Sunday, September 7, 2014

Arizona desert on our BMW motorcycle

There's a huge difference between life on a motorcycle trip and life at home. When we're traveling on the BMW the days fall into a pattern:  up early in the morning to run, breakfast, load up the bike, travel all day with stops for gas and lunch, end up in the late afternoon at our destination, unpack, blog, work and eat dinner.

When we first get home from a trip I'm faced with a pile of laundry, a big stack of mail, hours of work that I've been putting off plus a packed calendar. Did I mention sorting through hundreds of photos and finishing the blog for the trip?

We came back from a 6-day Labor Day weekend trip to Boulder, Colorado on Tuesday and today (Sunday) I'm finally writing up the blog for the last day's ride. The overall theme for this day is emptiness.

New Mexico Route 64 riding west from Farmington

Small towns are often 50 or more miles apart in the Southwest. Many of the towns are home to less than 400 people, and sometimes all we see is a sign at a road crossing, with the promise of a cluster of homes hidden out of sight behind a hill or past the next canyon. We see narrow dirt roads that snake off across the desert with 2 or 3 mailboxes sited at the highway the only sign that people live at the end of these lonely roads.

We started today in Farmington, NM and rode west along Route 64 on the Trails of the Ancients Byway that connects the Four Corners states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. People settled here starting in at least 10,000 BC, and I'm guessing that the landscape hasn't changed very much from then until now.

The landscape went back and forth from flat desert with faint shadows of distant mountains on the horizon, to craggy canyons and rolling hills where the highway swept around the larger rock formations, to tall mesas, and sometimes to weirdly shaped rock formations that rose hundreds of feet above the desert.

We were only in New Mexico for a few miles before we crossed into Arizona. At Teec Nos Pos  we continued west onto Arizona Route 160. The Navajo name translates into 'cottonwoods in a circle' but I didn't see any cottonwoods at all as we rode past the tiny town.

We turned south onto Arizona Route 191 with views of the Lukachukai Mountains to the east. We've ridden through those mountains on past trips, but today contented ourselves with straight and flat roads instead of twisty mountain hairpin turns.

horses along the ridge on Arizona 191 near Many Farms

I like reading the names of the towns as we ride along:  Mexican Water, Many Farms, Rock Point. 191 took us to 264, heading west again past Keams Canyon that was the site of a trading post in the late 1800's. The 3 mile long box canyon is known as Pongsikya by the Hopi and Lok'aa'deeshjin by the Navajo and is the only gas station/convenience store for several miles. Too many miles today, because instead of stopping we continued on for another 1 1/2 hours until we stopped for a late lunch in Winslow.

Keams Canyon

We've been through Winslow many times in the past year, but today was the first time we actually rode past the "standing on the corner of Winslow Arizona" statue from the classic Eagle's song.

As we continued on 87 South, we finally rode into the Coconino National Forest where the 2-lane highway wound through stands of tall Ponderosa pine trees along the rugged Mogollon Rim country. It wasn't until we rode down into Camp Verde that the temperature suddenly shot up to 100 degrees. We stopped at a gas station for a cold drink of water and I peeled off layers of clothing to make the last 45 minutes of our ride home bearable.

Some people say there isn't anything to see through this northwestern corner of Arizona, but we enjoy riding through the empty desert. There might not be large towns, traffic, or tourist stops to draw people's interest, but that means we have the opportunity to pay attention to the wisps of clouds that sometimes dot the blue sky, the bright flowering plants that dot the desert during this rainy season, and the way the wind feels as we zoom along the highway with no cars to be seen for miles in front of us.

We've been home for five days and every time I see a motorcycle with side bags and a duffle strapped to the back, I'm envious. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

A day cruising the Rockies on our BMW motorcycle

Even with tights, motorcycle pants, 3 layers of shirts (including one long-sleeved wool shirt), 2 layers of liners inside my motorcycle jacket, and full raingear - I was shivering and cold as we rode south through the Rocky Mountains.

We left Boulder, Colorado at 7 am, looking to beat the Labor Day traffic as we headed south on Colorado 93 to Interstate 70. Usually we avoid interstates as much as possible, but we made an exception today for two reasons:  we wanted to make good time and we were looking for a slightly different route. The mountains along I-70 are impressive but the temperature dropped from a doable 52 in Boulder to the mid-30's as we climbed to over 9,000' elevation.

We crested the highest point on I-70 at 11,155' as we rode 1.6 miles through the Eisenhower Tunnel, the highest vehicle tunnel in the world.

When we turned off I-70  we stopped for gas and to warm up before continuing south on Colorado 91 toward Leadville. This was a new route for us, and after we crested Fremont Pass on the Continental Divide at 11,318' we rode past several shallow ponds. Curious, we stopped at a pullout to discover the Climax Molybdenum open-pit mine and several tailing ponds that cover the valley that once was home to three mining towns:  Kokomo, Robinson, and Recen. Mining shaped so much of the early history of the West, and it continues to have a major impact today.

