Southwest Motorcycle Tour, May 2004
by Brian A. Hopkins

Nearly 3,000 miles solo on a 2003 Kawasaki ZZR1200 motorcycle.  We'll meet some interesting folks; stare in wonder at the majesty of the Grand Canyon; ride the Devil's Backbone; shred a tire and spend most of a day tiptoeing around New Mexico looking for a replacement; snuggle with Las Vegas showgirls and lose money at Craps; run at insane (and illegal) speeds across the desert, dripping sweat; then freeze in the early mornings at higher elevations ... in short, we'll have a grand old time.  You just have to hang on tight.  (Click any thumbnail to view a larger image.  All photos are copyright (c) 2004 by Brian A. Hopkins and, unless they came courtesy of an obliging tourist, were taken by the same.)

 
When a business trip to Las Vegas presented itself, I decided to forego the luxury (and associated security hassles) of an airplane and "fly" to Vegas on two wheels instead.  I'd been wanting to ride northern New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah for some time now, and this seemed like the perfect opportunity.  I had just changed the ZZR's oil.  Her rear tire was brand new a month or two ago, but that was before I spent a weekend terrorizing the mountains in southeastern Oklahoma and Arkansas with some crazy sportbiker friends (you know who you are, but I'll refrain from using names here in order to protect everyone from legal actions) -- still, I was estimating a wee bit under 3,000 miles for this trip and thought I could just squeeze by with the tire I had.  My front tire was original to the bike, but I'd heard of other ZZR owners getting 10,000 or more out of their fronts. It's just the rear tires that the ZZR eats like candy.  I'd replace both tires when I got home (or so I planned).  (For those who don't know anything about motorcycles, what you have to understand here is that sportbike tires are made of a much softer compound than automobile tires and therefore wear out much quicker.  Softer rubber is necessary because the tire must "stick" to the road as the bike leans in a turn.  Bikes with big, high torque engines -- like the ZZR, which reportedly makes 147 horsepower at the rear wheel -- tend to be pretty hard on tires.)  I didn't have to be in Vegas until Monday evening (for a two day meeting starting on Tuesday), which gave me plenty of time to get there, doing lots of sight-seeing on the way.  And because the following Monday was a holiday, I'd have lots of time to get home afterward.

I left Oklahoma City Saturday morning about 7:30 a.m., planning to run up through the Oklahoma panhandle rather than endure the brain-numbing I-40 ride.  Interstates are quick, but there is nothing more boring than sitting on a bike for hours on end, watching 18-wheelers grow small in your rearview mirrors and scanning the horizon for highway patrol cars.  Traveling the backroads of the panhandle, I knew I could haul ass through the long, deserted stretches between small towns -- long as I remembered to slow down going through the towns themselves, since each one would have a local cop out to earn his daily bread.  In 24 years of motorcycling, I have never gotten a speeding ticket on a bike.  Well, what better way to start the trip than by breaking that record, eh?  In a little podunk town called Hardesty -- a place so small it didn't even warrant a traffic light -- an unmarked car nabbed me.  He claimed I was doing 45 in a 35.  I don't know.  Maybe I was.  I did slow down for the stupid little town, though.  In fact, I'm almost certain I stayed under their posted speed limit.  But there was no arguing with the friendly officer.  He had to make his quota.  And how do I know the stop was really all about making that holy dollar, that it had nothing at all to do with protecting the safety of citizens traveling our fine roadways?  Here's how I know.  On the other side of the town, I got back on the throttle.  The speed limit through this part of the panhandle is 60 or 65.  Soon as I cleared the town, though, I was back up to at least 90.  After a bit, I noticed a white car in my mirrors -- a car that wasn't getting any smaller (like others had been doing all day).  In fact, it appeared the car was trying to catch up with me.  I watched it for a while.  Yup, it was slowly getting closer.  I started to wonder if it was a cop and finally decided to slow down.  Yes, I could outrun the car, but I'm not stupid enough to think I can outrun a radio.  Guymon, a fairly large town, was just down the road.  The cop finally caught up with me about 10 miles outside of town.  Now, he could have written me a ticket for doing 90+.  Hell, that's probably worth a trip to the pokey.  But he chose to write me up for 45 in a 35 back in Hardesty.  Why?  Because outside the limits of his podunk little town, the money would have gone to the state.  Anyway, as a start to my trip, it sucked.  Hardesty, Oklahoma, you suck too.  I'll never ride through your town again.  Count on it.  Anyway, first picture I took (see below) is the cop sitting in his nice air-conditioned, unmarked cruiser (he didn't invite me to sit inside out of the heat), writing my ticket.  Bad ZZR, very bad ZZR! (A side note here to those who might be tempted to email me with a "Hey, BAH, you were breaking the law and you got caught, so quit your whining, pay your fine, and move on."  I ain't whining.  I will pay my ticket.  And I've definitely moved on -- forgot about it for the rest of the ride, in fact.  But if you think, philosophically, that speeding tickets are all about keeping our roadways safe, then you should do some research on how traffic accidents actually decreased in Montana when they did away with speed limits.  Speeding tickets are all about generating revenue.  Nothing more.)

