Turn Around, Go Back Down. Back the Way You Came.
by Kerry Nicholson and Brian Day
The story so far: Kerry Nicholson and Brian Day map out a 2,700-mile “best-buddies” ride from Southern California to Aspen, Colorado and back in order to test a Star Stratoliner V-twin cruiser and a Honda ST-1300 sport-tourer. The trip goes sideways when Kerry leaves all his carefully planned trip work on a tabletop at home. While most of the country basks in late-summer warmth, their adventure is defined by storms, icy rain, hail and high winds.
Bizarre events shadow the riders. Kerry leaves $2,000 cash on a Las Vegas barstool, so Brian confiscates the money and clip. They’re almost buried by a late-night landslide in Colorado, and Kerry is forced to ride on snow and ice for the very first time. One test bike requires an exorcism to banish persistent cold-starting demons. After paying a sobering homage to Dr. Hunter S. Thompson at Woody Creek, near Aspen, the duo is chased due south, by a freak Canadian cold front.
Could things get any stranger? Always.
Noah’s Ark, Redux
Dropping out of Aspen, we fled west, mauled by yet another unseasonable storm. From Carbondale to Delta on Highway 13, we strafed up the switchbacks of scenic 8,700-foot McClure Pass. A Model T club parked at the summit materialized out of the freezing mist. Throwing snowballs at each other, the drivers and their tough old machines had chugged blithely up from Texas. We traded exaggerations and lies as they ogled our high-tech motorcycles. By comparison, Model Ts sport wood wheels, whippity cranks and crude planetary gear transmissions, but they cheerfully sputter along in the highest spirits. Go figure.
The backside of McClure consists of nice, high-speed twisties that slice through the foothills and is blessedly free of traffic. We ride deep into rural Colorado, past almost-abandoned Bowie and the mining town of Paonia at the head of the Gunnison River watershed. Rolling into Hotchkiss, “Where the New Age Meets the New West,” we stop for gas. Stomach growling, I wanted that rib eye steak leftover from Jimmy’s in Aspen.
You can’t miss the “New West” part of Hotchkiss; it was a store marked by life-size, green plastic horses holding court over a dusty yard of old mining gear and antique ore wagons. A folksy sign proclaimed “Antique Cowboy Gear, Authentic Spurs and Whips.” Kerry demurred, but I bit. Inside, the funky old building was brimming with hard-core cow-person stuff. I bee-lined for the spurs. A smiling, shorthaired female clerk in a manly flannel shirt smirked openly over my bald-faced “they’re for my horse” lie. Clearly she had her own special spurs cozied up in a bedside drawer somewhere. Outside in the yard, Kerry was goo-gooing over Buster, the oldest living dog on the planet. This crusty old Boxer, partly blind but still lovable, spent much of her time leaning and drooling against the barnyard walls.
I purloined another of Kerry’s confiscated C-notes to snare my cool, new/old Korean-made spurs. Then I heard a love-woof outside and instinctively knew Buster was digging into the leftover steak; my gourmet steak lunch. As Buster snarfed down the last of the $37 ribeye, I decided number six in the Rule of Threes was to be never trust your meat to your buddy. He’ll give it to the first hot bitch he sees every time.
Spurs stashed in the ST-1300’s cavernous panniers, the storm chased us out of Hotchkiss to the interstate. We’d planned on staying in historic Durango, but headwinds and cold rain pounded us unremittingly. We creep along in the slow lane, hampered by the miserable visibility. By Montrose, our (allegedly) “all-weather fully-waterproof gear” soaked up enough water to sink the friggin’ Edmund Fitzgerald. We finally lurched to a stop at Ridgway, Colorado. Kerry was so hypothermic from wrestling the exposed ‘Strat that he started warbling show tunes under his frosty breath. Surveying the flat, grey, soggy landscape, I wasn’t any happier or warmer.
We’d become reluctant experts in convenience store cuisine, and as 7-11 coffee slopped over our frigid hands, the clerk opined, “You’re done, dudes.” The US Forest Service had shut down highway 550 from Ouray to Durango under full snow – blowing whiteout past the summit. Our original plan to traverse the Red Mountain (11,018’), Owl Creek (10,640’) and Coal Bank Hill (11,120’) passes evaporated. These roads grant access to stunning Rocky Mountain scenery, but we wouldn’t see them close-up. Like a cosmic beacon, friendly lights beckoned just down the road. It was getting dark, and we’d had enough, thank you, so it was off to the motel.
(in)Discretion Being the Better Part of Valor
Day 8 dawned cold but blissfully clear. Durango was still closed, so we gambled on a 10,222’ run over Lizard Head Pass, exiting Colorado via Cortez, headed for Gallup, New Mexico. By nightfall we could be gorging on burritos at a local Chili’s. But the Star was reluctant to light off. As I cranked, Kerry smoked incessantly, talking trash to himself.
