Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Great Southwest Trip - Las Vegas and Mojave

My breakfast this morning was I-15 between St. George and Mesquite. Who needs caffeine with a road like this? If you don't know this stretch of heaven, it's high-speed canyon carving at its best!

While today wasn't filled with eye-popping scenery like the last few days, it still had its moments. I left St. George at 7:15 AM PDT (since I'd be spending most of the day in that time zone) and headed down I-15 and was immediately rewarded by the above-mentioned stretch of road (yeehaw!). From there it was all down hill, literally and figuratively. The scenery quickly became drab tan as far as the eye could see, and as I came around one curve, Las Vegas lay below me, a tan-colored city draped in a tan haze.

Traffic through the city on I-15 and I-515 was hectic, as cars zig-zagged lanes to dodge the slower-moving 18-wheelers, of which there were many. Things loosened up as I got south, and became reasonable as I neared Boulder City, that cappuccino/latte tourist mecca just west of Hoover Dam. I feared that I had somehow missed the Lake Mead NRA Visitor Center and would end up going across the dam which I did not want to do, so stopped for gas and asked the attendant, who was clueless. I rode next door to a Best Western, and the desk clerk gave me excellent directions.

The road heads downhill quickly and Lake Mead came into view in front of me. I found the visitor center, got my stamp and left just as a tour bus disgorged its German-speaking contents into the parking lot. First of two missions accomplished.

Now to head toward the second mission of the day: Mojave Desert and Kelso Depot. I
backtracked on I-515 to I-215 west to pick up I-15 on the far side of Las Vegas. I could be charitable and say that the ride was interesting, but I'd be lying. All I could do was just keep the throttle open and get it over with. The temperatures were surprisingly comfortable at the higher elevations and I stayed cool all the way to Cima Road, my north entrance to Mojave Desert National Preserve.

This area of the Mojave is a veritable Joshua Tree forest! There were many fantastic mature specimens of this odd-looking tree right next to the road, where I could get a good look at them. The road was gently undulating, with modest changes of altitude. Far off in the distance all around me I could see jagged mountain peaks, and as the road took me higher, I began to see large rock outcroppings on the desert floor.

The road went on seemingly forever. It intersected with another road and the sign pointed to the right to Kelso, so I headed that way, but in the back of my mind I was second-guessing this route. After what seemed to be an eternity, I could see something way off in the distance. Perspective is distorted with desert horizons and the "something" seemed to be out there forever!

Finally I'd arrived at Kelso Depot, I got my passport stamped, and my second mission of the day is accomplished. The parking lot at Kelso Depot is gravel and there's much loose gravel kicked out onto the narrow roadway. As I exited the parking lot, I could feel the gravel squirting out from beneath my rear tire, a disconcerting feeling when you're out there in the middle of nowhere and there's no one else around. The remaining 18 miles of desolate desert seemed like an eternity. I could not get to I-40 fast enough as anxiety began to overtake my enjoyment of this part of the trip.

My plan was to continue straight another 50 or so miles to the northern entrance of Joshua Tree National Park, but it was starting to get hot and my anxious feelings were not abating. Therefore, when the entrance ramp to I-40 beckoned me, I obeyed. Those feelings of desolation, even slight dread, finally abated when I arrived at Needles CA for gas and some lunch.

The road gains altitude again as it heads north and east into AZ and the temperatures began to drop noticeably. I'd opened all of the vents on my jacket and by the time I reached Seligman AZ, I had to zip everything up, put on my jacket liner and change my gloves from mesh to solid leather. Another 40 miles east of Seligman, I decided to stop for the night at Williams AZ. I'm just 2 days' ride from home, now.

Aside from 20 minutes of bliss on I-15, this was a utilitarian day, one in which I got the much-needed CA national park stamp to get an IBA silver NPT, and added NV to the list of states. Tomorrow night, if all goes well, I should be in Amarillo TX.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Heading North from Arizona Through Utah

Is US 89 some deep, dark secret or something, because I never hear anyone talk about this road in the same sentence with "scenic routes." This road was gorgeous! Every few miles the vistas would change, and if there was a stretch that might be a little ho-hum, it wouldn't last long. Just when I'd think the scenery had run out, a major change-up would come along and I'd be overwhelmed all over again.