A primary reason for wanting to ride up through the panhandle was that I'd never been there before (despite having written a novel, The Licking Valley Coon Hunters Club, which takes place there) and I wanted to see Black Mesa, Oklahoma's highest point.  Black Mesa was ultimately less than impressive (though I admit that I skipped the State Park).  The parking area near the trailhead up onto the mesa is the most treacherous bit of gravel I have ever encountered -- very deep and slippery black shale.  It was all I could do to keep the ZZR upright in it, as her front wheel wanted to plow in up to the brake calipers.  I stopped only for a second, not even daring to put down the kickstand (even though I carry a puck for such situations).  "Ayup," said I, "looks like a mesa."  Then, vroom, we were out of there.  Second picture below is your basic panhandle mesa photo; might be Black Mesa itself, but I don't think so.  Last picture is a nice little general store near Black Mesa.  It's about all that's there.  I stopped for a soda.  They still sell Coca Cola in the bottles.  Seemed like nice folks.

I camped that first night in Cimarron Canyon, New Mexico.  The ride to the State Park on Route 64 was simply gorgeous, a magnificently twisty road through a sweet-smelling forest, looping back and forth over the little river that carved the canyon however many thousands of years ago.  My only complaint would be the tar snakes which had lain bubbling in the hot sun all day and were slippery as snot.  Naturally, they seemed to congregate in the corners.  Picking a good line between them was often difficult, and because I'd already done over 500 miles for the day, it was understandably disconcerting to have the rear of the bike slipping and sliding through the turns.  Every time I realized I was riding just a bit out on the edge, I reminded myself that I was a long way from home for an accident -- that mantra would continue throughout the trip, but it started here on 64 going through Cimarron Canyon.  All that aside, the camp was wonderful.  While pitching my tent, I was investigated by hummingbirds and chipmunks.  There were fish in the nearby stream (trout, I suppose; I'm only good at recognizing saltwater fish and ones that appear on my dinner plate).  There were no showers, but the bathrooms were nice and modern.  I was a bit perplexed by the sign inside the bathroom, though.  The sign asked campers not to throw food in the trash cans inside the bathrooms because bears can get in the bathroom, but can't get out (the door swings in).  I could just imagine stumbling into the bathroom at 6 a.m. to take a whiz and finding a very irritated bear inside.  Not a pretty picture.  What I wanted to ask a park ranger, though, was why they didn't simply change the doors to swing outward.

I slept good that night, lullaby'ed by the bubbling from the stream and the wind whispering through the tall trees.  Before going to bed, though, I zipped on over the mountains to the town of Eagle's Nest for dinner.  Coming over a ridge and into the town, I was met with a breathtaking view of the lake there.  The photos I took simply do not do the place justice.  You come over the hill and, if you're as unsuspecting as I was, you're suddenly confronted with this incredible sapphire gem situated between the mountains.  Whamo!  It literally took my breath away.  After eating at a little sandwich shop in Eagle's Nest, I paused by the side of the road going back up over the mountain to Cimarron Canyon and took a couple photos -- but like I said, they simply do not do the place justice.  Anyway, Day One complete.  588 miles total.  The ZZR performed flawlessly, even loaded down with all my gear.  I did okay, too, suffering none of the usual "monkey butt" symptoms of distance riding, even on the ZZR's stock seat (most of the guys at zzr1200.net have replaced their stock seats with Corbins.)  My right wrist was a bit sore from working the throttle and my eyes were bloodshot from panhandle dust, but otherwise I was good to go again.  As the setting sun took the warm day with it, however, my toasty sleeping bag was mighty appealing.

Morning found me freezing my ass off.  My Formotion (www.formotionproducts.com) thermometer on the ZZR was reading 40 degrees, but I swear it was colder.  As a compromise to wearing full leather gear -- which would have roasted me alive in the desert -- I'd decided to wear my Gericke Aero-X jacket, which is half perforated leather, half synthetic mesh; i.e., the wind cuts right through it.  I had a sweatshirt to wear under it, my perforated leather pants, my winter gloves, and balaclava, but that was about it for cold weather gear.  I packed as the sun came up, as all my neighbors (most in cozy RVs) slept in.  I was mounted and gone by 7:30, thinking I was getting a late start, but forgetting that I had gained an hour somewhere en route, having crossed over to Mountain Time.  What followed was an extremely cold ride into Taos.  The scenery was absolutely beautiful, but I was too busy shivering to stop and take pictures.  At least the tar snakes were all cold and hard -- not that I was actually riding fast enough to worry about them.  I found myself thinking about how nice it would be to have heated grips and seat ... maybe one of those heated vests everyone raves about.  I was wishing I'd brought my heavy leather jacket, even if I didn't have room to pack two jackets and it would have meant baking in the desert.

