Scottish weather on scenic Utah-12

Day 45 – Saturday 17th August 2013 – Torrey, UT to Mount Carmel Junction, UT

I was seriously beginning to think I really had brought the Scottish summer with me. The outlook from our hotel balcony that morning was dark with grey skies. We could see the rain and lightning not far to the west. Before we’d finished breakfast, the rain had reached us – and it was heavy. We didn’t need to check out until 11am, so we decided we’d try and wait it out, but the forecast wasn’t good. Two or three big bands of rain were forecast to be moving across southern Utah. In the north of the state, there had been wildfires, and they badly needed the rain, but instead, in places they were getting “dry” thunderstorms – lightning strikes without any rain, and these were a major cause of the wildfires.

From Utah, August 2013

Our plan for the day was to take Utah route 12 south to Bryce Canyon. I had ridden the 12 in the opposite direction last time, and I knew Doreen would love it, if only the rain didn’t persist. With half an hour before we had to check-out, the rain petered out, so we loaded our gear onto the Trooper and made a start down UT-12.

We’d only ridden a couple of miles before we were hit by another band of rain, and we had to stop and struggle into the waterproofs. This was going to be the story of our day, intermittent rain all day long. I guess we ought to be used to it coming from Scotland. But all in all, we were pretty lucky since we had dry spells at some of the most scenic points along UT-12. And even riding along in rain, with all the aspens and great views wasn’t such a hardship.

From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013

I was really glad that we had a dry spell when we reached the Million Dollar Road and the Hogsback. This was something I wanted Doreen to see properly. When I’d ridden it 2 years earlier, I’d confused this road with the Million Dollar Highway in Colorado, but they are not the same road, and I now knew better having ridden both.

The part of UT-12 east of Escalante used to be called the “Million Dollar Road to Boulder” when it was built by the Civilian Conservation Corp in the late 1930s. When the road was opened in 1940, it gave the town of Boulder, Utah, its first year-round mail service to be delivered by motor vehicle. Until then, Boulder was the last community in the US to have its mail delivered by mule train. The last section of UT-12, north of Boulder was still gravel until 1985. That would have been a section of road I wouldn’t have wanted to ride the Trooper along.

From Utah, August 2013

One of the best sections of the Million Dollar Road is known as the Hogsback. Here the road runs along the top of a narrow spine of rock between two canyons. There is almost no shoulder and steep 2000-foot drops to either side. The photos below really don’t do it justice, maybe taking a look around with Google street view gives a better impression.

From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013

From the Hogsback, the UT-12 drops down with sharp curves and steep gradients for the next 4 miles. Great riding.

From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013

As we got closer to Bryce Canyon, we hit more of the Scottish weather. After 10 miles of riding, with the rain only getting heavier, we pulled into a gas station at Tropic to seek shelter and to try to wait it out. Its a pity that this was one of the few gas stations that didn’t serve fresh coffee, as we had to wait over an hour before it brightened enough for us to want to continue. We rode on in drizzle, and as we approached the turn off for the Bryce Canyon National Park, we could see the rain hanging heavy over the park. Just before you get to the main entrance of the park and have to pay for entry, is Bryce City, a tourist destination with “Ye Olde West” storefronts, over-priced hotels and a rodeo every night. We took shelter again, and this time managed to get a coffee. Over coffee, we pondered what to do. Our planned final destination for the day was meant to be Cedar City, which was still 80 miles away and it was beginning to get late with signs the weather was only going to get worse. The sensible thing to have done would have been to get back on the road and high-tail it to Cedar City, but Bryce Canyon is one of the most spectacular views in southern Utah and it would be a real shame for Doreen to miss it, so we waited. And then waited some more, until finally, after another hour, we got a brief gap in the rain and we went for it.

The park was 14 different vista points along an 18 mile route. The recommended time to do this route is 3 to 4 hours. We didn’t have anywhere near that time. We could have probably managed an hour, without rain, before we had to get back on the road in order to reach Cedar City before dark, but as it was, there was an angry looking thunderhead fast approaching from the south. We decided to take a look from one viewpoint, and then make a dash for it to try to beat the rain. We figured all the views were of the same thing, only from different directions. One viewpoint should be enough to give the main impression – which was pretty much the story of the whole trip. A whistle stop tour, just skimming the surface and hopefully just enough to give an impression of the real America.

From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013

Doreen’s verdict was that it was well worth seeing Bryce Canyon, even if only for a short time. But I was beginning to feel a little ripped off by the National Park Service. We were charged $25 for our 20 minutes in Bryce Canyon. Now I suppose that’s our fault for not staying longer, since the ticket is good for 7 days, but I really don’t think a motorcycle, carrying 2 people at most,  should be charged the same as a RV or bus carrying, potentially, a horde of people. At some other National parks, I’d been charged $12 per person on the bike, whereas a car or RV would have been charged $25. I really should have bought an annual pass when I visited my first park. They cost $80 and they are good for a whole year across the whole country. I would have saved myself a fortune and probably popped into more parks, especially on the east coast where time would be shorter.

As we scuttled around taking photos of the canyon, we could hear the huge cracks of thunder and see the black sky to the south moving toward us. We needed to get back on the road, so $25 for 20 minutes it would be.

We hadn’t booked any accommodation ahead, but set off in the direction of Cedar City. As soon as we turned out of the park, it began to rain again and continued to rain as we passed through Red Canyon. With the rain there was little point stopping for photos, but I had taken some during my last visit.

From South Utah
From South Utah
From South Utah

With the rain beating down, we were eager to get off the road as soon as possible. We passed through several small towns, but they all seemed to be lacking one or more of my holy ride trinity – bed, beer and food. We saw a few motels, but not anywhere near the other two.

We pressed on still in the direction of Cedar City. The rain had somehow creep up my waterproofs and had soaked the back of my jeans. We needed gas, and when we pulled into fill up, I checked the weather radar – one of the more useful apps I’d downloaded for the phone. It was showing huge clouds and rain between us and Cedar City. We hadn’t really needed to look at the radar, we could hear the thunder and see the lightning.

