Colorado Ride, June 2004
So I'm sitting around the house one evening with ten thousand things that I need to do, but none of them making my very short list of things I actually want to do, and I'm staring at my maps, regretting the fact that I cut my last ride short (due to severe tire wear) and didn't get to ride the Colorado Rockies. I'd been studying routes recommended by various members of Sport-Touring.net and ZZR1200.net and was highlighting my map of Colorado, tongue clamped firmly between my teeth and sticking from the corner of my mouth, a glint of perspiration on my brow, aroused by how squiggly were the lines beneath my highlighter. Damn, I thought, I gotta get back on the bike and do this. I told the wife as much. "Uh huh," she said (or something equally encouraging). I tried showing her my maps. "That's nice, dear." Finally, I huffed on into my den to check my email. Maybe someone had emailed to tell me I'd just won a ZX-10R. Maybe Yamaha wanted me to substitute for Valentino Rossi in Sunday's race. Maybe Kawasaki wanted me to ride and write full time for them for some totally ungodly amount of money. Stranger things have happened, right?
What I found was an email from a riding buddy, Greg, who lives in Dallas. Greg and I had ridden together twice before in the Kiamichi Mountains and Arkansas. Greg had been planning to ride to Montana with another friend of ours, Crazytrain, the last ten days of June (a ride I would have loved to make, but sometime last year I had committed to giving a couple lectures at an upcoming writers' workshop thingamabob in Amarillo), but now Greg had changed his mind and was planning to ride solo through New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, and Arizona. He'd be retracing some of the route I had just ridden -- Cimarron Canyon, Taos, the North Rim, etc -- but the kicker was that he was doing Colorado and for the most part his ride would start there. You're not going to believe this, I emailed back to Greg, but I was just this very second studying my maps and planning my own two-wheeled assault on Colorado. Do you want company for at least part of your ride? His response was pretty quick, something along the lines of: Are you packed yet? And for the next few days we exchanged emails which basically amounted to: Is it time to go yet?
I had a few things to take care of first. First and foremost, I needed to change my front tire. I had more than 10,000 miles now on the original Dunlop D220. I had planned to squeeze another thousand or so out of it riding easy around town, then replace it with an Avon tire (everyone's been raving to me about the high mileage they've been getting out of the Avons). There was no way my Dunlop was going to last through a run to Colorado and back -- leastwise not without risking a repeat of my last adventure. Problem was, I didn't have enough time to mail-order an Avon and get it installed before leaving. When I mentioned this to Chris Marlow, one of the guys I work with, he told me that Cycle Gear on the northwest side of town just happened to be having a sale on Dunlop tires. I wanted the Avon, but the price was right on the Dunlop -- and, after all, I had gotten over 10,000 miles out of my Dunlop; not bad at all -- and once I verified Cycle Gear had one in stock, it would be a simple matter of running across town and getting it mounted and balanced. My rear tire should be fine, as I only had about a thousand miles on the Bridgestone installed on my last run. It wasn't my first choice for touring (as a race tire, it wasn't gonna last more than 4,000 miles and interstate riding would square it off PDQ) or for the twisties (wider than my stock tire, it made the ass of the ZZR wallow about in the corners like a fat woman on a water park slide), but it would do. When I got home, I'd be ordering an Avon as a replacement for it.
"So," Chris says, "Colorado, eh? That's gonna be some gorgeous riding!" Next thing I know, Chris is coming, too, though he plans to split off and visit an old friend in Colorado Springs after the first day.
Woohoo! Time to get the hell outta Dodge!
The plan was to meet Wednesday night at about 9 p.m. at the Travelodge in Amarillo (Greg has a firm policy against camping, so my camping gear would get a rest for this trip), from whence we could launch our assault on Colorado. Greg ducked out of work -- the sneaky bugger! -- and actually arrived early, so that when I got there, the girl at the hotel counter told me Greg had already checked in. "Cool," I said, "what room's he in?" "Oh, I can't tell you that!" "No problem, I'll just ride around the motel and look for his bike. His red Viffer [Honda VFR 800 Interceptor] ain't gonna be hard to spot." She just scowled at me. I cruised around the motel and found his bike easy enough, but I wasn't sure which room was his, so I revved my engine a few times. Nothing. I honked the horn. Two black women in a nearby room opened their door and scowled at me. With an apologetic shrug, I honked again. A second later, another door opens and there stands Greg in his saggy briefs, rubbing at his eyes. He'd already gone to bed. What a hoser! He's lucky I didn't make him come out and help unload my bike in his underwear! Chris and I hadn't eaten yet, so we trotted across the street to an ice cream and sandwich shop. Turns out they shut down the grill at nine, but would still sell ice cream. I had a big sundae with fruit topping, nuts, whipped cream, and even a cherry on top, while Chris complained about wanting real food. He finally got something from the drive-in window at Popeye's (they closed down everything but the drive-through at 10). Then we went to bed. Chris and I had ridden 287 miles that day from OKC.