It starts high up in Ponderosa forest near Flagstaff, where just a few miles north I exited to go to Sunset Crater National Monument. The ranger warned me that just beyond the visitor center the road turns to gravel all the way to Wupatki, and he didn't recommend riding it. That changed my plans a little. I stopped at the Sunset Crater visitor center, got my park stamp and on the way out, pulled over for a lovely photo op.

Continuing north on 89, the road loses some altitude as it drops down into desert. Soon enough, I began to see giant gashes in the desert floor, which revealed strange yet colorful sediment layers. As the road dropped deeper into the desert, I could see cliffs off to my right. These loomed taller, and at their feet were rounded mounds of erosion sediment, worn smooth by thousands of years of wind.

As I neared Page, AZ, the road began to climb steeply, winding around the red dark red cliffs until it popped out at the top of the mesa. As it neared the top, a vista opened up to the west that took my breath away. I could see for miles across a deep, wide canyon colored every shade of red ranging from pale beige through orange, light pink through deep burgundy.

I stopped in Page for gas and had lunch before continuing across Glen Canyon on my way to Zion National Park. I could see Lake Powell ahead, and soon enough, the road took me over a bridge which spanned the chasm just south of the large dam. On the other side of the bridge, I pulled in to the Carl Hayden Visitor Center to get my national park stamp. There was one other motorcycle in the parking lot and its owner was walking out just as I turned from my bike to head inside. He asked me, "Are you riding that by yourself? Are you riding by yourself? You are one brazen woman!" My answer, "Why not?"

The security is very tight at the entrance: no bags or even purses are allowed, and each visitor center must walk through a metal detector. But once inside, a wall of windows gives an excellent view out over the bridge, the dam, and the lake. Mission accomplished here, and I geared up and got back on the bike to continue north on 89 toward Kanab.

The views took a radical turn beyond this point, as I entered the Staircase-Escalante area. Giant formations, like pie wedges, jutted out into the flat desert floor on the northern side, as the road headed westerly through this area. Numerous road signs warned of deer migration areas. The vegetation through here consisted of sage and cedar, but not much else. This view remained unchanged for many miles, all the way to Kanab.

I took a break in Kanab to get gas, get a drink, before heading the last little stretch up 89 to 9 and into Zion National Park. From here, the terrain became more rugged, and the rock formations began to close in tightly along either side of the road as I headed toward Zion. Wind and weather have etched strange patterns into the limestone, almost as if they were carved by man, not by Mother Nature.

After turning onto 9 to head toward the park entrance, it was hard to imagine what was ahead, waiting for my .discovery. Soon enough I was approaching the park sign, where I pulled over to take a photo. A little ways ahead was the entrance station and beyond that, well....nearly indescribable!

The roadway began with gentle curves winding around the massive limestone formations. Each change in direction brought a new perspective and a different view of the canyon walls. There were many wildflowers and cacti in bloom, and on one 90-degree curve, I spied three longhorn sheep just to my right in a little alcove of the canyon wall.

The narrow road became progressively steeper, the downhill curves becoming tighter as it continued west through the park. It traveled through one short tunnel and soon after, I saw a sign for the next tunnel. It warned that there would be a delay, and that it was a dark tunnel, so remove sunglasses. This is not easy to do on a motorcycle while under way, so I pulled over at a turnout to do this. Just ahead, however, I could see the tunnel entrance and a ranger in the road. As I pulled up to a stop, she said it would be a 5 to 10 minute wait. I was first in line, so I stopped the engine, took off my helmet, loosened my jacket, and sat back to enjoy the view while waiting.

The tight intimacy of this roadway is in sharp contrast to the only other mountainous national park I've ever ridden through: Rocky Mountain National Park. In Zion, the road is old and very narrow. In many places the surface is beat up by weather and cars, and there is no shoulder and very few pull-out areas. The park literature says that the tunnel was cut through the mountain in the early 1900's, and was considered a remarkable feat at that time.

