Nothing But Tarmac and Sky
Days 22-27 – Mackay, ID, USA to Mesquite, NV – 6,497 km
It started out as a manicured dirt road when it left the tarmac parking lot at the end of the scenic drive. As I rode along, I felt the small pebbles kick out from under my surefooted tires and heard the metallic resounds as they struck the aluminum skid plate that shields the underside of the engine block. Even as it descended deeper into the canyon, the road meandered through dips and rises and sudden hairpin turns. Arriving at the pinnacle of each rise – which is simultaneously my most and least favorite – I felt the breathless anticipation just before the next stretch of road was revealed to me.
Several kilometers in, the ride become complicated by intermittently rocky and rippling sandy patches where flash flooding had worn away the hard, dry earth and had strewn the rocky debris. Gaining the next rise, my heart went into my stomach as I saw that the road was a very sudden dip into a sharp, sandy turn. I downshifted to control my speed while keeping my rpms up and I felt my grip tense even as I told myself to stay loose and relaxed. Coming out of the dip and into the turn, I felt my front tire slip both ways beneath me, which made me instinctively grip tighter, but I managed to control the rear tire through the turn by shifting my body weight.
Maybe you should have left this road alone, I thought, but then I rebuked myself for thinking it because this is exactly what I had bought this kind of motorbike for. You’re just running the wrong tires for the sandy shit, I decided, and, besides, it doesn’t make it easier that you’re loaded down like a pack mule.
At this thought, I pulled over for a drink of water and a photograph, and, after removing a few layers of clothing, I remounted and was back on the trail. It turned out that I had pulled over only about a kilometer from the end of the road where there was a sandy parking lot and a trail that led deeper into the canyon. I steered towards a paved area that was connected to the small bridge over the wash and dismounted the bike.
it’s a damn good thing she didn’t follow you into this or she’d sure give you hell for it, I thought as I removed my riding gloves and unthreaded my helmet strap. Turning back as I did this, I was shocked to see Jessica pull up behind me covered in dust but otherwise smiling through her helmet.
‘What are you doing here?’ I said in complete surprise.
She smiled because she was proud of herself despite her inherent modesty and then she said, ‘I really didn’t like that sand!’
‘You didn’t go down though?’ I said.
She shook her head and then she said, ‘But I still have to make it back.’
Over the last several days of riding the countryside had changed very dramatically. After the forested mountains of Bitterroot National Forest, the land gradually became drier and the vegetation was sparser. After Mackay, we made a quick visit to Craters of the Moon National Monument, which we were mostly able to see from the highway but was closed for deeper exploration as a result of the government shutdown. After returning the way we came for a short stretch on the 93, we took Highway 26 to Blackfoot and then the I-15 south past Pocatello. After a little less than a hundred kilometers on the interstate, we leaped at the chance to deviate onto Highway 91 in the direction of Preston and from there across the border into Utah. We spent that night in downtown Salt Lake City and stayed there the next day for a rest.
After Salt Lake City we had a several days of beautiful riding and new challenges as a couple. We took the interstate south and then we transferred to Highway 6 at Spanish Fork. The 6 gradually meandered southeast through dry canyons and the temperature improved as we came out of the elevation. That night we stayed in Moab, which is a bustling tourist town because it is the starting point for day excursions into Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
The next morning we tackled both – Arches in the morning and Canyonlands in the afternoon. The scenery through the parks was beautiful and the temperature was warm enough that we shed layers and opened the vents in our riding suits. The strange thing is, this combination of beautiful weather and scenery indirectly lead to our first big fight of the trip.
Throughout the day I neurotically pulled us over at one turnoff after another to take in the view and occasionally to follow a short trail for a closer look at one of the highlights. Jess enjoyed the riding but she was less enthusiastic about the frequent stopping and even less so about the short hikes – and particularly doing so in the heavy riding gear. I appreciated the effort she made to participate in the hiking because she knows I love it but, to my mind, it was overshadowed by the evident lack of enthusiasm. To her mind, she was making a major effort, doing what she didn’t much enjoy, and I was only nagging at her to hurry along and to get into it. After the two national parks, the resentment had gradually heated to a boil on both sides but we were not quite able or ready to put or fingers on exactly what was individually angering us. That night in Green River went by without much exchange of words and, going to bed unresolved, we both awoke spoiling for a fight.
‘I almost wrote you a text message that said “I’ll see you in Vegas” when you left me in the morning,’ Jess said later that morning after a long ride had given us each the time we needed to brood over it and make sense of what we were angry about.
‘I told you I was going just up the road to look for the sunglasses that I lost last night,’ I said and then after a pause, ‘but I did wonder if you would still be there when I pulled back into the motel parking lot.’
By late morning we were feeling much better with each other when we reached Capitol Reef National Park. Remembering our talk about taking things at our own pace, I signaled to Jess and then I pull ahead and stretch out my engine. After taking a few sharp turns at speed, I glanced at my rearview mirror and discovered that she was keeping equal pace with me. Damn, I thought, I haven’t much longer to be Top Dog if this keeps up. At the end of the 15-km scenic road into the national park we reached the parking lot beside where the tarmac ended and the graded dirt road continued into the gorge.
‘You’re riding like a devil, Bean!’ I said to Jess over the idle of our engine when she pulled alongside me in the parking lot (Bean is my nickname for her because she is tall and gracefully lanky like a beanstalk)
‘I’m a bit nauseas from the turns and the up and downs,’ she said.