After a restless night -- dammit, I was ready for some mountains! -- we were up at dawn. We mounted up and blazed out I-40 toward Tucumcari, NM, Greg leading on the VFR, me on my ZZR, and Chris bringing up the rear on an older Yamaha FJ1200. We stopped for breakfast somewhere, but I don't remember where, bailing off the boring interslab and heading north through the grasslands of northeastern NM on Highway 39. It's possible to really blaze here, as there's nothing for miles and miles, and you can see forever. In the middle of the Kiowa National Grasslands, Chris decides to see how far his bike will go before running out of gas. He'd already noticed that he was getting crappy gas mileage. I kept checking my mirrors, thinking he must be running low, and expecting him to flash his lights at us to stop in the next town. Nope. He kept on rolling. At the junction of 39 and 58 (nothing but a stop sign there, even though my map shows a town), Greg asks, "How you doin' on gas?" Chris says, "My reserve light's been on since Roy." (Roy being a town about 30 miles back.) Sure enough, five minutes later, Chris runs out of gas, and there we all are sitting by the side of the road discussing what to do. Since none of us had a siphon hose, it looked as if either Greg or myself was gonna have to run to Springer, a town about ten miles away, and fetch some gas for Chris.
160 took us to South Fork, where we hung a left on 149, climbing higher into the mountains. The roads here were absolutely wonderful. Lots of twisty stuff with incredible views. Lots of corners with sheer dropoffs and no guard rails, the kinda curves that rate high on the pucker factor. I was a bit more relaxed taking some of these at high speed than I had been on my last ride, figuring that at least Greg and Chris would know where to find my body -- plus Greg was in the lead and he loves to haul ass. It's always easier to follow another bike into a high speed corner, so long as you don't get in over your head and ride beyond your capabilities. The ZZR might have the VFR on raw power, but that little Honda is an agile sumbitch; still, I did okay keeping up with Gregger. Car after car -- and the ever present and annoying road-hogging behemoths known collectively as RVs -- experienced the triple buzzsaw effect of having three sportbikes scream past, generally on the inside of a nice left-hander, as straight sections of road were becoming few and far between. Some drivers were nice enough to get out of our way. Then there was the corner we shot around and almost ass-ended a State Trooper that had just pulled into the road from an overlook. (We slowed down for just a few minutes after that.) And, most bizarre thing, was the deer that we came screaming around a blind corner and found standing in the middle of the road. Startled, the deer shot straight down a vertical cliff. None of us had an angle from which we could see if the deer survived the plunge (it was damn near straight down); all we saw was him go over the edge, followed by the clattering of rocks dislodged from the slope, then we were all rocketing around the next corner.
Eventually, we were allowed to pass through the construction zone. The road through was a mess of slippery mud, ruts, and broken blacktop which was fun on a sportbike. The mountains spit us out at Lake City and Lake San Cristobal, where the overlook was simply spectacular (see pics below).
From Lake City, we continued on into Gunnison over roads that just got better and better. 149 is an incredible ride, and I will be back. In Gunnison, we got a room, got some grub, and settled in for the night, doing our best to flirt with the gorgeous blonde at the Super 8's front desk, even if we were three old farts. (I think she was waiting for a Harley-Davidson type, but she was still nice enough to let us park under the covered awning in front of the lobby where our bikes would be out of the weather.) While riding to dinner, I noticed Chris was leaving a trail of gasoline. He parked the bike and started tearing it down, eventually deciding that a float bowl or something was stuck on one of his carbs, causing it to leak gas from an overflow line. (For a better technical explanation, you'll have to ask Chris.) He mentioned that a good jolt might jar it loose, but didn't take me up on my offer to kick over the bike for him. By this time, it was completely dark and there was little he could do in the parking lot, even though the blonde sweetie at the desk had offered to loan him her boss's tools (which prompted Greg and I to joke that Chris would probably be up all night working on the bike just to flirt with her some more). We wondered if this was the root cause of Chris's poor gas mileage (at least that's why he claimed he ran out of gas). Mysteriously enough, the problem was gone in the morning.