When I hit Taos, I whipped into a McDonald's for something hot, but they irritated me when there proved to be no route around the building (I was shooting for the parking lot on the other side of the building where I could watch the bike), meaning I got stuck sitting between two cars in their very narrow drive-through lane.  I guess I could have just pulled up to the window and ordered my coffee, but then I'd have probably spilled it in my lap trying to pull away.  (It's not like I'm riding a Goldwing with a friggin' cup holder on the bars.)  So I zoomed away as soon as I could get around the drive-throughers, letting them know my displeasure by leaving a black streak on their asphalt with my cold tire (if I'd only known how valuable that little bit of rubber would be later!).  Then I spotted a Walmart with payphones out front and realized I needed to call home, since I hadn't had cell phone service since leaving home.  (Add Nextel to the "You suck!" list along with Hardesty, Oklahoma.  You'd think they'd at least offer service in a town as big as Taos.)  After calling, I realized I was lost, having missed a turn.  Some friendly locals waiting for Walmart to open set me straight.  "You want to drive over the gorge," they said.  What gorge?  Well, I soon found out, as shown in the photos below.  Not the Grand Canyon, mind you (give me another day), but a big stinkin' hole in the ground nonetheless: the Rio Grande Gorge.  You'll find it just west of Taos.  Can't miss it.  Trust me.  Buy some jewelry from the Navajo lady there at the bridge.  (I did.)  She has some really nice stuff and the prices were so reasonable that I didn't even haggle with her.

After Taos and the unexpected gorge, 64 dropped down into the desert; the San Juan Mountains were gone and so was the cold.  Crossing the desert, I grew fond of the Gericke jacket once again and complimented myself on the wise decision to wear it.  Sixty-four took me past some interesting homes, several of which beckoned me to the roadside for photos.  It seemed as if the ZZR and I were the only travelers out and about that day.  For miles and miles, I saw nothing but my shadow, conversing with people only during stops for gasoline (on the subject of which, I'll let the photo below say it all, adding only that that was not the most I paid for gas on this trip).  Nearly every time I stopped, people would come up to me and ask where I was from and where I was going and what kind of motorcycle that was.  The ZZR drew a lot of compliments (many more than I did), even though she was already plastered with bugs.

The desert often seemed endless.  For most of the trip, it would seem I was always racing across one section of desert or another to reach something more interesting.  The desert had its interesting things, too, though, like the time I was zooming along at over 100 mph and topped a rise to find three cows standing in the middle of the road.  I got on the brakes really hard, actually felt the rear tire coming up off the ground for the first time (the ZZR's a bit heavy for pulling stoppies).  The cows watched it all rather complacently, chewing their cuds, dopey eyes squinting in the sun.  Only after I had stopped did they kinda shrug and move on across the road.  Well, two of them did.  The other one just stood there and stared at me as I carefully went past him, kinda like he wanted to check out the bike.  Shiprock grew in the distance, an unmistakable landmark, even for someone like me who has never seen it before.  I kept meaning to take a photo, but it never seemed to get any closer.  This phenomenon was repeated on my return trip, as I approached and passed the rock formation from a totally different road and viewpoint (north to south).  I guess you have to get off the main roads and hit the boonies to really see Shiprock.  I passed right through the town that's named after it, but never even got close to the rock itself.  The town of Shiprock was enveloped in a miserable dust storm that morning, spawned by the same southerly winds that had me constantly riding on the left side of my tires.  At one point, I actually slowed and let a huge dust devil cross the road in front of me.  I had no idea if a Tasmanian Devil could snatch me off the ZZR, and I did not intend to find out.

Not too long after crossing into Arizona, I was flying along and noticed I had company.  A herd of Mustangs was running along beside me.  I hit the brakes and shot several photos of them from the roadside.  The shot shown below represents only about a third of the herd.  What a totally cool sight.  I was, however, glad not to encounter them standing in the middle of the road.  There were actually signs warning you to watch for horses in the road.  Cows, too.  But not goats, though a big herd of them did cross the road in front of me at one point.  They paid no attention to the ZZR.  Goats don't notice anything they can't eat or screw, ya know.

I rolled into Page, Arizona without any definite plans on camping.  Since there were a ton of moderately priced hotels, I decided to treat myself to one.  There was already a Wing and a pretty blue Connie in the parking lot, so I figured the Travelodge for motorcycle-friendly accommodations.  After cleaning up and eating, I took the bike out for some sightseeing.  What a pleasure to ride her again without all the gear strapped on!  I crossed the dam, but was disappointed to learn that you had to pay a park fee to get down to the Lake Powell marina (had I realized it at the time, Glen Canyon and Lake Powell are part of the National Parks Service, so I could have bought an annual pass there that day, since I planned to buy one the next day anyway at the Grand Canyon -- guess I wasn't thinking).  I did, however, find an excellent overlook of the lake and Glen Canyon.  The road to get up there, though, was a bitch.  If I could have turned around, I would have -- the ZZR, you see, she ain't no damn dirt bike.  This road was not only steep, but washboarded, intentionally, I would guess, maybe to prevent cars slipping down it in the winter or to prevent the gravel from washing away?  The washboard ruts were cut deep and tightly spaced, probably six inches deep and spaced about the same.  I stood on the pegs while the ZZR rattled and bounced about and complained.  It felt like the entire bike was going to be shaken apart.  Once committed, I had no choice but to continue.  There was no way I could have cut my wheel and turned on the steep, narrow road.  My front tire would have dropped down into a rut as soon as I tried to turn, I would have been tossed over the handlebars, and my girl would have been slammed down on the gravel, generating a thousand dollars or more in cosmetic damage alone.  A snapped clutch or brake lever would have been more than cosmetic, of course.  So I persevered to the top, where the view was certainly worth the ride ... once.  I wouldn't ride up that road again.  Down was equally fun.  First gear, clutch out, stay off the damn brakes and let the engine ease me to the bottom.  In the broiling desert air, the bike's fans came on as she got hot lugging it down.  The bike's heat swelled up around me and I wondered why I couldn't have taken this road at 7 a.m. instead.  I was glad to hit the blacktop again.  An obliging tourist took my picture at the top with Lake Powell in the background.  I took a shot of the bug-splattered and now dusty ZZR.  And here's one of the Glen Canyon dam.  Finally, I returned to my hotel and crashed.  I had done 485 miles that day.