A bit further south  Colorado 91 joined route 24, taking us into Leadville, at 10,430' the highest incorporated city in the United States. We've always heard that Leadville is a beautiful town, but we were disappointed at the run-down houses, empty buildings, and general air of depression.

Route 24 is part of the Top of the Rockies scenic byway system, and it lived up to its name as we rode past high, peaked mountains that rose above the treeline, and sometimes above the clouds.

Continuing south, we rode past the Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies. Ranging from 13,132' to 14,421', several of the mountains are named after famous universities, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale. By this time the temperature had warmed up into the 70's, and as we rode through green fields in the valley with the mountains off to the west I can understand why people want to live and vacation here.

We turned onto Colorado route 285, continuing south through the San Luis Valley where we rode past irrigated green fields surrounded by mountains.

When we traveled to Boulder 5 days ago, we rode these same roads, but in the opposite direction. That gave us the opportunity to view the scenery in a slightly different way as we turned onto Colorado Route 112 where we stopped to admire a buffalo herd just outside Del Norte.

I imagined herds of buffalo (actually, the correct name is bison) covering the plains when settlers first ventured into this area. I wonder what they would think of our motorcycle?

After lunch in Del Norte we turned west onto Route 160, crossing the Continental Divide yet again at Wolf Creek Pass.

We stopped on the western side of the Pass, looking out toward Pagosa Springs in the valley far below.

We stayed on 160 until just outside Durango, where we turned south onto 550 for the final miles into Farmington, NM at the junctions of the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers. We had gotten used to the green scenery in Colorado, and were surprised at how quickly the green forests gave way to the arid brown of the desert around Farmington.

By the time we pulled into Farmington the temperature was 92 degrees and I'd shed all of my warm clothing that I layered on earlier in the morning. A walk along the Animas River just behind our hotel was the perfect way to end the day.

Friday, August 29, 2014

Sunshine followed by rain from Durango to Boulder on the BMW

The battery on my camera quit about the same time the dark clouds that had been threatening for the past  hour decided to open up and pour rain on us.

Just another day on the BMW motorcycle traveling through Colorado.

We started this morning in Durango, at 6500' in the bottom of the Animas River Valley. When I went for a run along the river at 6:30 am the temperature was 44 degrees, and by the time we left at 8:15 it had warmed up to the low 50's. We headed east on Route 160 under clear, bright blue skies along the northern edge of the Southern Ute Indian Reservation and into the San Juan National Forest that covers over 1,800,00 acres.

We alternated between stick-straight roads with distant views of the Rockies to sweeping curves that wound through the forest. When we reached Pagosa Springs, a small town at 7,000' on the western edge of the Continental Divide, we came to the first of several areas of road construction. I didn't mind the slower speeds because the sun was bright and the scenery gorgeous.

Just past Pagosa Springs we started the curving trek up Wolf Creek Pass and the Continental Divide. When settlers first came through this area it would take 2-3 weeks to travel the 42 miles between Pagosa Springs and South Fork. Today we zoomed along the highway which narrows to 2 winding, twisting lanes on the eastern side of the Continental Divide.

When we moved from Vermont to Arizona last July, we traveled the opposite direction on 160, and stopped at the Continental Divide to mark the journey. Today we kept going, sweeping down the eastern side of the pass into the Rio Grande National Forest.

At Del Norte we turned north onto Colorado Route 112, riding through the flat farmland in the San Luis Valley.

The distant mountains were only a dark smudge in the distance, but as we headed north on Route 285 we knew we would be riding through these mountains before the end our trip today. We stopped for lunch at the quirky Coyote Cantina just outside Buena Vista and sat outside in the courtyard to enjoy the sunshine and temperatures that had warmed into the 70's.

Our optimism about a sunny day came to a crashing halt less than 30 minutes after getting back on the BMW after lunch as the puffy white clouds turned dark gray, the wind picked up, the temperature dove toward 60 and we felt the first drops of rain. We stopped and put on our raingear and watched the clouds continue to build over the mountains as we rode through the Arkansas River Valley.

By the time we reached Kenosha Pass at 10,000', we were riding in and out of rain with little hope of seeing the sun again today. The traffic built the closer we came toward metropolitan Denver, not unexpected on Friday afternoon of the Labor Day weekend holiday. The combination of rain and traffic made this my least favorite section of today's 390 miles.

We ended the day walking down Pearl Street in Boulder with Duncan and Nate, making plans to spend the next two days with them. Monday we turn southwest toward Arizona and home, taking a different route and looking forward to new sights. Preferably, with sunshine.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

A perfect day on the BMW motorcycle in Arizona and Colorado

As we were riding along Arizona 89, heading north from Flagstaff to our destination in Durango, Colorado, we rode through a vast expanse of high desert, where sediments deposited 200 million years ago in the Jurassic period look like sand dunes.