When it was our turn to pass through the tunnel, I was in the lead, so I was in charge! Good! I could set the pace, and chose to go slower than the 25 mph posted speed limit, so that I could catch glimpses of the view through the numerous "windows" cut into the tunnel wall to our right. A little more than midway through the tunnel, one window is very large - floor to ceiling - giving a spectacular framed view of the "east temple."

After exiting the tunnel, the road immediately becomes a series of steep switchbacks, dropping us rapidly along the wall of the "east temple" and giving us up-close views of the canyon walls as we zig-zagged down its face. Near the bottom, I found a pull-out area and stopped to take photos which, of course, cannot do it justice!

The visitor center is just before the western exit to the park, and I pulled in and cruised the very crowded parking lot, looking for a spot. At the western end of Zion, park tour buses take visitors along a scenic route not open to cars. I considered doing this, but the crowds were a deterrent, and so opted not to wait.

Passport stamped, I headed out, with St. George my destination for the night. Along the way, in a town named Hurricane, I saw a DQ sign, so pulled in. A cold drink and ice cream were just what I needed. the temps had gone from pleasant to hot and I was ready for a break. An older gentleman chatted with me about motorcycles. BMW is his favorite marque, and although he no longer rides two wheels, he does do 4-wheeling in the area. He told me the names of some of the peaks that were visible from the parking lot, and talked a bit about the changes that have come to the area.

Just a few short miles down I-15 to St. George.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Trip to Great Southwest - Williams AZ and Montezuma

Can you say pie? How about more than 45 different pies to choose from? That was what tempted us after dinner last night at the Pine Country Restaurant in Williams, AZ. We had a good turnout, approximately 20 women, and about half of those with their spouses. Our motorcycles pretty much filled the hotel parking lot and while we were standing around outside after dinner, a policeman pulled in, cruised through slowly, then exited...two different times within an hour. Remember, I said that the Hell's Angels are in town, right??

When I finally got moving this morning, I went outside to the parking lot to see was hanging around. One of the women joined me in walking over to the McDonalds for breakfast, and about the time we were finishing, we started seeing some of our gals leaving in small groups. Some headed to Jerome, some to Walnut Canyon after my review last night over dinner. Another group headed to Flagstaff, and two ladies opted to go up to Grand Canyon despite an unfavorable review of the crowd and the cost by two people who went the day before. I opted to ride down to Verde Valley, about 50 miles south of Flagstaff, to visit Montezuma Castle National Monument, and add another stamp to my NPS passport.

I was the last bike out of the hotel parking lot, and it was only 9:30 AM! Oh well, I'm a retiree now, I'm permitted to dilly dally some. It was cool but not unpleasant as I headed east on I-40 to Flagstaff. Here I'd pick up I-17 south, which would take me down to Montezuma. The elevation in Flagstaff is just at 7,000 feet. In fact, just west of Flagstaff is the Arizona Divide, at 7,335 feet. As I rode south, I could feel that I was losing altitude. Shortly, the signage indicated 6% grade and curves ahead, and trucks were warned to start checking their brakes, and that there was a runaway truck ramp 10 miles ahead. Okay.

The descend was rapid: 4,000 foot change in altitude in less than 10 miles! The temperature changed dramatically, as well, and I was sweltering by the time I exited the interstate. Montezuma Castle is only a few short miles off the interstate, but I was anxious to get there so that I could strip off the pull-over fleece and riding jacket.

When I pulled into the parking lot, which had a downhill slant to it, the posted speed was 15 mph. Funny...my bike, which normally has excellent compression braking effect in first gear in this situation was charging ahead, and I had to apply the brake to keep my speed down. When I finally found a parking spot with the right slant and camber (you short folks know what I mean), I noticed my motorcycle was idling at 2,000 rpm. No wonder!

Okay, I'll deal with it later. For now, I want to see this cliff dwelling. Off with the boots, on with running shoes, hat, camera, binoculars, sunglasses, NPS passport. Check! The visitor center was small and already crowded. I got my stamps, used my National Park Pass to pay my admission, and walked out the back door to the path that would take me to the site.

