Sunday, October 14, 2012

Riding Through the Void

I watch very little TV but I’ve become a fan of the Weather Channel.  While sitting in the home of brother-in-law Rick and his wife Bev on the high plains of east-central Colorado, talking heads on the screen warned that heavy rain, thunder, lightning and hail were just over the western mountains, soaking Arizona in rain and covering the San Juans in snow. Hey, that’s where I was two days ago! The view to the southwest overlooking Pikes Peak and several of the “14-ers” that Rick likes to climb showed only blue skies. Yet the bad stuff appeared as a crescent-shaped swirl on the satellite map and it was moving my way at the rate of a speeding motorcycle.  East of the Mississippi, another big swirl on the screen showed rain and temps in the low 40’s throughout Indiana, Ohio and Michigan. I was sitting in an atmospheric lacuna, a void of mild fair skies between two nasty weather systems.


 The first thing Sister St. Thomas Mary taught me in 9th grade algebra was that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. This “take-home message” came to mind as Rick and I pored over roadmaps of Colorado and beyond. Committed to traveling old two-lane highways through small-town America, I saw that US Route 36 was virtually a straight line from east of Denver all the way to Indianapolis. It followed an old rail line and was the route of the iconic Pony Express. I resolved to hang for a day and be off in the morning—a much shorter visit than I had hoped.

Bev and Fatima
I had not been to Rick and Bev’s since their older daughter married about 25 years ago. He’s a retired school teacher, outdoor person and environmental activist. His wife is an acknowledged horse healer. All I can really say about this is that people bring animals to her that have been written off by owners and vets and she rehabilitates them through acupressure, body energy work and loving communication (think The Horse Whisperer). They live on a bucolic parcel of rolling prairie with washes, gullies and ponderosa pine creating a pocket of mystery in a landscape that looks pretty barren when just barreling over it on an interstate highway. In their company are some cattle, goats, chickens, several huge draft horses and an elderly Thoroughbred. A large black dog name Ram and a
caged cat live there as well. Sadly, this bit of cowboy heaven is now being threatened by the economic forces behind horizontal fracking for shale gas. “Progress” could potentially turn Elbert County, Colorado into a version of Williston, North Dakota taking Rick and Bev’s scarce well-water and their way of life along with it. (The hyperlinks lead to some background from the non-partisan Network for Public Health Law).

The road through rural America is sometimes paved with stones

The Front Range
 The morning of the 11th of October was cool and cloudy. I set off on gravel roads that are the mainstay of rural Colorado’s transportation infrastructure. To the west I could see the Front Range of the Rockies including Pikes Peak and Mt. Evans. To the east, miles of rolling prairie with free-range cattle visiting the road unexpectedly. By mid-afternoon, I decided to visit the Eisenhower Library in Abilene, Kansas, and that became my night’s goal. 

Blatant disregard for 2nd Amendment rights!

Abilene is one of those places wrapped in cowboy mystique to me. In the mid 1800’s the rail road intersected the Chisholm Trail there. Wranglers drove millions of cattle up from Texas to meet the trains that would take them to Eastern markets. Once they were paid their wages, they succumbed to the uninhibited recreational pursuits of men who had spent entirely too much time around horses and cows. Wild Bill Hickok became famous for his attempts to maintain law and order in Abilene. To my surprise, this era lasted but five years. Once a successful wheat crop was grown on the prairie, Kansas was fenced, cultivated, and transformed into “America’s bread basket.” Abilene is now known primarily as the home of Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Commander of the Allied invasion of Normandy in World War II and 34th President of the United States.

Ike's home in Abilene

I like “Ike.”  We could use a pacifist Republican today. Eisenhower’s son, John, wrote that war turned his father into a pacifist.  It was Ike who warned the nation over the danger of the “military industrial complex” wielding influence over democratic processes.  As president he kept the military budget as small as was consistent with the safety of the nation.  Shortly after his inauguration, he made the following statements in a speech:

"Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. . . The cost of one modern heavy bomber is this: a modern brick school in more than 30 cities. It is two electric power plants, each serving a town of 60,000 population. It is two fine, fully equipped hospitals. . . .We pay for a single fighter plane with a half million bushels of wheat. We pay for a single destroyer with new homes that could have housed 8,000 people."  Yes, I like Ike and a visit to the Eisenhower Library in Abilene was a worthwhile stop. But from there, it was cloudy and cold and I determined the best course was to make time on “the slab” and stay ahead of the weather.  Interstate 70 got me through St. Louis and into southern Illinois by nightfall.