The road over to Cedar City looked twisty from the map, and the road sign declaring sharp curves and steep grades confirmed it. I didn’t much fancy that in a thunder storm, so I decided to try to make a dash for it to the south, and see what we could find.

The first suitable place we came to was Mount Carmel Junction. We rode in around 8pm, and at first sight it didn’t look very appealing – just a run down motel and a family restaurant sans bierre. But then Doreen spied a Best Western a little further along the road – it had a restaurant attached, serving beer and wine. It didn’t really matter how much it cost, we’d have taken it that evening. With a guest laundry and a decent wifi, it was paradise by the roadside for us wet and weary travellers.

 

Monumental

Day 43 – Thursday 15th August 2013 – Cortez, CO to Blanding, UT

The ride out of Cortez was much like the ride in. Scrubby desert and lots of low rise buildings, We passed a place selling small wooden cabins as affordable homes. Later in the south, I’d see even smaller, tiny sheds on sale as homes.

We carried on, out of Cortez and into the arid desert, and on to the Navajo Nation indian reservation. The flat desert, with its scattered sagebrush, stretching for mile after mile. Handfuls of trailers and cabins appearing like lonely shanty towns in the bleakness of the desert.

We turned off onto US Route 160, searching for the spot that 4 states come together. The barren desert still seeming to run for miles and miles in all directions without interruption. And then all of a sudden, in the midst of this wilderness, there was the turn off into the National Monument.

Unlike many other National Parks and Monuments, the Four Corners National Monument is run by the Navajo Nation. The admission fees are less than many of the National Parks, but you have to do without the glossy handouts. Four Corners marks the point where the states of Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. It’s the only place in the US where 4 state lines come together like this .

The car park for the monument is gravel, which is never my favourite place to leave the Trooper. I parked well back on a piece that looked like it had concrete underneath. Others got right up close to the monument enclosure.

From Arizona, August 2013

The monument itself is a granite disk marking the spot where the 4 corners of the 4 states join, and of course we had to pose for photos, with Doreen straddling the 4 states at once.

From Arizona, August 2013
From Arizona, August 2013

The monument is surrounded by an enclosure of stalls purveying Native American arts and crafts. This was going to be a common sight in the Navajo Nation, if my memory served correctly, with clusters of stalls every few miles near the major tourist attractions like Grand Canyon. Most of the stalls are wooden, jerry-rigged affairs, whereas these were purpose built from brick.

The American Indian art work is beautiful, but we were 2 people travelling on 1 bike for 4 weeks, so space was at a premium and we didn’t spend long perusing things we could not carry. What we needed was a cold drink, the temperature was reaching the high 90s F (mid 30s C). It had been a 40 mile ride in the Colorado corner from Cortez to the monument, and it would be another 80 miles in the Arizona corner until we reached the next “big” town of Kayenta, and it was only going to get hotter. We found a stall selling indian fry bread, which also had bottled water. We drank one each, and took another for the road.

Riding on through the desert of the reservation, I couldn’t help but think again what a bum deal the indigenous population got all those years ago. Whilst some of the indian reservations may contain sacred sites, so many of them are on poorest of land – the white invaders having taken all the best bits for themselves.

From Arizona, August 2013

We rode for perhaps 50 miles without seeing much in the way of settlement, just a few homesteads here and there, and then out of almost nowhere, we rode past what seemed a fairly large, new build settlement called Red Mesa. It’s location in the desert seeming almost random. There were perhaps 50 or so homes, a health centre and a school, but as far as we could see no businesses and no shops. We wondered what the people here did for a living, where they shopped or ate. We guessed it must be Kayenta, another 25 miles further along the road.

Large parts of the desert are just flat with the scattered sagebrush, and interspersed with ravines, but there’s also parts where red rock seems to erupt from the ground as mesas. The Red Mesa settlement is near one such large mesa. We’d sped past before thinking that a photo might have been in order, but a little further along we came to a smaller mesa, which should give the idea.

From Arizona, August 2013
From Arizona, August 2013

Across the road from this were a line of low pale rocks, formed I guess, from ancient sand dunes. Looking across at these, I was sure I could see a face carved into the rock – was it natural or man-made?

From Arizona, August 2013

Kayenta was smaller than I remembered. The last time had been after a torrential downpour near Monument Valley. The rain had been so bad I hadn’t even attempted to turn off to see the valley. Riding the US-163 past it had been like riding through a river. Both the Trooper and I had been covered in red mud. In Kayenta, I’d tried every motel, but no rooms were free, either taken by people similarly fleeing the monsoon, or else the hotels were put off by the red mud-covered biker seeking shelter, and just said they were full. The story was the same when I reached Tuba City. I had to ride over a hundred miles before finding a free room, after dark, at the Anazasi Inn.

This time, we had a chance to take a better look at Kayenta. Since it was the main town for many miles, it was surprising that it seemed to consist of just a couple of small general stores, and a few motels and fast food joints. But the place did seem to have plenty of churches from numerous denominations. Missionaries, from presumably a begone age, had done their job well and must have converted a lot of the native population to be able to fill these churches, since over 90% of the population of Kayenta is Native American.

From Arizona, August 2013

I guess we are so used to living in heavily populated Britain, where apparently the average distance to the nearest supermarket is under 5 miles and 67% of Britons could walk to it, that we struggle to understand what it must be like to live in some areas of the vast USA. There really aren’t many areas of Britain anywhere near as remote, except perhaps up in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland, and even there the distances are not on the same scale as remote parts of the US.

After the hot, 80 mile ride from Four Corners to Kayenta, we were both in need of a long, cold drink, and once again McFranchise got my dollars due to the guaranteed wifi. It was surprisingly busy – obviously the place to be in Kayenta at 2pm on a hot Thursday afternoon, as there didn’t seem to be much else to do, except perhaps attend church.

I wanted to take a look at hotel options further ahead, the recollection of struggling to find a room in these parts, made me remember that our intended destination for the day, Mexican Hat, was also scarce on hotel options. I’m glad I did look, as I discovered that not only are there less than a handful of hotels in Mexican Hat, but they are also very expensive for what seemed to be very basic places. Bluff further up the road didn’t look much better, so we decided we would try to head for Blanding, and even booked ourselves a room on-line, after checking that there was a bar within walking distance of the hotel.

