About Me

My photo

Husband, father, grandfather, friend...a few of the roles acquired in 62 years of living.  I keep an upbeat attitude, loving humor and the singular freedom of a perfect laugh.  I don't let curmudgeons ruin my day; that only gives them power over me.  Having experienced death once, I no longer fear it, although I am still frightened by the process of dying.  I love to write because it allows me the freedom to vent those complex feelings that bounce restlessly off the walls of my mind; and express the beauty that can only be found within the human heart.

Astronomy Picture of the Day

Friday, November 03, 2006

A Wild West Ride on a Wyatt Earp Pilgrimage

Jornada del Muerto, New Mexico

Copyright © 2002 by Ralph Couey

"Cross the most rugged and daunting peaks
in utter darkness,
the heavens pouring forth their fury
while you grapple for control,
guided by a feeble ray of light barely visible
on a highway black as death.

"Traverse endless, blistering deserts,
the sands a roaring furnace below
and the sun a pitiless, burning firestorm above.
Follow the tortured paths left behind
by those who pioneered the way,
seeking to tame a wild land and forge a better life.

"Pass alone through vast and terrible chasms
hewn and rent from the living rock
by the unassailable forces of nature,
treasuring the feeling of insignificance and mortality.

"Merge in perfect union with a stunning cloudless sky
and breathe deep the fragrant prairie zephyrs.
Follow the sinuous course of a thundering river
to the humble streams that form its source.

"In every moment, feel the sublime and awesome hand of God
and in your soul a Communion with the eternal.
Look then to the dark sky
and thrill to the promise of the unrisen sun
that will soon shine upon the hook and crook
of a gnarled mountain trace,
knowing in your heart the machine’s power
to exalt life or render death.

 "In the quiescence of the deepest night
gaze in wonder upon the machine;
 your accomplice, partner, and soul mate.
In your innermost reflections
you see the machine as sinister and yet seductive;
soulless and yet transcendent;
ordinary and yet unique.

"Know that even though you own the machine,
the machine possesses you.

 "The Horizon is calling;

"Heed the call.

 Go Ride…”

 --Original Author Unknown
Additional Material by Ralph Couey

I like maps. Maps are the sketchbooks upon which I plot my fantasies. Open roads, new adventures, alien landscapes, all become a part of the dreams that float through my mind, much as a high plains thunderstorm glides across the horizon. Most people see a road map as a myriad of lines, dots, and words. For me, however, the lines, dots, and words spring into a pseudo-three dimensional reality; limitless plains, powerful mountains, shifting deserts, and countless shoreline highways. My eyes follow the multi-colored lines on the page, but in my mind, I feel the sun on my shoulders, the wind in my face, and the reassuring rumble of a V-twin engine. In the summer of 2002, the urging of those dreams put me on the road to chase my horizons.

I spent much of my youth chasing about the southwest, first with my father and then as a summer employee of a Texas-based cattle operation. During those years, I fell in love with the wide-open skies and the many-textured and multi-hued terrain. It was so different from my home state Missouri, where the rolling hills made the horizon seem much too close, almost claustrophobic. The west seemed limitless. Even when mountains became the horizon, their dramatic angles and features gave them an aura of eternity. With this land of wide horizons, I also had a deep personal connection. In a youth spent searching for meaning and the answers to questions eternal, the west had given me perspective; a perfect backdrop upon which the musings of a young man’s mind could range as far as the stars and nebulae that populated the night sky, with thoughts as personal and intimate as the inside of a sleeping bag. The memories of those priceless days brought me great comfort over the years during those times when reality became a burden.

I had already sketched out the route roughly in my mind; across Kansas, the OklaTex panhandles, diagonally across New Mexico, up the spine of Arizona, and then a couple of days zigzagging through the Colorado Rockies. My bike, a ’95 Honda Pacific Coast, needed very little trip prep, which is a wonderful characteristic of that breed. The other characteristic is its capacious carrying capacity, allowing me to fill the two sides of the integrated trunk and strap a bag and camping gear to the passenger seat. All told, with me in the seat and fully loaded, the normally 650-pound bike tipped the scales at 1,035 pounds. I had no qualms about the bike’s ability to carry the load. The PC800 is well and truly Honda’s Iron Horse.

DAY ONE
I was awake and out the door by 5:30 a.m. on a July morning that was uncharacteristically cool for summer in Mid-Missouri. Eagerly, I rolled out of the driveway and headed west. I made good time from Columbia to Kansas City, getting through the big city’s rush hour in surprisingly good shape. Once on the Kansas Turnpike, with the city behind me, I settled back and watched the countryside glide by.

The area of the Flint hills is probably the best part of Kansas, the rolling, treeless hills giving a welcome dynamic to this otherwise flat state. On this day, fog and drizzle shrouded those hills, giving them the delicate texture of a Japanese watercolor painting. There is a natural rhythm to this kind of road, the bike gliding effortlessly uphill and down, through curves which were graceful and smooth. Time, for a while, went away as I lost myself in the simple beauty of the ride. I came out from under the clouds just short of Wichita and ended up with a picture-perfect summer day. I picked up US54 in Wichita and passed through towns like Kingman, Pratt, and Greensburg, the familiar signposts of a hundred other trips along this highway. At Mullinville, I turned north on US400 for a side trip to Dodge City.