When both bikes were finally running and we’d saddled up, we gunned for Highway 62 to 145 past Telluride. Rich ski folks gaped at us as they limo’d to the slopes from their cozy Learjets and we gave ‘em the approved single-digit salute in return. Ascending Lizard Head Pass, it was all of 27º F, but once over the icy summit, numb fingers were replaced with pure elation. Stoner, Colorado was a good stop for more coffee and some weird-tasting greenish pastries.
We then tracked the Dolores River trying to shake rider-induced wobbles and wipe the grins from our faces. It was truly fine riding for a nice change-up indeed. We hammered along the twisties, fleeing from the menacing cold and chasing the sun. It was surely a long way from Baker and that 104º F giant thermometer…
I was sorely tempted to try a top-speed run on a barren section of New Mexico 491. But this was tribal land, and if caught at illegal speed we’d eat stale fry bread for a week until the Chief Magistrate decided to look in on our adobe cells. Soon, Shiprock hoved into view; the massive, wind-blasted sandstone formation that mimics a Spanish treasure galleon. We were the only vehicles for twenty miles ahead and behind.
Even in this sparse landscape I spied something cool to photograph. Kerry rocketed ahead while I made an ABS-testing, rubber-burning U-turn back to the World’s Loneliest Mailbox. There were no homes, driveways or stores for miles in either direction, so who was sending stuff to the Publisher’s Clearing House from here? And was an hour too long to photograph one faded mailbox? I finally remembered Kerry, saddled up and joined him some 10 miles down the road.
We pulled into Gallup at twilight, scored a decent motel, washed the road off and ate dinner in a chain steakhouse. Jimmy’s it wasn’t, but Kerry was being bitchy about my mailbox pictures, so I slid one of the last hundreds out of his money clip to buy our dinner. And two desserts.
It’s A Cold, Windy Day 9
All right, I confess to loving Gallup, New Mexico. Sure, unemployment is high and parts of it are dangerous at night. I just want to get through the door of Richardson’s Trading Company, please. Venerable Richardson’s has dealt in Native American art and collectibles since 1913; selling textiles, paintings, fetishes, Kachinas and baskets, plus loads of turquoise and silver jewelry. Kerry kept looking at his watch and grumbled under his breath while I leisurely scanned the treasures. Oozing like a blacksnake towards the main vault door, I attempted to snap a few shots of the vault’s interior. The World’s largest security guard materialized from the shadows, and we beat a hasty retreat when he asked me to stop taking photos N-O-W. Leaving Richardson’s and departing Gallup, Kerry and I bounced along reservation roads to Highway 40, then to 264 west, finally crossing into Arizona from New Mexico’s high plateau. Lunch was a spicy mutton sandwich with Ortega chilies on smokin’ hot Indian flat bread at a tiny Hopi settlement called Kykotsmovi. Giggling Native American girls sneaking glances at the paleface Michelin-men bike-devils with sheep juice running down their Gore-Tex enlivened our meal. My conscience had been bothering me just a bit, so I returned Kerry’s money clip, hundreds of dollars lighter. When he churlishly griped about the shortfall, I played dumb: “I only bought hoses, wiper blades, energy drinks, snacks; and I phoned my friend, Kevin in Buenos Aires for a while.” Hours later I still can’t meet Kerry’s hostile glare.
Finding gas in this part of Arizona is hit-and-miss, and we stupidly passed on an opportunity to fuel up after lunch. Poor planning respects no man, and we were forced down a dirt road into a Hopi village at Coal Mine Mesa. I ended up running a few gallons of questionable 87 octane reservation gas through the ‘Strat’s picky fuel injectors.
Yes, I knew this was wrong, but we’d still be in friggin’ Arizona waiting for MMM to wire us emergency gas otherwise. Not gas money, but gas. Note: After returning the bike to Star’s So Cal facility, concerned techs tried to convince us that the hard starting problem was related to our one-time use of regular-grade gas. This “bad gas” theory is convenient, but our bike exhibited hard starting before we force-fed it Evil Reservation Injector Juice. Was this ongoing Number 7 in the Rule of Threes? And the ST-1300 purred faultlessly throughout our, entire trip no matter what we dumped into its tank.
Tuba City is the Navajo Nation’s largest town; a dusty, disconsolate-looking place, worn at the heels and as faded as my favorite undies. Someone once observed that “no one ever goes to a Denny’s restaurant; they just end up there.” Ditto, we thought, for Tuba City. We followed 160 west into the afternoon sun to 89 south, then snared 64 west for a long, uphill climb out of the desert and into the pristine, forested surrounds of the Grand Canyon’s southern rim. At day’s end, we were back at elevation in the fading light and growing cold.