It’s only about 30 miles from Kayenta to the turn off for Monument Valley. As we approached, we could see the buttes in the distance. Doreen was apparently getting excited at the prospective of seeing this iconic piece of the American west. As a kid, she had watched a lot of old westerns with her father. John Ford’s movies defined what a lot of Europeans see as the Wild West. Soon she would be standing looking at the backdrop to the movie Stagecoach.

From Arizona, August 2013

As we pulled over to take the picture above, we noticed a crude wooden shelter, with half a dozen or so dogs and sheep tried up beneath it. These were the first sheep I had seen in America – lamb and mutton is all but non-existent on menus, except, oddly, in some of the upmarket big city restaurants. I don’t know why this is. I would have thought that sheep would have thrived in some of America’s rugged terrain, but Americans just don’t seem to have a taste for it.

From Arizona, August 2013

Some French tourists in a rental car had also pulled over at this stop. The kids seemed to think it would be a good idea to climb the fence to go pet the dogs. Until, that is, every single dog there, yapped and growled as the  kids got near the fence. Just doing their job, I guesss, guarding the sheep.

Monument Valley is another national monument that is run by the Navajo Nation. We turned off the US-163, and rode the mile or so to the tribal park entrance. Only after paying our $10 entry, did we notice the small sign telling us that the loop road around Monument Valley is unpaved (i.e. dirt or gravel), and not only that, but heavily pot-holed and rutted, and not suitable for RVs or motorcycles. That was disappointing. They could have informed of this sooner, as I’m pretty sure that the distant views of the valley as just as impressive, but then they wouldn’t have had our money. They really ought to charge a little more and invest that money in upgrading the facilities and paving the road.

We went up to the visitor’s centre and took some photos from there. Doreen wasn’t that disappointed, and felt that seeing the valley in person was everything she had anticipated.

From Arizona, August 2013
From Arizona, August 2013
From Arizona, August 2013
From Arizona, August 2013
From Arizona, August 2013
From Arizona, August 2013

I don’t know if the views are any better driving through the valley. I suspect not as impressive as the vista at a distance.

We also called into the visitor centre to find a drink and had to walk through the gift shop before reaching our goal. I was surprised to see pictures of John Wayne for sale there, even though he had been in Stagecoach, given his white supremacist views and the views he expressed on Native American land rights in an interview:

I believe in white supremacy, until the blacks are educated to a point of responsibility. I don’t believe giving authority and positions of leadership and judgment to irresponsible people … I don’t feel we did wrong in taking this great country away from [the Native Americans] … Our so-called stealing of this country from them was just a matter of survival. There were great numbers of people who needed new land, and the Indians were selfishly trying to keep it for themselves. – John Wayne

As we rode north toward Mexican Hat, Doreen looked back and noticed that the view of the valley when you approach from the north is nearly as impressive as it is from the tribal park, but the shoulder on this road is gravel, so not great to stop on with a bike. And I guess, the $10 you pay to get into the tribal park gets you the visitor’s centre, clean restrooms, refreshments, and of course, a huge gift shop.

Having decided not attempt to stay in Mexican Hat, we only stopped there briefly for more cold refreshment, but we saw a couple of the places where we could have stayed if they hadn’t been so expensive.

From Utah, August 2013
From Utah, August 2013

We also had only a fleeting glimpse of the rock that Mexican Hat is named after.

And since we were travelling further today than originally intended, we were trying to make up time and passed through Bluff pretty quickly, but I had taken photos there last time when I came down this road in the opposite direction.

It took us longer to reach Blanding than we had expected. Both Doreen and I were hot, tired and hungry, and very much in need of a cold beer and some food. We’d booked a room at the Stone Ridge Lizard motel online when we had been in Kayenta. The Stone Ridge Lizard turned out to be a great motel – one of the better ones we stayed at, but unfortunately, it was also in Blanding.

It didn’t take us too long to discover that Blanding was DRY!! I thought I had done my research on this, as when we had been looking at hotels, I had also searched Google maps for bars in Blanding and Google had come back showing the Homestead Steak House as a bar, and it was only a short walk from the motel. The closest thing the Homestead Steak House had to an alcohol beverage was an “apple beer” which contained neither any alcohol nor any apple. Needless to say I was a grumpy boy.

We even tried the gas station on the way back to the motel, and I am sure they were just trying to taunt me, for tucked away on the top shelf of the fridge, like some embarrassing porno mag, was some 6-packs of some kind of Utah non-alcoholic beer. I mean what’s the point!

We went make to the motel and made our own entertainment, but it would have been really good to have had some beer or a bottle of whisky in the saddle bag that day.

And I noticed when I was checking a few facts to write this, that the Homestead Steak House is no longer listed as a bar by Google. I wonder if it had anything to do with the review I left.

The Million Dollar Highway

Day 42 – Wednesday 14th August 2013 – Montrose, CO to Cortez, CO

Breakfast at the Briarwood motel was fairly basic, but it was free and the owner was as friendly and as chatty as he had been the previous evening. He had a world map in reception and he asked all his visitors to stick pins into to show where they came from. As you’d expect there were plenty from all over the US, but also many from the rest of the world – one even from slap-bang in the middle of China. Doreen stuck a pink pin into Edinburgh. We were the first visitors from Scotland. As we left, he insisted we take fruit and trail bars for the journey. I didn’t catch his name, but he’s a great guy running a great little independent motel.

From what we saw of the rest of Montrose, it was not the most exciting or picturesque of towns, but it was a convenient stopping point for us, and just a little way out of town we were again hitting impressive scenery – a wide valley nestling between the mountain ranges on either side, dotted with wooden houses, lush green fields and the occasional lake. We stopped to refuel the Trooper in Ridgeway and I took a few snaps of the views to either side.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As we approached Ouray, US-550 runs along side the Uncompahgre River with the vibrant red rock exposed on one side and the river running along the other.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Ouray is the start of the Million Dollar Highway and we stopped there looking for a mid-morning caffeine boost. Ouray is a delightful mountain town, retaining some of the original historic character lacking in many an American town. We sat outside to enjoy good, strong coffee, soaking up the mountain air and views.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

I finally managed to finish the American Bad Ass post whilst sitting trying not to just gaze at the mountains. Ah, the blogging life can be hard sometimes.

