Monday, October 13, 2014

1,145 miles through Arizona and New Mexico on our BMW motorcycle

Five days ago we started our motorcycle ride to Santa Fe in cool, overcast, and sometimes rainy weather for the first two days. Saturday we spent off the bike, walking around Santa Fe under sunny skies. Yesterday we were buffeted by strong winds the entire ride to Show Low, and today - our last day on the bike - the winds died down and the sun kept shining for a final, perfect motorcycle day.

Show Low is a town of 10,000 people located at 6200' on the Mogollon Rim. According to legend, two men decided there wasn't enough room for both of them in town and settled on a game of cards to decide who would move away. One man turned up the deuce of clubs, the lowest possible card, said "Show low it is" and won the game. The town had a name, and the main street was named Deuce of Clubs in remembrance.

Route 260 west is part of the route of the Hashknife Pony Express, the oldest officially sanctioned Pony Express in the world. The original Pony Express delivered the mail across the West for 19 months starting in April 1860, ending when the transcontinental railroad was completed. Each January volunteers in the Hashknife Pony Express deliver over 20,000 pieces of first class mail over a 200 mile route from Holbrook to Scottsdale, Arizona. We didn't see any riders on horses today, and instead had to be content watching the scenery as we climbed to 8,000' and then descended on winding, sweeping roads over a few short miles to 4,900' in Payson.

From Payson we continued descending to 3,200' in Camp Verde. The temperature rose from 50 to 73 degrees and we left the green Ponderosa pine forests for dry desert and cactus.

Over the past 5 days we rode 1,145 miles through high mountain ranges, past volcanic craters formed thousands of years ago, through numerous Native American reservations  and pueblos, and along roads traveled by Spanish explorers and monks over 400 years ago. We celebrated as the odometer rolled over to 29,000 miles as we rode through the Zuni reservation, navigated hairpin turns near Los Alamos, and often rode for miles without seeing a house or other vehicle. It's good to be home, but we're already thinking about future motorcycle rides through the southwest.

Sunday, October 12, 2014

Wind, lava fields, and an ice cave on our motorcycle ride from Santa Fe to Show low

The strong wind buffeted us all day, we walked through a 10,000 year old lava field, and descended steep wooden steps to a natural ice cave during our motorcycle ride from Santa Fe, NM to Show Low, AZ.

Yesterday the BMW stayed parked below our second floor room at the Casa Del Toro Bed and Breakfast in Santa Fe while we walked around the 400+ year old town, visiting museums, churches and art galleries. At the farmer's market we stopped by the raptor rescue and talked with volunteers holding four different raptors.

We left Santa Fe under bright blue, sunny skies and spent the first two hours riding south and then west on the interstate system before we turned onto New Mexico Route 53, part of the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway.  It felt great to leave the truck and motorhome traffic on the interstate and ride along a 2-lane road with little traffic and wide views all around us.

We rode through El Malpais national monument, where molten lava from 29 different volcanoes shaped the landscape thousands of years ago. We turned off the paved highway onto a rough, black cinder road that was so bumpy Mike said he was sure he lost at least one filling. The rough road took us to a trading post established in 1880 to serve the local forestry industry and that today is the hub for short walks to both the Bandera volcano crater and ice caves.

The Bandera crater is the largest volcano in the region, erupting around 10,000 years ago with a lava flow 23 miles long. The cinder path climbed steeply to 8,000' at the top of the crater, passing by twisted trees, steep slopes, and various lava formations.

Standing at the top of the 1,400' wide, 800' deep crater we looked down the almost 90 degree slopes to the trees and boulders at the bottom.

After climbing to the top of the volcanic crater, we walked down three steep, narrow flights of steps to a cave with approximately 20' of ice on the bottom.

The Pueblo Indians knew the ice cave as the Winter Lake, and people mined ice here until 1946. The light reflecting off the green, algae-covered ice onto the rocks makes the cave seem eerie.

Back on the road, we continued through several Native American reservations, watching the scenery vary from sparse, flat grassland that stretched out as far as we could see without a house or building in sight; to towering mesas with different colors of horizontal striped rock; to dark mountains off in the distance. We stopped in Zuni for lunch, taking a break from the wind that didn't let up all day.

