperatures in the mid-80s made the afternoon ride along the gently twisting U.S. Highway 40 a nice change of pace from the full-throttle twisties of the Black Hills.
The only planned stop for today was the Dinosaur National Monument Visitors Center and Quarry in eastern Utah. I had read about it and seen some photos, but wanted to see it personally to better understand the significance of the dinosaur fossils found there. It did not disappoint. In the 1909 a paleontologist discovered a small skeletal tail sticking out of the side of the mountain and began to uncover it. As he realized the magnitude of the find, he and other workers excavated tens of thousands of 149 million-year-old fossils. Today, quarrying has stopped at the site, freezing in place 1,500 fossils in an 80-foot rock wall enclosed by a brand new structure that protects the fossils and makes them available to thousands of visitors. The 80 foot wall, that before quarrying was nearly 200 feet tall, was once the bottom of a river bed but is now tilted at a 65 degree angle thanks to the same powerful tectonic uplift forces that created the Rocky Mountains. It’s an incredible historic and scientific site and a great place to learn a little about the ancient earth, about plate tectonics, and about dinosaurs who roamed a very real Jurrasic Park.
The vastness of the land we motored through today reminded me how small we are. And the 150-million year context of the Dinosaur National Monument reminded me how brief our 30,000-year human history really is. Riding a motorcycle is more than adreneline pumping excitement. It’s also a way to expose yourself to new things, new thoughts, and new connections. Today was one of those cerebral rides.
Tomorrow: More twisties, more deserts, more national parks.
Ride West: Day 9 to Laramie, WY
We had to make choices for today’s ride, a route that would eventually end in Laramie, WY. First, we could go back to Sturgis and walk Main Street again to see if any of the vendors had new and exciting products we hadn’t seen yesterday. More shopping didn’t interest us, so we ruled that out. Second, we could ride west and a little north to see Devil’s Tower and then ride almost 400 miles from Wyoming’s northern border to its southern border through flat grasslands. I’d seen Devil’s Tower and Jon wasn’t particularly interested. Third, we could spend the first three hours or so riding through the Black Hills again and then through a mixture of hilly/twisty roads and Interstate. We took what was behind door number three.
Although both of us had seen Mt. Rushmore before,
we decided to ride there again since it was not far out of our way and I knew the roads in the area were good. Mt. Rushmore impresses me everytime I see it. Not just because it’s a massive carving on the side of a mountain of four dominant figures in American history, but because the story of the artist, Gutzon Borglum, and his sons and their goal of creating the Mt. Rushmore memorial is inspiring. To have that vision and to complete it is an individual accomplishment rarely equaled in American history.
Our three hour ride through the Black Hills reminded us we weren’t in Kansas (or Florida) anymore. Long distance touring on a motorcycle is great fun, but when you add adrenaline-generating hours of traveling on challenging mountain roads twisting back on themselves and keeping you in a floorboard-scraping lean for a full 360 degrees you experience part of what motorcycle riding is all about. Mountain riding is special because you never know what may be around the next turn (and stopped in your lane).
Unfortunately, we also rode through several areas devastated by drought-enhanced forest fires and areas where the pine park beetle has wreaked havoc on the forest, turning lush green mountain sides to a rusty, deadly brown. If you doubt climate change, come to the west and gaze sadly on dead forests and vanishing glaciers. My advice: Enjoy what we have while its still here.
Leaving the Black Hills behind, we emerged into the grassland prairie that typifies most of eastern Wyoming. Those of us who grew up with Grade B Western cinemas are familiar with the landscape where evil savages/noble natives slaughtered settlers/defended their homeland. The landscape, barren as it may seem, is nevertheless beautiful in its own right.
One of the highlights of my Ride West is seeing old friends. Two days ago you met the Mawbys. Tonight Jon and I had dinner with Marilyn’s and my best friend from our Wyoming years in the 1980s. Linda Croonberg, a third generation Wyoming rancher, has more stories and more interesting ways to tell stories, than anyone I know. Living and working alone on an 8,000 acre ranch 20 miles north of Laramie on the high plains of Wyoming, she does more in a week than most people I know do in a month. We spent two and a half short hours at dinner this evening catching up on our lives and renewing old traditions that involve knocking back tequila shots and laughing at new and old stories. It was, as you can tell, a great evening. It ended with her promise to visit us this year in Florida.
Tomorrow: Through the Rockies in Colorado and possibly to an old bone yard.
Ride West: Day 8 to Sturgis/Rapid City SD
Perhaps I overstate slightly when I say every motorcycle rider must make a pilgrimage once in a lifetime to Sturgis, the Mecca of motorcycle rallies. But only slightly. Each year, hundreds of thousands of riders converge on a small town in South Dakota to pay homage not only to their steel steeds, but to the lifestyle their pampered rides signify. Long before Jon and I reached Sturgis a little after noon today, we passed thousands of other riders enjoying the outstanding riding roads in the Black Hills. And when we arrived in Sturgis, we joined hundreds of thousands of other pilgrims in the 72nd annual honoring of our two-wheeled, bone-rattling, ear-splitting, purse-draining demi-gods.
We opted for the long way through the Black Hills and didn’t regret a minute of it. After almost 2,000 miles of upright riding since leaving Florida, I was thrilled to rely once again on the tread on the sides of the tires as I leaned first to one side then the other then back again, repeating the pattern for nearly two hours as we weaved through pine tree lined roller-coaster roads. I even scraped some of the rust off my floorboards as I challenged the hairpins marked with 15 mph warning signs.
The range out here is awe inspiring. Makes one want to build a home here. You can watch the deer and the antelope enjoy the playful pursuits of ungulate mammals. And the people? Everywhere we went they had nothing but kind words. Above us and unblemished azure canopy completed the picture. (Oh, did I mention that the Black Hills is where “Home on the Range” was written. Hint: go through the lyrics.)
The Black Hills is also home to one of the largest herds of bison in North America and, like a lot of people with cars, they seem to think they own the roads on which motorcyclists pursue their passion. Several times on the morning ride we came to a stop as scores of the massive beasts meandered along and across the asphalt. Moreover, even when they were not in sight we knew of their previous presence by the turd slalom course they left on the road. But we weren’t complaining. It was nice to be able to watch a once nearly extinct species at home where they lived for thousands of years.
While some riders spend an entire week at the Sturgis Bike Rally, Jon and I were content to tour the major vendors, purchase the obligatory T-shirts and gifts for the unfortunates we left behind, and people watch as pedestrian motorcyclists jostled along crowded sidewalks and tens of thousands of bikes rolled through the streets, the owners showing off individualized accessories that make each bike as unique as their own fingerprints.
The Sturgis Bike Rally is, at its core, a big party for grown up kids. And party central seems to be either the Buffalo Chip Campground or the Full Throttle Saloon. We paid a visit to the latter. Jon had seen a television special focused on the FTS and requested it be added to the afternoon itinerary. Good call. Knowing we had another hour of riding before our day was finished, we forsook the refreshments that enlivened so many others at the Saloon but still took in the sights and sounds that make the FTS and the Sturgis rally a critical part of motorcycle lore. The parties of legend happen at night when bands blast their listeners and bartenders pour great quantities of joy juice. My guess is that the highway back to the campsites and the hotels after the party ends is a scary place to be.
Tomorrow: Perhaps a return visit to Sturgis, some other local sights, and, of course, more riding in the Black Hills as we head for Laramie, WY.