From Colorado, August 2013

While we were sitting there, a deer came limping across the main street. It’s back leg was obviously tender, probably from a run in with a car. It seemed oblivious to the people near by on the coffee shop patio, and was just intent on munching on the green grass. With it’s gamy back leg, we couldn’t help but wonder if it would make it through the winter.

From Colorado, August 2013

Immediately outside of Ouray, the road snakes steeply upwards, with a couple of good hair-pins. We couldn’t stop on the twisty road for photos, but we did at the turn-out at the top. We weren’t the only ones to do so.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

The sign there says Switzerland of America and the similarities are obvious.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

The Million Dollar Highway is the 25 miles of steep and twisty US-550 which connects Ouray with Silverton. It was built as a toll road in 1883 by Otto Mears at a cost of $10,000 per mile. The road was both a difficult engineering feat and a huge investment for it’s time. The mountains in that region of Colorado were rich in gold, silver, copper and zinc, but it was extremely difficult to get any of the mined metal back to civilization for sale. Mears reckoned he could recoup his massive investment by charging a toll to use the road – $5 per wagon and $1 per head of livestock. Despite the difficulty in building the road, the workers were under no threat of attack from local indians, as Mears had stuck a deal with Chief Ouray, the last of the great Ute chiefs.

From Colorado, August 2013

The pictures from back in the day look even scarier to travel than the road is today. As you wind your way up the corkscrew curves there is a massive drop on the right hand side, with no guard rail and no shoulder to speak of – just a huge plunge into the depths of the river valley below.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Despite the curves and the steep drop-off at the edge, there were big trucks using the road. We hoped we didn’t meet any of them on one of the switchbacks, as they seemed to want to take the whole road to navigate these bends.

As we progressed along the Million Dollar Highway, we found that once again the striking scenery is married with mining. We were in Colorado’s historic Red Mountain mining district.

From Colorado, August 2013

Mining started in the area in the 1800s and continued up until 1978. A number of mines and mining towns sprang up to mine the rich veins of copper, zinc, silver and gold, bringing an influx of over 3000 people. One of the mines was the Yankee Girl mine, which became one of the richest and most famous mines in silver mining history in the United States.

From Colorado, August 2013

There’s a scenic viewpoint that is well worth stopping at, where you can see the remnants of the mining work, with the Red Mountain behind, as well as some abandoned ramshackle houses.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Unfortunately, all those mine works left a nasty legacy in the form of pollution in the rivers and streams, many of which became sterile of life. Some have now been cleaned up, by diverting the water flow and keeping it away from the poisonous waste from the mining.

Just after leaving the outlook point, we were overtaken by an SUV, as we pulled out of the hairpin just out of shot in the last photo. He had Colorado plates, so obviously knew the road better than me, but still not exactly safe driving. I could see what he was going to do, so moved right over to let him pass, but Doreen took exception to the manoeuvre and gesticulated vigorously as he passed. A little later when we had stopped again, I commented on this. For sure, it wasn’t safe. If I had accelerated hard out of the bend rather than slowing and moving over, and if some other idiot had been coming fast the other way, when he tried that overtake, then someone could have been in serious trouble – most likely us as we were the exposed ones on a motorcycle.

I think we were both feeling particularly touchy about cretins overtaking on bends, as I had just read, and shown Doreen, a post from fellow blogger, Ursula Wachowiak, who started her solo motorcycle adventure around the USA in 2012, and who has been blogging about her journey at BROAD – Babe Riding Out A Dream. Ursula was on her way to Sturgis for the first time this year when she met a stupid arsehole overtaking a truck on a bend in Minnesota. She took the full impact of the resulting crash on her left leg. Her leg was amputated a week later due to her injuries. Go read her blog and help if you can.

Despite the utter contempt I have for people willing to risk the lives of others with dangerous overtaking, I suggested to Doreen that perhaps as visitors to the US, it was probably best not to let anger get the better of us and to inflame the situation with hand gestures. For one thing, you never know who is carrying a gun in the US and has had a bad day or has something to prove.

Even at home in Scotland, it is usually wiser not to rise to provocation (advice I do not always follow myself, but really should). Not long before I set off on this leg of the trip, Doreen and I were sitting at traffic lights on Waterloo Place in Edinburgh. The lights turned green, but we couldn’t go because some arsehole in a BMW had decided to pull out and block the intersection even though his lights were red. I just shook my head in frustration, but that was enough for his passenger to wind down his window and start mouthing off, threatening to get out of the car and come over and punch me off the bike. I had Doreen on the back of the Trooper at the time, and so said nothing and did nothing, and after another change of the lights the BMW went on it’s way with the passenger still mouthing off and trying to spit at us as they pulled off (a pathetic attempt as we were at least 6 feet away). Not responding to the provocation on this occasion was definitely the best course of action as no real harm was done.

If Doreen had not been sitting on the back of the Trooper, making it near impossible for me to just get off the bike, then things may have been different but probably not for the better, as I really hate dickheads in bling driving BMWs and thinking they are gangstas. But then again, perhaps they were. A few days later, we heard there had been a fatal shooting in Edinburgh a mile or 2 from where we live. A member of a local mosque, Mohammed Omar Abdi, who police had previously arrested in possession of several hundred thousand pounds worth of cocaine, had been shot dead after a car chase through the city. Perhaps one of the four man charged with his murder – Hussein Mohammed Ali, Ahmed Hussain Ahmed, Cadil Huseen, and Muhamud Muhamud – was the inbred that spat at us and  threatened to punch me off my bike . We have low lifes with guns in the UK too.

After our SUV incident, we continued riding through the mountainous splendour, and started to pass dozens of dirt bikes going in the opposite direction. Dirt biking seems to be a big activity around here judging from the number we ran into on the rest of the trip into Silverton.