We snuck a look in the gathering gloom, and then rode through the park to the Grand Hotel as Highway 64 turned south. The Grand appeared much…um, grander on the Internet, with spacious rooms and apparently lively local flavor. But in person, it’s more of a theme park masquerading as a hotel. It was too full of tourists, kitsch, and a loud “native” dance show that drowned out conversation during our tepid dinner. Luckily, our room was spacious with good beds. Kerry dropped right off, snoring like a rhino in heat, so I spent time in the lobby, drinking vending machine coffee and reading postcards. What a wild and crazy niiiiiiight.
Connies, Canyons and Remnants of Route 66
We left the Grand Hotel on Day 10 and idled along Grand Canyon National Park Road jammed with all those tourists and their motor homes. Backtracking to the edge of the south rim, we parked near the lookout trail. Here the canyon was 10 miles or more across, and a full vertical mile down to the river bottom. The rocks rippled orange, green and a thousand shades of brown and red in the morning sunshine. The sheer size of the Grand Canyon overwhelmed my tough biker façade. I gawked like a kid, since it’s one thing to read about the Canyon, and another to actually feel a breeze from that entire emptiness blow across your face.
The canyon is… Grand and we unanimously decided to find another spot to gawk from, so we motored at a sizzling 25 mph further into the park. Edging past the “Do not go here” signs, we tested death yet again, with Kerry pretending to be Kate Winslett in Titanic, nose over the abyss as I laughed, snapped pictures and prayed for a rogue wind.
Mid-morning, our route out of the Grand Canyon on Arizona 64 turned south towards the junction, with Highway 40 and a straight run home through the desert. But another elegant vision materialized amongst the pines and scrub brush. At the Planes of Fame Air Museum at the Valle, Arizona airport lives an example of my true love, Connie; mi amour Connie. She’s a C-121A Lockheed Constellation; the last and most elegant piston-driven airliner created. Such voluptuous fuselage curves! So many burning cylinders and whirling internal parts! Elegant, model-thin landing gear and three distinctive tailfins. Sometimes Connie churlishly dropped an entire engine off her slender wing; proof positive of her aristocratic female temperament.
On Highway 40, we stopped in Williams, Arizona for lunch. We made an obligatory bypass to the ghost of Old Route 66,;crammed with ugly Elvis figurines, Grand Canyon shot glasses, obscure Doo Wop CDs and some good burger & shake combos. This portion of Route 66 is primarily a financial exercise in mock history; a ghostly parody of itself. We caught up with Route 66 near Seligman, assaulted by mocking ghosts of the past: old cars, souvenir stands, false-fronted “frontier” buildings and artificially aged signs. Rows of dive bars had new Harleys lined up outside, whose owners often gestured disparagingly towards our Honda. The ‘Strat, however, gave ‘em fits; was it an American bike or what? Should they spit or salute? We finally tired of the guessing game and rode west into the setting sun. Hello, Laughlin, Nevada.
You Can’t GoHome Again
Laughlin rises out of the muddy, Colorado river like a low-rent mirage. It’s a popular biker destination and hosts the annual Laughlin River Run. We had a room at the Colorado Belle; a riverboat-themed, but landlocked hotel/casino built in 1987, and a great lesson in the limited allure of $29 hotels. Our dinner was exactly what you would expect from an inexpensive hotel steakhouse and the casino was populated by people who think Vegas is too expensive. I retired to the room early, while Kerry went on to test his dusty gambler’s luck amongst the colorfully tattooed and sun-burnt river folk. Well past last call but before first light, Kerry stumbled back into the room waving a wad of cash and yelling. Joy to his world: he’d run through a fat winning streak and won a dozen hundred-dollar bills. Wide awake, plagued with gaming inferiority, I went downstairs and lost big on the 25 cent slot machines. Taking the air, I see urine stains on the Honda’s rear wheel, so I splash them away with bottled water. My last observation about the Rule of Threes is that the closer you are to trip’s end, the more you want to be back somewhere, further away from home.
Our last gasp, Day 11, and we itched to blow town. Gulping down a $3.99 casino steak-and-eggs breakfast, K-Man and I rolled through Barstow before rejoining I-15 towards the end of our trip. The desert was hot and dry, cloudless. As with so many adventures, melancholy mixed with joy as we were faced with the reality of our trip ending, and of re-assimilation into boring old lives (job, kids, wife, junky car, bills, asshat neighbors).
In retrospect, both bikes came through with good marks, although the Star Stratoliner was clearly not designed or marketed as a long-distance touring machine. Both bikes did well during our days in the saddle over difficult terrain, and facing extreme environmental challenges. We’d been cold, wet and snow-blind, but our bragging rights had increased incrementally as we overcame each challenge. In the end, it comes down to the road, the motorcycle and the ride; some days were warmer than others, that’s all.