We stopped for the day in Show Low, back home in Arizona. The first two days of our trip we rode under cloudy, dark skies and through intermittent rain. Today the sunshine felt great, but the wind made the ride difficult. Perhaps tomorrow everything will come together for a last, perfect ride home.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Straight roads through the desert, curving roads in the mountains, and riding in and out of the rain in New Mexico

The weather forecast was for cool temperatures and rain, but despite the weather we enjoyed a beautiful motorcycle ride from Gallup to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

We left Gallup at 9 am with temperatures hovering at 40 degrees and overcast skies. Instead of taking the direct route, we zig-zagged our way across northern New Mexico, traveling on little-used, 2-lane paved roads through the Navajo Nation and into the Santa Fe National Forest. I watched the storm clouds build to the east, and a couple of times we even saw patches of bright-blue sky.

We rode for 2 1/2 hours before we came to the first gas station, and then a few miles down the road stopped in Cuba for lunch. Cuba is the gateway for the San Pedro Parks wilderness area, and the landscape changed from flat desert to the changing colors of fall foliage.

From Cuba we turned onto Route 126, the Jemez Mountain Trail National Scenic Byway. All morning the road stretched straight out to the horizon, and now we found ourselves on a winding, curving, twisting road bordered by rocky peaks and pine forests. 

We rode in and out of rain, and several times crossed muddy red water flowing across the road.

We stopped at Soda Dam, a natural dam made from calcium carbonate deposits from the groundwater. The warm springs in the area reach a maximum of 118 degrees, and the swiftly flowing water shaped the surrounding rocks.

Most of the day we were at 6,000-6,500' elevation, and soon after we left Soda Dam the road started climbing as we headed toward the Valles Caldera National Preserve, a 13.7 mile wide meadow formed over 1.15 million years ago by a volcanic crater in the Jemez Mountains. We rode into heavy fog at 8,000', and then found ourselves above the fog as the road continued curving and climbing to 9,200'. 

We wound through hairpin turns as we started descending toward Los Alamos, site of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb in WWII. We didn't realize that Los Alamos continues as a government research center until we stopped to pass through security on our way into town. We visited the Bradbury Science Museum to learn about the history of the area, the work that went into the top-secret Manhattan Project, and the scientific research that continues today.

Route 285 falls steeply from the Parajito Plateau toward Santa Fe with amazing rock cliffs and steep canyons along the highway. 

As we rode into Santa Fe, many of the homes use a unique, tree branch type of fence known as coyote fencing because they were originally designed to keep out coyotes. 

Riding the motorcycle is all about the journey, even with rainy and cold weather. Taking the straight route may be faster, but it's not nearly as much fun.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

A cloudy, cool motorcycle ride to Gallup, New Mexico

We waited until October to ride the BMW to Santa Fe, New Mexico, hoping for cooler temperatures. We got our wish - and more - as we rode under cloudy, dark, threatening skies in temperatures that ranged from the low 50's to barely above 60.

Prescott Valley

We turned north onto I-17, exiting on General Crook Trail, following Arizona 260 east until we turned left onto 87 north, riding through Ponderosa Pine forests and high desert along the Mogollon Rim. We stopped in Winslow for gas, and continued on 87 north through the Navajo Nation, watching the layers of clouds and hoping the rain would hold off.

We had the roads to ourselves most of the day, and often it seemed we were the only people in the world since we could see nothing but cloudy skies, mountains in the far distance, random rock formations, and the paved road that stretched out in front of us.

After stopping for lunch in Window Rock, the administrative capitol of the Navajo Nation, we continued east into New Mexico on Route 264. At one point we passed by a herd of four horses galloping madly along the roadside, shepherded by a tribal vehicle with lights flashing.

We turned south onto 491 for the final miles of today's ride into Gallup. We rode along old Route 66 with pawn shops, stores selling Native American jewelry and crafts, gas stations, and fast food restaurants on our right and train tracks on the left. Gallup was founded due to the area coal mines, and freight trains still rumble through town. Our luck with the weather ran out about 2 miles from our hotel when the wind whipped up and the rain pelted us. 

Tomorrow we could take the direct, I-40 route to Santa Fe or loop through the mountains on side roads. The quick route takes about 2 hours; the mountain route about 6. Which one do you think we'll choose?