It's a very well-preserved cliff dwelling high up on the side of a limestone cliff. further along, there were canyon floor-level dwellings that were pretty much in ruins. But still, it was a worthwhile ride through beautiful Ponderosa Pine forest to see this.

Back on the bike, starting her up, I notice that the rpm was still high. I thought to myself that it may be an ECU re-calculation problem due to the rapid change in altitude. I thought that perhaps when I got back to 7,000 feet, it would be okay. The round-trip today was 183 miles, so when I returned to Williams I stopped for gas and noticed that the idle was down around 1600 rpm, still high, but not as high as it was earlier. Returning to the hotel, I pulled out my MOA Anonymous book and phone the nearest BMW dealer, which is in Scottsdale. I got a technician on the phone, named Jason or Justin, and explained the phenomenon. I also told him that the bike had been running flawlessly up to the fast idle at Montezuma, and that it had just had the 42,000 mile service, including throttle-body sync before I left for the trip. He said it was, indeed, most likely due to the altitude change. The ECU needs awhile to recalculate the air-gas mix when there's a change in barometric pressure. He said that it could take a couple of hours, or up to 200 miles for that to happen. But, should it not sort itself out, I should get it in to a dealer. He didn't think 1,600 rpm was that far off spec for the bike. And subscribing to a variation of the "bread crumb" theory, I also put a call in to Mike and described what happened and what the mechanic said. Just in case. I am, afterall, heading to some desolate areas tomorrow morning, as I ride from Flagstaff up to Page, Kanab, through Zion, and down to St. George for the night.

I walked to the center of Williams this afternoon, to check out Historic Route 66 area, and was "treated" to a Hell's Angels "parade." About 30 bikes roared through this tiny town, every one of them tweaking their throttles and racking their pipes as they each came through the stop sign at the center of town. I stood on the corner and watched. Not something I'm apt to see again, so why not gawk?

Friday, May 18, 2007

Trip to Great Southwest - AZ National Parks

A sleep-in day on Friday! I had the advantage of another time-zone difference, since AZ does not do Daylight Savings time, so was in no real hurry to pack up and leave Gallup NM. When I did finally leave the motel at 8:30, the parking lot was empty, the Run for the Wall group obviously getting an earlier start than I was.

I hopped on to I-40 and headed west, my next stop Petrified Forest National Park. Not being too sure about the gas situation, and knowing I needed to enter the park with a reasonably full tank, I started looking for a suitable exit. By suitable, I mean a gas station that looked like it might have fresh gas in holding tanks that didn't have 50 years' worth of crap accumulated in them. It seemed like every exit had a derelict gas station attached to a tacky "indian" souvenir shop. I wanted big, and new, and clean. Eventually, well into AZ, I saw a Conoco sign sticking up in the air, and the complex looked relatively new and busy.

About 20 miles later, I saw my exit for the park. It was around 8:45 MST, and I had all morning, so I entered the park with the mind-set to really linger, take all the turnouts, snap lots of photos. First stop was the visitor center up on my riding gear. Her advice was to be sure to stop at the Desert Inn overlook and the Blue Mesa side loop. She said that many of the turnouts I would be able to see the view from the motorcycle, something I could appreciate, since hauling off helmet, gloves, jacket at each stop gets tiresome. With my passport book stamped, I went back out to the bike and headed toward the entrance station. The female ranger manning the booth is a rider, and of course we had to talk about riding!!
Before I rode to the visitor center, I had stopped at the entrance to get a photo of my bike and the park sign. As I was doing this, a rider on a BMW GS rode by and I never did see him again inside the park. He didn't stop at the visitor center so I had to wonder if he was an employee. What a way to commute and what a job to commute to!

I spent several hours in this park, pulling over at nearly every overlook, getting photos, wandering down paths, and just generally flower sniffing! The various sections of the park were each slightly different in look and color. South of I-40 the domes were more like lava mounds, and the colors were more blues, purples, violets, while the north side of I-40 the desert was painted in bright reds and oranges. The ranger was absolutely correct about the blue mesa turn-off. I spent alot of time up on the top, taking photos and reading the plaques.