Morning came, and I was afraid to check the thermometer.  I loaded up the bike, donned my cold weather gear (such as it was), then grabbed a bowl of cereal, juice, and a banana from the hotel's continental breakfast.  I was on the road again about 7:30, still not realizing it was actually earlier.  I sailed across the dam again, where 64 plunged me down into the desert.  It warmed up enough that I was no longer shivering, but not enough that I wanted to stop and strip off some clothing.  Marble Canyon opened for me, then I was rocketing across the Navajo Bridge on Alt-89.  The Vermilion Cliffs were mesmerizing in the rising sun.  My shadow ran ahead of me on the ground, happy as a clam 'cause he had a ZZR, too.  At Jacob Lake, I hooked a hard left and shot south for the North Rim of the Grand Canyon.  What followed was a very cold, but incredibly satisfying ride on what has to be the most perfect road I have ever seen.  It appeared as if they had just that morning poured the road through the Kaibab forest ... just for me.  There was no one else on the road.  The trees were tall and smelled divine.  The road was so perfectly smooth, so clean and unmarked by cracks, or tar snakes, or debris ... Oh great god Kawasaki, I don't think I'll ever have such a perfect ride again.  I saw deer four different times approaching the Rim, but the forest was cleared back far enough that I had plenty of warning as I navigated the constant left-right, brake-lean-accelerate as one sweet corner melted into another one again and again and again.  (I think I know where some more of my rear tire went.)  If it had only been a bit warmer.  But I ain't complaining.  That was an incredible ride.  Eventually, I came upon the Ranger's little toll booth sitting in the middle of the road.  "Morning!" I literally shouted as a I tipped up my visor.  The Ranger was a very lovely young woman who I'm sure would have hopped on the back of the bike had it not been loaded down, such was probably the enticement of exhilaration gleaming in my eyes.  "It is a great morning, isn't it?" she replied.  "I just wish it was a bit warmer," I said.  "I know," she said, "I have a fire going in here."  Sure enough, I could feel warmth radiating out of her little booth.  If there'd been room, I'd have parked the bike and joined her ... nah, probably not.  The Grand Canyon beckoned.  I paid my $50 for an annual pass that would work at Zion, Bryce, and the other places I planned to visit, then gave the pretty Ranger a wink and zoomed on down the road.

What to write about the Grand Canyon?  It's freakin' huge.  In fact, this whole part of the country is just simply mind-boggling in size.  Running across the desert from place to place, it seemed to me that there was enough room here to lose several European countries.  Hell, couldn't you drop all of Britain and even those whiney French in the Grand Canyon alone and never see them again? I thought the North Rim was great, because it wasn't all developed like the south side.  There were no hotels, just a lodge operated by the Park Service (see photo below).  I took a bunch of photos, even had several tourists offer to take pictures of my own bedraggled mug (returning the favor on several occasions) as I hiked about the rim.  Eventually, however, it was time to hit the road again (I was looking forward to riding back out through the Kaibab Forest!), since I needed to get to Vegas.  On the way out, I passed a Park Ranger driving in.  I was going much faster than the posted 45 mph limit.  He hit his lights, and I thought for sure he was going to turn around and come after me, but I guess it was just a friendly warning.  I slowed down for a minute or two, but that road was just too much fun.  The ZZR was misbehaving again in no time.

I cut north into Utah and then caught I-15 just the other side of Hurricane (which the locals told me is called HurriCAN, not HurriCANE -- uh, okay, folks, whatever you say), turning south for Las Vegas.  This was the first interstate I'd used so far.  It could have been a boring ride, but there's a section of I-15 there that twists and turns down through some incredible canyons.  (Black Rock Mountains?  Virgin Mountains?  I'm not sure what this area is called.)  I'd have probably took this section at the speed limit or just a bit more (leery of a speeding ticket), but there was some local guy in a red pickemup truck that was doing over 100 mph.  I let him play rabbit, following through curves marked at 55 and 60 with nary a touch of the brakes.  He drove like a bat out of hell -- much faster than I would have trusted my Nissan 4x4 Frontier on that road, that's for sure.  Anyway, more fun was had at the expense of my rear tire (don't worry, this is all going to catch up with me soon).  I hereby dub that section of I-15 as my favorite stretch of Interstate anywhere.  Using the red truck as my rabbit, I was soon in Vegas.

