Cheaper Than Therapy Part II - Arizona And The Sierras

In case you missed the last issue, after being laid off, I decided to take the opportunity to see the Rockies on my new Kawasaki Vulcan 1500 Classic. Part I recounts my adventures and misadventures with my friend Pete Puccio through Washington State and up into Canada. Pete headed back to work and I made my way back through Washington, Idaho, and Wyoming to see Yellowstone and The Grand Tetons before turning south for Denver where we pick up the tale...

After a few days off in Denver (including servicing the bike and arranging for a job interview back in San Francisco). It was time to turn south to Phoenix to catch my flight out for the interview. With four days to burn, I just had to figure out how.

I've long wanted to see the Silverton, Durango, and Mesa Verde areas of Colorado. My dad has been out at least twice to this area and I know it's one of his favorite destinations. With that in mind, I charted a course for Montrose, CO.

The route was Interstate 25 to Colorado Springs and then Highway 115 turning to Penrose to catch Highway 50. It was about six hours in total with much of it on Highway 50 riding along the beautiful Arkansas River.

A good portion of the ride is bounded by San Isabel National Forest to the north and San Juan National Forest to the south. It is a climbing, winding road along the Arkansas and it is a joy to experience.

A new front moved in as I crossed the Continental Divide at Monarch pass. But it held a rather pleasant surprise; for the first time on the trip it was a warm rain--even at over 11k feet of elevation.

The rain lightened up on the other side of the pass and I found a great spot to stop and smoke a cigar at Black Mesa Lake. Despite the rain I made excellent time into Montrose.

By 5:30 PM I'd found a hotel, searched out dinner and a local brew pub, and kicked back to blog about the trip.

Silverton To Durango
My 20th day on the road I awoke to mostly sunny skies and the ability to get off to an early start without having to worry about all the rain gear.

The first stop was Ouray, a former mining town that is now a National Historic District. Ouray is a destination spot for anyone that enjoys the outdoors and features some perfect country for hiking, mountain biking, four-wheeling, and of course, motorcycling.

Highway 550 goes from Ouray, through Silverton, to Durango. It is 70 miles of heaven on a bike--spectacular views, intense twisties, and a multitude of pullouts to enjoy the views. Most of the pullouts have markers which add a great historical touch to this ride.

Even taking my time, I was in Durango by lunch and the urge to turn around and do the same ride again was only squelched by the knowledge that I had a plane to catch on Monday (it was Saturday). So after lunch I turned onto Highway 160 with storm clouds gathering, I had no other thought than to head toward Four Corners and find a hotel by dark.

Mesa Verde National Park
After lunch in Durango, I began seeing signs for Mesa Verde National Park and decided that I had plenty of time to stop and see a place I had been meaning to get to.

Some events in life become life lessons. Once such for me was on a family vacation as a child to the East Coast. Before we left we decided that as a family we wanted to see the Biltmore Estate and Gardens in Asheville, North Carolina. However, when we arrived at the front gate, it was raining and rather than just see the inside of the house, we decided to come back a few days later so we could take the full tour. Vacations being what they are, we never made it back--and to this day I've never seen Biltmore.

So, life lesson learned, when I arrived at the turn off to MVNP with the lighting flashing and the thunder rolling, I never hesitated. I wasn't going to miss this one.

Mesa Verde is another worthy destination. Less so for its rideability (the road was under repair and very rough), but for its beauty and historical nature. While the storm had forced the closure of the guided tours, I was still able to wander through some of the cliff houses on my own. The side benefit of the rain was that it kept all the tourists indoors and I practically had the place to myself.

Leaving MVNP, I received the biggest surprise of the day. Riding in the desert at sunset, following on the heels of a thunderstorm was one of the highlights of the trip. The air was clean, the clouds were breaking up, it was about 75 degrees, and the moon and Venus were visible for the entire ride.

Unfortunately, hotel and camping options in that part of the country are scarce, so I ended up spending the night in Kayenta, Arizona in a trailer that passed for a hotel room.

Sedona And Phoenix
My plan the following morning was to make my way to Sedona and stay with friends to give me a straight shot to Phoenix the following day to catch the flight.

With an almost cloudless sky, I enjoyed a lovely morning in the high desert rolling down Highway 160 and Highway 89. It isn't the high mountains and grand vistas of the Rockies, but I was warm again and the desert has a beauty all its own.