After all the twists and turns coming out of Ouray, the road flattened out as we sped into the frontier town of Silverton. After some of the modern sprawling towns we’d seen in the US, both on this trip and the last, we loved the look of Silverton, which oozed wild west character.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

It was time for lunch, and after a stroll along the main street, we opted for BBQ at the 3 Pitts Again. The pulled pork was good. It seems that every state in the US has a claim to doing the best BBQ, and the 3 Pitts Again proudly displayed their BBQ championship awards on the walls in an effort to verify their claim.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As we rode out of Silverton, toward Durango, we were climbing again and there is an amazing view of the town nestling in the valley floor. There was no place to stop for a photo, so you’ll just have to take my word for it, or go and see it for yourselves.

A little further along the road and a photo opportunity soon presented itself with a convenient parking area at a scenic outlook. As we walked over from the parking to the viewpoint we both noticed how thin the air was. We were at an altitude of just over 11,000 feet and even that small amount of exercise had us fighting for air. How do people manage to bicycle up these inclines, as we saw some people doing?

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As you get closer to Durango, the road gets less bendy, with more log cabins, but the pine trees are big and impressive. We didn’t stop in Durango, on the road through we didn’t really see anything worth stopping for. Perhaps there was more of interest if we’d headed into the centre, but our plan for the day was to get to Cortez, to give us less of a ride the following day, so we pressed on.

On the road between Durango and Cortez is the Mesa Verde National Park. We pulled over to look. From what we could tell, within the park was a road up to the top of the mesa, but since we would invariably have to pay to enter the park, even for just to 20 or 30 minutes we’d stop for, we decided that the view of mesa from down on the road was probably good enough.

From Colorado, August 2013

The outskirts of Cortez were grim and seemed to consist of one big trailer park, and as we pulled into town, even Doreen was happy to see a McD, as it was time for an overdue refreshment stop. We were both hot and bothered, and at least, McD’s ice tea is refreshing. We made use of the free wifi to check out hotel and bar options for the evening. The National 9 Inn seemed to fit the bill, being both relatively cheap and close to a bar. The google reviews were mixed, but I’d stayed in places with worse reviews and had found them fine. I sometimes wonder whether people reviewing budget motels aren’t used to or expecting something more akin to the smarter chain luxury with the extra free toiletries. That kind of thing doesn’t bother me. My only caveat is that they are clean. Unfortunately, that was not true for the National 9 Inn.

Alarm bells should have gone off as soon as we walked in reception. The place reeked with the fetid stench of yesterday’s curry. Putrid aroma’s from old cooking is never welcoming, but curry must be one of the worse, especially as I detest the stuff. Doreen loves curry, but even she took a step back when the noxious stink hit us as we walked in. We were still prepared to give it a go as the rooms didn’t adjoin reception and should have been spared the stench, so we paid our $50.

As I unstrapped and unloaded the bike, Doreen carried the bags into the room. Her face said it all when I walked in with the last bag. We weren’t staying here. Looking around room, it seemed that every soft furnishing in the place had evil looking stains on it. Doreen checked the sheets and the bathroom which seemed superficially clean, at least on the surface. These stains on chairs, carpet, lamp shades, etc. had been here a while. Still, we weren’t staying – the continuing look of disgust on Doreen’s face confirmed that.

As I loaded the gear back onto the bike, Doreen went to get a refund. The guy in reception tried to argue, but Doreen cut him dead. She did concede a $2.50 charge for processing the credit card transactions. When Doreen came out to help me strap the last of the luggage to the Trooper, a middle aged Mexican lady came scurrying over to us asking us to show her what was wrong with the room. She turned out to be the maid, and the owner had obviously just given her a flea in the ear about the room’s cleanliness. We showed her, and explained it wasn’t the daily cleaning that was the problem, it was the nasty ingrained stains. She then told us that she been telling the owner this herself. Apparently he was the new owner of the place, and whereas the old owner had supplied proper cleaning products and stain removers, the new owner had cut back on everything and the unfortunate lady was unable to do her job properly. She also told us that they had new chairs in storage, but the owner was too tight fisted to bring them out until the old ones were falling apart. Before we left the room for the last time, the owner himself had come over, and we were glad to have had the opportunity to point out to him exactly what was wrong, and to do this in front of the maid. The problems with the place were his, not his cleaner’s.

We rode back up the road looking for somewhere else to stay and about a mile back we came to the Aneth Lodge. I’m not sure bikers are very welcome or expected from the suspicious look on the faces of the two ladies who were manning the motel’s reception desk. If biker’s aren’t welcome, then I guess our polite request in our British accents secured us a room for the night. It was a clean and tidy room – sheer heaven after the National 9 Inn.

We had further to walk to reach the Main Street Brewery, but it was worth it, both for a clean room and because the brew pub did some great beers, including a banana and chocolate beer. Dark chocolatey beers are more up Doreen’s street than mine – I prefer something paler and hoppy – but she had a head for red wine that night, so the interesting sounding banana and chocolate beer went untasted, although plenty others were.

On our way back to the motel, we bumped into 2 of the bikers we had met on the Black Canyon loop. We all hesitated recognising each other, but not quite sure from where, until it suddenly clicked. They were colorful characters, also on a road trip but measured in weeks rather than months. They had endless stories of hunting elk with bows and narrowly missing encounters with grizzly bears in the dead of night. One the guys insisted on showing us a rattle snake skin drying back home. He’d come away as soon as he caught it, so he hadn’t eaten the meat. His intention was to make a hat band from the skin.

The Black Canyon

Day 41 Tuesday 13th August 2013 – Glenwood Springs, CO to Montrose, CO

The ride from Glenwood Springs to Montrose should have been a leisurely cruise of around 200 miles, taking in the scenic loop along the Gunnison River and the Black Canyon that the river has carved.