As I rolled into the city, I realized I had never checked for directions to the hotel where I was staying.  How hard could it be?  I took the exit that said downtown -- a slight mistake, as downtown ain't where all the casinos are located, but somehow drove right to the hotel.  Had someone told me that the Stratosphere was where the big towering needle was located, well, I wouldn't have had any trouble at all since you could damn near see that sucker from 40 miles out.  They claim it's the tallest needle tower thingy in the U.S. ... in the world ... something like that.  Anyway, I just happened to see the name of the Hotel/Casino on the side of the building as I was cruising through town trying not to admit that I was lost.  Target acquired.  First leg of the mission accomplished!  I whipped the ZZR into the 7-story parking garage (special motorcycle parking located just inside on the ground floor, away from all the cagers!), with 418 miles logged for the day, and unloaded my gear for the nice bellman to lug upstairs (I was on the 22nd floor).  The Givis were perfect for this, as all I had to do was snap them off the bike.  I can't imagine more convenient motorcycle luggage.

Vegas was interesting for a variety of reasons, but ultimately there were just too damn many people for me.  The bike stayed parked the whole time, while I walked up and down the Strip, visiting all the major casinos at least once, actually putting a very large blister on the bottom of my foot from the broiling pavement.  I learned to play Craps, but quit when I was down $50 (while other people seemed unperturbed by losing thousands of dollars at the same table).  A gambler I most definitely am not, as I spend most of my time thinking about what material item I could buy with the money.  I dropped a few bills in slot machines, but the engineering side of my brain kept reminding me that slot machines actually yield the worst odds of anything in Vegas.  (The machines are programmed to keep your money anywhere from 85% to 99% of the time.  They say you should always use the machines by the front entrance, since those are the ones that pay the best.  I didn't notice any difference, as each machine merrily gobbled my change and gave me back absolutely nothing.  To be fair, however, a woman from Georgia who was there for the same meetings hit two different $1,000 jackpots at the slots.)  Mostly I watched people, quickly coming to the conclusion that Vegas is the greatest place in the world for watching women.  I used to think shopping malls and airports were good for this.  Summertime amusement parks, too.  But Vegas whups 'em all.  I never saw so many gorgeous women in all my life.  And the showgirls!  Aicheebubba!  There are a couple pictured below with yours truly grinning like an idiot.  Saw some other things: Elvis singing in front of one of the casinos (he ain't dead, I tell you!); a giant Harley-Davidson bursting from a storefront (see pic below); a couple fountain shows (interesting how many people find spraying water fascinating); the view from the top of the Stratosphere tower (see pic); and so on.

I do like the sounds of Vegas.  Nothing like that casino ka-ching ding ding music everywhere you went.  I wonder if it is ever quiet there?  After my two days of meetings, though, I was ready to hit the road again.  I'd been out to visit the ZZR in the parking garage several times to make sure she was doing okay, but I really felt like I had abandoned her.  And we both wanted the open road -- craved it more than the Coronas I'd been drinking up and down the strip, in fact.

Friday morning, I hit the road early again, drawing curious stares from the bleary-eyed all-nighters in the casino (you couldn't go anywhere in the Stratosphere without crossing the casino floor) as I lugged my rather unusual luggage out to the parking garage.  (I was too cheap to call for the bellman to come get it.)  Getting back on I-15 turned out to be something of a chore, probably by design as Vegas doesn't want you to leave with anything left in your pockets, but eventually I found an on-ramp heading north.  Soon I was flying back up I-15 (sans a suitable rabbit this time, dammit!) to Highway 9 and through Hurricane, Utah.  Here I veered off my previous path, bound for Zion National Park.  At the park entrance, I whipped out my National Parks Pass (purchased at the North Rim).  The girl peered at the signature on the back and said something like, "I guess this is really you," then scanned my card, and away I went.  The pass is a good deal.  $50 covers your admittance to the National Parks for a full year.  Most individual parks run $20 per vehicle, so it doesn't take long for the pass to pay off.  (Many thanks to all the other sport-touring guys and gals who'd told me about it via their ride reports.)

Zion was gorgeous.  I parked the bike, using a metal cable to lock my helmet and jacket to the bars, and took the bus ride from one end to the other.  During peak tourist season, this is the only way to see all of the canyons, as they close a significant part of the canyons to private vehicles.  The bus ride was about 90 relaxing minutes long.  There are plenty of stops where you can get off and then catch the next bus that rolls along (one comes every six minutes, they say), but you can see a lot right from your bus seat.

One of the coolest things spotted in Zion was this group of climbers. They're in the photo above right, but your eyes probably aren't good enough to pick them out (even after you blow up the thumbnail).  Here's an enlargement (at right).  I've got to try this someday!

The road out of Zion was breathtaking and challenging.  Often, you could look down on the twisty bits that you'd just ridden through (see photo, below left).  There were a couple fairly long tunnels (the cagers in front of me rolled down their windows and shouted "Woohoo!" at the top of their lungs while going through the tunnels -- understanding their exhilaration, I tipped up my visor and did the same).  There were also a couple cool places where the civil engineers had drilled right through an outcropping of rock rather than swing the road around it (see middle photo below).  Then, of course, it was back into the desert for another hot ride.  I don't know what it is with Arizona and Utah people that they don't fence their damn livestock, but here were cows lolly-gagging about the road again.  I got stopped behind an RV while about 60 of the milkers crossed.  "Moo!" I said to them, whereupon they all looked at me as if I would feed them.  I took out the camera and snapped their picture, while the people in the car behind me were probably wondering, "What the hell's he taking pictures for?  Don't they have cows in Oklahoma?"