Retiring to our rooms, we turned on the Weather Channel, where it seemed we got weather for every part of the country but the one we were situated in. When they finally gave us the local weather, it didn't look good for tomorrow. Oh well, that's what rain gear is for, right? Finally, we hit the sack. We had done 645 absolutely awesome miles that day.
We woke up to rain. Packed our gear in rain. Sat and had a leisurely breakfast watching it pour. None of us was in any hurry with the wet stuff coming down like that. This was the day that Chris was to break off and head for Colorado Springs to visit a friend. Greg and I would continue to buzz around Colorado for a couple more days. With the rain falling -- cold rain -- none of us was in any hurry to leave the hotel. I swapped the Gericke for my Firstgear S-Pilot jacket, a heavy full-leather job with zip-in liner. Donned my fleece pullover under it, too. Dug out my balaclava. Changed to my winter gloves. Did I mention it was a cold morning? I was sitting at the breakfast table, thinking how much I hate wearing rain gear, when the clouds broke and the rain stopped. Greg ran up to the room and checked the weather channel. A minute later he came running downstairs pulling on his helmet. "Weather channel says it's all moving east, but there's more coming. Let's grab this opening and try to stay ahead of it." Chris was still eating a banana or something. Ya'll ride safe's were exchanged all around, we said some quick goodbyes, then Greg and I blazed out of Gunnison on wet roads, heading east on Highway 50.
We made it over Monarch Pass (11,312), where I bought presents for the wife and daughter at the great gift shop there, without getting wet, but heading north on 24 the bad weather was staring us straight in the face. We could see the black clouds and rain rattling about in the mountains dead ahead. We pulled to the side of the road to don rain gear and I snapped the photo below right just to show how crazy sport-tourers are. I mean, that looks like a time to turn around, yes? Nobody rides straight up into weather like that, do they?
Two minutes after donning my rain gear, Greg and I passed a group of motorcycles coming from the other direction. Riders and bikes were all wet. Waves were exchanged and no sooner had we passed them than we met the rain. The temp dropped the higher we climbed toward Independence Pass. We were no longer passing cars and taking corners at insane speeds. We rode like a couple of old grandmas, tiptoeing around corners marked 15 mph. A little white compact car actually came up behind me. I moved over and tried to wave him past, but he didn't want by. He backed off, not pushing us as the rain began to freeze and our tires fought for traction. At the top of Independence Pass (12,095), we stopped to appreciate the view. Our thermometers were reading 33 degrees and it was snowing. Standing there, the ZZR's engine ticking hotly in the gently falling snow, I'd never felt so alive. The air was clean and crisp -- envigorating. I knew that I'd never be there, at that particular moment again, feeling exactly that same way. Top of the world. One with the universe, our machines, our personal demons. Man against the elements. It's hard to explain. I know Greg felt at least some of it himself, because we'd both gotten quiet. A couple minutes later, we met a Honda ST1300 rider coming from the other direction. You could tell that he felt it, too. He was nice enough to take a picture of Greg and me beside our bikes (below right). The white stuff falling past the camera lens is, of course, snow.
Down the other side of Independence Pass, the snow turned back to rain, then stopped. Highway 82 spilled us into Aspen where we had planned to have lunch. Traffic was absolutely horrible! Bumper to bumper does not even begin to describe it. Suddenly, I was dodging cars left and right, all of which wanted to wreck my bike, snap my legs like kindling (been there, done that), munch me under their tires. After two days of owning the road, this was utter chaos and just short of terrifying. At a stoplight, Greg tipped up his visor and asked, "What do you think?" "Get me the hell out of here!" I screamed. "You don't want to stop for lunch?" "We'd never find a place where we could park the bikes within view," I explained, "and this fucking traffic is making me crazy. I WANT OUT!" "Couldn't agree more," he said. We got the hell out of there as fast as we could. The cagers could keep Aspen. I wanted no part of it.
I think we finally got something to eat in Carbondale where we turned back south on 133. We had blue skies for a bit, but the rain came in again. At a gas station in Hotchkiss, we waited out the worst downpour with about a dozen other bedraggled bikers. I used a pay phone to call the missus (first time this trip) and explain that I wasn't lying dead in a ditch somewhere. I told her how wonderful were the roads and scenery and such. Told her the bike was performing splendidly (she hears how much I love the ZZR so often that it's a wonder she hasn't taken a hammer to it while I sleep). Then the rain broke and Greg was mounting his bike. "Gotta go," I told her. "Greg's geared up and in a second he'll be leaving my ass behind."
