I suppose it’s totally debatable as to whether the decisions I make concerning my life and well being are based in a deep sense of adventure or an incredible lack of responsibility. I certainly don’t know, though I gravitate to the latter; yet that could be as much my penchant for self vilification as “the truth”. I understand they can be one and the same; but not in this case. Were I an adventurer, I’d probably be long since dead by now.
I “know” the mountains well enough as regards their pleasures and pains, and I know motorcycling. I even know how they work together, in the summer months. I was a little ahead of schedule this time, and rather than play it safe, bear south to the high plains and relative warmth of New Mexico, I decided to face the monster I’d never met. My only caveat was that I’d take it slow and easy, pay close attention to the locals as well as my instincts, and carefully make a go/no go determination before it was too late to have it matter. I ignored the caveat of course, but it’s always good to have one as a certain reassurance.
The Rockies are somewhat in or out; once you’ve passed the threshold between foothills and their parents, the rest of the world ceases to exist. It took less than 30 minutes to have the mass that is Colorado Springs vanish behind a corner, and the 60’s that had baked me in the valley turn to a nippy 45 degrees. Snow cover began to encroach upon the edge of the highway, and though it was patchy at best it looked to be well deep enough in spots to house a grizzly and cubs.
I hadn’t to this point even pulled my camera from its bag. There’d been almost nothing to shoot and I have a thing about only freezing my fingers if the uniqueness of the shot I’m about to take will guarantee its being published in National Geographic. But I was fatigued with pounding pavement mile after mile, only stopping for more piston juice so as to pound some more. So I pulled off the main drags in search of amazement during the first few hours.
Royal Gorge is found just past Canon City, the first real town I passed through that morning. The story is that a bridge was built over one of the deepest cuts in the Rockies purely as a tourist attraction to act as a cash machine for the nearby town. It worked. Though the bridge doesn’t actually “go” anywhere, it is one of the most visited tourist sites in the US. That nearly kept me from going. I am loath to partake in particularly popular culture, lest I lose my “entirely unique curmudgeon” status. But I relented this one time, again, because I was by then bored to tears with constant forward progress. It is truly an amazing place, and one that’s well documented if one wants to look it up online.
I spent perhaps an hour there. I would have stayed longer but I did have a meager plan to the day, all of which entailed making sure I was well out of snow country before sunset. So I wound my way back down to highway 50 and headed for the mettle testing grounds, Monarch Pass.
Salida is the last town of reasonable size before the road shoots upward 4000 feet, so even though it was still early I took the opportunity to get lunch and check out the gossip. As it turned out, I was in luck. It had snowed in the direction I was going just the night before, but as far as anyone knew, the road had been cleared along its entire length and was open for business. That stop turned out to be a smart move, as I was 20 miles into the climb before I ran across the two large red and white poles that would have been lowered across the tarmac had the highway been closed to traffic, and I’d have had to back up an hour before either waiting out the department of transportation or choosing another, much longer route.
Going up on a mountain road never seems to be an issue. You face the same chance for avalanche and rockslide, the same possibility of being smothered in a sudden storm, yet it’s a sway in a porch swing for some reason, compared to the frightening roller coaster of going back down the same mountain. It must be another of the many mind fucks one faces in life, another illusion created by watching too many movies or listening to too many campfire tales of eighteen wheelers careening off a cliff at a thousand miles an hour and crushing the 60 school kids traveling in a bus a thousand feet below just before the entire wreckage is vaporized by the biggest fireball ever witnessed…. or something like that. The fact is, on a bike, as in most cars, no matter how steep the roadway is, if you want to stop, get off the freaking gas! Driving a locomotive? Sure; big problem! A six hundred pound motorcycle, even while bearing a 230 pound passenger? Dig your heels in like Fred Flintstone would; it’s not that big a deal. Still…. it seems so scary!!!
Physically it was a snap going up. Emotionally it was astonishing. It was cold, but I was well dressed. It was icy here and there, but I was well versed in defensive driving. It was just me and my teeny weeny machine driving over one of the tallest passes in North America in what was still winter, on the mountain calendar of course. It was the first of many experiences that made this trip the most exciting journey I’ve ever taken.
After 20 years most of my photos are missing, probably still with me in some squishy cardboard box buried under layers of Christmas tree lights deep in a blackened corner in the garage; but I do have the photo that proves the trip did indeed exist, posted below.
Not only was the trip down uneventful, it was anticlimactic. Around each corner I sweated the sight of a freshly collapsed boulderama preventing my escape, yet all I saw was yet another fabulous view of conifer forests, leaning ground ward, bearing the weight of a dozen inches of new fallen snow.
It’s a long, winding drive from Monarch to Gunnison, about 45 miles of heart pounding scenery. Had it not been for my fear of finding a much shorter way to the bottom of the hill I’d have seen a lot more of it, but in fact I was busy most of the time, anticipating, performing, re-anticipating, reacting.