Highway 9 connected me back to 89, which I followed north to 12, which took me to Bryce Canyons National Park.  I zoomed around there for a bit, less inclined as the miles rolled by to grab my camera.  "Oh, that's pretty," I'd say as I went zooming by.  I was forced to stop several times while riding the Devil's Backbone, though, as the view was just too amazing.  Basically, you're on top of the world, riding a narrow strip of pavement.  Screw up in a curve here and you've got maybe three feet of shoulder between you and that sudden stop at the bottom, hundreds of feet down (see photo at right).

It's truly hard to even imagine this stretch of road unless you've ridden here.  Check out the photo at right.  Two lanes.  A couple feet of shoulder.  And a sheer plunge down either side.  My mantra was never far from my lips: "Easy.  You're a long way from home to crash the bike..."

From 12, I took 24 over to Capital Reef (whipping out my park pass yet again).  The roads here were being repaved and a mile long line of cagers was waiting to be directed around the construction.  It was getting late.  I was getting tired.  And there's nothing worse than sitting in the heat smelling fresh asphalt and exhaust fumes.  I hit the very first overlook at Capital Reef, got off the bike, looked around, stretched and peed, then I hit the road again.  By Hanksville, I was thinking I should stop, knowing that there'd be nothing but sand and rocks down Highway 95.  There was a little strip motel here that didn't look to be doing much business (only about three of the twenty or so rooms had cars parked in front of them), but it looked decent enough.  I whipped in and went up to the counter, asking how much for a room.  "Fifty dollars," says the guy behind the counter.  "Fifty?  You're kidding.  I'll go as high as thirty."  "Can't do it," he says.  "Look," I tried to reason with him, "you're practically empty.  You can sit here with empty rooms and make nothing, or you can make an easy thirty bucks off me."  But he wouldn't budge.

I drove back down the road a ways to an RV camp I had passed.  There were some nice, well-maintained grass plots for tent camping.  They had showers and clean bathrooms and a little diner.  "How much to pitch a tent?" I asked the lady.  "Just you?" she asked.  "Me and the bike."  "Twelve dollars."  I told her she had a deal, paid my money, then proceeded to set up camp.  After a nice hot shower, I had fish and chips (just $8, which included a salad and hot bread!) in the diner, then settled in for the night.  A young couple and their two kids pulled in and set up camp not far away (the only other folks not traveling in an RV).  I sat and listened to music on my mp3 player and watched them, trying to pretend it was a new reality TV show: The Osmonds Go Camping.  As the stars were just starting to come out, I crawled into my sleeping bag.  I'd done 428 miles that day.  I nodded off with all those incredible vistas playing over and over in my head.

Next morning, I got another early start, slipping out of the RV park as the sun was coming up.  The only other person stirring was an old guy I took for the owner, as he thanked me for staying.  I zipped past the $50 a night motel again on my way to the turn for Highway 95 South, pleased to see that there still weren't more than ten cars in his parking lot.  That left him with about 15 rooms that had sat empty.  He could have made $30 off one of them.  Zooming through the desolation of Highway 95, though, I realized I could have gotten away with camping for free.  There were a lot of pullouts leading off into the desert, and I saw a lot of RVs, pickup trucks, and a tent or two.  Probably not legal, but who was gonna say anything?  And once the sun went down, you'd pretty much be invisible out there unless you started a fire.  Still, I wouldn't have had the hot shower or the fish and chips out in the desert.

I didn't take many pictures this day, even though the road and the sights were as amazing as all the others.  I'd reached overload.  Another magnificent view would present itself and I'd give a jaded little nod and say, "Yup, that's beautiful," without having to hit the brakes and take a photo.  (Next time, I'll do those roads in reverse, so we get different pics, okay?)  I was also starting to worry about my rear tire.  I'd hoped to limp home on a bald rear tire, but here I was 1,000 miles out and my tire was already bald.  My original plans were to take 191 north after Edge of the Cedars State Park, then grab 666 (though I guess it's no longer called that; damn our current fascination with political correctioness!) over to Cortez and Mesa Verde National Park.  I'd then cruise the mountains in Colorado, before eventually cutting south through the Oklahoma panhandle again.  Coming down 95, checking my rear tire, it did not look like it was going to make it over the mountains.  And I didn't expect I'd be near many bike shops.  I started thinking that my best bet might be to cut down to I-40 and use it to zip on home.  It was no shorter of a route, but at least on I-40 I could be assured of finding assistance if I needed it, and I figured I could find a bike shop if necessary.  And who knows -- crossing my fingers! -- maybe with some easy interstate riding, the tire might actually make it home.

So at 191 I turned south instead of north, heading back toward the Four Corners area (and the ever-illusive Ship Rock) and, eventually, I-40 at Gallup, New Mexico.  At a gas stop just south of Ship Rock, however, when I stooped to check my rear tire, I got a nasty surprise.  There were cords showing through.  Down the center of my tire, the rubber was parting to reveal the steel belts.  "Okay," says I, "I guess we have to take this serious."  I asked a guy who was pumping gas if he knew of a bike shop in Gallup.  "Desert Cycle," he replied without hesitation.  "It's on the right side as you're coming into town, just before you hit the interstate."  Perfect.  There was a cop I'd been following for the last 40 miles or so (he was doing 70-80 in a 55, and I was just cruising along a quarter mile behind him at the same speed).  He had gone into the store to chat with the owners.  I walked in and told him my rear tire was about to go and that I'd been following him for quite a while.  He smiled and said, "Yeah, I saw you back there."  I asked if he was going into Gallup and if he would kinda keep an eye on me, just in case I had trouble.  "Worse case," I told him, "you can double back and scrape me off the road."  He said he was going to Gallup to set up a roadside check for seatbelt usage.  "I'll follow you for a change, though," he said, "just keep going at about the same speed we've been running."  So the friendly officer followed me into Gallup.  Motorists coming from the other direction probably thought I didn't know he was back there and I was about to get a speeding ticket.