‘Ok, you rest here and I’ll go do the dirt road and come back,’ I said.
She nodded and that’s when I had started off down what had looked to be a nicely manicured dirt road.
After a brief stroll into the gorge, we return to the bikes and got ready to tackle the same dirt road back out to the tarmac. Jess started off first and I followed a few minutes behind after changing my helmet camera battery. After a few minutes of riding, I caught up to her as she seemed to be momentarily stopped alongside a white SUV. I thought it was strange that I had caught up with her so quickly, especially when I saw how quickly she bolted off after what seemed to have been only a pause alongside the other vehicle. Back at the parking lot beside the tarmac road, she explained what the pause had been about.
‘You mean you went down?’ I asked.
She had a big smile on her face as she nodded.
‘The man saw it and came right out of the car to help. He said, “Yeah we know a lot about sand!’ He tried to pull the bike up while I pushed it but we couldn’t get it. Then his wife came out and said, “He’s got a bad back. Let me help,” and she helped pull on his side. At first we still couldn’t get it and I told them, “It’s ok. My boyfriend’s just a few minutes behind and he’ll help me when he gets here,’ but eventually the three of us got it back up.’
‘I’m so glad you’re alright,’ I said after she finished telling her story, ‘and I’m so glad you were the first to go down on the trip.’
She smiled sheepishly.
‘There were several times that I thought I might take a spill but the only thing that kept me upright was the will not to be the first to go down,’ I said. ‘Now that you have gone down, I can stop pussyfooting through the off-road sections. Now I feel like I have license to go down without any shame. You’re ok though, right?’
‘Yeah, it was a soft fall in the sand but I think my pannier knocked loose,’ she said.
‘Damn, and the way you got right back on and bolted off like nothing ever happened,’ I said still marveling at her as I began to review her bike.
‘Actually, at first I couldn’t get the engine started and I kept trying and look for what was wrong until I finally realized that I was still in first gear from when I went down. Then, after I got it started, I immediately stall because I still had to get through the sand patch. After the sand I hurried off to so that the people in the SUV wouldn’t see if I went down again!’ she said.
‘Oh, bean, I’m definitely not going to be Top Dog here for long,’ I said.
As we continued to discuss Jess’s fall and remark on each of the challenges of our first, difficult dirt road of the trip, I found that a screw was missing from the pannier rack and that the rack had been bent so that the pannier no long sat snuggly upon it. I replaced the screw with one from my bag of sundries and we found a stick to occupy the space in the bracket where the pannier fastens to the rack.
‘It was only this morning that I was really miserable and now I’m quite giddy with joy,’ I said as we laid a few strips of duct tape as an additional security for the pannier on the low side of the fall.
‘Yes, love, it’s because you’re doing just what you love now,’ she said.
I was and, as we replaced our riding gear and drove off to return to the main highway, I thought about how quickly your mood can swing on a trip like this.
‘It’s an emotional rollercoaster,’ I said mockingly to myself inside my helmet as I concluded the thought and pressed the button to resume my audiobook.
We stopped for lunch at the small town of Torrey, which sits at the junction between the 24 and the 12. Here we met a middle aged man and his wife on a BMW R1200GS who had separated from their group after a difficult previous day of muddy off-road riding and we met a Quebecois who had ridden down on his Kawasaki and was destined for California. This provided us ample interaction because we are both thoroughly introverts at heart, but we enjoyed the biker babble and talking about the road before remounting to tackle Highway 12.
Departing from Torrey, the 12 gained elevation rather quickly and the temperature dropped so that before long we were seeing patches of snow on the hillsides along the highway. For 100 incredible and at moments even breathtaking kilometers, the 12 weaved through the mountains and canyons before we reached the town of Escalante where it felt more like we were making a landing rather than pulling in for the night.
‘Did you see the part where the highway dropped down on both sides and there was no railing and nothing but tarmac and sky?’ Jess said as soon as her helmet was removed and the audiobook piping in over her earphones was switched off.
‘Absolutely incredible!’ I said. ‘I really gave myself a scare because I sped way up to get you in the pictures and then I realized how narrow and winding and unbound the road was.’
We spent that night in Escalante and the next morning we visited the hardware store to come up with a more permanent fix to Jess's bent pannier rack.
'The place where the canyon narrows to only the width of the highway and you can only see sky around you - we call that the Hogsback,' the hardware store clerk explained. 'Not long ago a woman stopped her car in the middle to take pictures. She left it in neutral and forgot to engage the parking brake and it rolled right off the edge.'
After setting a metal rod bought from the hardware store to reinforce the pannier rack, we set off for another long, grueling day that took us through Bryce Canyon and Zion National Parks and then out of Utah, across the tip of Arizona, and finally to a stop in Mesquite, Nevada late in the afternoon. In Mesquite we discovered that the hotel-casinos that offered the cheap rooms were all booked because it was a Saturday night and, not wanting to spend too much, we settled on a miserable, dumpy motel, which left both of us a bit down after another phenomenal day of beautiful weather, scenery, and riding.
‘It’s an emotional rollercoaster,’ I said to myself in a tone that was less mocking this time as we unloaded the gear from our bikes.
‘Yes, love, it certainly is,’ Jess replied as she carried her bags into the motel room.