It started well enough. A breakfast at Starbucks and then fast ride out of Glenwood Springs along the wide green valley, dotted with houses.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

At Carbondale, we sailed right past our turn off without even noticing it, and we were in Aspen before realising our mistake. I knew Aspen was not on our intended route, so something was a miss, but we made the best of it and stopped for an early lunch at the City Cafe – somewhere I thoroughly recommend if you are in the neighbourhood, they’ve got a great brunch menu.

Our unexpected stop in Aspen, gave me a chance to contrast it to Vail. Of the two, I’d much rather spend time in Aspen. Aspen gave the impression of retaining something that Vail had lost to development – it’s soul.

After a great corn beef hash, we retraced our route back to Cardondale. Our detour to Aspen had added over an hour of riding to our day, but it was still relatively early, so that didn’t matter too much. When we reached Carbondale, I almost missed the turn off onto the 133 again. The small signs for the 133 were placed right on the junction with no forewarning. This happens to me all too often in the US, the route signs are suddenly there on the exit, often with no warning and I’m cruising past in the wrong lane. More often than not, I notice the signs as I’m passing, and then have to do an about turn as soon as I can, but sometimes I get to visit unexpected places, like Aspen.

The poor route signage is in contrast to the speed warning signs on almost every bend in the US where you need to slow to below the speed limit. These warnings are really useful if you have never ridden the road before. Sometimes, like in parts of the Black Hills, these advisory speeds are bang on, and you suffer if you try to take the bend much above them. In other places, the advisory speeds are way too low, but at least there give you some idea of the severity of the bend. Britain could really do with adopting a similar approach – it’s a rare bend in the UK that contains an advisory speed warning and most country lanes just have the national speed limit of 60 mph even if it would be madness to attempt the roads at anywhere near this speed.

As we began our course along the 133, the mountains loomed ahead of us, but the sky was full of ominous dark clouds. The wide valley narrowed and we were soon riding along a river with mountains on either side.

From Colorado, August 2013

The clouds were closing in ahead, so we pulled over to gear-up. The spot we pulled into appeared to be next to a long line of huge, decrepit pizza ovens.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

On reading the handy nearby sign, we discovered that these overgrown pizza ovens, were in fact disused coke ovens which used to provide coke for the steel industry. The small town across the river had, at one time, housed the workers.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Continuing on through the valley, we passed a sign warning of road damage. We both saw it coming – I stood up on the pegs to avoid the worse of it, but Doreen was nearly bounced off the back of the Trooper. The roads I’d encountered on both my trips to the US had generally been good. Obama’s investment in public works projects, such as roads, had been good for me, at least, and had meant that I had ridden many newly surfaced roads. Someone had missed this stretch though.

Despite the bump and intermittent rain, we were still being treated to a feast of mountain scenery.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

We made our way steadily toward Hotchkiss. One stretch made a switchback, followed by a steep climb with great views of the valley below. There were roadworks on the climb with a 15 minute wait. This gave Doreen a chance to hop off the Trooper and take a few photos. The elderly passengers in the car in front used the wait in a different way. They got out of their SUV and took a geriatric aerobics class by the road side. They had a great view for it.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As we began the descent down toward Hotchkiss, we rounded a bend to find a huge open cast coal mine blighting the mountain scenery. The village a mile or two further along the road seemed to be there solely to service the mine, which looked like it was providing jobs for a whole community. Still the village and the mine seemed oppressive and grim, and in stark contrast to the lush valley with it’s vineyards, just a handful of miles further along on the approach proper into Hotchkiss.

From Colorado, August 2013

We stopped at Hotchkiss for refreshment, and debated whether to take the scenic loop along the Gunnison river, or whether to just continue straight onto Montrose. By now, the storm clouds had cleared, and a quick scan of the skies gave us enough confidence to attempt the loop, and I am so glad we did as it was a delight to ride. The road is twisty and runs along the rim of the Black Canyon for most of it’s course. Frequent turn-outs provide great views of the canyon, which is supposedly deeper than the Grand Canyon in places.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

Along the road we meet mainly other bikers, and whenever we encountered them in the turn-outs, we chatted, sharing stories of where we’d come from and where we were going, and offering help to take photos, so that travelling couples can be in the shot together. And of course, they returned the favour.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

At the end of the Black Canyon is a dam and the Blue Mesa Reservoir.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

The ride from the dam to Montrose along the southern rim of the canyon on US-50 is much faster but less scenic than the northern rim. We made good time and rolled into Montrose around 6pm. Montrose is a typical modern small American city, with low-rise sprawl along the main streets. A quick scout around and a few google map searches later, we choose the Briarwood Motel – a typical ‘mom n pop’ motel for around $50. The room was clean and tidy, and the owner was extremely friendly and helpful. At the price, it was a good find.

When we’d rolled into town, we’d noticed the Horsefly Brewing Company further along Main Street, but there was also the Firehouse restaurant right next door to the motel, so we opted for that. That was a mistake. The Firehouse bill themselves as specialising in pizzas, and have a proper pizza oven in the main bar area. The menu was pretty eclectic with dishes from all over the world. I took a risk and ordered the weiner schnitzel – a risk because I had had something similar in Fredericksburg, Texas, which claims a strong German heritage but I’d been really disappointed because it was a very poor imitation of real German food. Doreen, however, thought she’d play safe and go for the house speciality – a pizza.

Alarm bells should have rung when we had walked into the quiet restaurant and had to wait to be seated and offered drinks and a menu. We seemed to have walked in and ordered from a completely dysfunctional restaurant. By the time we left, we half expected Gordon Ramsay to come storming out of the kitchen, asking them what the fuck they were doing. My risky schnitzel came out after 20 minutes or so, and was passable, although the sides of German potato salad and pickled cabbage were not so much like the real McCoy. But Doreen’s safe pizza had failed to appear. She was told there had been a little confusion in the kitchen and it should be out shortly – we were left wondering why they’d sent out one meal without the other. At Doreen’s insistence, I ate mine before it got cold. I’d finished my meal and there was still no sign of the pizza. I went out onto the patio and had a smoke, and about 10 minutes after I returned, our server came over and told us they had ‘lost’ Doreen’s pizza. He was very apologetic, and asked if she still wanted it saying she could have it for free now, and could have a complimentary wine as well. Well we’d had a hard day’s ride, so of course Doreen was hungry and there seemed little point in going anywhere else and waiting even longer, so she accepted the offer.

