Monday, May 5, 2014

A spontaneous motorcycle trip from New Mexico home

Mike put together a great route for our return trip from Farmington, NM back to Prescott, AZ.

We didn't follow any of it.

I ran the Shiprock Marathon on Saturday, a 26.2 mile point-to-point route that took us right past Shiprock, or Tsé Bitʼaʼí, "rock with wings" or "winged rock" in Navajo. Shiprock is actually a monadnock, or center of an ancient volcano that probably erupted 27 million years ago. Shiprock rises over 1,500' above the plain, with sheets of rock known as dikes radiating away from the central rock formation. Shiprock holds special significance to the Navajo, and is a central feature in their history and religion. We spent the majority of the day riding through the Navajo Nation, an area about the size of West Virginia.

You can see Shiprock from miles away, but I wanted Mike to experience it up close on N13, the 2-lane paved Navajo Nation road, as I did when I ran past it during the marathon.

After the marathon we talked with some local runners who told us N13 continues out into Arizona. We rode by Shiprock and figured we'd use the Garmin to take us back on our planned route. Following N13 into Arizona, we rode into the Red Valley and were amazed by the numerous red rock formations and towering cliffs.

We were thrilled when we saw the sign that N13 is closed in the winter, which told us that we were in for some twisting climbing and descending. Riding through the Buffalo Pass in the snowcapped  Lukachukai Mountains was great fun, with steep ascents until we reached 8,400' and then a wild descent into the valley.

The red cliffs rose steeply from the side of the road, and it seemed like each time we twisted around yet another 10 mph hairpin turn, I caught my breath at the sight of another amazing rock formation. We saw only two other vehicles, and none in front of us so Mike could zip around the curves at his own pace. This road is a motorcycle rider's dream, and to think we found it by chance.

N13 dropped down into a sparsely settled valley with mountain views in the distance, where we passed horses and cattle grazing in the fields along the road. We came to an intersection with N64, and a sign directed us toward Chinle and the Canyon de Chelly. I originally wanted to visit this canyon on our trip home, but thought it was too far out of our way. In a few miles we found ourselves riding along the north rim of the canyon, with teasing views of red rocks and cliffs that dropped far below our sight.

I resigned myself to planning another trip to this area, and then spotted the Canyon de Chelly visitor center. We stopped in and discovered the south rim highway - really another 2-lane paved road - was right around the corner.

Canyon de Chelly is a national monument entirely owned by the Navajo Tribal Trust of the Navajo Nation, and several Navajo families still live in the canyon. The name is a Spanish borrowing of the Navajo word Tséyiʼ, which means "canyon" (literally "inside the rock"). We're learning more about the history of the southwest, and the story of the Navajo Long Walk, where the Navajo who lived in the canyon were forced to leave their homes and walk several hundred miles to Ft. Sumner in New Mexico.

The views from the several look-out points along the south rim highway are breathtaking. We saw people riding horses along the water in the Chinle Wash far below us and decided that we'll come back and spend a few days riding along both rims, hiking, and learning more about the area.

No longer on native highways, but still within the Navajo Nation, we continued south through high desert on 191 until we finally came to the intersection with I-40, a gas station and restaurant. We ate breakfast and left the hotel at 9 am, and were ready for lunch of Navajo hamburgers, basically a hamburger, lettuce and tomato on Navajo fry bread, by the time we stopped at 2 pm. Navajos first made fry bread during the Long Walk when the only staples provided to them by the US government were flour, lard, salt, sugar, and baking powder or yeast. Fry bread is still a staple among several  native tribes, and we saw it on menus everywhere within the Navajo Nation.

At the restaurant we learned we were only 20 miles from the Petrified Forest National Park. We were headed west toward home, the park was on our way, and we decided to stop. Another unplanned adventure! The exit off I-40 leads to a 28 mile park road that started with stunning views of the Painted Desert. The Painted Desert actually covers over 27,000 acres and stretches 160 miles, and we've ridden through sections of it before. The national park goes through some of the most stunning areas where we saw badlands and buttes in numerous shades of lavender, gray,  red, orange, white and pink from the variety of minerals present in the different types of rocks.

It's impossible to understand the size and scale of the cliffs and ridges from these photos. We stood along the rim high above the canyons below us and marveled at the forces of nature that created this landscape. People lived in this area for over 13,000 years, leaving behind hundreds of petroglyphs and early dwellings. We think our cities with skyscrapers and parks are beautiful, but imagine living in this even more stunning countryside, made by nature instead of human hands.

As we continued to drive along the park road, we came into the Petrified Forest where hundreds of logs from ancient trees lie scattered on the high desert grassland.

200 million years ago this area was a huge floodplain filled with tall pine trees. When the trees fell, a mix of silt, mud and volcanic ash buried the logs and cut off oxygen, which slowed their decay. The silica in the groundwater seeped through the logs, petrifying them and turning them into a rainbow of colors.

The 'wood' is actually now stone - really heavy stone that weighs up to 200 pounds per cubic foot. I used to imagine the deserts of Arizona as barren landscapes, and while some of those areas do exist, I'm discovering there is much more to the desert than I realized.

Our several stops today put us behind schedule, and wanting to get home before dark Mike decided to take the dreaded interstate. I hate riding on the interstate, buffeted by wind from the trucks and going too fast to truly enjoy the scenery. 33 miles later Mike exited I-40 for the less windy, more scenic, and a whole lot more fun route 87. It gets really windy in the southwest in the Spring, and the combination of gusting winds and truck traffic made him decide to take the Ponderosa Pine-lined, less traveled route along the Mogollon Rim home.

We pulled into our driveway 11 hours after we started. The BMW's odometer flipped over to 20,000  miles along the way, we rode through two popular national monuments on a day with very few visitors that allowed us to travel at our own speed, twisted over and down a little-known mountain pass, and reminded ourselves that unplanned journeys are our favorite way to get from one destination to the next.


  1. Hooray for those lucky find roads along the way. I love it when small changes in routes result in happy accidents. I suppose I should use the term accident when speaking of motorcycles, but you know what I mean.

    Such a beautiful area, but such a sad history of what was done to the Navajo and other tribes. One day we hope to tour through the lower states and see some of the beautiful country in which we live.

    Thanks again for sharing the photos and your story. Always a pleasure.

  2. We were just talking about how living in the Southwest has given us a new appreciation for all of the history in this part of the country. Definitely plan a trip South!