I’ve always been a history buff, but in recent years, my attentions have been drawn to the history of the American West. I had recently read a terrific warts-and-all biography of Wyatt Earp by historian Casey Tefertiller, wonderfully researched and flawlessly documented. While the book had been a priceless source of information, I knew from experience that the best way to gain personal perspective from history is to actually visit the locations and see the layout personally. With that in mind, I rolled into Dodge City.

However, I was seriously disappointed. Whatever historical value old Front Street may have had has been lost in the relentless pursuit of tourist dollars. I found very little in the way of perspective, and grew quickly disillusioned with visual cheapness of the place. Feeling a bit snoozy from the early start, I managed to grab a short nap on a bench tucked away in the corner of an air-conditioned gift shop, the only thing of value that I took from Dodge City. I took a short ride around town, but finding disappointment after disappointment, decided to move on. I found US283 south and eventually re-joined US54 at Minneola.

Heading west again, I allowed my thoughts to wander a bit, trying to imagine what it might have been like to ride this trail in the 19th century. The wheat farms that make up that part of Kansas are a vast and seemingly endless ocean of gold and amber, the wheat bending in concert at the gentle urging of prairie zephyrs. The bike carried me along the highway at 70 miles per hour, but the passage seemed much slower through the sea of grain. It wasn’t hard to imagine how long a journey this might have been in a Conestoga pulled by horses. As the hours moved on towards sundown, the lowering sun slowly lengthened the shadows and colored the sky with the delicate hues of dusk. With the sun sliding slowly into the dust and haze of twilight, I pulled into Liberal. First day: 600 miles, just about right. I checked into the motel and after a late supper, settled in for the night.

DAY TWO
The second day started a bit later than planned, but I established a good pace and the weather remained unexpectedly pleasant, the temperatures not rising into the 90’s until Dalhart, Texas. I turned south on US60 at Hereford and passed into New Mexico at Clovis.

On my trips, I always look forward to riding particular stretches of road. The reasons could be as diverse as scenery and challenging twisties to reliving a golden memory. The road from Clovis, through Roswell, and into the Sacramento Mountains was one I had taken every summer. I had been a working cowboy, given a man’s job and the accountability of a man’s responsibilities, earning the respect of the other men I worked for. As I look back, I know I’ve never been paid less; but it remains the best job I ever had. Now, riding under the warm high plains sun, the road wrapped its memories around me with all the warm familiarity of an old pair of jeans.

US70 southwest out of Clovis was under construction, but the traffic was light, so the delay wasn’t too bad. However, between Kenna and Elkins, I rode through a strong thunderstorm. I had seen this one from quite a ways off and I had hoped that either it, or I, would cross our mutual path separately. But no luck. With no shoulders and no bridges, I had to tough it out. It was a typical high plains storm with hail, high winds, close and frequent lightning, and heavy rain. The hail was, fortunately, only pea-sized and short in duration, but it stung, nonetheless. I was particularly worried about the inevitable gravel one usually finds with construction, but the road surface was surprisingly clean and despite the slow traffic, I finally managed to drive out from underneath the cloud after about 20 minutes.

I got into Roswell, but some new and unfamiliar road construction rendered me confused and lost. It took me the better part of an hour to locate US285 south. During this trial, I kept a wary eye to the north, where a huge complex of thunderstorms was building ominously. Being a trained weather spotter, I could see no good news at all in those clouds and I was desperate to get south as quickly as possible. I finally managed to escape the miasmic clutches of Roswell and nature and with a huge sigh of relief watched the heavy storms pass to the east behind me as I rode south.

Now I was ready for a real treat. I was about to embark on one of my favorite roads. New Mexico Route 13 cuts the corner from US285 to US82 and is 36 miles of absolute desolation. It is here that the flatness of the plains begins to devolve into a crenellated landscape of gullies and hills covered with rocks, gravel, and sparse vegetation. I love this road, because it’s one of those few remaining places where you can look away from the road and see a country that probably hasn’t changed much in the last 500 years. It is a place of surreal beauty framed by dramatic mountains and breathtaking vistas. It’s also a wonderful motorcycle road with climbing sweepers and descending switchbacks, and just a few straight-aways all on a road surface that guarantees a tight bond with tires. It was a fun ride and I was tempted to circle back and do it again, but practicality prevailed.

I joined US82 and at the town of Elk, the road began to climb into the Sacramento Mountains. They are comparatively low, as mountains go, lacking the naked rocks and snowcaps that make the Rockies so dramatic. However, the area does have its own innate beauty, lined by parallel ridges flanking lush, grassy valleys scored by streams of exquisitely cold and clear water. A lot of cattle and horse ranching is done here, and the landscape was dotted with the pastoral sight of grazing herds. As evening swiftly darkened the skies, I stopped at a campground near Mayhill for the night. An afternoon rain, before my arrival, had cleansed the air and softened the ground, making the initial sidestand placement a bit dicey. However, a little help from a fellow camper provided me with a flat rock upon which to perch. I set up my tent, and after double-checking the bike, I crawled in and spent some moments gazing into a sky thick with stars. Just before sleep closed in, I watched the brilliant display shift from flat to dazzling three-dimensions. The earth fell away and for the briefest of moments, I became one with the universe.