In Gallup, he turned off with a honk and a wave.  Thank you, officer!  I found Desert Cycles easy enough, but my first indication that they probably wouldn't be able to help me came in the form of a very steep gravel driveway and a gravel parking lot.  After carefully parking the bike using the puck that I carry for the side stand, I walked into their showroom and found nothing but dirt bikes and ATVs.  Needless to say, they didn't have a tire to fit my bike.  "There's a bike shop on the other side of town that carries those kinda bikes," a friendly customer told me.  He gave me directions to Cycle City, which turned out to be a Kawasaki dealer.  He didn't have a tire to fit either.  By this time, I was getting worried.  It was Memorial Day weekend, and there was no way to even get a tire over-nighted.  If he'd had a ZX-10R sitting on the floor, I might have traded the ZZR in on one (Don't let her know I said that, though!), but other than some cruisers, the only other bike he had was a Z1000 (in that pretty orange that I like).  He started calling around, though, while I paced the floor and weighed my options.  I was wondering what it would cost to rent a U-haul and take the ZZR home that way.  Before I got that far, though, he located a tire at -- of all places -- a chopper shop in Grants, NM: Bernie's Route 66 Motorycles.  "It's 60 miles to Grants," he said, "and I'm not sure if your tire's gonna make it, but that'd be your best bet.  After that, it's on to Albuquerque, and I know your tire won't last that long."  I thanked him, suited up, and hit the road for Grants.

Bernie Auger turned out to be a super nice guy (if you're ever in Grants, stop by his shop and say hi; it's right there on Sante Fe, the main drag), but he wanted a fortune for that friggin' tire, which wasn't even the right size, but was close enough to mount up on my rim.  I've been ordering my Dunlop D220s for $104 plus $8 shipping, then paying about $30 to have them mounted and balanced at my local Kawasaki dealer.  Bernie wanted $239 ($250 after tax) for a Bridgestone 200ZR50.  The tire came off a Buell that they were stripping down to use as the basis for a chopper (strange use for a Buell, but who was I to critisize, eh?).  When I hung my head at the price, he agreed to mount it for free.  While he did the work, I walked down the road to McDonald's and had a Big Mac.  Amazed to find I had a cell phone signal, I also called home and explained my predicament.

An hour later, I was back on the road.  The fun stuff was over now that I was as far south as I-40.  Might as well make a beeline for home and save the new Bridgestone for another roadtrip.  Traffic was heavy, though, and the highway patrol appeared to be out in full force for the holiday weekend, so it was difficult to make good time.  I found myself in Amarillo just before 10 p.m., changing my tinted visor for the clear one I'd never yet used and thinking I oughta eat something if I was going to continue another 3.5 hours to OKC.  I called home again and confessed to the wife that I was beat.  "Then get a hotel and come home in the morning.  There's no sense in killing yourself just so you can get here at 2 a.m.  If you try to wake me up at that hour, I'll give you a serious ass-whupping."  She was right, there was no sense killing myself.  At the next exit, there was a Travelodge with a sign advertising rooms for $33.95.  I got one.  Hauled my junk up to the room and crashed.  I had done 722 miles that day -- a record for me.

In the morning, I clocked in the last 287 miles to my house, easily arriving for lunch.  The ZZR and I had done 2,979 miles total.  Other than the rear tire, I had absolutely no problems with the bike.  It was a fantastic ride and, less than a week later, I'm ready to do it all again.

Thanks to the owner at Cycle City in Gallup for locating a tire for me.  And to Bernie Auger at Bernie's Route 66 in Grants.  Thanks to Clint Hladik for hauling some of my dirty clothes home from Vegas for me (thereby saving me the weight on the bike).  Thanks to the guys at zzr1200.net for offering touring advice and encouragement, as well as the folks at sport-touring.net (a bike forum where I mostly lurk) for constantly taunting me with their ride reports.  Thanks to Kawasaki for making such a great machine.  Anything that can consistently get 40+ mpg out of the cheapest unleaded available while hauling ass through the desert, burn not a drop of oil nor hiccup a single time in nearly 3,000 miles, and still ride like a sport bike with all my shit loaded on ... well, she's simply amazing.  Let the good times roll, indeed.