From Montrose, we took 560 south to Ridgway (yes, the spelling is correct), where we had dinner at a wonderful Chinese restaurant and got a room at another Super 8 so Greg could visit the Ouray Hot Springs. (I never did figure out whether Ouray is pronounced OO-ray or OH-ray, since I heard it both ways during the trip. It was only later I learned it's actually pronounced YOU-ray.) I was bushed and decided to hit the sack while Greg went to soak and then grab a couple beers at a local bar. We had done just 375 miles that day -- really not bad considering the weather and terrain we had covered.
The ride up over Red Mountain Pass (11,908) and into Silverton was spectacular, but then the road dropped into the flatlands approaching Durango and became incredibly boring and traffic-clogged. Cars, RVs, and logging trucks were packed so close that it was difficult to pass. No one made room for you, so that when there was no oncoming traffic and you could actually pass, you had to really get on the gas and pass four or five vehicles at a time, eventually jumping on the brakes and ducking back into the conga line of traffic. Dangerous stuff. We did some hairy riding and passing for a while, then finally gave up and settled in for the long haul. It seemed to take forever to get to Durango that morning. Much as I enjoyed riding this road to the north of Silverton, I'm afraid I'd have to skip it in the future if it means slogging through the traffic north of Durango. This is the so-called "Million Dollar Mile" highway. That morning, it was the "Million Car Highway."
Coming into Durango, Greg pointed out a Kawasaki dealership -- duly noted and filed away on my mental list of places to go if I'm ever in trouble on the road. In Durango, it was time for Greg and I to part company. He was heading west and then back up around in a loop (through Telluride) to stay at Ridgway another night before continuing into Utah tomorrow. I had to head south for home so that I could be at work on Monday. It was sad to see him go and odd for the first few miles after that not having the tail end of the red Viffer in front of me. I know that it won't be long before I ride with him again, though. There are people in this world with whom you automatically "click." I think Gregger and I are like that.
After my nap, I felt well enough to drop down out of the mountains and into the desert. I shot across the Rio Grande Gorge yet again (for some reason the bridge there was literally packed with tourists) and into Taos. Rather than continue through Cimarron Canyon, I decided to take 518 south through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains -- a new route for me. This was another splendid ride, maybe even better than the ride through Cimarron Canyon, except the speed limit is set really low, 45-50 mph, and I saw cops three different times. The road zig-zagged through canyons carved by bubbling streams along which were located numerous campgrounds similar to the setup at Cimarron Canyon State Park. Next trip through, if I'm camping, I'll probably stop somewhere along 518.
Coming down out of the mountains on Highway 104 on the other side of Las Vegas, NM, storm clouds started threatening me. As drops splattered my visor, I debated stopping and breaking out the rain gear, but decided to stick it out. When it started coming down harder, I was in the middle of nowhere, looking for some shelter so I could at least not get rained on while I geared up. On the side of a cliff coming down Cerro de Corazon (6,720), I saw a beat up old pickup pull off at an overlook. I whipped in behind the truck and asked the old Indian behind the wheel how far it was to the next town. My map indicated that I should have just passed one, Tormentina, but I'll be damned if I saw more than a few run down old barns. The old man got out of his truck and proceeded to tell me there wasn't nothing out here for miles and miles, when I noticed that his truck was rolling toward the cliffs. I pointed this out to him and he hot-footed it after the runaway vehicle, moving pretty damn fast for a crooked-backed old Indian. After he applied his emergency brake and came back, we had a good laugh about how I'd have had to take him somewhere on the back of the ZZR if his truck had rolled off the side of the mountain. Anyway, he convinced me that there was nothing worth stopping for now until I-40. I debated donning my rain gear for a second, scanning the black clouds moving in from all around, and finally said, "Fuck it, I can outrun this." I thanked the old man, got on the bike, and literally flew down the mountain and into the flat Kiowa grasslands.