The pizza Doreen had ordered was a mixed vegetarian, when it did finally arrive, it was under-cooked, smothered in way too much mozzarella with very little in the way of other toppings. Firehouse was probably our worse dining experience of the trip so far. When the bill finally arrived, $10 had been deducted rather than the promised ‘free’ pizza. We were tired and couldn’t be bothered to argue, so we just deducted the rest from the tip when we left. It’s not all good service in America.

We’d have probably stayed in the restaurant and had a few more drinks if it had been any good, but as it was, we went to the nearby gas station and got a take-out 6 pack to take back to the motel.

The first of many meetings

Day 40 Monday 12th August 2013 – Denver, CO to Glenwood Springs, CO

There’s no rest for the wicked. Doreen had endured two long flights, from Edinburgh to Toronto, and Toronto to Denver, and then a night with me, but we had ground to cover, so there were no long lie-ins.

The first order of business was to sort out the luggage. I needed to lose about two thirds of my luggage to make room for Doreen and her stuff on the Trooper. The camping gear, kilt and New Rocks take up a lot of room and they were things I knew I would be sending on, but I also had to lose about half my clothes. I resent the time spent on laundry on the road, so I’d brought enough so that I only had to do it every two weeks. Now I was going to be back to weekly laundry, and that is despite the amazing frugality of Doreen’s own packing. I have never known a woman pack so light, especially since this was going to be a 4 week trip for her, but then Doreen is no ordinary woman, else I wouldn’t have married her. On this trip, she was certainly going to be earning her road warrior stripes.

We had had a bit of a running joke in the run-up to her coming over to Sturgis in 2011. She had been threatening to buy leather chaps and a holster to put her hair straightners in after I’d explained just how little luggage capacity there actually was on the bike with both of us on it. There is more than enough space when it is just me on the bike, as I just sling a couple of dry-bags over the passage seat, but with two of us, we lose the dry-bags and we also have to split the remaining space between both of us.

My luggage set-up for the trip – HD touring bag, saddle-bags, 2 dry-bags, tank-bag and roll bag on front forks. Plenty of space for one.                      From Texas, July 2013

Doreen never did buy those chaps or a holster, and the hair-straightners stayed in Edinburgh in 2011, much to her chagrin when she saw all the Sturgis ladies who’d trailered into town using theirs in the shower block at our campsite. This time she’d brought the tiniest set of straightners I’d ever seen. They wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Barbie doll set.

My plan for the excess luggage was to Fed-Ex it to Nashville, where Doreen would be departing from in 4 weeks time. Fed-Ex advertise a ship-and-hold service, whereby you can ship it to a Fed-Ex office, who will hold your parcel for later collection.

As soon as we had worked out exactly what would fit on the Trooper, I took the remaining luggage along to the Fed Ex office near Denver airport, but within a minute of arriving the lady behind the desk had disabused me of my cunning plan. Fed Ex do indeed offer a ship-and-hold service, but they will only hold it for 1 week, not the 4 weeks I needed. As there was no way the both of us could fit on the Trooper with all the luggage, I had to come up with a plan B. I briefly considered just ditching the excess, and whilst I could live without the camping gear now Sturgis was done, I was really loathe to get rid of my kilt and New Rocks. A good kilt costs upward of £300 (or $450), and since I’d bought it and worn it for my wedding, it had sentimental value too.

It was time to try asking for a favour from one of my Sturgis friends. I called Kyle and asked if I could ship my luggage to his home. Kyle lives about an hour or two west of Kansas City. I needed to be in Kansas City for Iron Maiden on the Saturday after Doreen leaves for Edinburgh. I could collect my luggage from Kyle’s when I went out for Maiden, and I was already planning on visiting him when I was in his neck of the woods in any case. Of course, Kyle said it was no problem sending my stuff to him. Did I mention in my Sturgis posts that Kyle is a great bloke?

With my luggage problem solved, I rode back to the hotel to collect Doreen and we were on the road to Glenwood Springs by 10.30am. The original plan had been to detour off the interstate and ride a scenic loop up through the Arapaho National Forest.

For an interstate, the I-70 is pretty good in the scenery department. As soon as you get out of Denver, you begin to be treated to some great mountain vistas. We made our first caffeine stop at Idaho Falls, and there can’t be many Starbucks that boast such a wooded, mountain back-drop. Nor McDs for that matter, which was just across the road.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

We stopped at Starbucks a while, so that I could get a blog post finished – still catching up on Sturgis I’m afraid rather than telling it as it (almost) happened. And unfortunately, as I’m writing this in New Orleans, I’m now several weeks behind.

As we got on the road again, I glanced at the clouds looming to the west – our direction of travel, and we very optimistically decided to wait a while to see how things turned out rather than putting our wet weather gear on immediately. Only 5 minutes along the road and the rain caught us, and not just a little. It tipped down, with thunder and lightning on the side. We pulled off the freeway, but too late, my jeans were soaked through, to the extent that water was running down my legs and into my waterproof boots. Waterproof boots don’t help when attacked from above, and being waterproof, they keep water in, as well as out, so wouldn’t dry out in a hurry. I’d have damp feet for the next couple of days, and the smell to go with it. Doreen had faired a little better. There is no faring on the Trooper so I get the full brunt of both the rain and the spray from the road, but my legs protect the passenger somewhat.

Despite already being wet, we still scrambled into our wet weather gear. It must have been quite a comical sight for the passing motorists, with the both of us perched on rocks like performing sea-lions, trying to pull on our stubborn waterproofs.

We were lucky the rain didn’t last more than an hour, but cloud cover persisted on and off for the rest of the day.

From Colorado, August 2013

We continued our soggy climb up into the Rockies, and through the Eisenhower Tunnel. At over 11,000 feet above sea level, the tunnel takes I-70 under the continental divide. Despite the cloud cover, I was still wearing shades, which had to get rapidly pulled down to sit on the end of my nose as we passed through the better part of a mile and a half of tunnel.