Gunnison Colorado is where I’d live had I any true sense of self. It could have been the location for the television show Everwood, had that not been a Utah town masquerading as one in Colorado. It’s one of those places that radiates instant calm, a village in a valley, a population at the time of 4000, swelling to 10k when the state college is in session. I stopped, but only for coffee and a rapid thaw. The day was moving along quickly, the weather was turning slightly and I had a lot of switchbacks to untwist before I’d left the land of instant and unexpected doom.
Within a few miles was the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, a fascinating gorge that I’d loved to have toured a bit save the road up is two lane without shoulders and would be trickling with melt water. In retrospect it was really of no consequence as the little scene I was wrapped in just roaming the state highway was every bit as wondrous as one on a much larger scale.
Half an hour later I had popped out of the crags and onto a high plain where the riding was a bit easier and the air was just a tad toastier. I turned south and headed toward what would be the second major decision of the trip; a this way-that way quandary that would determine both distance to destination and percentage chance of my getting there at all. The decision was made for me at my next fuel stop in Ridgeway, when the owner told me that Red Mountain pass had suffered a number of rock slides in the last few days, and both of us could see the clouds were thickening atop the peaks. I had to make some time though as even the detour would take me into very tall territory, and not all that much further west of the storm that was brewing.
It was a tough slog for the next hour or so. Being alone forces one to be cautious in blind corners, and the road I was on was 90% blind corner and 10% partially obstructed view. Then I met an angel unawares. A woman in a sporty red banker’s car crossed my path, turning in front of me at the entrance to the ski able mountains of Telluride. She smiled and waved as she cut me off. Another time I might have been enraged, or at least slightly miffed, but I welcomed the company.
I hadn’t seen a car for what seemed like hours, and it was good to remember there were more of my species. Besides, she offered me an opportunity. I could follow her at her speed, without all that stress I’d suffered for most of the day. If there were a rock slide ahead, I would surely hear the squealing of tires, the shrill screams and the fiery crash well before I made the corner, and so could both stop safely and perhaps save a damsel in distress without gnashing a single tooth. The only issue was, the woman was a freaking race car driver.
We were in a deep river valley on a narrow ledge. The road followed the river which was one of the most serpentine I’d ever seen. On the left was a hundred foot ditch ending in rushing water and boulders the size of the Reichstag, on the right was a sandstone cliff 25 feet high, followed by a 6% grade to a ridge a few hundred feet higher. She’d obviously been there and had memorized every inch of the byway, as she was doing 85 all the way. I paid hell to keep up, yet I still thought my logic was as good at that speed as it was at a more reasonable pace. I would just have to strain my ears a bit more, and expect a shorter tire squeal and scream before her impact. I grit my teeth, leaned in and rocketed down the road as if tethered to her bumper.
It worked. By the time I had suffered enough close calls to know fear, we’d suddenly leapt out of the canyon and onto the top of a wide ridge, where she took her leave on a crossroad to the northwest, (at a town named Stoner-wouldn’t it figure) waving and smiling all the way. Before I knew it I was essentially out of the Rockies and onto the high desert, heaving a loud sigh of relief. I believe it was in the next stretch, just short of the town of Cortez that I had an experience I’ve written about in detail; the running of the ground squirrels.
The road before me stretched like a world straddling piece of black licorice. The horizon sported a lovely rise of reddish stone that turned out to be a couple hundred feet tall, but at that distance it was about the height of book of matches. The surface was endlessly cracked and patched, making it appear as if a giant spider web, spun by a creature who also painted double yellow lines on her property in order to discourage web rustlers. And the surrounding countryside was parched, littered with the refuse of plants long dead, and obviously tamped repeatedly by the proverbial ugly stick. It was the perfect place to not be, a marvelous excuse to try and create a wormhole. But as the speedometer buried itself in the rightward position, intimating I might be traveling close to the speed of sound, a gazillion prairie dogs decided it was time to do the Dance of the Tarmac, and started racing across the path before me as if daring me to run them over.
I laughed at first. “What luck” I thought, how funny would it be if I had escaped certain death in the snowy mountains just to be killed by smashing to the ground at 120 mph after squishing a rodent. I figured it would only last a mile or so and then I’d be back in nothing and nowheresville, so I held onto the throttle and tried to continue blinking the tears from my eyes. It didn’t stop after a mile. It didn’t stop after two miles. There must be a rathole in that desert that connects to every rathole on the planet, because I believe every rodent from here to Timbuktu found that road and raced across it so as to win their little rodent bravery badge. Scared the crap out of me. Wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
I stopped to catch my breath in Cortez, a few miles from Mesa Verde where Linda and I would rummage around 15 years later, and then rambled on toward my final destination of the day, the New Mexico and Navajo Nation border and the beautiful town of Shiprock New Mexico.