The last stop inside the park was the Rainbow Forest Museum, where I got more stamps and walked outside behind the building, where a path winds among large pieces of petrified wood, an opportunity to see them up close. A newer building nearby houses a gift shop and snack bar, so I took a break and had a cold drink and a pastry (breakfast!). While sitting there I heard several different languages spoken, though the park was not crowded at all.

So, leaving the park at the south end, I had a 20 mile ride up to Holbrook and I-40, where I was faced with possibly the most boring stretch of this trip. It was 80 miles to my next stop, Walnut Canyon National Monument, just east of Flagstaff. Flat, featureless, desolate. These words describe this part of AZ, and the state police were in abundance along this stretch. The temptation to go fast, given the boredom of the road, must make the state some good revenue, because these boys were busy!

The terrain just east of Flagstaff changes abruptly from flat to mountainous, and as I rode across the state, there were elevation signs on the side of the road that let me know that I had ascended through 5,000 ft, then 6,000 ft, then 7,000 ft at Walnut Canyon. The road into the national park was beautiful. Winding and forested, it was a sharp contrast to what I had just seen two hours ago at Painted Desert. I parked the bike at the visitor center and went inside to talk to the rangers and learn what the park was all about. There are two trails, the easier, 0.7 mile one on the rim of the canyon, and the more difficult 0.9 mile trek down into the canyon where the cliff dwellings are. That was an easy decision for me. I walked back to the bike, slipped out of my riding gear, put on my running shoes and ball cap, grabbed the camera and a bottle of water, and headed toward the trek down into the canyon. I wanted to see those cliff dwellings up close!

Access to the canyon is down a steep 0.5 mile switch-back flight of stairs that take you literally down the side wall of the canyon. The further down I got, the hotter it got. I was glad for the coolmax short-sleeved t-shirt and shorts I was wearing. But the up-close access to the cliff dwellings was well worth the effort to get down there. The views were just spectacular from that vantage point. A loop trail took us around a sort of "island" formation in the canyon, the walls of which were filled with the little cubby-hole dwellings. Signs along the route told the story of these indians who farmed and hunted this land 1400 years ago.

The loop completed, I was now faced with climbing those stairs straight up...and the elevation here is over 7,000 feet! My body knew that there was much less oxygen in that air than it was used to in Houston! A couple of rest breaks on the way back up, but I made it relatively okay. I was mightily impressed with what I had seen, with the views (I couldn't stop taking photos!!) and with the beauty of this area.

Getting geared back up and onto the bike, I now had only a relatively short ride to Williams AZ and my destination.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Trip to Great Southwest - Days 1 and 2

It felt good to be back in the saddle and headed into the Southwest after the "snow-and-ice" experience to Illinois in April (luv ya, Claye!!). The 5:30 AM departure was surprisingly easy to accomplish after being slothfully retired and sleeping in every morning. That was worrisome and I slept fitfully all night - an early start was necessary, since I'd be heading straight through downtown Houston coming from the south, in order to head north to Ft. Worth and then to Amarillo.

My first stop was in Huntsville to put on more clothing. There was a noticeable drop in temperature as I headed north. One hundred miles later, the low fuel light came on, which was about 25-30 miles sooner than I'd anticipated. A strong headwind was responsible for that. Despite this seemingly slow pace, I still made it to Decatur at nearly the appointed hour, to meet my friend Brenda. She'll be riding with me as far as Amarillo, spending the night there, then turning around to ride home to McKinney. It will be a good opportunity for her to become familiar with her new BMW R1200RT. It's a beauty, and it fits her well.

Brenda took the lead and set a perfect pace as we headed northwest up 287. Her GPS took us to a Subway for lunch in Wichita Falls, where we took a leisurely lunch and discussed the merits of Garmin Zumo vs. Quest II GPS's. We topped that off with a DQ at our next gas stop, a fitting Texas-style mid-afternoon break.

The hotel in Amarillo was right next door to a Cracker Barrel, so we were all set for both dinner and breakfast the next morning. The Texas state HOG rally will be in Amarillo this weekend and we were already seeing large groups of Harleys parked in the hotel and restaurant parking lots. I was to see many groups of Harley riders headed east toward Amarillo as I rode west toward NM.