DAY THREE
The next morning dawned bright, crisp, and cool. There is a special quality to mountain air in the morning, laced by the perfume of the pines and braced with a slight chill that leaves you feeling as if the energy of the mountains themselves was flowing directly into the reservoirs of your soul, replenishing, rejuvenating, reenergizing. After finishing my morning ablutions, I wandered over to the dining hall and ate breakfast. I had some fun conversations with some of the other campers, the only ones up that early. Afterwards, I broke camp, loaded up the bike, and started it, letting the engine warm while I donned my chaps, jacket, gloves, and helmet. I carefully coasted down the rocky driveway and continued westward.

I gassed up in the resort town of Cloudcroft before starting down the winding road into the desert town of Alamogordo. Construction was going on here, as well and that kept me from having much fun on the twisties.

The terrain in this part of the west tends to change very suddenly. One moment I was careening down mountain switchbacks and then all of a sudden I found myself on flat terrain, wondering what had happened to the mountains. The change was so sudden; I even stopped and looked behind me, as if to assure myself that the mountains were indeed there and had not been a product of my imagination. I found the turnoff for US70 and headed out into the desert towards the White Sands National Monument. The temperature had climbed into the mid-80’s by this point, which was pretty pleasant, given the time of year. After crossing the desert basin, I climbed through the San Andres Mountains, and at one scenic overlook, I caught a glimpse of the stark desert to the north, an area so desolate and forbidding that the Spaniards named it “Jornada Del Muerto;” The Journey of Death.

I pressed on, passing through Las Cruces, Deming, and Lordsburg, filling gas at the latter. 15 miles out of Lordsburg, about 5 miles from the Arizona line, there lay another “special” road.

New Mexico Route 80 leaves I-10 and meanders south into the desert. A completely lonely and desolate road, it has but one small cluster of humans in this 80-mile stretch, a lonely three-building town called Rodeo. I had found this road on the map months before and seeking peaceful solitude as I was, this was the best place to find it. I headed south, quickly losing the drone of the Interstate behind me. This road was like Route 13, full of roughly beautiful rock formations and desert plant life.

About 20 miles down this road, I found myself at the crest of a low valley. I pulled off the road and shut off the engine, then took off my helmet and marveled at the view. I was looking across a valley that, according to the map was at least 20 miles across and 30 miles wide. The Dos Cabezas Mountains loomed directly ahead and I realized with a start that the one peak, identified on the map as Cochise Head, actually looked like the profile of the old Chiricahua warrior. I had been reading his biography as well and realized that I was standing in the heart of what had been his country. It was in this forgotten corner of New Mexico and Arizona where the elusive Cochise and his Chokonen followers kept the armies of both the United States and Mexico in a sustained state of frustration for the better part of 20 years.

The simple beauty of the desert captivated me and I found a certain peace in the fact that in the entire expanse of this wide valley, there lay not one hint of human intrusion, save the road itself. I was completely alone, without even the presence of traffic to intrude on my contemplation. I leaned against the bike, closed my eyes, and just listened to the wind blow.

I finally decided to move on, climbing back onto the bike. I stopped in Rodeo to use the restroom and as I walked back out, I noticed a stone memorial of sorts. I rode over to it and discovered that this town was near the spot where the Apache Chief Geronimo had surrendered to the U.S. Army, the last of the Apache leaders to do so.

I continued on to the south, passing through Douglas, a hot, dusty border town. Douglas has been there for a long time, but the over-abundance of trailers and double-wides gave it a sense of impermanence, as if the whole town could’ve packed up and wandered off at a moment’s notice, leaving just the scrub brush and sand and no sign it had ever existed. North of Douglas, I began to climb into the mountains towards Bisbee.

I found Bisbee to be a fascinating place. It appears that some of the town’s residences are nailed to the sheer rock walls that mark the area. I saw several homes where a misstep off a front porch could have dropped one down the neighbor’s chimney. This town is something of an artist’s colony, the natives taking their muse from the singular beauty of the mountain west. Also in Bisbee is the Lavender Pit Mine, an enormous open pit copper mine. I stopped and marveled at its incredible depth, as well as the varicolored rock on the walls, marking the presence of copper ores.

After taking a break for water, I got back on the bike and headed north towards Tombstone.

Sometimes, our exposure to Hollywood can give us a false impression of places. Most people, when someone says “Arizona” immediately think of desert. However, the road from Bisbee to Tombstone is anything but flat. The road is carved out of canyon walls and is a very dramatic ride.

Tombstone itself, instead of being the desert outpost I always thought it was, actually sits on a plateau over a wide valley that ends with the precipitous uplifts of the Dragoon Mountains to the northeast. The Best Western motel sat at the plateau’s edge and looked across the valley, treating me to a magnificent view of evening thunderstorms billowing over the mountains.

I checked in, unloaded my gear and then rode back into town. The book on Wyatt Earp that I had brought with me contained a wealth of photos and maps of Tombstone. However, the actual personal visit brought history into focus. I stopped at the Boot Hill cemetery, figuring it to be something of a tourist trap. However, in checking the old maps in my book, I was mildly surprised to discover that this cemetery was exactly where it was supposed to be. I learned that the cemetery had lain dormant for many years until a local resident began the lengthy process of actually identifying the graves, and cleaning up the graveyard. I found it to be a serious attempt to restore a piece of history.

