The Best Laid Plans, Blah, Blah, Blah
by Kerry Nicholson and Brian Day
You don’t believe in the Daffy Duck pseudoscience of feng shui, do you? No matter how often I rearrange my garage, I can’t seem to get a hot date with Scarlett Johansson. But after riding 2,700 miles with MMM’s other dysfunctional cyclenaut, Kerry Nicholson, I know there are painful consequences in the fabled Rule of Threes.
The Rule of Threes says bad news arrives in triplicate. K-Man and I had convinced MMM Publisher Wanchena to finance an 11-day moto-romp through a swath of the Great American Southwest. We would torment-test the Star Stratoliner, Yamaha’s big-twin art deco cruiser (MMM #92), and Honda’s luvverly, stealthy ST-1300 V-4 touring missile (MMM #90). Having made all the necessary arrangements, we saddled up our shiny long-range road rockets and started to shred asphalt. The Rule of Threes struck faster than a meth-addled rattlesnake.
On that fateful first day, we barely made it to America’s Largest Thermometer (104º F, thanks for asking) near Baker, California. Dehydrated and sullen, Kerry ‘fessed up some bad news: the trip info he’d painstakingly organized—riding plans, maps, hotel confirmations, the whole shebang— was sitting hundreds of miles away, back on his dining room table. This turn of events cast a pall over our two-wheeled lollapalooza. It was a broiling summer day, and I didn’t even have the GPS coordinates to the Starbuck’s restroom in Baker; population 147.
But aren’t we hard-ridin’, unshaven moto-scribes, who know where to go and how to get there? I corralled the gas station store clerk and got directions. By late afternoon we landed in ‘Vegas, scored a suite at the MGM Grand and parked the bikes in a secure lot. We redecorated our room by flinging off layers of sweaty gear, and then plunged like Beluga whales into the MGM’s pool. The air reeked of sex, money and cheap cologne. Surveying acres of over-implanted blonde talent, we decided our next play would be to find seared slabs of prime beef and rows of hot slots. Outside the hotel, it had “cooled” to 97º in the artificially throbbing ‘Vegas night. I was starting to think this motorcycle adventure-touring thing was great fun, and not too uncomfortable. Who needed maps and coupons?
4 a.m. on the casino floor. Kerry’s eyes dilate into pools of inky panic and flopsweat beads on his unibrow. “Shitshitshit! I left my money clip sitting on the !@#$%^ chair!” He streaked like a cruise missile back to the row of one-armed banditos where he’d racked up an impressive losing streak. What were the odds his clip, swollen with crisp hundreds, was still in Nevada? Let alone on the friggin’ chair? I’ve never seen the Virgin Mary on a slice of cheese toast, but K-Man’s clip was right where he left it, folding money intact. I confiscated the clip, boxed his ears and sent him to bed sans Ovaltine. This was clearly a second sign that all was not well.
Push Me Around Some More, Please
Abandoning Sin City on Day 2, we churned east on I-15 towards Salina, Utah. Switching bikes, I’d wrangled the urbane ST-1300 with Kerry astride the Stratoliner. The long, heavy black Honda is blessed with an electrically adjustable windshield and wind tunnel-tested fairing. It simply lasered along, shrugging off blast-furnace sidewinds, potholes and my ham-fisted attempts to break the ABS. By comparison, the nearly nude Star had so many exposed, if highly stylish, bits, it was a veritable drag queen. The Star’s huge, air-cooled twin was both rattly and irritatingly loud. As a half day-tripper, all was kosher. But after any stint at real speed, it felt like an amusement park ride.
Fleeing Nevada, we slipped through the Virgin River Gorge in Arizona; a lovely bit of curvy canyon road. High, sheer cliffs shield us from the sun, and boils of white water below made for a dramatic, 25-mile break from the interstate drone. We climbed out of the gorge and headed north onto the vast stretches of nearly deserted freeway that define much of western Utah. Gorgeous scenery stretched before us everywhere, dotted by farms, clusters of cottonwoods and oaks, deep green hayfields and distant rocky ridges. Life on our road was good.
But all long-distance touring/testing relationships include photo stops. We’d ride, pull over, and then I’d snap away until Kerry laid the “…you’re wasting precious saddle time…” whine on me. This was a best-buddies road trip? It occurred to me that Bad News Rule Three was inviting Kerry along. I plucked a century note from his money clip and stuffed it into my boot top.
