Monday, January 11, 2010

Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere

After I finished the Portland to Los Angeles leg of my Round-the-USA motorcycle trip in December, I left my BMW in the parking garage at LAX and hoped for the best. I actually ended up returning the next week to hunt down a leak that I "discovered" at the last second when stashing the bike; it's too bad I didn't spend five more minutes looking into it, because on my return I quickly found that it was simply a poorly-routed breather hose. At least I got in a run up San Gabriel Canyon. A few weeks later I flew back out to LA after the Christmas snowstorm with the intention to take a short trip to Ensenada once Dawn could join me, which of course didn't work out due to the snowstorm and flight loads. My good friend Brad had a long Burbank layover so we hung out for the day before I flew back to Minnesota, again stashing the bike at LAX. In the time it was parked there, nobody messed with the bike, although I did lose a cover - whether to wind or theft, I don't know, but my helmet remained on the gas tank.

After a blissfully uneventful three day trip over New Years Day, I again flew out to Los Angeles to start the next leg of my trip: LA to Dallas. I'd been monitoring the forecasts for several days and was pleased to see that "good" weather, meaning no rain or snow, was forecast for the entire route, although I did note some alarmingly cold lows through the second half. Oh well - if I were to wait until a four-day-off stretch aligned with no precipitation and warm temperatures, I wouldn't likely get to Dallas until April. I ended up sitting on the jumpseat for the flight to LAX, and therefore got a front-row seat for a stunning sunset arrival in ultra-rare perfect visibility. You could clearly see Mount San Jacinto from the ground at LAX, some 100 miles away. I retrieved my bike from the parking garage, got on the pleasantly open 405 freeway, and headed south in the fading light. I stopped in Mission Viejo to gas up and have one last Double-Double at In-N-Out, then continued south to San Diego on I-5. I arrived by 8pm, got a bed at a hostel, and walked around the Gaslamp district enjoying the warm night. On my return, I chatted with my roommates, two Kiwis on their first trip to the states, and persuaded them to take the coast highway on their way up to San Francisco the next day.

I woke up at a quarter to six and dressed quickly in the dark, packing my saddlebags by feel and hoping I wasn't missing anything. It was already getting light by the time I got outside to my bike just after six. The air was still warm, but I knew the desert would be considerably cooler and put on a sweater and chaps right away. Soon I was squinting into the rising sun as I-8 climbed into the Laguna Mountains. I'd never been this way before and was grateful that the road spent little time at the crest of the range, where there was still frost in the shadows and I shivered behind the fairing. The steep drop to the Imperial Valley featured a series of sweepers that teased me faster until a couple of nasty bumps on a tightening-radius turn made me think better of it. At the valley floor, however, I quickly discovered that the local drivers have an internal speedometer that puts their Angeleno counterparts to shame. I got passed by all comers while doing 80; I adjusted my speed to "match the flow of traffic," as I imagined explaining to the local constabulary. I still got passed by Border Patrol and a sheriff.

Soon the irrigated valley gave way to the cacti of the Sonoran Desert and the dunes of the Arizona border. I stopped for gas in Yuma and Gila Bend, the miles of open road passing almost unnoticed as the sentinal ranges of the desert creeped by with deceptive languidness in the dry clear air. It occurred to me that I-8 is considerably more pleasant to ride than the average interstate, which was immediately confirmed upon rejoining the sun-blasted, rubber-littered stretch of I-10 between Phoenix and Tucson. At this point I wasn't quite sure where I was going to spend the night, but after choking on the exhaust of dozens of roaring diesel behemoths for fifty miles, I resolved to leave the interstate as soon as possible after stopping in Tucson for a quick and delicious lunch of carne asada tacos.

Salvation came in the form of the exit to US-80 shortly after Tucson. Immediately the heavy eighteen-wheeler traffic was replaced by that of the two-wheeled variety, mostly Harleys with leather-clad riders enjoying the pleasantly warm day. I stopped in Tombstone and walked around admiring the old town in the dusty afternoon light and thinking about how hard and lonely life must have been in the Wild West, modern romanticism and nostalgic kitsch aside. Continuing southward, I followed a group of bikers with "Desert Heat MC Club" emblazoned on their vests for about twenty miles, until they pulled off just before Bisbee. I had been considering stopping here for the night, but snow alongside the road overruled the tempting attractiveness of the old mining town tucked neatly into the valley. I pressed on down to the quiet border town of Douglas, twenty miles further. The tourist office was closed for Sunday, but a map out front revealed two RV parks just out of town. When I tried the first one, located on the local golf course, the RV park portion was completely paved but there was a grassy area nearby the manager said I could camp on. I failed to notice that it was the designated pet run until a very squishy, very smelly misstep on my way to the restroom in the middle of the night.