I was easily able to find the three streets that constitute the historical part of Tombstone. Unlike Dodge City, Tombstoners have managed to hang on to their historical heritage. The layout of the streets and the buildings closely matched the pictures and maps in my book.

I spent the last hour or so before sundown walking the three blocks of Fremont, Allen, and Toughnut, streets that events of history had made famous. During my stroll, my mind’s eye blocked out the modern paved road and the cars and replaced it with dirt streets aborning the ever-present dust carried aloft by the restless desert wind. Instead of tourists in shorts and Adidas, I imagined the sidewalks alive with the all the human diversity of a frontier town.

Walking past the doors to the saloons I could almost hear the raucous sounds of cowboys, merchants, and miners punctuated by the tinny sounds of a piano, the air thick with smoke and whiskey, and the sour smell of unwashed bodies. And always the watchful eyes of people in a town divided, looking at strangers and silently asking the same questions. Who are you? Where are you from? Whose side are you on?

It had been America in the careless robustness of youth, ever seeing a limitless future, seemingly ignorant of the passage of time. But time had passed; America had grown older and while still willing to take chances, it was now with a measure of careful calculation. I felt the brush of a sense of sadness. Had we lost our sense of adventure?  Our willingness to challenge the unknown beyond frontiers?
While it was obvious many of the buildings weren’t original, they were nevertheless architecturally true to the period. As if to punctuate the preservation of the old west attitude, I encountered a man who was taking his evening constitutional. Along with his pet wolf.

While Dodge City wore an air of bawdy cheapness about it, Tombstone, I felt, was the real deal. Except for the paved streets, it is likely that had the Earps, the Clanton’s, and the Maclaury’s suddenly reappeared, they wouldn’t have had any trouble navigating the streets of Tombstone, even 120 years later.

DAY FOUR
I left Tombstone the next morning at 7:30 and headed north through Benson, picking up I-10 west for Tucson and Phoenix. For the first time on this trip, I encountered some serious heat. My bike-mounted thermometer read 103 degrees when I stopped in Tucson for gas.

I was feeling very light-headed and despite frequent sips from the Camelback I carried, I realized I was lacking not only fluids but electrolytes as well. I went into a convenience store and bought a bottle of Gatorade, slammed it down and within minutes felt wonderful. I refilled my Camelback with ice and poured another bottle of Gatorade in the reservoir. This became the routine for the hot days to follow, and what a difference it made!

I rode into Phoenix with the thermo reading 112 degrees, which was not unexpected. What was unexpected was the high level of humidity. I had been expecting much drier air. As a native revealed later, July is monsoon season for the desert, which explained the damp air. I thought for sure I had been teleported back to hot, humid Missouri. With my health firmly in mind, I made a fundamental change in my operating procedure by removing my chaps in surrender to the incredible heat.

Leaving Phoenix after lunch, I took Route 74 over to Route 60 and pressed onward into a desolate area populated by giant Saguaro cacti. I passed through Wickenburg and Congress and began to climb into the Weaver Mountains via the Yarnell Hill. I had been warned that cops who had little love of motorcyclists patrolled this stretch of highway. I could see why. The road was a marvelous stretch of switchbacks and sweepers. Going uphill limited my speed somewhat, which was a good thing since I passed no less than three officers going the other direction. I also noticed that the further up I went, the more ominous the clouds became. I began to hear thunder and started to see lightning. This wasn’t the wide, powerful bolt of Midwest storms. These were thin, spindly bolts that appeared and disappeared frighteningly close. I was uneasy because in the desert, there aren’t any trees to intercept the lightning bolt before it seeks out a human, and here I was on top of a thousand pounds of gasoline-powered lightning rod. Unconsciously, I began to replay all the segments on lightning from the Discovery Channel through my mind.

I crested Yarnell Hill at a 2-building settlement called Skyline (no, you won’t find it on the map) and it was there that the skies absolutely opened up. As luck would have it, one of the two buildings was an abandoned gas station with one of those small roof things over the old pumps. I pulled off, took shelter, and watched for almost an hour as the rain poured down in sheets. The temperature had fallen from 110 at the bottom of the hill to a rain-cooled 65 degrees. I put my chaps back on and the top half of my rain suit. When the rain had slackened, I started the engine and got back out on the road, almost dumping the bike on the shifting bog of wet gravel and mud in the parking lot.

After about 15 miles, the mountain road got really serious as I climbed into Prescott. I had to be careful because the road was still wet and there were many tar snakes, which made footing really tricky. I found myself in an area that had experienced a wildfire just a couple of weeks previous. I was awestruck at the damage done. The fire had burned so hot that the ground itself had baked into something resembling concrete. Intellectually, I understand that fire is nature’s way of creating opportunities for new growth. It was nonetheless sad to see these forest giants humbled.

North of Prescott, I picked up Route 89A towards Sedona and Flagstaff. On the way, I stopped in Jerome. Jerome is an old mining town and, like Bisbee, is another town that looks like it was nailed to the side of the mountain. The town is very much alive, but retains every bit of its old west character. In my stroll around, I noticed several buildings undergoing active restoration.

