Wild West Ride
- Written by Brent Duncan, PhD
Facing 9 days of use-it-or-lose it vacation time and a dog going through a medical treatment that prohibits travel, it looked like I was doomed for couple weeks of staycation in scorching Phoenix. My son’s recent relocation to Everett for a new job gave me the perfect out. Time to visit my son. Too late to buy plan tickets, and I’m not going to strand my wife without the car. So, my first choice became the only choice: a 3,000 mile Wild West loop from Phoenix to Everett through Salt Lake, then back to Phoenix through the West Coast.
This is the kind of epic journey I’d wanted to take since seeing my Grandpa Denver pull up to Andy & Cleo’s nut farm in Hurricane, Utah while I was helping to dry peaches. Denver was making a stop on a cross-country tour from Los Angeles, riding an all-white Electra Glide and wearing all-white leathers from head to toe.
Denver was a big Roy Rogers fan since Roy filmed a movie on his “Big D” property outside Lucerne, CA. He called it a ranch, but it was just a sprawling high desert wasteland covered with brush, scorpions, and rattlers. To a kid, the wasteland was filled with vibrant adventure, including motorcycle riding, shooting, rattler hunting, and surfing on pallets being pulled behind a VW Bus. There was also the adventure of clearing scorpions from the path to the outhouse. A lot of that stuff rubbed off on me as a kid. I caught the Wild West and high desert bug from Denver, and now had an opportunity to do a 3,000-mile Wild West Ride of my own.
My steed is a 2014 Honda CTX1300. The only modifications are that I had a dealer install an accessory outlet. Buried underneath the seat behind the right-side bags, I added an accessory plug extension that I fed up to the front of the bike to an Auto General 130W power inverter with two USB ports and a laptop charger, which I mounted on the tank with Scotch extreme fasteners, like super Velcro. This still makes me scratch my head about the weaknesses of the CTX1300 fairing. In short, not even enough storage for a wallet, and zero accessory power in the cockpit.
With a little ingenuity and three RAM mounts, I have a fully-functioning cockpit that accommodates iPhone, Garmin Oregon 650T GPS, and a cup holder. The cup holder is the best accessory for travelling long distances across hot desert. At every fuel stop I fill a Big Gulp cup with ice and drink. The cup holder puts the straw within a few inches of my parched lips for continuous sipping along the ride. The iPhone has limited functionality because much of the trip is off the grid. That makes the GPS the essential navigation tool on long stretches without phone service. Another problem with the iPhone is that it tends to overheat and shut off whenever the temperature gets a bit beyond 90 degrees, while I’ve yet to hit a heat limit with the Garmin.
The head protection is a SHOEI Neotec, which is supposed to be a premium modular helmet. A huge helmet, I feel protected. The SHOEI ads seem to tout the aerodynamics achieved through wind tunnel testing; but, at high speeds it can seem like that wind tunnel is in my helmet. Even wearing ear plugs, it seems like that the helmet amplifies the cross winds, continuously pounding my ears.
Inside the helmet, I installed a Sena SMH5-FM Bluetooth Headset & Intercom. In addition, to allowing me to listen to tunes at lower speeds, I can bring my wife along for part of the rides via telephone and Facebook Live Video broadcasts. I can even attend teleconferences for work while speeding down the highway. The quality of the transmission is so high that, even at 85 MPH, no one can tell I am on a motorcycle.
The CTX1300 comes standard with 2 hard saddle bags. I added a rear carrier capable of holding about 10 pounds of supplies and equipment. The left side bag fits my REI Passage one-person tent, inflatable mattress, sleeping bag, pillow, and other camping accessories. The right-side bag fit my rain gear, Ravpower backup battery, which helps me deal with my paranoia about getting stranded with a dead battery. Shelter and sleeping bag stuffed in the left side bag, the rear carrier contains the rest of my most essential needs: water, food, protection, tablet, electronics, and Juicy Fruits.
With the long distances between viable towns on the trip, contemplate carrying extra fuel. Although I vigilantly try to not allow the fuel to drop below a half tank on long stretches, the open road can put me in situations where the fuel gauge flashes, with no signs of a viable town on the horizon, no phone service, and no other vehicles. Maybe I should also get a flare gun.