Past Cedar City and Parowan, we rolled through gentle hills colored with evergreen and rabbit brush. Just off I-15, our last scenic stop of the day was Cove Fort, Utah. Built in the late 1800s, Cove Fort is a military-style frontier trading post; lovingly restored by the Church of the Latter Day Saints. The 100-foot to-a-side limestone/lava building had massive rock walls and functional gun ports. Frontier-era rooms were decorated with real frontier-era stuff. Leaving Cove Fort, a light cloud cover thankfully damped the heat that had dogged us. Day 2 ended in Salina, Utah, a cowpoke town near I-15 and US 70. Every cross-country rider stops here to eat at Mom’s Diner. Mom, aka Carolyn Jensen, serves up delicious, high-quality comfort food and lots of it. Mom plays hostess, dating advisor, comedienne, livestock consultant and weather oracle to the hungry hordes. Plumb tuckered out, we wolfed down dinner, then lumbered back to our cinderblock motel and passed out.
Day 3 began too early, with frost covering both bikes. It was very cold and dark clouds roiled overhead. I was riding the Stratoliner; so out came my sweaters, rain suit, silks, neckwarmer, jacket liner, furry athletic cup and double-layered gloves. I laboriously weatherproofed the camera bodies with cheap plastic wrap, and then stuffed what little gear remained into the suspect panniers. Watching distractedly astride the ST-1300, Kerry was ready to ride, warm and comfortable behind the Honda’s ample fairing.
Bad weather was the breakfast topic at Mom’s. Riders argued over the best route. Mom predicted genuine Weather Armageddon: rain, sleet, snow, overflowing creeks, lightning bolts through helmets…“You boys be careful now. I want to see you next season, alive, and more than once!” Suitably warned, we tucked into farm-fresh eggs, flapjacks, hashbrowns, Mom’s scones and about a gallon of strong coffee.
The Best Laid Plans, Etc.
We wanted to rip from Salina, Utah to just outside Aspen, Colorado. But the fourth part of the Rule of Threes slammed us: horrific, off-season weather. Chilled rain became sleet, then snow started drifting across our loaded, grimy bikes. And the cold Star Stratoliner would not start. I cranked it desperately, getting ignition just as the battery barfed up a final few watts. Hard starting would bedevil our Star as air temps dropped.
Stuffed into his foul-weather clothes Kerry, looked uncannily like the Michelin Man. I notched the ‘Strat into gear and rolled away as he yelled something about never having ridden on snow or ice before, and would I please teach him how to ski on a borrowed 760-lb lump of aluminum and plastic? So the fifth part of the Rule of Threes kicked in as I gassed my bike and waved jauntily, heading straight out of town. After all, friends don’t let friends miss important learning experiences, do they?
Our bikes careened wildly on the slippery road. Frostbite beckoned with a bony finger, as neither machine sported heated grips. (Or cruise controls: both serious omissions for real-deal touring) Kerry’s billowy mass was a blessing as I used him shamelessly as a wind-breaking directional, beacon in the sloppy haze. I pilfered another hundred from his shrinking money clip on our next coffee stop.
Conditions stayed cold and blue all morning. Sidewinds thrashed us, the motorcycles swinging and skating through snowmelt, making for colorful language and painfully clenched cheeks. We outran the storm front and entered Western Utah’s red rock canyon country. Early afternoon brought much relief with warmish sun and drying roads, though the wind refused to abate. Traffic was, thankfully, sparse.
Back at speed, we wheeled majestically through postcard-dramatic canyon lands. Massive sculpted ridges veined in reddish rock burst, jaggedly off the sculpted plains; stony hills colored mottled purple, gray and green with sage, wildgrass and scraggly pinion pine. Hawks circled overhead, as highway 70 careened crazil;, scrabbling up canyon walls, then rollercoastering down with every ridge top and river bottom. The Honda purred, the Star boomed. Weary from fighting the weather, we craved a real meal in Green River, some 120 miles from Salina into the high Utah rangelands. We settled for more fast food on the wrong side of the highway with Kerry’s borrowed century note. A heartburning trek down highway 191 towards Arches National Monument followed. Note to self: Utah 191 is a vampiric, soul-suckingly straight and boring road. (Amen. Ed.)