The next morning, we packed up, hugged and said goodbye, and I continued on I-40 toward Gallup, NM and Brenda headed for home.

I-40 between Amarillo and Albuquerque is one long nearly-continuous stretch of construction! It
slowed my pace considerably, and I was watching the clock very closely, since I wanted to be sure to make El Morro National Monument in time to walk the trail to the base. I ran into a cold rain near Tucumcari, and had to pull over to add a layer. What the heck, I went ahead and put on my Gerbing liner and changed out my gloves to a winter waterproof glove and was so thankful I'd done that, as the rain, mixed with small hail in places, continued all the way to Albuquerque. A sole, sad-sack Harley rider was sitting huddled up under the overhang, wearing nothing but a t-shirt and a cheap plastic poncho. He watched as I took off my textile jacket, pulled on a fleece pull-over, put on my Gerbing liner, and put my jacket back on. He continued to watch me as I put my neck buff on, pulled my helmet back on, plugged myself into to bike, and rode off. Wonder how long he sat there!

Once I dropped down off that mountain ridge coming into Albuquerque, the rain stopped, the temperatures climbed, and the sun popped out. I got off I-40 to head up to Petroglyph National Park to get my stamp. Here I chatted a little with the ranger and bought a beautiful book to peruse later. I knew I didn't have time to continue up the road to where the trails started, and was sorry for that.

So, after a fill-up at the Flying-J-from-Hell, on the western edge of Albuquerque (more wasted time), I got back onto I-40 and pressed on to Grants, NM where I'd be getting off the interstate and onto beautiful SR-53 to drop down to El Malpais National Monument and El Morro National Monument.

El Malpais, or "badlands," is stunning! And so is SR-53 to get there. Out of nowhere, the hills become populated with tall pine trees, and I had to wonder if I'd been transported to another part of the country. Along the eastern side of the road, a huge mesa with colorfully striped layers of sandstone and rock looms above the flat plain. Gradually the terrain becomes more hilly, the road more windy and wooded. El Malpais is a protected conservation area filled with lava cones and domes and is indescribably pretty.

Continuing on another 25 miles or so on SR-53, I approached El Morro and could see it off in the
distance. It is a giant sandstone bluff, which juts straight up more than 200 feet above the land and was a landmark for the local natives eons ago, bearing the inscriptions of indians and spanish explorers. The trail closes at 5:00 and I arrived just too late to get onto the trail, which would take me to the base where these inscriptions are. But, still, it was impressive and very photogenic.

Continuing west on SR-53 for another 20 or so miles, I rode through historic Ramah, settled by the Ramah Navajo Indian trip. I continued to SR-602 which would take me up to Gallup for my second night's stay. I ran into a small patch of hail and rain as I headed north, but thankfully it didn't last long, since the hail stones were larger than those I'd encountered on I-40, and they hurt!

As I approached the town, I headed east on a small road which would take me to the eastern end of Old Route 66 were it intersects with I-40 on the eastern edge of town. Here I could pick it up and ride it through Gallup's little downtown and on to the western edge where it intersects again with I-40. This stretch is one of the longest continuous original pieces of this historic highway. The town of Gallup is well-preserved and thrives on events held here throughout the year.

I couldn't help but notice the large number of motorcycles in town, and when I checked in at the hotel, the clerk asked me if I was here for the Ride to the Wall. Well that would explain it! I checked at the official website and Gallup NM was the scheduled stop for May 17.

It is now Friday morning and I will be headed toward Williams, AZ with stops at Painted Desert National Park, Petrified Forest, and Walnut Canyon National Park before I continue into Williams this afternoon. A dozen or so women from all over the southwest will be congregating in Williams this weekend and I'm really looking forward to seeing some of these women again, and meeting others for the first time.

This will be an interesting weekend in Williams, since we have learned that the Hell's Angels have their Red & White meeting in Williams at the same time we'll be there. We've been told that they've taken over every vacant hotel room in town, and that there will be a high law enforcement presence. Hmmm....could be interesting.