I stuff my clothes in a duffle bag, which I bungee to the back seat so I can have something soft to lean on. Plastic trash bags are also important for protecting electronics and exposed luggage from the storms.
I started with a notion that I’d shoot for an Iron Butt. Boise, Idaho is 1,000 miles from my South Mountain Phoenix Home, and my son’s Everett apartment is 1,500 miles. If I could do the first leg in 24 hours or the entire 1,500 in 36 I’d qualify for the Iron Butt. But, something I learned early in the trip: I needed to enjoy the journey—and should have picked high MPH interstates.
Riding north on Highway 17 from Phoenix to Flagstaff, then skirting around the Grand Canyon up to Glen Canyon Dam through to Kanab is exceptional country that deserves many stops along some winding and storming mountain roads. Speed limits generally don’t exceed 65, especially in the weather I hit during the first leg of the trip. So, a few hundred miles into the first day I decided I’d use this ride to practice for an Iron Butt, which I would save for another day when I can find a long stretch of 85 MPH interstate. This trip would be about the journey, history, and folks. Or maybe I was just being a wimp.
Breakfast at Navajo nations
The ride from Phoenix to Flagstaff along I-17 provides mighty high-speed twisting mountain paths and brightly colored vistas leading to the Navajo reservation. Outside Flagstaff, the puffy spots of clouds glowed pink from the sun’s reflection off the desert floor. The Cameron Trading Post is one of my favorite destinations along Highway 87 into the Navajo Reservation. Operated by locals, you can look through the tourist façade to see some authentic Western life, including impressive native American and Western artworks.
My favorite part is the collection of Navajo rugs in a private room separate from the tourist bins. At $20K plus for a small rug, I settle for looking; then heading to my second favorite feature: the restaurant.
Fellow biker, Iris, joined me in the restaurant for an early lunch. Iris was on a Road Glide headed for Lake Powell. She was planning to take her boat out for a view of Escalante Pass, a hole that pioneers had etched out of cliffs, so their wagons could pass. Apparently, Lake Powell usually covers the pass; but, since the lake is so low, she thinks she can anchor her boat and walk to the pass. Had to pass up that adventure for my own. Otherwise, the price of the company is a sermon about the evils of uranium mining in the nearby hills.
Before leaving, I walked behind the trading post to view the gorge carved by the Little Colorado, which leads to the Grand Canyon, about 30 miles to the West. Figuring the hole hasn’t changed much since my last visit, didn’t feel a need to take a side trip on this journey.
Storms through Utah
The Glen Canyon Dam was as mighty as ever; but, I’d been over it many times before so was more eager to move on to beat the weather cells that were showing up on the satellite. Wasn’t so fortunate. Got nailed between Glen Canyon and Kanab.
Although the entire ride from Phoenix is like riding in a Western flicker, no place seems to epitomize the Hollywood version of the Wild West than the bright red and rust landscape and towering bluffs of Kanab, Utah. That’s because Kanab served as the backdrop of hundreds of Hollywood Westerns; so many that it became known as “Little Hollywood”.
Along streets of Old West architecture, the streets are lined with plaques of stars who made films in Kanab. I was surprised at how many of those movies I’d seen. Was also kind of sad that the days of the Western are essentially over. Kanab is anything but a ghost town, but the memories it tries to preserve are mostly forgotten and fading fast.
I had intended to stay in Kanab. But, arriving at 4:25 p.m. I still had plenty of daylight and I was feeling invigorated. Looking at the satellite I saw that, with a little luck, I could thread between two storm cells. I kept the rain gear on and decided to take it one town at a time.
Nestled at the valley below the Dixie National Forest along Highway 87, Panguich is a quintessential back country Utah town that has retained a strong pioneer heritage. Many of the original 19th century structures are not only intact, they look new. I stopped for BBQ at the Cowboy’s Smokehouse, but there was a long line out the door. The town otherwise seemed abandoned; I guess everyone meets for BBQ around 6.