The Old In and Out
We’d wanted to spend time in Arches National Monument. The Monument is blessed with immense arches, vast ridges, massive stone columns and contorted rock spires. This raw and stripped-down wilderness made our eyeballs jiggle. But our real need was a decent route out of Arches. The main road is hopeless for motorcycle touring; two narrow lanes, no passing, and rangers lurking behind every rock formation. Lumbering motor homes and a 25 mph speed limit make Arches the kind of place where time really does stand still. Flaunting the laws of physics, our 30-mile trip into Arches somehow turned into 90 agonizing miles attempting to get out.
We loved Arches, but it shredded our Day 3 timetable. Reluctantly bypassing Moab, we gambled on a shortcut over Highway128 through the Colorado River bottomlands back to I-70. As the sun began to set, this segment was scarily close to touring perfection. Bathed in slanting red and golden light, the flawlessly banked tarmac pulled us onward almost magnetically. Reflections off the Star’s various finishes turned the bike into a shimmering, platinum and silver wraith. On this road, the big cruiser was perfectly suited to the many dips and rises; its torquey engine rumbling contentedly. Utah 128 made up for the plodding horror that had been Arches.
Three Minutes Between There and Eternity
Rejoining busy I-70, Grand Junction, Colorado appeared way after sunset. Aching and hungry, we pushed the Find Motel Room button on both bikes. But the town was crammed with winery folks lurching from tasting to tasting. Hence, no room at the inn. We decided to gamble for Aspen, three more hours into the menacing Rockies. By riding through our exhaustion, we hoped to drop anchor before 1 a.m. Alas, Mother Nature had more sinister plans, resulting in event 6 in the now misnamed Rule of Threes. (Six is divisible by three. Ed.)
A few miles out of Grand Junction on I-70, all four lanes of eastbound traffic slowed, then stopped dead. Nothing moved but shooting stars. We finally learned the cause of our delay. Two miles ahead, half-a-mountain’s worth of mud had slithered across all four eastbound lanes, burying an 18-wheeler deep in the center gulch. The road to Aspen was blocked by tons of debris, and thousands of frightened motorists were trapped in the gridlock of an inky Colorado night.
Two miles. Just two minutes riding hard uphill at 70 mph. If Kerry hadn’t eaten his second burrito, or I’d neglected my third bathroom stop, it could have been two borrowed bikes and us instead of the doomed big rig in that rocky tomb. Two miles is not far on any map, but an eternally vast gulf between the light and dark of uncontrollable fate. We felt very small indeed when the full extent of this tragedy unfolded.
Kerry networked among the stopped motorists, and eventually found a local man who claimed we could ride back down to something called the De Beque cutoff. After De Beque, we’d have to ride south along a creek, then up another two-lane country road until we’d run into tiny, Parachute, Colorado, well past the landslide. We could either try his anecdotal route, or rough it in wet gear. We rolled the loaded dice at Lady Luck’s last-chance loser’s table, turned around, and began to split lanes backwards against traffic.
11 pm came and went. We’d been riding over 12 hours since Salina, Utah. Psychologically whupped and freaked by the freeway landslide, Kerry and I struggled to keep the rubber side down on tiny mountain roads where broken pavement and debris littered the darkness. Strange animals gibbered in the dripping forest. My brain drifted into paranoia: Did the local guy send us on a wild goose chase? Was that an owl or a vampire bat? Was the Titanic’s hull #400 or #401?
But Lady Luck was on the pillion and miraculously Parachute found us. Even better, we snagged a motel room. As we struggled with our wet, dirty luggage, a sleek Jaguar glided up under the motel portico. Straight out of some travel magazine ad, a whiny-looking couple made their self-important entrance. “Your best suite, please,” he crooned, smoothing his cashmere blazer and smirking. Through the haze of my physical and emotional exhaustion, I read his upscale mind like a crystal ball: losers, biker trash, wet, broke and sorry as a cracked bottle of Chateau Lafitte ‘61. But the desk clerk delivered a deadly thrust: “Sorry, sir. We’re full up.” K-Man and I had gotten the very last motel room in Parachute. Through the miracle of slothfulness, non-preparation, desperation, and raw fear we would live to the see the sun rise again. The room-less Jaguar losers huffed out.