I made Flagstaff a little after noon and lunched at the Weatherford Hotel. Besides a rich history, it has great food and really prime service. A highly recommended stop if you are ever in the area. Cell service in remote areas being what it is, I missed connecting with my friends, so decided to go to Sedona anyway and find a place to camp.

I took Highway 89 into Sedona, and it is amazing. If it weren't for all the tourist traffic, it would be an excellent set of twisties for a sportbike. It starts at the head of Oak Creek Canyon and drops approximately 2600 feet in elevation over the 30 miles to Sedona. It has rising red bluffs on either side that you can see through the evergreens along the canyon floor.

Highway 89 has several campsites along Oak Creek and after passing three or four that had sold out signs at the front gate, I found one that was open and got one of the last remaining camp sites in the canyon.

A friend of mine recently mentioned that some of his best memories are around a campfire. I have to agree. That evening I prepared a simple Mountain House Beef Stew for dinner, built up a roaring fire in the fire pit, and topped the evening off with a cigar and a single malt scotch.

As I look back on it, that night was probably a turning point for me on the trip. I'd put a lot of effort into trying to contact my friends and make sure our plans came together and somewhere as I set up camp I set aside the disappointment and embraced the moment; totally relaxed and content.

Breaking camp the following morning I met Jim MacDevitt and Pat Shoemaker. Jim is a retired social worker and Pat had just taken second place in a billiards tournament in Las Vegas. With two weeks until the next tournament they were taking advantage of the time to see some of the surrounding country. As they were strapping down the last of their gear to their bikes I asked them which direction they were going and loved their answer: "Well, we're not sure yet."

With a plane to catch I didn't waste any time on Monday. I took Highway 179 down to Interstate 17 and let it roll. It was a beautiful, hot day and I had three objectives; buy a backpack, rent a storage facility for the bike, and catch my plane.

The Marsee bar bag just didn't cut it for airline travel, so I needed a backpack or luggage to haul a few items home for the interview. A quick stop at an Office Depot that I spotted from the highway fixed that.

I located a storage unit close to the airport and lucked out again because the manager was a member of our two-wheeled community. Despite company rules against vehicle storage in their units, she understood the situation and made an exception; allowing me to both store the bike and rent the unit for only four days.

San Fransisco Interlude
A quick cab trip to the airport allowed me to get out of the 115 degree heat and wrap myself around a beer and a burger before my flight home. My girlfriend Annie was kind enough to pick me up at the airport and take me home for a quick shower before going to dinner. It was great to be back in San Francisco. And what made it even greater was knowing that my trip wasn't even close to being over yet!

I allowed myself a day to prep, get a badly needed haircut, and be at my interview at 9:00 Wednesday morning. I left the interview at 6:45 that evening excited about the opportunity and optimistic that an offer would be forthcoming.

Sedona, Petrified
National Forrest, and
The Grand Canyon

By noon Thursday I was touching down in Phoenix again. By then, I had made contact with my Sedona connection (Jeff and Darlene Powell). I briefly met them at their home in Mesa, then followed them right back up Interstate 17 & Highway 179 to their weekend home in Sedona. For the next two days we caught up, relaxed, explored Sedona, and ate like royalty.

Sunday morning I slept in, said my goodbyes over brunch, and started wandering back roads through the desert. I started out down Highway 179 looking for a cutover to Highway 30. Not finding it, I had to cover a short stint on Interstate 17 to catch Highway 30 to Cottonwood. The sun was out, it was hot, and as you would now expect--I took my time.

From Cottonwood I turned southeast down Highway 260 to Camp Verde stopping frequently to enjoy the views and take a few photos. I also stopped at Tonto Natural Bridge State Park to see the largest travertine bridge in the world. It's worth a stop to see if you can secure your gear and hike to the bottom. The tourists were out in force over Memorial Day weekend and without a way to secure my bar bag, I only wandered along the ridge so I could keep the bike in full view. I've since solved that with a PacSafe anti-theft device that I highly recommend: www.pac-safe.com

Camping spots were clearly at a premium, so when I found one available near Christopher Creek, I took it and spent the last couple of daylight hours napping, reading, and generally enjoying having nowhere to be. Petrified Forest National Park was near, so Memorial Day I packed up with the intent to see it and the Painted Desert and then make it as far as I could toward the Grand Canyon.