Sill facing some twilight, I decided to push my luck splitting the storms and moved along Highway 89 to I-70 so I could connect with I-15. I-70 was mostly under construction, so the road was rough and slow, especially when getting stuck behind slow-moving trucks on one-lane sections of the interstate. Grr. Gets to the point that I just have to pull over and give them some distance, so I don’t have to eat their dust.
Although night was falling as I connected with I-15, the distances seemed more condensed as the speed limits increased. The slow stretch along I-70 pretty much smashed my strategy to split the storms. My first stretch along I-15 was accompanied by strong gusts from the right and the left with strobing lightning lighting up the landscape in driving rain. More exhilarating than scary, I could go nowhere but forward, so I white knuckled through the storm from Cove Fort to Fillmore.
With the storm flashing and crashing behind me, I had fewer than a hundred miles to go before my family stop in Elk Ridge, and nothing but an empty 85 MPH Interstate in front of me. I started to realize that it seemed safer riding at night; less traffic, high visibility, cooler temperatures, and no distractions. Yes, I missed the scenery. But, after a long ride, it can become less about the journey and all about the destination. A bit of tunnel vision can help me focus on getting miles behind. No more oohing and ahing over scenery. The only world that exists at night on I-15 is illuminated by the headlights; and the CTX1300 headlights carve a broad and distant path with almost no traffic. Especially satisfying when speeding past the “Construction” signs with no construction crews in sight. Passing through during the day time would be a long backup story.
I arrived in Elk Ridge at 11 o’clock and had a chat with my dad before settling in for a few hours. Total coverage for the day: 671 miles in 15 hours of mountain and desert riding through multiple storms. Most interesting to me is that I usually must cut that ride in half when driving in a car; but, on a motorcycle my body and mind seemed to adapt to and become invigorated by the elements. It got to the point that my mind and body gave up fighting me and became resigned to adapt to whatever came at us.
I felt good to go for more. But there’s a point where stupidity becomes idiotic; so, I resigned to get some rest. Or, maybe I was just being a wimp again. Just in case, I took a few proactive Tylenol to hold off any pain that might settle in over the night.
The bottom of a lake
After a morning visit with the folks, I looked down on the expansive Utah Valley from Elk Ridge as I rode down to Payson back to I-15. A Los Angeles Native, for some reason I’ve always been drawn to the farming and ranching life. Everywhere I stop, the folks are friendly, helpful, eager to share stories. On the road through reality, the country seems a much friendlier place than it’s made it to be in the news. Each place I stop seems to have a group of old lifelong friends sharing grub and drinks, telling the same stories to each other they’ve been gathering and telling since they were kids. That life seems to fade as I work through the Wasatch Front.
With Timpanogos dominating the landscape ahead, I recall a full-moonlit spring night in my 18th year climbing a ridge on the face of Timpanogos with four friends. Our goal was to ski the face of Timp from the summit, something that apparently had never been done before. As the sun warmed the snow in the morning, I launched into the bowl. Three turns on the near vertical sheet of ice triggered an avalanche that buried me.
Fortunately, I was sitting up in a fetal position with heals wedged on a sheet of ice. This position allowed me to eventually push and wiggle my head above the debris to the distant sound of “Look, he’s alive!” My friends weren’t about to risk coming down to find me. But, after my head poked out they decided to make their way down. After digging me out, we ended up confronting the worst skiing conditions in history, working our way down huge boulders of avalanche debris. Probably took us longer to get down than it had to climb up.
Such reminiscences faded as I dealt with the morning commute traffic through Salt Lake City. The objective for the day was to get northeast of Salt Lake on I-15, then head West on I-84 to Boise, which would mark the 1,000-mile goal. Due to slow speed limits through Northern Arizona and Southern Utah, too much moseying to admire scenery and take pictures, and visits with family, Boise would be a milestone, but not an Iron Butt award. Still, I faithfully logged my miles, so I could practice for when I do find that stretch of 1,000-mile Interstate to burn in 24 hours.