Greenville, Illinois is one of those towns where old farmers gather every morning at a diner and solve the world’s problems over coffee. Across from the EconoLodge was just that diner—LuBob’s Fine Foods, “Home of Home-Made”. The day's "specials” were all priced at $7.25:
  • Fried Walleye
  •  Meatloaf
  •  Chicken-n-noodles
  •  Pork chops
…all with “choice of two sides”--from a list of 12 including pickled beets and a salad. The most expensive thing on the menu was “Tenderloin pony shoe”. Don’t know what that is, but next time I will try it for sure.
My last day on the road broke foggy and misty. Travelers up from Missouri described constant hard rainfall the entire previous day. Time was running out. I switched on the PIAA fog lights, the heated hand grips and the satellite radio. I thanked the gnomes of Bavaria for their excellent engineering and twisted about 85 mph out of the old K-bike. That put me just under 6,000 RPM in 5th gear, barely 2/3 of the way to its redline.  For some reason, the speed limit dropped to 55 in Indianapolis. Diane Rheem was on the radio. A cop was in the right lane going 69 MPH. Or so he told me after pulling me over. The first words out of his mouth were, “I can’t believe you would pass a marked police car going 85 in a 55 zone. I just had to pull you over.  Now slow down and get outta here!” 

I should end my adventure here. This was not my typical police encounter and I can only attribute it to the smoke blessing I received on my birthday last March from the shaman at the Mayan equinox ritual in the northern Guatemalan jungle. So, with that, I’ll admit the rain finally caught me about 40 miles from home while taking a 2-lane “short-cut” through Hillsdale County to look at the turning autumn leaves. I had crossed the top of the country on Route 2, gone down the left side a ways on 101 and California 1, scooted to the bottom corner and Route 66, and come back up to the “north coast” over 5 weeks. The total was 7,577 miles, surprisingly just a bit more than half of what I covered over 10 weeks on last winter’s Mexico-Guatemala meander. I had to replace a leaky crush washer on the rear drive while in Seattle (a 40-cent part) and a worn out rear tire in San Francisco. I changed the oil and filter once and it consumed nothing in between. What a change from trying a similar journey last year in a 1953 MG! 

Start at the far right, go counterclockwise 75 mph for 5 weeks and 7,577 miles. In between, sleep on the ground.

By 5:30 PM I was sitting across from Carol in our kitchen. Outside the barn cats were clamoring for food and it was drizzling. Everything in the garden was brown and wilted, having succumbed to several hard frosts. And no one had raked the leaves. Home sweet home!

A few of my favorite images from around the country--

The "Big Mack" linking the two Michigans
Big Sky Country

St. Mary River, Glacier National Park, Montana

Jim and his R100 "Mini-Winnie"

Coulee City, Washington...upstream of the Grand Coulee Dam

Roadside, Eastern Washington

Seattle fog and the Space Needle
Pike Street Market, Seattle

Crater Lake, Oregon

Southwest Oregon landscape
Northern California coastal scenes

Yosemite National Park, California
Twin Lakes between Granite and Aspen, Colorado

Alt/Control/Delete...Got it!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012


As I was spreading out my bedroll on Brad Kahlund's suburban Colorado living room floor last Sunday, he remarked I should not be concerned with sounds of banging and clanging outside in the middle of the night. "It's just the bears going through my neighbor's garbage can." 

So, I'm sleeping in the woods in the Cottonwood Canyon the next night. The Forest Service campground was closed for the season, so I had wondered in off the road and found a secluded spot on the banks of the Cottonwood Creek. I pitched my tent in a spot that looked like it might get the morning sun. I was still carrying a half-bag of charcoal briquets that Jim had tried to toss out in Seattle. The grocery in the last town I had passed had a sale on individual bacon-wrapped filet mignon for $4.49/lb. I bought a bell pepper, four carrots, some sour dough bread, a bag of tortilla chips and three bottles of Colorado microbrew. I was ready for a cookout!

Without a grill, I had to pile my charcoal in a brazier I constructed from river rocks. Once the coals were hot, I put a flat rock on top and let it heat up enough to fry the meat and the green pepper. In the meantime, I pitched my tent about 50 yards away, remembering one does not cook and sleep in the same location when in bear country. It had gotten really dark in my forested hide-out. Without my headband flashlight, I couldn't see my hand in front of me. It was also getting cold. I seared the meat on a whittled green stick and then set it on the hot stone. The juice and bacon fat ran down into the coals creating the smokey aroma of broiled meat. I was content. Then I remembered the bear in Brad's neighborhood in Durango. And I realized that not just the air around me, but also my clothes and hair, smelled like broiling beef. A park ranger had told me a bear can smell a dead deer from 3 1/2 miles away. That being the case, I was sure my cookout was making bear news as far away as Wyoming. Somewhat less content now, I chowed down hurriedly, staring into the darkness wondering how many bears were within a 3 1/2 radius of my little picnic. 