After setting up the tent, I rode back into town for a light dinner and a call to Dawn, then headed back to the golf course and had a few beers in the empty clubhouse and talked to Sergio, the bartender. Soon his uncle arrived, then his brother, then his girlfriend and her friends and an amorous couple. The golf club turned out to be the local nightlife hotspot! I was asked repeatedly how I liked Douglas. What could I say? I'd just arrived and my first impression was that this was a dusty, isolated outpost for the primary purpose of departing to or arriving from Mexico. However, the surrounding mountains were beautiful and everyone I met was very friendly so I stressed those factors to the apparent satisfaction of all. It was finally getting late and I again planned to rise with the sun so I bid my farewells and walked to the tent to settle down for the night.

The last time I'd checked the Douglas forecast, it was calling for lows in the 30s. That was several days prior, but it felt a lot colder as I shivered through the night in my light spring sleeping bag. Why hadn't I brought the warm mummy bag at home!? Because I didn't want too much luggage while jumpseating? It seemed like a silly reason now. I finally warmed up enough in the fetal position to catch a few hours of sleep, interrupted only by the early-morning encounter with dog feces and subsequent loud outburst that may have, regrettably, woken a few slumbering RVers. When I rose a few hours later and checked the weather report, it was 26 degrees F. The BMW was covered with frost. I quickly broke down the tent, fumbling to fold and stow it with my thick riding gloves on. The bike turned over slowly but started on the second crank - Vielen dank, Deutschland! - and while it warmed up, I ran my hands under hot water in the bathroom and psyched myself up for a very cold ride.

The sun was coming up as I accelerated onto US-80, which turns to the northeast out of Douglas. It's a lonesome road, with dusty ranch turnoffs every ten or twenty miles the only signs of human habitation. The Animas Mountains, last holdout of Geronimo and his band of defiant Apaches, were turning a beautiful carmel color in the rising sun. I stopped to snap a picture just before the New Mexico border and my heart leapt in my mouth when the starter let out a whirr when I went to restart the bike. It caught on the second try. I was a little apprehensive about my planned route, New Mexico Highway 9, which straddles the Mexican border all the way to El Paso with only one dusty little town the whole way. Google Earth showed one stretch to be unpaved, but Sergio's uncle, who drives to El Paso often, insisted it was paved and in mostly good condition. I stopped at a small country store just before the turnoff to top off my gas tank, and the proprietress reassured me that Highway 9 is a good road and a nice ride she did often on her Suzuki Boulevard.

She was right. Highway 9 was empty and desolate, the sort of road I was praying my BMW wouldn't fail me on, but it was all the more wildly beautiful for it. I'd round a slight curve and come over a rise, and and another expansive vista would unfold of distant rugged mountains, a wide valley of unending desert scrub, and a long straight ribbon of road to the furthest horizon beckoning me onward. I cursed myself for ever doubting and reiterated my maxim for this trip: when in doubt, adventure wins out. I saw six other vehicles in the first 100 miles, four of which were Border Patrol. By now the air had warmed into the mid 40s, and I was perfectly comfortable at any speed. Several times, I stirred myself from reverie to look down at my speedometer and was shocked to find myself well into autobahn territory. Once or twice I may have exceeded the speed limit by truly ridiculous amounts. If not here, then where?

I fueled up in Columbus and was pleased to find that my flagrant lawbreaking didn't hurt my gas mileage much. Further east, the landscape became flatter, drier, more barren, yet somehow less lonely. Cars passed more frequently, and seventy miles off I recognized the Franklin Mountains standing watch over the metropolis of El Paso.