Shiprock was named Shiprock because of its proximity to Shiprock, the rock. It is and has been for millions of years (I’m guessing) the only thing to name stuff after for as far as the human eye can see. It is a shining beacon of beauty in a sea of nothingness. I realize I said similar things about Nebraska and eastern Colorado, but here’s the thing; in both of those places there was at least the promise of more than nothingness. There would be row crops and grasses and wildflowers and brand new fence posts to look at. In Shiprock, all there is, is the damned rock, unless you count the drive through liquor stores which are quite interesting on their own. Now I don’t think one can order a tall, frosty glass of beer from the chick who comes over the speaker in a garbled voice and says “welcome to drive through liquors; would you like to try one of our combos?” But you can order a six pack and a stack of plastic cups, and while the boob behind the register is trying to remember how many pennies they’ll need to make your change, you could have a pop topped and a foamy brewski in your lap! But I digress.
I left Shiprock (of Shiprock fame) early. Lucky for me, the cops get up early in Shiprock.
I have had one traffic ticket on a motorcycle in my entire 40 years of riding, and you’ll never guess where I got it. 54 mph in a 50 mph zone. Four stinkin’ miles an hour. Of course the day before I was doing 120 in a 55, but that doesn’t count since I didn’t get caught so it didn’t really happen. I was gracious to the officer. I sure as hell didn’t want to spend any more time in Shiprock than was necessary; I am certain that being bored to death is a painful way to go.
The next couple hundred miles were in Navajo country. The Navajo nation is damn near as big as our largest states, but it is, sadly, full of nothing. Poverty… there is poverty and addiction. I’m sure there are plenty of middle class folk on that reservation who have decent jobs and carry on with their lives just like the rest of us do. (Even the word reservation makes me cringe. Like we had a Maitre D’ standing at the entrance to hell on earth and he said “welcome you folks with the blankets and feathers, we’ve been reserving this piece of barren rock for you”) But there are many who have nothing, who live on nothing, who’ve hopes of nothing.
I didn’t really need jewelry, but every 30 miles there are ramshackle kool-aid stand looking buildings by the freeway with local artisans selling their wares, and eventually my resistance to doing something for the local economy wears down. I’d have to bet some of them live in an LA mansion and fly out in their private jet to fleece the tourists with their “just getting by” act, just cuz that’s the kind of cynic I am; but I can usually spot a phony a mile off as poverty has an aura and I was schooled in its colors. I bought a nice turquoise ring from a lovely woman who had an amazing smile. As I am not a jewelry caretaker, it fell apart within a year and the band found its way into a smelter, but I did my part and that’s a good thing.
Long after the trinket sellers were behind me I came upon another oddity of the southwest reservations; the “smoke shop” shaped like a teepee. I have to wonder if the owner is proud that his heritage is displayed atop his shop, indifferent, or humiliated by the lengths he needs to go to have a viable business in an inhospitable land. I’ve never asked the question; I should have, I’m actually curious. I’m sure the answer is “ask a hundred of us and you’ll get a hundred answers”, but I lust like to prove to strangers that I think too much.
In my path was the Petrified Forest national park. I’d never seen it and thought it’d be silly to blow by it without a glimpse, so I paid my fee and drove the loop. I guess I’m just not a rock guy. Oh, I like rocks just fine, but my heart doesn’t go pitter pat at the sight of a cool rock. I did see a couple of tree stump rocks that were fascinating, but for the most part, it was a lot like a quarry tour, though had I stopped and gotten off, walked the half mile to each little interpretive kiosk, I might have enjoyed it more.
Then I was into the final stretch, working to drop 4000 feet over the course of 230 miles.
America has some absolutely amazing topography spread across its girth, and one of those places is the Mogollon Rim which stands above much of the Tonto National Forest. The rim is basically the end of the Rockies and its high desert and the Tonto, a conifer forest, smothers the sandstone walls and slopes with scent and color that’s unforgettable. Unfortunately since I was there it was the site of the largest forest fire in the state and changed the scenery over thousands of acres for decades yet to come.
As I slid toward the sprawl that is Phoenix, it finally became warm enough to doff my leathers and wear nothing but a t-shirt over my chest. It was a relief, not only to lose the chill but the weight of all that clothing. The last 50 miles is stunning, the road, twisty and rolling, the flora changing faster than you can blink. Spruce gave way to scrub and pinion, gave way to olive, ash and cottonwood, gave way to Saguaro and barrel cactus. The city was invisible until the last moment, lying on the west side of a small mountain range that protected we travelers from the ugliness that a city of size offers. And then, pop, we were out and into the houses and ranches and strip malls of Phoenix Arizona. It was time. I was tired, and ready for a long, long nap.
It took another hour to get to my aunt’s house where I had to go first as I didn’t have a clue as to where my dad’s home was at that point. I’d been there as they were building it, but I didn’t pay attention to the directions or the address for that matter. The only thing I can say about movement in Phoenix is, it’s fast. Many of the main city streets are 50 miles an hour, which is fine once you’re accustomed to it, but pretty scary if you’re not sure where you’re going.
I spent a little over a week there; an eventful week, a week of emotional teeter totter.