I had a late lunch at a restaurant that looked out over the town and the valley at the bottom of the mountain, a view that seemed to go on forever. Looking down at the town, I watched the people walking the streets. I saw young men, faces already showing the effects of desert life coming and going from a local bar, where the telltale sounds of clacking billiard balls drifted through the screen door. Children ran effortlessly up and down the steep hill in the city park, their vigilant mothers relaxing on the benches. Cars, entering the town from the south, passed along the road above me and then zigzagged down into the business district. On a whim, I turned to my waitress and asked how she liked living there. She shrugged her 18-year-old shoulders and said, “I guess it’s all right. Nothing much happens here, though.” I smiled, understanding perfectly. Youth always looks forward, seeking adventure. Age always looks back, yearning for peace.

After eating, I saddled up and rolled out of Jerome. As I rode along, I saw remains of the region’s mining history. Old sluices appeared, still attached to the side of the rocky hills. The road downhill from that town is a wonderfully twisty route, with spectacular overlooks. Vistas like these are singular to the southwest; such dramatic beauty can be found nowhere else.

The ride through Sedona was absolutely wonderful. The road wound through canyons and hills festooned with a combination of desert and mountain foliage. Sedona, an artsy tourist town, is a picturesque jewel, nestled at the foot of blood-red mesas.

North of Sedona is Oak Creek Canyon, absolutley the best stretch of road on this trip. It wasn’t just the twisties that made it special. The scenery was absolutely breathtaking. The road follows Oak Creek and is almost dragon-like in its undulations, winding through cool forests flanked by starkly vertical rock walls.

Coming out of the canyon, I rolled through pine forests all the way to Flagstaff and the KOA, which I reached just after sundown. The KOA was a little hard to find, so it was completely dark by the time I reached there. According to my reservation, my tent site was supposed to have electrical power. Unfortunately, the nearest receptacle was over 50 feet away. A return trip to the office got me nowhere except an unwelcome visit to “I-Don’t-Caresville” populated that night by a taciturn and bad-tempered desk clerk. It took some gymnastics and the loan of a very long extension cord from a considerate neighbor to set up camp, fill my mattress, and connect my cellphone charger, but I managed to accomplish everything I needed to and finally collapsed into my tent, ready for a good night’s sleep.

DAY FIVE
A very inconsiderate neighbor woke me at 4:45 in the morning and after trying unsuccessfully to go back to sleep, I gave up, took down the tent, packed the bike and left. After a fast food breakfast, I was on the road by 6:30. I took US89 north out of Flagstaff and was treated to another display of beautiful countryside. I coasted down out of the San Francisco Mountains to the magnificent sight of the high desert stretching on for miles. I turned onto US160 and headed northeast towards Colorado. Through Tuba City and Kayenta, I experienced what most people probably think of when they think of Arizona – endless Desert. In the interests of time on this trip, I bypassed both the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. Having visited both places numerous times in my youth, it was a fairly easy sacrifice to make.

I stopped at the Four Corners monument, the place where Arizona, Colorado, Utah, and New Mexico meet. I remembered coming here with my Dad when I was about 8 years old. Back then, the monument was just a brass disk set in a large square of concrete. Now, the plaza had expanded to include a collection of Navajo-run kiosks. I saw a lot of ‘Wings there, apparently attending a GWRRA gathering in the area.

Crossing into Colorado, I set my sites on Cortez. I had learned from previous experiences how important it was to plan rest days, or half-days into the schedule. Even having the time of your life can wear you out. This was to be a short day, a laundry day. I got to Cortez just after noon, and after attending to my laundry, went to bed early. I needed a good night’s sleep, for tomorrow I would tackle the Rockies.

DAY SIX
With a trunk full of clean clothes, I was off and running by 7:00, eager to take on some mountain roads. The day started with an easy run to Durango and Pagosa Springs. Just after Pagosa, I started to climb the first of several mountain passes. Wolf Creek Pass, made famous by country singer C.W. McCall, was under construction, but the scenery was still beautiful.

The road topped out at 10,850 feet. Coming down, the construction was less, but the road surface was in terrible shape, which limited the fun quite a bit. I came down at South Fork and then turned north on Colorado 149. I picked up a BMW rider on an R1100RT and we partnered for a while. We pulled off at a photo op of a beautiful mountain lake…well, it would have been had there been any water in it. It was the first graphic representation of the drought that had afflicted the West for several years, hence, the many wildfires. We talked for a while, exchanging road stories and quietly boasting about our machines. He told me that one of the BMW owners groups had just concluded their annual “do” in Gunnison and many were staying on afterwards to tour the countryside. I don’t know what the attendance had been, but it must have been considerable. With all the BMWs I saw, I could have been in the Alps, instead of the Rockies.

I spent some time drinking in the scenery. The day was absolutely gorgeous. The sky was dotted with fluffy white cumulus clouds superimposed over a stunning cobalt blue. The mountains marched off into the distance, covered with the deep green of pine trees and the occasional outcropping of bare rock.

Underway again, I climbed through Spring Creek Pass (10,901) and Slumgullon Pass (11,361), enjoying the view and feeling in awe of the starkly powerful presence of these ancient mountains. I came down out of Slumgullon at Curecanti Reservoir to a shocking sight. I had been hearing all summer about the moisture deficit the entire west had been experiencing. However, I was completely unprepared for the shocking view of this huge lake almost completely dry.