A common backpacking practice is to haul your food up so it hangs high from a tree. I had prepared for this by tossing a nylon cord over a branch. I now decided I should put my aromatic clothes into a stuff sack and hang them from the branch as well. And I should wash up real well in the creek. Here I was, in the Rocky Mountains, in October, wearing nothing but a headband flashlight, stepping barefoot down a bank toward a glacial creek to bathe in the dark. Excellent planning! 

I balanced my cooking pots on a rock near the fire pit I had dug, figuring the noise would be like an alarm. If I heard clanking pots, I could become alarmed. In theory, the bear would also be startled and run off. I have never heard of this technique working. I crawled into my sleeping bag wearing socks and long-johns, wrapped in the fleece liner of my jacket. Sleep was fitful. I awoke at dawn. The pots were still balanced on the rock. I had a sore throat.

"Bigfoot" ready for the bear

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Two Wheels Ahead of the Snow

Route 160 connects Arizona and Colorado by passing through the cross-hairs of the Four Corners. This is the only location in the United States where four states meet. The majority of the Four Corners region is part of The Navajo Nation and the Ute Mountain Indian Reservation. It is part of a larger region known as the Colorado Plateau and is mostly rural, rugged and arid. Traveling northeast it became increasingly windy and cold as I climbed into the San Juan Mountains. At  Durango I turned north on Route 550, known as the Million Dollar Highway. This is a motorcycle road of mythic stature, a classic stretch of two-lane blacktop that forms a swirling ribbon through the San Juans, the wildest and most rugged peaks in the Colorado Rockies. Built in 1882 as a private toll road by an entrepreneurial Russian immigrant who struck a deal with Ouray, the last chief of the Ute indians, it connected many lucrative gold mining towns. It also made Otto Mears a very rich man. The origin of the highway's name is also a bit of a myth but the most likely story is that it was originally paved with gravel discarded from nearby gold and silver mines-- gravel that was later found to contain ore worth an estimated "million dollars."
San Juan Mountains, Colorado


The "Million Dollar Highway"
...more of the same...


The view from anywhere in Buena Vista, Colorado

Downtown Buena Vista, Colorado

Buena Vista's only cinema...a working drive-in!

The road up to Independence Pass

Twin Lakes, along Hwy 82 to Independence Pass

Passing the old mining towns of Silverton, Ouray and Ridgeway, I turned east to cross the Monarch Pass at 11,312 ft. (3,448 m). For the first time in a month, I put on a longjohn shirt and wore my fleece jacket liner. It was getting really cold and it was my first cloudy day. Near the upper reaches of  the Arkansas River, I turned north following Highway 24 which hugs a railroad up through Buena Vista and leads to the "back road" toward Aspen via Independence Pass. At 12,095 ft (3,687 m), it's the highest paved crossing of the Continental Divide in the United States. It lies above the tree line and has a tundra ecology. It was 21 degrees F. (-6 degrees C.) at the top, a bit chilly for my candy butt on a motorcycle.
View from the top of Independence Pass, 12,095 ft.

To commemorate my braving the arctic tundra, I camped beside the road along the Cottonwood Creek only to find out in the morning that snow was in the forecast. It was time to head for lower ground...but not until I could spend several hours soaking in the stone pools at the Cottonwood Hot Springs, a delightful place with cheap dorms (wish I had known!), private rooms, masseuses, and seven stone pools ranging from 87 to 108 degrees F. (42 C.). Snow? What snow?!

A night in the 20's along the Cottonwood Creek

Naturally hot spring water from deep inside Colorado's volcanic past...or future

The perfect stop after a cold night

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Highs, Lows, Curry-flavored Clothes

The movie Chinatown is one of my favorites. It concerns money, power and water. It’s hard to imagine that one "desert oasis" grew in such an unfettered manner that it successfully sucked the water out of the southwestern corner of the United States with little impunity.  Thank you, Los Angeles County and your verdant suburban lawns, swimming pools, and unmistakable footprint. 