I-84 seems to be one of those interstates that would be ideal for an Iron Butt, just as it seems like the landscape was ideal for pioneers to forge the Oregon Trail. 20,000 years ago, much of today’s Utah, Idaho, and Nevada were at the bottom of Lake Bonneville. About 15,000 years ago, the lake broke its land-locked barriers, releasing a massive flood into the Snake River. The flooding carved the scablands that decorate the ride along I-84 through Idaho and into Washington. The Great Salt Lake is pretty much all that’s left of the old Lake Bonneville. The trained eye can pick out the old shorelines etched in the mountain ranges along the Wasatch Front and through Southern Idaho I-84. Also, not insignificant are the remaining vast stretches of plains and desert that were once at the bottom of a sea; makes easy transport for migrating pioneers of yesteryear and wandering motorcyclists of today.
The strong cross winds along I-84 tended to toss me about, while they also fanned numerous plains fires along the road. Another problem with the cross winds is that they seemed to throw birds off their rhythm. Hitting a bird at 85 MPH creates an explosion of blood and feathers that makes me very grateful I have a full helmet with the face screen down. Took a while to clean off my bike and myself. No sooner had I gotten back to speed than I had another explosion of feathers and blood in my face. Felt sorrier for the creatures than grossed out by it. Still, was kind of grossed out.
Hitting my 1,000 milestone in Boise around 6 p.m., I stopped at the Boise Stage Stop for fuel and a celebratory BLT. The folks insist that the Truckers always come first at the Boise Stage Stop, but others are welcome to get in line behind them.
Only a 400-mile ride from my Elk Ridge start that morning, I decided to see how far I could push into the evening. The distances between towns seemed to get further as the temperatures started to drop below 50. It was then that I learned I had left my warm weather layer on my bed in Phoenix. My rain gear provided adequate warmth to help me get out of Idaho and into La Grande, Oregon, an old stopping point along the Oregon Trail that became a gold mining town.
Arriving in Le Grande around 10 p.m., I followed the signs to a campground. Five miles off the interstate, the signs led to a dark gravel road. I decided it was too late to risk a night ride on a long gravel road with a road bike, so I went back to town. I parked at a closed gas station and solicited Priceline for local deals. Another biker pulled up to do the same. Ended up, we were already there. Behind the gas station was the La Grande Inn, offering a Priceline deal of $50 for a large, clean room with a queen-sized bed.
The tally for the second day of riding along the Wasatch Front to the Idaho plains and through the Snake River Valley to Le Grande, Oregon was 566 miles in 13 hours.
To the coast
With a little more than 300 miles to my destination, I was looking forward to a leisurely ride to Puget Sound by continuing along the Old Oregon Trail Highway to Interstate 82, then I-90 through Seattle to Everett. But, first I had some work to do.
Stopping at Deadman’s Pass, I attended a teleconference from inside my helmet while enjoying the view. I’ve got to get me an office like that. I remounted and made some calls while riding through the Umatilla Reservation toward Pendleton.
Crossing the Columbia River on I-82, I entered Washington. Much of I-82 leading to I-90 follows the Yakima River, with choice scenery and ample twisting to increase the entertainment factor. I-90 leaves the river valleys and heads into the mountains toward Snoqualmie Pass. An invigorating high-speed interstate ride through mountain passes cranks out the smiles.
Stopping at the Snoqualmie Summit for fuel, I took some time to wander the resort area and soak in some scenery. A small mountain town with steep granite cliffs, the area is home to year-round mountain recreation. My first real stop in Washington, ever, I got it. I could drop out and make this a lifestyle. But, for now, I had a destination to keep, and winding 70 MPH interstate through mountain roads lies before me.
All that fun comes to an immediate halt when approaching Seattle, just in time for commute traffic on I-405. I thank the government for high occupancy lanes, which help me scoot past some of the traffic. Only, later, I learned that Washington handles the high occupancy lanes differently than everywhere else. Seems that motorcycles can use the lanes only if they have a special pass, which can be ordered from some website. Oops. I guess I can count on getting a bill for tolls.
Thanks to my ignorance, I arrived at my son’s apartment across from Silver Lake in Everett, Washington at around 5:30. Day three tally was 344 miles with about 8 hours ride time along the Old Oregon Trail Highway, following the Yakima River, over the Snoqualmie Summit, down to the Puget Sound.