I lunched in Gunnison, stopping at an Internet Café to check my e-mail. I then headed out of town to the biggest climb of the day, Monarch Pass, which topped out at 11,312 feet. It was here that the bike first showed signs of the altitude effect. Approaching the summit, there was just a hint of hesitation in acceleration and I noticed that I needed an increasing amount of throttle to maintain speed. I crested the top and headed back down. This road was in prime condition and I enjoyed it to the hilt. I took the curves very aggressively, some of them so sharp that the best I could do was about 30 mph, while still leaned over to the point of dragging a peg a couple of times. It was during this segment that another fine characteristic of the Pacific Coast manifested itself. I had put around 45,000 miles on this bike, both empty and loaded. However, even with the load I was carrying, I could still throw the bike into those twisties with aggressive abandon. The only difference I sensed in the handling was that, if anything, the extra weight gave it even better footing in the turns.

Coming close to the bottom, I came out of one curve to find a large Black Bear standing in the road. (How large? Lissen, buddy. When you’re on a bike, they’re ALL large, okay?) I grabbed both brakes and brought the bike to a halt, about 30 yards from the bear. He was looking and snuffing in my direction, and I thought that perhaps this would make a great picture. I started to reach for the camera in my jacket pocket, but prudence stopped me. I didn’t want to do anything to provoke this animal. It sure would have been an easy case for the Medical Examiner:

“What happened to this guy?”
“Well, the last picture on his camera is that of a charging bear...”

So there we sat, facing each other. I was trying to formulate a decision on exactly how to proceed when a pickup truck coasted up and stopped behind me. After a moment, I heard a voice say, “Hey! Go straight at him and see if he’ll move.”

I turned, incredulous and responded, “YOU go straight at him and see if he’ll move!” While I was thus turned, I heard a growl, and I looked back at the bear only to see that he was now on standing up on his hind legs. The truck’s engine began to roar, and I looked back to see the truck backing and filling, trying to turn around. The passenger was yelling at me through the windshield. He finally rolled his window down and cried, “Haul Ass! That sumbitch is about to charge!” I immediately started to turn around, while trying to avoid being run down by the cowboys in the pickup. During these maneuvers, I studiously avoided looking at the bear. If he was charging, I really didn’t want to know.

About halfway through my turn, a log hauler came up behind us, squealed to a stop and let go a blast on his air horns. That was enough for the bear, who apparently figured that something bigger than him had finally showed up. He dropped down, hurdled the culvert at the edge of the road and headed for the brush. I will forever remember the sight of that leap, his paws hanging in the air, dangling an enormous set of claws. I dropped my head down between the handlebars and tried to return my heartbeat and respiration to something approaching normal. At this point, the driver of the log hauler leaned out of his door and shouted, “What the hell’s the matter with you? It’s only a damn bear!”

I replied, “Yeah, Colorado’s full of comedians like you today.”

I continued down the road to Poncha Springs, where I turned north on US24 en route to my campsite for that night at Buena Vista. The KOA was about a mile off the highway on a slight rise. The wind began to blow very hard and the first thing I noticed about the place was that the ground, hardened by weeks without rain, had the consistency of a parking lot. I knew from bitter personal experience that in wind that strong with ground that hard, erecting, and keeping intact a tent would be a darn near impossible task. I went back to the office and swapped my tent site for a “Kamping Kabin,” an agreeably rustic small log structure. Later, I went into Buena Vista, ate at the Pizza Hut, and spent time taking some pictures around town.


I got back to the cabin just as the sun was setting. I sat on the front porch of the cabin with my feet up on the rail, catching up my trip log entries. I watched as the sky darkened and the stars began to come out. It was a marvelous light show and I was again amazed at how many stars were visible up here at altitude. I sat there for quite a long time, not really thinking of anything, just enjoying the beauty and solitude. The only sound I heard was an occasional "ting" from the bike as the engine gave up its heat to the mountain air. And the wind. Always the wind; sighing in its restless, lonely way. After a time, the air grew chilly and I went inside and went to bed.

DAY SEVEN
I was on the road the next morning at 6:45. The night before, in consulting my map, I noted that this day I would be ascending to the highest altitudes of the entire trip. As I continued north on US24 towards Leadville, the temperature kept getting colder. I didn’t stop to put on my heavy coat, because…well…it’s summer! It should be getting warmer; it wasn’t. The thermometer, which had started out in the mid-fifties, had dropped 10 degrees by the time I got to Leadville. I buzzed through town, picking up Route 91. This highway climbed steeply to Fremont Pass (11,318) and the temperatures plummeted to the mid-thirties. The cold air became a knife, cutting through my Brosh Tek summer jacket without so much as an obligatory pause.

Coming out of Fremont Pass, the temperatures warmed somewhat, but by the time I reached I-70, I was chilled to the bone. Pulling off the Interstate, I stopped at a Log Cabin diner. I stood in the entryway desperately trying to generate some body heat. One of the servers glanced at my pale face and blue lips and murmured to one of her colleagues, “Flatlanders never learn, do they?” Not being a coffee man, I downed three cups of hot cocoa and finally the block of ice at the center of my body began to melt. About an hour later, I finished breakfast and saddled up, remembering to unship and don my heavy coat.