Sunday, October 5, 2014

A beautiful Arizona day, perfect for a motorcycle ride

October is a gorgeous time of year for motorcycle riding in Arizona. The temperatures are a bit cooler and the monsoons are over, leaving a clear blue sky that I describe as "Arizona blue".

We left home about 10:30 am, headed for the Tonto Natural Bridge State Park between Pine and Payson on Arizona 260. We've ridden this way several times, but never had the opportunity to stop.
Mike rode here with friends a couple of weeks ago, and raved about the hike, so we packed a lunch and headed northeast.

After riding through Pine, we turned off the highway on the 3-mile paved road that leads to the park entrance. The road curves and winds steeply down a 14% grade to the bottom of the gorge and the entrance to the state park.

The Tonto natural bridge is the largest travertine bridge in the world, rising 183' over a 400' long tunnel that measures 150' at its widest point. Travertine is a type of dissolved limestone formed from the evaporation of spring water that's high in calcium carbonate.

Native Americans farmed the fertile land in the valley near the bridge, and made homes in the caves in the area. David Douglas Gowan was the first Caucasian to see this area, and moved here with his family in the late 1870's.

We hiked down a steep, rough path that led to a wooden walkway across Pine Creek that flows under the natural bridge.

Water flows from the top of the natural bridge and cascades down from the trees and foliage to the rocks far below.

Hiking through this area just 3 miles from the highway makes me wonder how many other natural wonders are hidden throughout Arizona.

The odometer on our BMW rolled over to 28,000 miles as wound our way back up out of the park. We gave each other a high-five as we turned left onto Arizona 260 toward home. I wonder where we'll be when the odometer reaches 29,000 miles?

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Arizona desert on our BMW motorcycle

There's a huge difference between life on a motorcycle trip and life at home. When we're traveling on the BMW the days fall into a pattern:  up early in the morning to run, breakfast, load up the bike, travel all day with stops for gas and lunch, end up in the late afternoon at our destination, unpack, blog, work and eat dinner.

When we first get home from a trip I'm faced with a pile of laundry, a big stack of mail, hours of work that I've been putting off plus a packed calendar. Did I mention sorting through hundreds of photos and finishing the blog for the trip?

We came back from a 6-day Labor Day weekend trip to Boulder, Colorado on Tuesday and today (Sunday) I'm finally writing up the blog for the last day's ride. The overall theme for this day is emptiness.

New Mexico Route 64 riding west from Farmington

Small towns are often 50 or more miles apart in the Southwest. Many of the towns are home to less than 400 people, and sometimes all we see is a sign at a road crossing, with the promise of a cluster of homes hidden out of sight behind a hill or past the next canyon. We see narrow dirt roads that snake off across the desert with 2 or 3 mailboxes sited at the highway the only sign that people live at the end of these lonely roads.

We started today in Farmington, NM and rode west along Route 64 on the Trails of the Ancients Byway that connects the Four Corners states of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona on the Navajo Reservation. People settled here starting in at least 10,000 BC, and I'm guessing that the landscape hasn't changed very much from then until now.

The landscape went back and forth from flat desert with faint shadows of distant mountains on the horizon, to craggy canyons and rolling hills where the highway swept around the larger rock formations, to tall mesas, and sometimes to weirdly shaped rock formations that rose hundreds of feet above the desert.

We were only in New Mexico for a few miles before we crossed into Arizona. At Teec Nos Pos  we continued west onto Arizona Route 160. The Navajo name translates into 'cottonwoods in a circle' but I didn't see any cottonwoods at all as we rode past the tiny town.

We turned south onto Arizona Route 191 with views of the Lukachukai Mountains to the east. We've ridden through those mountains on past trips, but today contented ourselves with straight and flat roads instead of twisty mountain hairpin turns.

horses along the ridge on Arizona 191 near Many Farms

I like reading the names of the towns as we ride along:  Mexican Water, Many Farms, Rock Point. 191 took us to 264, heading west again past Keams Canyon that was the site of a trading post in the late 1800's. The 3 mile long box canyon is known as Pongsikya by the Hopi and Lok'aa'deeshjin by the Navajo and is the only gas station/convenience store for several miles. Too many miles today, because instead of stopping we continued on for another 1 1/2 hours until we stopped for a late lunch in Winslow.

