Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Utah Beauty and Arizona Catastrophy: R1200R Plays in the Mud

It was a good stay in Cedar City, all in all, although the Quality Inn was a little ragged around the edges. But the price was right (free room), so I can't complain too much.

It would be a very long day of national parks and, although the mileage wouldn't be that great (about a 400 mile day), it would be arduous with all of my planned park stamps. I had "loaded" them into the front half of the route so that the latter part of the day could be freeway blasting to the hotel for the night in Holbrook AZ.

I was up and on the road fairly early and onto beautiful UT 14 in just minutes after leaving the hotel. I've heard about this road but never ridden it before. What a road! It passes through a narrow river gorge, getting quite tight at one point, with high "walls" on either side right up against the road bed...no shoulders, no forgiveness. As I gained altitude, the temperature dropped, getting downright chilly in the shaded sections of roadway. In 18 or so miles I was at the turn-off for Cedar Breaks National Monument and a few miles after that, I was in the parking lot of the visitor center, ready to see what promised to be a spectacular view off the edge of the high plateau. I was not disappointed!!

Wow! can only describe the view and the colors in the early morning sun. The deep rich oranges, reds, and yellows were offset by the green of the tall cedars that ringed the top edges of the deep gorge-like basin. It was hard not to get a good photograph!

I followed the highway through the park to the turn-off to UT 143 toward Panguitch. This was another kind of "great road," different from UT 14 in nearly every way. Miles and miles of high speed sweepers took me down off the backside of the mountain and around the perimeter of a beautiful lake, as the road took me toward town.

Once onto 89, I had to make a decision whether to turn off onto UT 12 toward Bryce Canyon or to stay on 89 and continue south to Kanab. It was going to be an ambitious day....I might just need to skip Bryce Canyon - save it for another trip - and continue southward. Which is exactly what I did.

After passing the entrance to Zion, I was on familiar ground, having ridden this portion of 89 in the opposite direction on my way to the western entrance to Zion several years ago. It didn't make it any less interesting, though. I love the odd and unusual wind-carved bluffs and buttes through this area. The swirls and horizontal concaves in the red rock appear almost man-made, but are too beautiful to be anything but nature-made.

Kanab was my gas and lunch stop and right next door was the BLM visitor center, which also holds the National Park stamp for Grand Staircase-Escalante. Perfect! I rode along the edge of Escalante all the way from Kanab to Page AZ. Beautiful deep red striated buttes, its red "points" jutting out into the flat terrain beneath them.

Next stop was the Carl Hayden Visitor Center for Glen Canyon NRA, just west of Page AZ. The dam and visitor center sit on the southern end of Lake Powell, where the Colorado River exits the lake and continues south toward Grand Canyon. I love the views from the visitor center, and the truly amazing bridge that spans the gap a frightening height above the river far below.

I stopped for gas in Page AZ and then continued straight south on 89, planning to turn off toward Wupatki National Monument and Sunset Crater National Park on the loop road that was closed for construction the last time I was here. These were my last two planned stops for the day before getting to Holbrook for the night. If the timing was right, I thought I might just make it to Walnut Canyon visitor center, as well, but I would know better once finished at Sunset Crater.

The road south out of Page passes through a a nice gorge as it drops south toward the desert floor and as I crested one of the hills before dropping down into the gorge, I could see black skies ahead of me...far ahead, near Tuba AZ and regions south of there.

I love the views looking south out of that gorge. The drop off is dramatic and the reds and oranges of the desert are soft, like pastels or chalk colors. I began to run into the rain as I neared Cameron, but it felt good, cooling the air from the day's heat. But as I continued south the winds started to really pick up, blowing from the west and kicking me around quite a bit on the roadway. Each time the road passed through a cut-through in the terrain I had a brief respite but had to brace myself for the inevitable blast once clear of the wind block.

As I neared my turn toward Wupatki, the rains were at their heaviest and looked to stretch east over the area of the national parks, so I decided to abandon that part of the route and continue south on 89. At the entrance to the south end of this loop road, near Sunset Crater, I spotted a fire truck and some other vehicles parked on the side of the road on the northbound side, but thought nothing of it. At this point the road begins a gentle but definite drop as it heads toward Flagstaff. Suddenly, as I crested a small rise, I could see some cars pulled over on the shoulder and folks out of their cars looking...at what?? As I got closer I could see the attraction. A small neighborhood was being inundated with mud and water and already I could see that the mud and water had breached some of the homes.