I got off the Interstate at Empire and took US40 north through Berthoud Pass (11,315) to Granby, where I turned onto US34 and headed into Rocky Mountain National Park.

The first part of the road through the park was a flat, slightly curvy road that went through pine forests and past blue lakes. I encountered a large group of cars stopped along the side of the road. The people were all looking off into the distance and following their gazes, I saw two Moose standing in an alpine meadow. I’ve never seen one in person before and I was surprised at how large an animal they were. It occurred to me that they were members of the deer family and, despite their majestic appearance, I was secretly glad there weren’t any Moose haunting the motorcycling roadsides of Missouri.

I continued on, noticing that the air was very smoky and smelled like a campfire, this from the Big Elk wildfire burning near Estes Park. Just past Grand Lake, the road began to climb again towards the highest peaks in the Rockies. The road itself was narrow and, the higher I went, the more pot-holed it became. I went through Miner Pass (10,718) and topped out at the Alpine Visitors Center and Fall River Pass, where the altitude reached 12,300 feet. This particular part of the road was very nerve-wracking. It was narrow, rough, and had no guardrails. On the right side of the road, a very steep tundra-covered slope terminated in a sheer cliff about a hundred yards away. Also, traffic was heavy and with scenery this dramatic, I couldn’t expect the drivers to be paying real close attention to the road. I concentrated carefully on my own piloting, knowing that one bad move could lead to disaster.

I pulled off at a rest stop and took some pictures. Unfortunately, the smoke was so thick I couldn’t see very many peaks, although the map indicated that there were many nearby, some topping out at 14,000 feet.

Soon afterwards, I started to descend back down through some righteous twisties. However, for some unaccountable reason, I was hit with a really bad case of the snoozies. Perhaps all the caffeine I consumed at breakfast had finally dropped out of my system. At any case, I had to find a place to pull off, which I did. I walked around the scenic overlook and couldn’t really find a good place to rest, so I just lay down on the pavement on the back side of the bike and took a good 30-minute nap. A concerned couple on a Gold Wing apparently saw my bike and pulled off to see if anything was wrong. They awakened me and I assured them I was just fine, just needed a snooze. They helped me up and we talked for a few minutes until they were satisfied that I was completely okay. (You really do meet the nicest people on a Honda!) I felt refreshed after my nap and, after drinking some Gatorade and water, I got back on the bike and continued down the mountain, pulling into Estes Park about 2 p.m.

I took a long break here, doing some souvenir shopping and taking the time for a good meal. During my stroll about downtown Estes, I noticed a steady rain of white ash falling out of the sky from the fire.

I left about 5:30, with a recommended route change. I had planned to take US36 south from Estes, but I was warned that the wildfire was burning along that road and the smoke was very bad. They recommended taking Route 7 south to Ward, then turning east to Longmont, where I could pick up the Interstate into Denver. While I regretted missing the valley of the Big Thompson River, I took that route and while it was longer, it was still interesting. By the time I reached Longmont, I was well and truly out of the mountains and into some significant summer heat again.

I went south through Denver, which was a rush-hour nightmare of construction and heavy traffic. I got onto eastbound I-70 and headed for Limon. I kept looking for a good place to pull off and gas up. But there were no places where I could quickly get off and back on again. Traffic was heavy on all of the exit overpasses and by the time I was clear of the heavy traffic, I was also apparently clear of all the gas stations. Strasbourg, Deer Trail, Agate were all exits without gas stations. My gauge dropped steadily and I reduced speed, finally to 45 mph in an attempt to stretch my fuel. However, my fuel anxiety didn’t keep me from enjoying the evening. The sun was setting behind me and as it slid through the layers of dust and smoke in the mountains, the resultant rays were painting the wheat fields with the most marvelous pastel hues. The terrain was gently air-brushed by pinks, violets, purples, and other colors for which I have no name, but were beautiful nonetheless. Evenings like these brought emotional memories into sharp focus, making me yearn for the comforting presence of home and hearth.

Night was falling swiftly now, as was the needle on my gas gauge. I began contingency planning on what to do when I finally ran dry. There were literally no human settlements in the last thirty miles into Limon. Finally, with a tremendous sense of relief, I saw my goal in sight. I mentally willed my bike up the ramp and off the interstate, pulling into the first gas station I came to. I knew I had cut it pretty thin, but how thin I didn’t know until I filled up. The Pacific Coast fuel tank takes a maximum of 4.2 gallons of gas. My fill up? 4.198 gallons. My best estimate was that I could have gone perhaps another 50 yards before running completely dry. I found my motel, checked in, and went to bed soon after, thanking God and Honda engineers.

DAY EIGHT/DAY NINE
The last two days of the trip seemed interminable, consisting of a straight run across I-70 through Kansas. On the last day, however, the weather forecast gave me some anxious moments. This was going to be a day of triple-digit temperatures all the way to Columbia. Accordingly, I was up at five and on the road by six.

I guess I was getting a little careless or perhaps a bit too anxious to get home, because I sorta stopped paying attention to the speedometer. However, the Dickinson County Sheriff did me the favor of watching it for me. Just after passing the exit for Abilene, I glanced back in my mirror to see the heart-stopping site of those flashing lights. I pulled over immediately. After he had checked me out via radio, he came out of his car and walked towards me. His first words were,

“Sir, do you know why I stopped you?”