After unpacking and getting settled, we took a father-son walk and talk around Silver Lake. Having arrived a day early, I spent Friday taking care of business and bike.
First order of business was finding a place to give the bike a check and oil change. Just down the street, Everett Power Sports said they’d fit me in and have me out in an hour. I filled up most of that hour trying out their wide assortment of bikes and accessories. They had a line of Honda touring bikes, including various Gold Wings, F6Bs, and a black CTX1300 just like mine. That comparison helped me to see that the styling cues of the CTX1300 are directly from the F6B. It also helped me to lose my Goldwing envy. Granted, on such a long haul, the Goldwing or F6B or a Harley touring machine could be like luxurious land yachts cutting through the elements. But, in comparison, I found the CTX1300 fit me better, felt more comfortable, and was easier to handle. Glad for the affirmation; the big bike envy is gone.
Saturday, we packed our camping gear and headed to the Cascades, about an hour drive from Everett. We took my son’s four-wheel drive up an old logger road into the Henry Jackson Wilderness and found a spot along the Sloan Creek to pitch camp. We wandered through the forest gathering wood, then he showed me how he could light a fire without matches. Taking the Survivor Man thing another step, he whipped up some pancake on a stick to supplement the trail mix and jerky supplies.
A weekend of guy stuff behind us, we parted ways on Monday morning. He hopped on his bicycle to ride to work, while I mounted my motorcycle to start the journey home. I had initially planned to take the California coast to inspect our home in Aptos. I haven’t seen the home in almost 10 years since we put it up for rent to take a job administering the graduate management programs for the Pacific Air Force Command in Asia. Figured it would also be a good opportunity to visit friends in Northern California and Los Angeles before heading back to Phoenix. But, I’ve travelled those roads many times before and felt like I wanted to try something different. So, I stayed within the Wild West theme and headed for the heart of Nevada, hoping to ride around Mt. Rainier and Mt. Hood along the way.
At Renton, I detoured off the I-405 the Maple Valley Highway, which follows farm country along the Cedar River. Before long, I could see the morning’s destination in the distance: Mt. Rainier. Turning off Highway 169 onto the Enumclaw Chinook Pass Road (Highway 410), the road follows the White River into the Federation Forest State Park, then into the mountains of Mt. Rainier National Park. Stopping for fuel, I learn that this is Big Foot country and that I’m supposed to report any findings to the owner of the store.
Early on a weekday, I’m the only one on the winding forest roads; few cars and no Big Foot. I mount my iPhone to do a Facebook Live broadcast, so my wife can join me on the ride. As the phone service cuts out, I’m back to enjoying the solitude and scenery. Stopping at a viewpoint of Mt. Rainier, I met a couple on a Harley enjoying the same view. I realize that in 1,700 miles, I have hardly run into any other bikers; 20 tops, and they were usually headed in the opposite direction. We exchange greetings, exchange picture taking duties, and go our respective ways.
One of the comforting lessons I’ve learned while riding back roads is that the biker community always seems to have my back. While recently working through a white-out dust storm riding along the Mexican border from San Diego to Phoenix, other bikers banded together for the duration of the storm. Once we passed the storm, we all did a mutual check and went back to our solo rides. When I pulled under an overpass to dust off, a truck pulled up behind me. A lady jumped out to ask if she could help; she’s also a rider and just wanted to make sure I was alright. That’s the way it seems to work; all I have to do is pull over to make an adjustment and a rider stops to offer help. Makes me think I could throw away the AMA membership card and the Geico motorcycle service packages and rely on the kindness of stranger motorcyclists.
Back on the road, after passing Mt. Rainier, 410 becomes U.S. 12 winding down the road toward Packwood. Packwood seems to be a central spot for launching rides to Mt. Rainier, Mt. St. Helens, and Mt. Adams, the triple whammy of Pacific Northwest volcanoes. For me, I fueled up and continued across U.S. 12 toward Portland, catching a couple glimpses of Mt. St. Helens along the way. Hooking into I-5, I headed to Portland.