Keams Canyon

We've been through Winslow many times in the past year, but today was the first time we actually rode past the "standing on the corner of Winslow Arizona" statue from the classic Eagle's song.

As we continued on 87 South, we finally rode into the Coconino National Forest where the 2-lane highway wound through stands of tall Ponderosa pine trees along the rugged Mogollon Rim country. It wasn't until we rode down into Camp Verde that the temperature suddenly shot up to 100 degrees. We stopped at a gas station for a cold drink of water and I peeled off layers of clothing to make the last 45 minutes of our ride home bearable.

Some people say there isn't anything to see through this northwestern corner of Arizona, but we enjoy riding through the empty desert. There might not be large towns, traffic, or tourist stops to draw people's interest, but that means we have the opportunity to pay attention to the wisps of clouds that sometimes dot the blue sky, the bright flowering plants that dot the desert during this rainy season, and the way the wind feels as we zoom along the highway with no cars to be seen for miles in front of us.

We've been home for five days and every time I see a motorcycle with side bags and a duffle strapped to the back, I'm envious. 

Monday, September 1, 2014

A day cruising the Rockies on our BMW motorcycle

Even with tights, motorcycle pants, 3 layers of shirts (including one long-sleeved wool shirt), 2 layers of liners inside my motorcycle jacket, and full raingear - I was shivering and cold as we rode south through the Rocky Mountains.

We left Boulder, Colorado at 7 am, looking to beat the Labor Day traffic as we headed south on Colorado 93 to Interstate 70. Usually we avoid interstates as much as possible, but we made an exception today for two reasons:  we wanted to make good time and we were looking for a slightly different route. The mountains along I-70 are impressive but the temperature dropped from a doable 52 in Boulder to the mid-30's as we climbed to over 9,000' elevation.

We crested the highest point on I-70 at 11,155' as we rode 1.6 miles through the Eisenhower Tunnel, the highest vehicle tunnel in the world.

When we turned off I-70  we stopped for gas and to warm up before continuing south on Colorado 91 toward Leadville. This was a new route for us, and after we crested Fremont Pass on the Continental Divide at 11,318' we rode past several shallow ponds. Curious, we stopped at a pullout to discover the Climax Molybdenum open-pit mine and several tailing ponds that cover the valley that once was home to three mining towns:  Kokomo, Robinson, and Recen. Mining shaped so much of the early history of the West, and it continues to have a major impact today.

A bit further south  Colorado 91 joined route 24, taking us into Leadville, at 10,430' the highest incorporated city in the United States. We've always heard that Leadville is a beautiful town, but we were disappointed at the run-down houses, empty buildings, and general air of depression.

Route 24 is part of the Top of the Rockies scenic byway system, and it lived up to its name as we rode past high, peaked mountains that rose above the treeline, and sometimes above the clouds.

Continuing south, we rode past the Collegiate Peaks in the Sawatch Range of the Rockies. Ranging from 13,132' to 14,421', several of the mountains are named after famous universities, including Princeton, Harvard and Yale. By this time the temperature had warmed up into the 70's, and as we rode through green fields in the valley with the mountains off to the west I can understand why people want to live and vacation here.

We turned onto Colorado route 285, continuing south through the San Luis Valley where we rode past irrigated green fields surrounded by mountains.

When we traveled to Boulder 5 days ago, we rode these same roads, but in the opposite direction. That gave us the opportunity to view the scenery in a slightly different way as we turned onto Colorado Route 112 where we stopped to admire a buffalo herd just outside Del Norte.

I imagined herds of buffalo (actually, the correct name is bison) covering the plains when settlers first ventured into this area. I wonder what they would think of our motorcycle?

After lunch in Del Norte we turned west onto Route 160, crossing the Continental Divide yet again at Wolf Creek Pass.

We stopped on the western side of the Pass, looking out toward Pagosa Springs in the valley far below.

We stayed on 160 until just outside Durango, where we turned south onto 550 for the final miles into Farmington, NM at the junctions of the San Juan, Animas and La Plata rivers. We had gotten used to the green scenery in Colorado, and were surprised at how quickly the green forests gave way to the arid brown of the desert around Farmington.

By the time we pulled into Farmington the temperature was 92 degrees and I'd shed all of my warm clothing that I layered on earlier in the morning. A walk along the Animas River just behind our hotel was the perfect way to end the day.