I chose the back route into the Petrified Forest. The route was Highway 260 to Highway 60, then northwest on Highway 61. A few miles before you get to Concho there's a turn off for Highway 180 that will take you to the back entrance of the park.

Somewhere along the route I crossed the Mollogon Rim. This was beautiful country populated primarily by pine forest below and along the rim and then back to desert as you go northwest on Highway 180.

Beware however when you take this route. There are few gas stations along the way, so top off frequently. By the time I reached the park entrance, my reserve light had been on for over 20 miles--and being afoot in the desert is not particularly a situation I wanted to be in. Luckily the manager of the gift shop there had a few extra gallons of gas in the back for just such occasions. I tipped him well.

The Petrified Forrest was impressive and I spent several hours wandering through the park. What I wasn't expecting was the Painted Desert. For the first time, I seriously considered upgrading my camera. The colors of the sand and rock are really much more brilliant than my little Canon could capture.

Reluctantly leaving the park, I hopped Interstate 40 for a quick ride back to Flagstaff to find a hotel with a laundromat. I'd received a voicemail for a follow-up phone interview which I'd scheduled, so I took the next day off for the call and as a maintenance day; washing clothes, cleaning the bike, paying bills, replying to emails and returning phone calls. It's amazing what you can do with a laptop and an Internet connection.

On day 29 of my trip I reached the south rim of the Grand Canyon. From Flagstaff I took Highway 180 north to Highway 64 and into Grand Canyon Village. It's a pleasant enough drive if you don't mind going the speed of the three motor homes in front until there's room to pass.

By noon I had set up camp and spent the remainder of the day sitting on the rim enjoying the view.

At 4:20 the following morning I rolled out of my sleeping bag, grabbed my JetBoil and a cup, found a spot away from the jabbering tourists, and enjoyed a most spectacular sunrise with a hot cup of coffee. After spending a couple of hours watching the sun "paint" the canyon walls in a kaleidoscope of colors, I spent the remainder of the day hiking along the south rim.

Going into a restaurant for dinner, I met I met a fellow biker and his wife and asked them how long they were out. His answer? "No idea." It turns out that they are retired and average 50,000 miles a year on their Honda Gold Wing. Neither of them looked a day over 60, but he was 77--she didn't offer her age. And here I thought my trip was epic. It did, however, give me a clear picture of what I want in the way of retirement.

Back To The Desert
Friday morning I retraced my route along Highway 64 to catch Interstate 40. Although Flagstaff to Kingman is one of the prettiest sections of Interstate 40, it wasn't conducive to stopping, so I made good time and turned south on Highway 95.

It was hot at 106 degrees and I needed to be safely ensconced in a hotel room by 3:30 for my final phone interview, so I reluctantly bypassed a stop in Lake Havasu City to see the London Bridge.

I made it as far as Parker, found a hotel, and was on time for my call. It went well and within hours I received the call: "How soon can you go to work?" Delighted, I celebrated with a steak dinner and then went back to the hotel to plan the remainder of my ride.

Mark Silva and Pat Hagerman, my new employers, are both riders and highly recommended the route through Twenty-Nine Palms. It fit with my desire to see Yosemite before the trip ended, so the following day found the sun at my back as I rolled west along Highway 62.

A portion of this highway follows along the edge of the Joshua Tree Wilderness. Joshua trees, mountains of twisted rock, ocotillo, and creosote bushes combined to form almost a moonscape feel to the desert. The road is well paved and easy to enjoy. Outside of an occasional pickup and other bikers, I encountered few other souls.

Shortly after a quick breakfast in Twentynine Palms, I turned north on Highway 247 that borders the Bighorn Mountain and Recreational Lands. I picked up Highway 18 out of Victorville before turning north again on Highway 395.

As I headed north on Highway 395, the Sierras begin to rise up on my left, and the snow on the peaks looked cool and inviting compared to the over 100 degree temperatures of the desert. The eastern slope of the Sierras gets less rain than the better known western slope, and it is primarily known for its strong rock formations where it meets the desert.

I pushed on to Bishop before stopping to find a campground and spend another grateful night smoking a cigar by a campfire.

Yosemite National Park--Almost Home
Mark Silva recommended the gas station at Lee Vining as one of the best hamburgers available, but I came through around 9 am and missed it. Gee, guess I'll just have to go back one weekend.