Aspen and the Ghost of Dr. Thompson
Day 4 dawned clear and mild in Parachute, but we slept on. Too beat to do anything but bask like lizards in the warm sun, we finally armored up and cranked the bikes. The Star fires instantly so I get down on my knees to give one massive cylinder a love hug. Apparently my facial scar will eventually heal. Idling a few easy miles to I-70, our race is on to Aspen and our snug cabin.
We decamp just after noon, unload our gear and prepare to stretch out for four days of exploring the Colorado Rockies. The cabin has stunning views, burbling water music, glowing yellow Aspen trees and a hot tub, in which I boil every evening.
Back in the far reaches of pre-history, Aspen was a tiny, cutesy mountain village. These days it’s a mélange of shopping malls and commercial centers, loaded to the gills with McMansions, faux chalets, private jets and snippy supermodels in wolf fur coats. While restored Victorian homes and neighborhoods with authentic mountain style can be found, most of Aspen is simply like Real OC Housewives. Think Newport Beach with snow instead of sand.
However, the day rides we took to the high country and less-developed mountain villages were stunning. On Day 5, we explored Maroon Bells State Recreation Area. Maroon Bells is an exquisite compact mountain range with a mirror lake reflecting the snaggle-tooth 14,000-foot peaks. Even riding hard at these extreme altitudes, both the ST-1300 and Star ‘Strat performed perfectly, with plenty of power from their fuel-injected, digitally controlled engines. The motorcycle industry has come light years from older technology that would have required carb re-jetting and ignition fiddling to cope with the thin mountain air. I can only imagine trying to flog a 70’s Norton Commando on this trip.
We also explored the Frying Pan River, one kick-ass trout stream. The country surrounding Aspen forced me into permanent sensory overload— towering Alpine peaks, flower-choked meadows, and huge stands of Engelmann spruce, fir, and golden quaking Aspens. The air is champagne-clean and crystal-clear for miles into the distance. And what of the local lifeforms, the fabled Aspenites? We’d hit the end of off-season, so celebrity sightings were nonexistent. Unless you count Buster the Wonder Dog (more on him later.)
We did pay homage to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson, the most famous ex-resident of Woody Creek. You know him as a drug and alcohol fueled Gonzo journalist, perpetual political candidate and world-class curmudgeon. Gonzo was a dedicated patron of the Woody Creek Tavern near Aspen, where the walls are papered with his yellowing articles, interviews, press clippings, and bras left by female admirers.
Thompson checked out in 2005. After an outlandish peyote and tequila-fueled party sponsored by actor Johnny Depp, Gonzo’s ashes were ejected from a cannon atop a 153-foot high tower; accompanied by fireworks and Mr. Tambourine Man blaring off the cliffs and across Woody Creek. The collective hangover lasted for days.
Day 6 was our last night in Aspen, and we glamorously dress for dinner at Jimmy’s in oily jeans, ratty leathers and stubble. Jimmy’s is the kind of comfortable, but serious joint where great service coexists with innovative plates of American cooking. We order massive, aged Rib Eye steaks, Caesar salads, Yukon Gold mashed potatoes and more side dishes and desserts than I can remember. We bundle up the leftover steak for a lunch on the road tomorrow that will finally break our fast-food cycle.
The Weather Outside is Frightful
Day 7. We arise to the Weather Channel’s predictions: two feet of wet snow by afternoon. We’ll be trapped, unless we flee ASAP. First I must perform The Overdue Maintenance Rituals. I check fluids, tire pressures, flash the lights and jiggle turn signals, and lubricate switches with rib-eye grease. Batteries and electrical connections are checked, brake pads and rotors perused, tires examined, and in general I attempt everything possible without computer-based diagnostic gear.
As a further precaution, I yank on stuff that looks like it might fall off. Mystifyingly, everything seems fine. Finally, I strip naked and dance around the Star while waving smoldering sage bundles over the engine to banish cold-starting demons. In retaliation, the Star refuses to start again, just as our latest storm front ominously rolls over. We’re packed up, the cabin is locked, but we’re only minutes away from a full-bore freak-out when one cylinder pukes black smoke and the engine reluctantly lights. We mount up and race south, just barely ahead of a freakish Canadian cold front; Kerry’s ever-thinner money clip is zipped securely into my jacket. Next Month: Black Clouds and Basalt to Aspen Part II