We're on our way to Boulder, Colorado, to visit our kids over the Labor Day weekend. We've been on these roads several times in the past year, yet we continue to enjoy the changing landscape. We started the day riding through tall, dense pine forests that covered the mountains on our way north to Flagstaff, then dropped down into a sandy brown desert that stretched for miles in front of us.

We turned east onto 160 into the Hopi and then the Navajo reservations and the landscape changed again into rocky, different colored buttes and mesas.

It was a perfect day to be on the BMW:  bright sun, blue skies, and temperatures in the 70's. We alternated between stretches of flat, straight road and areas where the pavement swept in wide curves around the canyons and mesas.

When we crossed into Colorado near the Four Corners, where Colorado, Arizona, New Mexico and Utah meet - the only location in the United States where four states meet - the landscape changed once again, this time into irrigated green fields backed by forest-covered mountains.

We rode through the Mancos Valley, past Mesa Verde national park where the Ancient Puebloans settled over 1000 years ago in cliff dwellings carved out of the sandstone. We're staying in busy Durango in the Animas River Valley, surrounded by the San Juan Mountains, where we spent the last night of a trip to Colorado in July. It was hot and sticky here in July, and today we enjoyed the cooler temperatures as the season changes from Summer to Fall.

Tomorrow we continue northeast to Boulder, riding through the Rocky Mountains. We're looking forward to steep climbs and winding descents - and to seeing Duncan and Nate!

Sunday, July 20, 2014

Primitive dirt road on the way to Crown King

52 miles on a primitive dirt road, riding two-up on our BMW R1200 GS took over two hours.

In the last year that we've lived in Arizona, we've heard a lot about Crown King and the roads leading into this tiny town located high in the Bradshaw Mountains. The gold and silver rush of the 1870's led people to this part of Arizona, with the first claim of the Crown King mine in 1875. Soon after followed a post office, saloon, and a company store. Over $2 million in gold was mined from this area, and once the mines closed in the 1950's tourism took over as the primary source of revenue. Today Crown King is popular with people wanting to escape the brutal summer heat in Phoenix, and we saw more ATVs than cars.

We turned off I-17 at exit 248 toward Bumble Bee, originally a stagecoach stop on the road between Phoenix and Prescott, and now home to 19 people and 161 cattle. We saw a few of the cattle lounging in the shade under trees, and a couple right next to the road in this open range territory.

After 1.5 miles the pavement ended and a sign announced that we were now on a primitive road - as if we couldn't tell by the washboard effect that rattled my teeth, large rocks scattered across the road, and deep sandy spots in the low areas where water rushes through during rainstorms.

There was more pickup truck traffic than we expected on this twisting dirt road, but when we passed through Cleator about 14 miles into the ride, we understood why:  the James Cleator General Store and Bar looked packed.

The dirt road follows the path of what was known as the Impossible Railroad that served the mines in the early 1900's. The road climbs, descends, and then climbs again through the high desert terrain.

As we got closer to Crown King, we entered a series of four, 180 degree switchbacks that look like the letter "Z" on the map. The combination of loose dirt, rocks, steep drop offs and tight turns on a narrow road caused us to slow down even more from our cruising speed  of 25 mph. 

The views were incredible, and Mike stopped a few times so I could take a picture. When we were moving, the ride was so bumpy and dusty taking photos was impossible.

26 miles and over an hour after we turned off I-70 we crested the final hill and turned into the pine forest that surrounds Crown King. 

We were sweating in 100 degree temperatures during  most of the ride, but at 5770' elevation and in the pines the temperature dropped to the mid-80's. We stopped at the General Store, which celebrated its 100th birthday in 2004, for a sandwich and a very welcome ice-cold bottle of water.

As we waited in line to pay for lunch, Mike was surprised to see Jeff from MotoGhost, the independent BMW motorcycle repair facility in Phoenix where Mike gets our bike serviced. We saw several ATVs and a few dirt bikes on the bumpy ride to Crown King, and Jeff was the only other motorcyclist braving this road today.

It's possible to reach Crown King via the Senator Highway, a toll road originally built between 1866 and 1867 linking Prescott to the mining camps in Crown King. We hoped to travel back home that way, but were told that recent monsoons washed out part of the road, which in the best of times is only passable by mountain bikes and ATV's, but not by motorcyclists riding two-up. 

We retraced our route back down toward I-17, this time bypassing Bumble Bee and taking the cut-off toward Mayer. It was a jolt to ride off the dust and dirt and onto 4-lane pavement, switching from riding 25 to 75 mph.

We rode 150 total miles today in 4.5 hours through rough and beautiful terrain that while close to Phoenix and I-17, seems another world away. Our bike is a GS - Gelände-Strasse - which means off-road/street and is designed for this type of rough riding. There are many more rough dirt roads in Arizona waiting for us to travel them.