Just a short distance later - no more than a mile down the road - a large river of muddy water was washing across the roadway. It was only then that I noticed the ditches on either side of the road were out of their banks, filled with rapidly running mud and water pouring down the hillside, in the gullies, in the fields, and - here - spilling over onto the road. Traffic was relatively light, but we all slowed down, the muddy river giving all of us "pause" to consider the consequences of driving through it. I slowed way down, let the cars in front of me get well ahead, and watched as they drove through it, and as cars coming the other way navigated through. I thought I could make it, provided I could keep a steady speed and we did not all come to a sudden slow-down or stop.

So...with a good-sized gap between me and the cars ahead, I proceeded to cross the "wash." It wasn't too bad at first. I could see the muddy wake of my front tire splashing all the way up to my bike's dash and the muddy water washing over my gas tank. At about the halfway point I realized that my front end was pointed straight ahead but my rear end was off-center to the right, in the direction of the flow of mud and water. I knew that if I didn't keep a steady throttle, if I let off just a tiny bit, it would be all over for me. After what seemed like an eternity, I reached dry pavement again and breathed a sigh of relief at having succeeded doing something that in hindsight was very risky.

Another mile down the road and traffic was at a complete stop. The road curved a bit to the right and I could see up to the head of the line, about 1/2 mile away. Numerous fire trucks, Forest Service trucks, and other utility vehicles were zipping up and down the road and, since only a half dozen or so cars pulled up behind me, I could only surmise that they'd closed the road behind me, as well. I stopped the bike, put the sidestand down, and got off, removing my helmet and jacket and preparing for what might be a long wait. We all correctly guessed that it was closed because of more flash flooding of the roadway. I was glad that I'd decided to forego the park loop for Wupatki and Sunset Crater. I could only guess what the flooding might have been like up there.

Off the bike, I was able to assess the state of my motorcycle, and picked twigs, sticks, pine needles and other debris out of the radiator, suspension, wiring, and wheels. My riding pants were muddied all the way up to my crotch and my riding jacket was muddied up to my waist. The bike itself was a mess!! This is the second time in as many months that my little R1200R has done some most un-ladylike riding in the mud!

We waited a little more than an hour as backhoes and shovels worked to clear the mud off the road ahead of us. In the meantime I was enormously entertained by the three horses in the pasture right along side the road who were cavorting, playing, and whinnying around in the water. Their pasture was partially flooded and they appeared to be having a blast playing in the mess.

There had apparently been a large forest fire in this area earlier this year, which destroyed the vegetation and stripped the land of its ability to absorb rain fall and prevent flooding. This flash flood was predicted - well not this particular one - but flooding was predicted if there were heavy rains and today brought the area 2" of rain in a relatively short period of time. News reports say that a 12 year old girl drowned by getting too close to the drainage ditch and I'm certain that the fire- and rescue truck activity I saw racing up the road, followed by the ambulance were directly related to that tragedy. http://www.azcentral.com/news/articles/2010/07/20/20100720shultz-fire-area-sflash-flood-abrk.html

Then we were underway again, and I knew that my park stamping was over for the day. I had to ride over three more muddy areas that were only an hour before inundated with muddy water racing downhill and across the roads, but now cleared by the backhoes. At the bottom of one of the worst flooded areas, a gas station sat like an island, all of its access driveways completely torn away by the flood waters. There were two cars stranded on this little gas station island.

Walnut Crater was closed, since it was well past 6:00 PM.  It was looking like more rain east on I-40, so I just pressed on toward Holbrook. But I had a good "haul" today, getting national park stamps at Cedar Breaks, Escalante, and Glen Canyon.

It was a nice Holiday Inn Express in Holbrook and I was apologetic to the desk clerk for my appearance. I really did look pretty rough, with the mud-caked boots and riding pants, helmet hair covered with a ball cap. But once in the room, I stripped down, jumped in the shower, and brought my riding pants and jacket in with me. Rivers of dirt and mud streamed toward the tub drain, while I washed my hair and used my feet to knead the dirt and grime out of the riding gear. All of us emerged clean, or mostly so, and I hung the pants and jacket to dry, got dressed in clean shorts and shirt, and headed out on foot for dinner. Kentucky Fried Chicken sounded just about right!

Tomorrow: The "barn" is getting closer as I ride through eastern AZ, New Mexico and then into TX.

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