Brian A. Hopkins
at Road's End
3 June 2004

Addendums:

(1) Totally forgot to write about the weird dream that I had while on my trip -- probably the freakiest dream of my entire life!  It was the morning I woke up at the hotel in Page, Arizona, near Lake Powell ... only I didn't wake up in Page.  I woke up in my own bed at home with my wife sleeping at my side.  I reached over and felt her to make sure she was real. I looked around the room.  "This isn't right," I said out loud, whereupon my wife rolled over and looked at me: "What's wrong?"  "This isn't right," I said again, "I'm not really here.  I'm in Page, Arizona, at a hotel.  I must be dreaming."  I started slapping myself in the face in an attempt to wake up.  "Stop that," she said, grabbing my hand.  "No, I need to wake up.  I'm dreaming.  I'm supposed to be in a hotel in Arizona.  This isn't real."  "Brian, calm down."  I continued to insist that this had to be a dream, but no matter how hard I tried, I could not wake myself up from it.  Everything seemed so completely real, down to the very last detail.  I started to believe that I had just woken up in my own bedroom back in OKC, no matter how impossible that seemed.  "Listen to me," my wife said, "you're not dreaming.  You had an accident on the motorcycle that morning and it wiped out your short term memory."  "No, that can't be!"  "Yes, dear, you crashed on your motorcycle that morning.  You were in a coma.  But you're home now and everything's going to be okay."  She had such a look of pity on her face that it sent chills down my spine.  "How long has it been," I asked, "how many times have you had to explain this to me?"  "Sweetheart," she said, "I have to explain this to you every morning."  Then I opened my eyes and looked at the alarm clock on the nightstand in the hotel room, my heart still hammering in my chest.  I rode very carefully that morning, let me tell you!

(2)  Some people have emailed to ask about equipment.  The bike's a 2003 Kawasaki ZZR1200, of course.  I bought it new on the last day of June last year, just two weeks after totaling my last bike in a deer collision.  "Pearl Mystic Black" is what they call that color. It's not really black, but a deep, deep indigo with metal flake.  She's mostly stock, except for the Givi bags, Genmar bar risers, HVMP bar ends, sport grips and pegs, Lockhart-Phillips tank bra, Zero Gravity Double-Bubble windscreen, and maybe a few other odd bits that I'm forgetting.  My boots are Alpinestars Roam touring boots (like them better than my much more expensive racing boots).  Leather pants are Joe Rocket Bulldogs, perforated.  Jacket (as mentioned in the writeup) is a Gericke Aero-X, perforated leather and synthetic mesh combination (one of four motorcycle jackets I own).  Helmet is a Shoei Z-2 Oryon (a $550 helmet -- motorcycling is not cheap).  Gloves ... I wore two pair on this trip, a heavy leather winter gauntlet glove actually made by Harley-Davidson and a leather-synthetic mesh pair by Gericke (matches the jacket).  Camera: my trusty Kodak DC290, once Kodak's top of the line digital.  Camping gear: the tent's a North Face Talus; sleeping bag's also made by North Face.  I also used a Thermorest self-inflating pad (adds a layer of insulation between you and the cold ground).  These last three items are what you see bungee-corded to the passenger seat of the bike.  I carried rain gear, but never had to break it out on this trip.  Also carry an emergency tire repair kit under my seat (basically a plug kit with CO2 cartridges for reinflating the tire).  The tank bag on the bike is a Nelson-Rigg 950 magnetic bag (magnets hold it to the tank).  In the tank bag, I carried things like my mp3 payer, tire gauge, GPS receiver (in case I got hopelessly lost), palm computer (on which I recorded mileage and such), wet wipes for cleaning bugs off my visor, pocket knife, hat, ibuprofin, lip balm, liquid tears, spare ear plugs, kickstand puck, cell phone, spare batteries, maps, spare contact lens, and whatnot.  In addition to clothes, sneakers, toiletries, and the aforementioned rain gear, my Givis had the following: flashlight, chain lube, rags, spare bungee cords, clear helmet visor, rain cover and shoulder strap for the tank bag, small backpack (in case I did any hiking), cell phone charger, binoculars (thought I might want to use them, but I never actually got them out of the bags), a couple bottles of emergency water, a couple trash bags, a towel, etc.  Under the seat on the bike could be found the aforementioned tire repair kit, a small first aid kit and my tools.  I think that's most everything.  I actually have a custom checklist I created for motorcycle touring, which includes all these things and more.  I sit down with it as I pack and figure out what I need.  If anyone would like to use the checklist to prepare for their own ride, just holler at me.  I'd be happy to share.

(3)  Some people have noted that it takes longer to travel by motorcycle than it does by car, even though it would appear I drive a lot faster on my bike.  Yes, this is true.  The difference is in the stops.  I need gas more often (typically stopping every 150 miles, though the bike will go about 240 before it completely runs out of gas), and every time you get off the bike it winds up being a 15-30 minute stop, depending on how long you need to stretch, how many bugs you have to scrub off your visor, how many people want to talk to you, rehydrating/snacking/eating (none of which you can do while in motion like you can in a car), etc.  Traveling in my truck, I easily average 70 miles per hour, including stops.  On the bike, I think I'm lucky to get 60 -- and more often than not, it's probably 55 miles per hour.  So, yes, even though there were times when I was speeding across the desert well in excess of 100 mph (the ZZR is just stretching her legs at that speed), each time I stopped to take a photo, get gas, or take a whiz slowed me down.  Many's the time I'd pass some obnoxious RV or a slowpoke Hardly-Moving (a.k.a Harley-Davidson) motorcycle more than once on the same stretch of highway.


Copyright 2011 Brian A. Hopkins, 2011-07-31 19:42, www.bahwolf.com