The other side of Breckenridge, we pulled off for the obligatory scenic photos.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

As a kid I used to ski, something I took up when I lived at the foot of Monte Terminillo in Italy for a while. The two American ski resorts I’d heard most about are Vail and Aspen, so I couldn’t resist pulling off the freeway as we passed by Vail to satisfy my curiosity. Now I may be missing the point about Vail, but it seemed like a sprawl of exclusive “ski villages”, without any real heart or soul to the town. I do like a town to have a centre.

The original intention to detour up into the Arapaho National Forest, had been dispelled by the earlier rain, but we weren’t disappointed by travelling on the interstate. As we approached Glenwood Springs – our destination for the night – we passed through Glenwood Canyon and had the first of many meetings with the Colorado River, the river that carved the Grand Canyon. This wasn’t the first time we had encountered the Colorado River, in 2011 we had stayed at Grand Lake – the headwaters of the river, and I had caught up with it several more times on that trip, but it was the first time we had seen it this trip.

From Colorado, August 2013
From Colorado, August 2013

The stretch of I-70 through Glenwood Canyon was apparently the toughest 12 miles of the Interstate system.

From Colorado, August 2013

We’d reserved our motel for the night online when we stopped in Vail. The Starlight Lodge is a £59 a night, “Mom and Pop” motel, and one that is on the better side of average. I much prefer to stay at these independents, rather than the big corporates. The Ramada hotel across the road was charging $135 a night, and from my point of view, the main differences were that I can’t park my bike in front of the room, and I might have got more complimentary toiletries.

From Colorado, August 2013

After checking into the motel, we were both in need of a beer. It’s thirsty work riding all day, especially with jet-lag. We headed over the foot bridge across the Colorado River, and into the downtown with the shops and restaurants. Glenwood Springs turned out to be a pleasant stop, it’s a spa town nestling in the mountains, and we got the occasional waft of sulphur from the springs as we crossed the river.

We were looking for a place with good beer and wifi, as I was still determined not to get behind with the blog, as happened last time when Doreen arrived (as you can see from the posting date I have again failed with this). After walking around the main part of town, Pullmans seemed to fit the bill. The menu was more varied than most, and consisted of seasonal local produce. They had good local beer too.

From Colorado, August 2013

Whilst I tried bashing out another blog post, Doreen got to chatting to folks sitting next to her at the bar – a couple from Cortez, CO. I was wearing my Rob Zombie Sturgis T-shirt, which always attracts comments. It turns out Doreen’s new bar buddies, were Sturgis regulars, so of course, I had to stop typing to join the chat. They told us that they had seen wild-fire on the way up from Aspen. Whilst this wasn’t directly in our path, it was a little worrying. The only time American wild-fires get reported in the British media, is when they are out-of-control, and I guess that is how I imagine all wild fires to be.

When we had got into the Pullman, it had been rammed. Glenwood Springs is a tourist town and it was still peak season. Our first drinks had taken quite a while to arrive as our bar tender had been making fancy cocktails. We hadn’t minded, as we were in no hurry, but our bar tender had, and she got Doreen a complimentary wine. This is not something that I ever recall happening in Britain, but Doreen had seen it before when she lived in San Francisco. If the bar tender feels they need to make up for some short-coming, or perhaps just because they like you, or more probably because you spend well, then they’ll get you one on the house. This is good service, and it is great that the bar tenders are empowered to do this. It is very rare in the UK, unless perhaps it is a small local. It’s no wonder Americans complain about the service they receive when visiting Europe, especially the UK.

But the other side of this equation is tips. In American bars, it is pretty much obligatory to dollar-per-drink tip – well it is if you want to keep getting served. In the UK, it is very rare to tip bar staff, but then again, British pubs rarely do table service, and we have to jostle with everyone else at the bar in order to try to attract the attention of the bar tender. I often tip in these circumstances at home, to try to secure good service, but often this doesn’t work as the bar is just too busy and with too many staff working the bar.

 

Planned Route – Week 6

Day 37 – Fri 09 Aug – Sturgis, SD to Laramie, WY
Day 38 – Sat 10 Aug – Laramie, WY to Golden, CO
Day 39 – Sun 11 Aug – Golden, CO to Denver, CO
Day 40 – Mon 12 Aug – Denver, CO to Glenwood Springs, CO
Day 41 – Tue 13 Aug – Glenwood Springs, CO to Montrose, CO
Day 42 – Wed 14 Aug – Montrose, CO to Cortez, CO
Day 43 – Thu 15 Aug – Cortez, CO to Mexican Hat, UT

Week 6 is the week Doreen arrives! She’s flying into Denver, CO, on Sunday 11th August and spending almost 4 weeks riding with me. The plan is to spend the first part of her trip touring Colorado and southern Utah, which I thought had some of the most stunning scenery of my last trip. Then to spend some time visiting friends and family between San Diego and Austin, before rounding off her trip in the southern states. She is due to fly out of Nashville, TN, on Thursday 5th September.

From Colorado

I’m going to stop in Sturgis until Friday 9th August, in order to see Lynyrd Skynyrd at the Buffalo Chip. I really hope they turn up this time. I’ll still have a few days before Doreen flies  in, so the plan is to take a scenic route down to Denver to reunite with Doreen. Because we’ll only have the one bike, I’ll have to forward more than half my luggage on for collection in Nashville. This will include all my cold weather gear, so I hope the weather behaves for us.

Doreen isn’t going to get much time to recover from her long flight, because after one night in Denver, we’ll be hitting the road again. The plan is to take in more of the beautiful Rockies, with its waterfalls and switchbacks, riding west to Glenwood Springs. From there it’s south down to Montrose and then Durango, via the Million Dollar Highway – another of America’s great motorcycle roads, before cutting west again to Cortez.

From Cortez, it should be sightseeing all the way. Right by Cortez is the Mesa Verde National Park, then onto Four Corners Monument, where Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona and Utah meet. From there we’ll be heading up to Mexican Hat in southern Utah, but not before visiting the Navajo National Monument and Monument Valley.

From South Utah