Not wanting to appear stupid or attitudinal, (I watch COPS), I said, “I’ll bet I was speeding.”

He looked at me thoughtfully for a moment and asked, “You mean you don’t know?”

I gestured at the rising sun and said, “The light was pretty glaring. I couldn’t see the instrument panel very well. Plus, I’m on the last day of a 9-day trip and I’m sure I was pushing it a little hard.”

He squinted at me momentarily and said, “Sir, I clocked you at 92 miles per hour.”

My jaw dropped and I sagged against the bike. I really didn’t know I had been going that fast. The engine on a Pacific Coast is probably the quietest one there is. Above about 60 mph, you hear mostly wind. As a result, it is easy to find yourself slowly ramping up in speed without realizing it.

The fine and court costs turned out to be $167, which was not bad, considering the speed I was going. There are many small municipalities who would have just dumped me in the County hoosegow for the balance of the weekend for going that fast. After the official part of the transaction ended, he started asking about the trip. As I related the experience to him, all the good memories came flooding back and pretty soon I was smiling, and even got him to laugh over the bear story. Finally, he asked, “This is just an 800, right?” I assured him it was. He walked around the bike, shaking his head, shook hands and parted. As he walked back to his cruiser, I could hear him muttering, “92 on an 800 cc bike with a load like that?”

I put everything away and got back on the interstate, albeit at a more sedate pace. Going through Kansas City was a breeze, since it was Saturday, and I pulled into my driveway in Columbia just after noon, beating the worst of the heat by two hours.

Unloading the bike, I felt the usual conflicting emotions. Proud that I had survived the trip; happy to be home; sad that the trip was now history. Monday morning would come soon enough; along with it’s prosaic, sometimes stultifying routine. The dull sameness of work and the reality of home, bills…responsibility. For nine unforgettable days and 3,500 glorious miles, I had existed within a special realm, answering only to the whim of my mood and the longings of my soul. I knew that I couldn’t do that forever.

A man’s drive is defined by the love of those who depend on him. Knowing that within the walls of home existed a loving wife and devoted children to whom I was irreplaceable gave me reason to live; to fight. It was good to be home.

Nevertheless, lying in bed that night, I stared at the dark ceiling, kept awake by the memories of mountains and deserts, deep forests and wild river valleys, and a night sky flooded with stars calling my spirit into the limitless expanse of the universe; an invitation to come face-to-face with God. The experience of this trip had created within me a refuge; a place to which I could always return when the weight of life became too heavy to bear. No matter what adversity lay before me, I could for a few brief moments, take myself to the Valley of Cochise, lean back, close my eyes, and find solace in the sad, soft sighing of the restless desert wind….

LESSONS LEARNED
This was a trip where I experienced temperatures at both extremes, from 112 in Phoenix to 31 north of Leadville, Colorado. I really learned the importance of paying attention to personal hydration on hot days. I had stumbled onto the Gatorade thing, but not realizing that could very well have caused me to cut the trip short. Hydration is important on any ride. But in the desert, failing to look after that detail could very well cost you your life. On the other extreme, when it is cold, I really should take the time to pull off the road and put on heavy gear. Macho has a certain value, but it doesn’t generate any useable heat to speak of.

I have always made a practice of running as many miles on a tankful of gas as possible, since I hate stopping to fill up. However, on this trip, that habit nearly left me stranded. It is so important, especially when traveling through isolated areas to keep a close eye on the fuel level, to the point of fueling sooner than usual. This is especially true out west where you may find yourself on a road where traffic might be a rare and beautiful thing. The last thing anyone needs to be doing is hiking through the desert on a hot day, even if you’re not pushing a motorcycle.

Don’t tempt the law. Stay reasonably within the posted limits. Remember that cops are uniformly suspicious of bikers; regardless of what machine they’ve mounted. While you may think you’re more harmless than an unwashed leather-clad anarchistic one percenter, you’re probably alone in that thought when facing The Man.

LESSONS AFFIRMED
A daily mileage pace of 250 to 325 miles is a comfortable one. It allows for enforced periods of slow speeds through construction zones, as well as time to pull off and look at tourist stuff along the way. If you concentrate too much on racking up miles, you could miss the point of the entire trip. After all, nobody should travel by motorcycle if you actually have somewhere you have to be.

The Camelback was by far the most valuable thing I took on this trip. Filling it up with ice and Gatorade when I stopped for gas, it lasted just long enough until it was time to gas up again. Having that available helped me stay more healthy, alert, and comfortable on the hot days. Also, wearing a backpack loaded with ice helped to cool down my body a bit.

CONCLUSIONS...

It was on this trip that I was finally able to articulate what it is that drives us motorcyclists out on the road. It is in these words, which poured out of me, unbidden, to a curious pair of tourists somewhere in New Mexico:

“There’s a horizon out there.
On the far side are things I’ve never seen, places I’ve never been,
people I’ve never met, experiences I’ve never had.
All day long, I chase that horizon, freed by the knowledge that I have nowhere to be,
and all the time in the world to get there.
There is a restless desire within that drives me to go there, see that, do that, feel that;
it is that desire which carries me through each day.


And the best part of it all?
Every morning, there’s a brand new horizon out there;
…calling to me...


“I just don’t think it gets any better than that.”
Post a Comment