I was surprised to arrive in El Paso before 11am, much earlier than I had planned. I topped off my tank and sat down for lunch, pondering my options. I originally wanted to take US-62 northeast from El Paso to the Guadalupe Mountains and Carlsbad, NM, before forging ahead to West Texas on side roads. Now I checked the weather for possible destinations for the night on my phone. I wasn't enthused about the prospect of another night camping in the cold. Carlsbad was showing a low of 25. Eunice and Hobbs weren't any warmer. To my dismay, everything in Texas was showing equally cold lows. Moreover, Google Maps showed an absolute lack of civilization on the 170 miles between El Paso and Carlsbad, which pretty well matched my memory of the road from 14 years ago. That's a problem because 170 miles is my bike's range, assuming conservative riding. An alternative plan began to formulate in my head. It was 650 miles to Dallas. If I stuck to the interstate and averaged 65mph, I could arrive before midnight. I would have all day tomorrow to look for storage for my bike and hang out with longtime friends Kelly and Lori before flying home to Dawn. The ride through Texas would be long and boring, but at least it would be warmer than heading up into New Mexico, and I wouldn't face another night shivering in my tent. I called Dawn to inform her of my new plan and headed eastward on I-10.

Almost as soon as I got on the interstate through El Paso, doubt began to nag. Why would you willingly endure 650 miles of this? I thought as an SUV cut me off. What exactly is the purpose of this trip, anyways? To get from point A to B as quickly as possible? The exit for US-62 passed by and a pang of regret hit me. When in doubt, adventure wins out! My mind was just mocking me now. Six miles past the original turnoff, I made a snap decision and cut across four lanes to exit, rode under the freeway, and got back in the westbound lanes to US-62. On the right road now and with my mind at peace, I rode to the easternmost limit of town and stopped at a gas station to fill my tank as full as I could possibly get it and call Dawn to tell her of my flip-flopping.

The road to Carlsbad was in much better condition than I remembered, and not quite so devoid of civilization as I saw plenty of cars and even the occasional gas station. The salt flats just west of the Guadalupe Mountains seem to have shrunk, or perhaps the desert scrub is just more extensive this time of year. Or maybe that one bit stuck in my memory and expanded as the rest was forgotten until salt flats covered all 90 miles to El Paso. The first time I saw the Guadalupe Mountains they were firey and glowing in a setting sun, and if the setting was less dramatic this time they were still beautiful and I appreciated the good winding road more this time. There was infuriatingly slow road construction the last forty miles into Carlsbad - thanks, stimulus! By the time I got there, it was still mid-afternoon but was starting to get quite cold again.

Past Carlsbad, I left US-62 for NM-176 to Eunice. By now I figured I had about two hours of sunlight left, and if there wasn't a campground or RV park in Eunice I could continue on to Andrews or even further in Texas before it got dark. This road was almost as isolated as Highway 9 from earlier in the day, but in a completely less pleasant way. There was no understated desert scenery, no endless vistas, just simple nothingness. The road was in poor condition at times, the cold was starting to get to me, and I had almost 500 miles under my wheels for the day. I passed through Eunice without checking for a place to stay, as I was utterly uninterested. I crossed the border into Texas and it proved to be more of the same except for more oil rigs and more traffic - mostly oil haulers and fleet pickups. I gassed up in Andrews and was uninspired. There was still light and the much bigger town of Big Spring was only 60 miles away.

With the setting of the sun, truly bone-numbing cold set in. I ducked down behind the fairing and laid on the gas tank, tucking my legs into the warm engine as hard as I could. Deprived of airflow, my face shield began to fog up. I sat back up and stretched my limbs out into the icy blast one at a time, my muscles protesting their long dormancy over the miles. I began to see isolated white chunks scattered across the road. It looked like snow...but it couldn't be, could it? Cotton or limestone from some truck? I didn't care enough to stop and check it out. Finally, as the dusk faded and I felt I could not get any wearier, the lights of Big Spring came into view. I rode into town and pulled over at a busy pizza joint. First order of business was to visit the restroom to use the hand dryer to thaw my hands into usability. A call to Dawn and greedily scarfing hot slices of pizza both cheered me up considerably.

I asked my waitress about a campground and was greeted with a blank stare. My phone wasn't any more helpful. A new idea began to emerge. Surely the small towns around here had some cheap motels? A warm room might not cost more than an RV park would charge to park my tent. I called motels in Big Spring and in Colorado City and Sweetwater, 40 and 70 miles away respectively. All had reasonable rates. By now I was actually feeling pretty good and I decided that if I were going to treat myself to indoors accommodations, I ought to at least put a few more miles on for the night. The temperatures were now down to the low 30s, but I felt pretty good for the first half hour eastbound on I-20; I passed up Colorado City. Shortly thereafter, the cold began to get to me again, and I was thankful to stop in Sweetwater. The motel owner was friendly, the room was warm and cozy, and the BMW even got to spend the night in a storage shed.