Timing is everything. The eastern Tioga Pass entrance to Yosemite ( at almost 10,000 feet) had just opened for the season, saving me a long ride around and providing one of the more memorable stretches of pavement on the trip.

The scenery changes almost immediately as you turn into the Sierras. The snow was still on the peaks, making for a stunning ride. I spent a couple of hours riding the 60 or so miles from the park entrance to Crane Flats where I secured a campsite and then promptly did the entire ride again that afternoon returning to loop through the valley floor around dusk.

This is a phenomenal ride. It was still a little early for tourists and the snow melt had the falls at full capacity. I stopped once to photograph Yosemite Falls and there were no other tourists in sight; just deer feeding on the valley floor, completely ignoring me.

I've lived within three hours of this place for over 10 years and finally experiencing it had me feeling foolish for not taking advantage of it much earlier.

In no hurry to leave, I spent the following day exploring the valley, hiking up the Mist Trail to Vernal Falls (not really a good idea in motorcycle boots) and smoking my last Avo from Pete around the campfire that night. I even saw a brown bear about a quarter mile from camp.

Only three hours from home, I took my time packing up the following morning and suited up for the rain that the incoming clouds were promising. Then I spent a nerve-wracking hour and a half coming down out of the mountains on Highway 120 in torrential rain and thick fog.

Once out of the Sierras, the rain stopped and it was a pleasant (if uneventful) ride back to San Francisco via Highway 120 to Interstate 580.

End Of The Trail
At the end of the trip it's difficult to say what was most impactful about it. I could tell the trip had done its job because I was as happy to be returning home as I had been to be leaving. It was still months before I had a clear picture of what the trip meant to me.

Thirty-five days, over 7500 miles, eight states, two provinces, and 11 national parks--an epic first motorcycle tour. I connected with old friends, made new ones, saw some of the greatest views God ever created and in the process learned some things about myself; I don't have to plan everything and I don't have to know all the options to make a decision. Sometimes its best to just embrace the moment and live it.

My advice to anyone that will listen, is this: Next time you find yourself with time on your hands, no matter what the reason, saddle-up and head out. You'll experience something grand; you'll learn something valuable about yourself; and I can promise you this--it'll be cheaper than therapy! Hope to see you out there...

Bill Sanders is advertising executive in San Francisco who spends most of his vacation time on his bike. More pictures and commentary on this and other trips are available on his blog at www.sitein.com/blog

Tips For Spring Travel At High Altitude:
* When the sign says "Watch for Falling Rocks," assume they are already in the road. When there is no sign, assume that a rock has knocked it down.

  • When the sign says "Wildlife in the Road," assume that it means more than "they occasionally cross said road." They stand in it, lay down in it, and congregate in the road. When there is no sign, assume that some bison pushed it over while scratching.

  • When the sign says "Rough Road Ahead," assume that there are potholes the size of Rhode Island, washed out sections that have been replaced with gravel the size of golfballs, and miles of groves from ripping off the top layer of asphalt. When there is no sign, just assume it's the normal rough road.

  • When you see a sign that says "Motorcycles use Extreme Caution," just turn around and go back.

Suggested Packing List

Bike & Riding Gear
Helmet
Jacket
Riding pants
Rain jacket & pants
Gloves & liners (waterproof)
Riding glasses (yellow)
Anti-fog spray
Extra face shield w/ case
Ear plugs
Cargo net
Ratchet straps
Air gauge
Rain cover for luggage
Tool kit
Motorcycle lock
Helmet lock
Extra key for bike & luggage
Pocketknife

Camping Equipment
Tent
Sleeping bag & pad
Ground cloth
Camp towel
Hammock
Mini flashlight
Headlight
Compass
Maps
Poncho (for cover if necessary)
Fanny pack
Leatherman
Thermometer
Water bottle
Waterproof stuffsacks

Miscellaneous
ID, insurance & legal info
Camera, extra batteries & charger
Bluetooth headset
MP3 player, earbuds & charger
Cell phone & charger
Notebook & pen
Laptop & laptop cord
Beef jerky
Trail mix (homemade)
House keys
Ibuprophen
Chap stick
Safety pins
Bug spray
Ziplock bags (large)
Bug spray
Sunscreen
First Aid kit

(Not included: Clothing, cigars, and single malt Scotch)