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.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The last day of our Colorado motorcycle adventure

We rode 1,789 miles in the past week through Arizona, New Mexico and primarily in the Rockies in Colorado with our friends and neighbors Tom and Christine who used to live in Aspen and have ridden most of the area before. Bill and Cynthia rode with us from Grand Junction to Aspen and shared their knowledge of favorite roads and restaurants. Doug joined us from Aspen to Gunnison, and showed us the best places to stop and view the canyons and distant peaks along numerous mountain passes. The next day his wife Karen surprised us by joining the group on the spur of the moment as we rode the amazing Million Dollar Highway from Ouray into Durango. Part of the fun of a motorcycle trip is the time we spend together off the bikes, and this trip was even more special because we met new friends.

During the past week on our trip through Colorado I've spent the hours on the motorcycle thinking about the history of the area, remote mining towns hidden deep in the mountains, world-class ski areas, bear wandering through the streets of mountain towns, engineering marvels in the dams and bridges that cross the difficult landscape. I never know what is around the next corner, or what I'll see as we crest a steep hill.

Today's 193 miles were a short ride on familiar roads from Show Low to home in Prescott, Arizona under a constant threat of rain and thunderstorms. Because we've ridden these roads often, I found myself thinking about the ride in a different way.

Where do the hundreds of single-track or narrow dirt roads lead? They snake off from the paved highway, disappearing into the pine forests or dropping out of sight over the next hill. Were they made by settlers in covered wagons in the 1800's, or are they game trails, or favorites for people riding ATVs? One day I want to head off down these types of roads and see where they lead.

Who decided the route for the paved roads we're traveling along? Do they follow old Indian trails, or perhaps trading routes for miners and trappers? The roads today wound around canyons and swept down the Mogollon Rim into the Verde Valley. Yesterday we rode on ruler-straight roads through the Navajo, Hopi and Zuni reservations - were these roads laid out by engineers to get from one point to the next as quickly as possible?

I notice the changing plants:  the pine tree forests between Show Low and Payson through the Sitgreaves National Forest; areas with blackened, dead trees and bright green new plant growth that looked to be the site of recent forest fires near Show Low; tall thin plants with clusters of bright orange or bright yellow flowers springing up alongside the highway between Pine and Camp Verde; the first prickly pear cactus I've seen since we left home last Tuesday as we rode down from Camp Verde; low, pale green scrub bushes widely scattered over the rolling hills as we came closer to Prescott.

It's monsoon season and the weather report called for rain by mid-day so we put on raingear before we left Show Low. Even though the skies turned black and we saw rain falling in the distance, we didn't get wet until we rode up the steep hill in our subdivision and turned into the driveway.

There are three stages to motorcycle travel:

  • planning the trip, dreaming about where we'll ride and what we'll see
  • the actual trip where we settle into the routine of packing up the bikes in the morning, enjoying the ride during the day, unpacking and relaxing in the evening, and then repeating the routine the next day
  • after the trip when we look through the photos, talk about a favorite lunch stop or the 16% grade in Black Canyon, or suddenly remember the thrill of standing at the Continental Divide feeling like we're on top of the world
We won't be in the third stage for long, because we're already dreaming about the next trip. Stay tuned!

Monday, July 14, 2014

Riding out of the mountains and into the high desert on our BMW

We left the green mountains and rivers of Durango and headed south toward New Mexico, winding our way along county roads with hazy views of distant mountains to the west and south. The landscape changed rapidly from steep mountains and twisting roads that snaked through the high passes to straight 2-lane highways that crossed wide valley farmland.

We crossed into New Mexico and the landscape changed even more drastically to what reminded me of a washed-out watercolor painting:  instead of bright green we saw sparse, dusty green shrubs; the bright blue sky was covered with hazy white clouds; even the buildings were a uniform light sand color.

Outside Farmington, NM we entered into the large Navajo Nation and passed by acres of irrigated fields that seem out of place in the high desert.

The land here is so flat that the power lines and water towers dominate the landscape. A few miles later as entered into the Bisti/De-Na-Zin Wilderness, miles of badlands formed by wind and water erosion in the sandstone, shale, mudstone, coal and silt that give various colors to the rock formations.

It seemed we could travel for miles without seeing a house or vehicle on the roads that headed straight for the distant horizon. Periodically I'd spot a couple of horses or a small herd of cows, but the majority of the time we had the road to ourselves.

We stopped for lunch in Gallup, NM which is the center of several Native American tribes including Navajo, Hopi and Zuni. It was a favorite location for Hollywood filmmakers in the 1940's and 1950's and the old Route 66 passed through town. We didn't see any movie stars when we stopped for lunch at Anthony's Taste of the Southwest.

We continued south through the Zuni reservation where the landscape was covered with pine trees. Perhaps the recent rain and warm temperatures made the scent of the pines stronger, but I could almost smell the trees before I could see them. As we passed through the town of Zuni, we saw round beehive-shaped red clay kilns that are used in firing traditional pottery next to many of the homes.

We crossed from New Mexico into Arizona, watching storm clouds gather to the south. The monsoons bring thunder, lightning, and sometimes torrential rain to this area almost every day from July into September. Because of the years-long drought we welcome the rain, yet hope to reach our destination before the worst of the storm hits. We stopped in St. John's to put on rain gear, and minutes later rode into the storm as the temperature dropped 20 degrees and the wind whipped up.

I huddled behind Mike the last 20 miles of today's ride into Show Low. After we unpacked the bikes the full strength of the storm hit, and then passed before we walked next door to dinner.

We experienced thrilling rides the last few days in Colorado, twisting around hairpin curves up and down mountains and riding to over 10,000' elevation with patches of snow remaining on the highest peaks. Today's ride was quiet and serene, with miles of ruler-straight roads and long vistas to the distant mountains broken only periodically by a few canyons or sandstone cliffs. Tomorrow we ride familiar roads home to Prescott, the end of our 8-day journey.