California's Central Valley--natural state

Riding California's dry valleys was a striking contrast to the majesty of Yosemite National Park and the High Sierra. I got my first exposure while crossing the “central valley” from San Francisco to the Sierra Nevada range that lies to the east.  Here, in a veritable desert, water transported hundreds of miles by aqueducts and pipelines has made apple orchards, nut groves and acres of year-round vegetables a reality. Much of the land surrounding the mountain sources of water is owned by distant utilities like the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. What isn't owned by them is strategically set aside as the Inyo National Forest. These holdings make life in L.A. possible. The Owens River, which drains the valley between the Sierras and the state of Nevada, is dry much of the time. John Muir took Teddy Roosevelt to the Yosemite Valley over a hundred years ago and persuaded him that that this pristine and remote area needed to be set aside and protected for future generations. But the neighboring, and equally impressive, Hetch Hetchy Valley was dammed and flooded to provide a source of water to the San Joaquin Valley and to Alameda and San Mateo Counties. I guess compromise is, or at least “used to be,” the American way.

Yosemite was as impressive as I had heard and I was lucky to visit on a weekday and late in the year. It isn’t crowded in October but does receive many millions of visitors each season. Yosemite, like its “national park cousins,” Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon, seems to have more infrastructure than other national parks with miles of roads, bike paths and walking trails making the valley accessible to those of all abilities.
Yosemite Valley showing El Capitan and Half Dome
 When it was first discovered in the 19th Century, the Yosemite Valley looked like a park with lawns, shrubs and groves of huge trees. This was the result of the Indian practice of regularly burning the forest which cleared the undergrowth and promoted a healthy ecosystem. It has taken our “modern” society many generations to learn the role fire plays in this natural balance of life in the wilderness. Today, fires sparked by lightening burn throughout the dry season in our national parks and forests. This often obscures longer landscape photos of the valley, although the son-in-law of a pioneer photographer at Yosemite still took some impressive snapshots. That son-in-law was Ansel Adams and the Ansel Adams Gallery at Yosemite is a treat.
El Capitan

Tough on motorists too
The Tioga Road (California Highway 120) through the park offers plenty of excitement for travelers on two wheels. It gives views of the famous rock-climbing sites of El Capitan and Half Dome and ascends from moist meadows through deciduous forests of black oak, groves of sequoia and redwood, to finally terminate in the desert climate at Mono Lake near the Nevada state line. A visit with son Jeff and his room-mates in Bishop, CA, access to a washing machine and a good Margarita, and I was ready for my night-time crossing of Death Valley.
Jeff Deikis, Southwest Coordinator, American Alpine Club

Inyo National Forest, near Bishop, CA
In the space of 24 hours, I rode south past Mt. Whitney, at 14, 494 ft. (4,418 m) the highest peak in the continental United States, and through Death Valley's Zabriskie Point, close to the lowest spot in North America at 282 ft. (86 m) below sea level.  Keeping with the “highs and lows” theme, I went from the magnificence of Yosemite down to a $19 dollar room at the Four Queens Casino in Las Vegas. In my defense, let me add it was the middle of the night. I also will admit I couldn’t figure out how to use the complimentary $20 slot machine card they gave me and tossed it in the trash on my way out the next afternoon. What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas.

Las Vegas TV informed me of an early snowfall in Cheyenne, Wyoming and a closure on Interstate 80. Despite having a brand new rear tire, I decided to take the southern route. Arriving in Flagstaff, Arizona in the dark, I pulled into a centrally-located 1960-style Rodeway Inn on Route 66. The place was small, clean, over-priced, and run by a friendly Hindu family who lived on the ground floor, right under my room. By morning, everything I owned, save my motorcycle, smelled of curry. Good thing I like Indian food. It was a small price to pay for some great Arizona canyon riding the next day and a late afternoon visit to the Grand Canyon.

Hwy 89A to Sedona, Arizona
Highway 89A from Flagstaff to Sedona, Arizona was worth the detour but Sedona itself was a bit too "precious" for me---cute in a Pixar Animation sort of way. A ride along the "Mother Road," Route 66, was a must. This road, unlike other historically significant "old" east-west highways like Routes 2, 6, 30, 40, and 50 has been mostly obliterated by an Interstate. Yet the locals do well merchandising to Japanese, German and French tourists, Harley and muscle-car folk....and me, I guess.

I considered another night at the Rodeway Inn but decided to camp in the woods instead. I like the smell of pine.
The "Mother Road" in Arizona

Obligatory tourist snapshot

Highway 190 through Death Valley

Do not miss this left turn

Welcome to California!

If you have seen the Grand Canyon, you know a photo can't capture it