When I woke the next morning, I had a bright idea to try out before I left. I called the hotel that my airline stays at in Dallas, told the front desk lady about my trip, and asked whether, as a frequent guest, they would be okay with me storing my motorcycle in their underground garage for a few months. She replied that she was a rider herself, the trip sounded fun, and it should be just fine as long as the security department agrees. A few minutes later I talked to the head of security, himself a rider, and got permission to store my bike for free until my next leg! Feeling good about that accomplishment, I pulled the bike out of the shed, loaded up, and rode off into the 27 degree morning.

I succumbed to the cold much sooner this morning, stopping after 70 miles to warm up with gas station coffee. Then I toughed it out the remaining 140 miles to Dallas. The scenery was uninspiring but I was excited to be near my destination. I'd seen it from the air plenty of times, but never quite realized just how sprawling the metro area is. It was over an hour of riding from the suburbs of Fort Worth to downtown Dallas. Exiting the interstate downtown, I noticed that my steering seemed especially stiff, but attributed it to cold-induced stiffness of my own limbs. I visited with my friend Kelly for a few hours and then got back on the bike to ride it to the crew hotel and catch the 6pm flight to Minneapolis...and discovered that the front tire was completely flat. It was obvious now that it had been partially deflated when I had noticed the stiff steering. I carefully rode a block to the nearest service station and refilled the tire, then rode a few blocks, stopped, and listened carefully. I couldn't hear any leaks. There wasn't any sign of puncture. I verified that it was holding pressure with a pressure gauge. I decided it'd be good enough for the ride to the hotel.

By the time I got there, it was obvious that the tire was not fully inflated. Sure enough, pressure had decreased from 38 to 25 psi during the half-hour ride. It was too late in the day to take it to a motorcycle shop, though, and I figured I have two months before my next leg to Atlanta. I put the bike under cover, grabbed the right saddlebag, and caught the next shuttle van to the airport. I'd put on 1550 miles over the past four days, much of it over rather isolated roads, and I was grateful to my bike for not letting me down in that time. A leaky tire discovered in a large city without failing catastrophically seems like the very mildest of potential problems. In a few weeks, I'll go back and get it repaired or replaced. Then in March, it's onward to Atlanta...maybe via Florida? I've been playing with potential routes, and a sidetrip to Key West seems appropriate since I've already been to the northwestern and southwestern corners of the country.

View 2009-2010 Round Robin in a larger map


amulbunny said...

We always camped at the Followes campground in the San Gabriels, East Fork River. Since they closed, we get a wilderness pass and drive to the end of the east fork road and park up there and enjoy camping in our vintage RV. My husband gold pans down in the river.

I have a good friend who works in the prison at Douglas. It's a nice little town, as she says, 9 blocks from the Mexican border.

I am glad that your journey has been safe so far. (And you couldn't pay me to live in MN or WI with those temps this year!)

Clear skies and following winds sir.

Anonymous said...

Very cool post Sam. Enjoy the next two legs!

Anonymous said...

Correction... the next three legs. It's late, and I was training someone on ground tonight. Which is harder than doing it myself.


Fred said...


Once again, an excellent post.
Keep them coming.

N6349C said...

I would like to welcome your bike to Dallas. Sorry about the Western part - it's much better to fly over it!

Johnny G. said...

Sammy...It's Johnny...your favorite all-time airplane! Your blogs are AWESOME! trip...let's fire up my plane and and get my cross country IFR training in...literally cross country...wanna bring my plane to our home on the East. You in? I tried to call you a few weeks number is 731-1253 ...I'm sure you'll remember the area code. Hugs to you and Dawn...we think and talk about you guys often. -Johnny

Sam said...

Johnny! Wow man, what a pleasant surprise to hear from you! I just left a voicemail on what I *think* is your number, but if I was wrong about the area code and you didn't get it, you can email me at pitchdownrightrudder -at- Hope to touch base soon!

DeAnn said...

btw - just looked at your proposed route from DFW - we are in Alabama now so I've traveled from ptA to ptB some...looks like you plan Meridian Miss then sorta southerly through demopilos/selma/mgm - seriously kinda creepy over that way (think "Deliverance") might want to consider B'ham then down through Auburn or Dothan - whatever ur thinking ... Florida is worth the time... just sayin