At I-40, in a place called Newkirk, which apparently consisted of nothing more than a gas station, I filled up the ZZR's tank and had a Snickers and bottled water for supper, watching as the storms played bumper-cars on the plains to the north. It was getting late. I would stop in Tucumcari and get a room. When I arrived in Tucumcari, though, I found the place crawling with bikers. There were thousands of them! What the hell? Riding down the main drag, with my bespattered "Rice Burner," I had all these monstrous, gleaming chrome contraptions pulling up beside me and revving their engines, rattling my brain with their loud, straight pipes. Cruisers were everywhere! The hotels were packed. I pulled into a hotel with reasonable rates posted on a sign out front. The parking lot of both the hotel and a nearby restaurant was packed with bikes, guys in leather vests and ridiculous frilled chaps, and women in tube-tops. I looked so totally out of place in my armored jacket, full face helmet, and gloves, with my filthy Japanese motorcycle complete with saddle bags. Still I walked into the lobby. "Have any rooms?" I asked, expecting a negative. "Just one or two left," replied the lady. "I don't suppose one of them is on the first floor?" (I wanted to be close to the bike where I could keep an eye on it.) "Sorry, just second floor rooms out front left." Crap. Several Harleys pulled up out front, their pipes rattling the glass windows of the lobby. "What the hell's going on here?" I asked. "Did I just ride over 2,000 miles to wind up in the middle of a biker rally?" She looked at me like I was daft. Outside, the Harley riders were scrutinizing (with what I perceived as disdain) the ZZR. "You want the room or not?" "No thanks, I think I'll try my luck down the road."
I got back on the bike and cut-n-run back to I-40. On the way a fat woman on a Sportster pulled up beside me and raced her engine, surging back and forth as if she wanted to race. "Are you nuts?" I wanted to yell at her. Forget the fact that we'd just passed Tucumcari's finest sitting beside the road with his radar gun. Forget the fact that the ZZR puts about 147 horsepower on the ground to her ... what? ... 80 if she's lucky? I was tired. Had no intention of racing anyone (I certainly didn't need to prove that there probably wasn't a cruiser in the whole town that could take the ZZR) or even breaking the speed limit with cops all over the place. And her actions just confirmed what I was feeling. I needed to get the hell out of Tucumcari, NM.
I hit the I-40 on ramp and spun up my rear tire, shooting out onto the interstate at a speed well in excess of the posted limit. With Tucumcari and the biker rally fading behind me, it was only then that I realized there probably wasn't another hotel until Amarillo. I hadn't even eaten anything but that Snickers bar since breakfast in Ouray. Feeling miserable, I settled in for the long haul.
Ten miles short of Amarillo, I found a run down little hotel with rooms for $30. It was ten o'clock and I'd done 619 miles for the day. "Where can I get something to eat?" I asked the Middle-easterner behind the desk. "Oh, no, very sorry, you'll not be finding anyplace open at this hour. No sir." "Nothing? I haven't eaten since breakfast." "So sorry. You'll be going to bed hungry unless you want to drive to Amarillo." I remembered how Chris and I had had trouble finding something to eat in Amarillo at the start of this trip. I'd had a sundae, while he got the very last of the cold chicken at Popeye's. I didn't feel like getting back on the bike and riding into Amarillo anyway. The desk clerk felt sorry for me and gave me some M&Ms. I ate them with a Coca-cola, then hit the sack, sleeping the sleep of the dead.
Morning came and the storms had caught up with me. I rode the four hours from Amarillo to OKC in blinding rain, doing a steady 90 mph so that the truckers wouldn't grind me into pavement mush. 306 miles later, I pulled into my driveway. There was no one home, since the wife and daughter were still away. Even my neighbors weren't out and about (after all, it was pouring down rain) to witness the weary traveler's triumphant return. The dogs were happy to see me, though.
I tried to call my wife and let her know that I was home, but couldn't reach her on her cell phone (she was out on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico or something), so I called my parents. When Dad answered, I said, "Hey, it's me. Just thought I should let someone know that I'm home safe and sound. Let Betty know if you see her. Gotta run. Just got home and need to find something to eat. Bye!" "Uh, okay," he said, "talk to you later." It was 8 o'clock that evening before an email from my mom reminded me that it was Father's Day. With no one at home to wish me a Happy Father's Day, it had completely escaped my mind. The days tend to all run together when you're on a motorcycle tour. I have enough trouble remembering the day of the week, let alone the date. I had to call my dad back and apologize.
Addendum: I received the following email from Greg when he made it back home from his trip. Thought everyone here would appreciate reading about his further adventures after we parted ways in Durango. It's long, but worth the time to read. Parts of it are hilarious. If you read nothing else, read that last paragraph; that about sums up the whole riding experience better'n I ever could. Thanks Greg. And, just before I leave you to Greg's words, I'll add that Chris's ride home was adventurous, too. He didn't get caught in a biker rally in Tucumcari. He got caught in a Jehovah's Witness convention in Amarillo. Not a room to be had in the whole town. LOL.
Copyright © 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-31 20:02, www.bahwolf.com