With my Portlander daughter studying Japanese at Waseda, University in Tokyo, I side-stepped Portland and headed down U.S. 26 toward the Mt. Hood National Forest. The Mt. Hood Highway runs along the Sandy River as it winds up the mountains through forested villages with names like Rhododendron and Zigzag. After the obligatory stop to admire the still snow-capped Mt. Hood, I continued down the other side of the Mt. Hood National Forest toward the Warm Springs Reservation. This is where the forests started giving way to desert. I had no idea that Oregon had such a vast desert. Granted, the brush seems more green and lush than in Nevada and Arizona; but, it’s still a lot of empty space.
This was also where I started keeping my eye open for a place to camp. While the rides through Rainier, St. Helens, and Hood were beyond exceptional, the miles were slow, and I’d put on fewer than 400 miles once I exited the Mt. Hood area. Traffic was non-existent, so I continued through the twilight along the Warm Springs Highway.
Prineville, home of your personal data
One of the good things about taking highways and roads instead of a freeway is occasionally coming across small, backroad towns. The alert to an upcoming town is a “reduced speed limit ahead” sign. The speed then drops to 55, then 45, then 25; offering an opportunity to cruise the streets of a place that looks like it might have been a town at one time. Most of the towns seem almost empty; very little traffic, few people in the streets, lots of old trailers.
I continued to Prineville, which seemed to be the first viable town I’d seen since Portland. A town where many lonely highways seem to meet, Prineville seems to have survived mostly on weary travelers. While filling up, a retired mechanic wearing a hard hat for Jesus stopped to tell me about the town in which he’d lived his entire life.
The diminishing logging industry had been the biggest threat to the town since the railroad tycoons bypassed Prineville for other another town. Back then, the townsfolk built their own railroad to connect with the main line, creating a link to a prosperous future. Today, it’s the high-tech companies that have stepped in to rescue the local economy. Isolated in the middle of a remote desert, Facebook and Apple have decided this is a safe place to build data centers. “No jobs for local folks,” says my friend in the Jesus hard hat, “but they bring in a lot of money.”
A lady stopped me in the street me to say how friendly the town is. “You ever see that show about Mayberry?” she asked. “Well Prineville is just like Mayberry. Everyone is so friendly.” She told me her life story and how she ended up in “Mayberry”. I think she could have gone on all night, but it was time for me to find a place to crash.
I pulled out my trusty Priceline app, which led me to the Rustler’s Inn. When I inquired within, the only rooms that were left were twice as much as those advertised; so, I drove down a quiet street and looked for a patch of grass to pitch my tent. Just like the folks in town, an overly friendly cat played with my tent as I set it up; she wasn’t satisfied until she was purring in my lap. When the mooing cows woke me, the cat was still sleeping at the foot of my sleeping bag. When I rode away, the cat was juggling a field mouse.
Getting out of Prineville I ran into a problem. The McMillan road I wanted to take was under construction, looked like it was gravel road for 16 miles. Ends up, when you are riding in the middle of nowhere, you tend to run out of roads. Every side road I tried seemed to take me back to the construction, and the GPS didn’t seem to help me get around it. That led to a wandering ride through some beautiful scenery, including huge ranches that looked more like they had been built and maintained by Disney than any ranchers. Must have been a dude ranch. I eventually made my way back to the McMillan Road, but can’t say how I did it.
McMillan Road is a long stretch of empty desert road that hooked me into U.S. 20, the Central Oregon Highway. Don’t let the “Highway” label fool you, it was more of the same, long, vacant desert road. At one point, I stopped to see 50 miles of straight road behind me, 50 miles of straight road in front of me, and flat desert brush far into the horizon all around me. No signs of other cars or human habitation. And, no phone service. Started to feel kind of lonely. And, I liked it.
Brothers and antelopes
The first “town” I came to was Brothers. The Brothers Stage Stop has served as the town post office, diner, and saloon for over 100 years. But, don’t stop there for gas; they capped the pump long ago. Across the street is the little red Brothers School House like something on Little House on the Prairie. This school had graduated its last student in 2007; but, the caretaker raises the flag every morning in their memory. He was quick to shout out a hello from across the street when I pulled up to the Brothers Stage Stop. Next to the schoolhouse are ruins of the old grocery store That’s about it for Brothers.
Two sisters run the Brothers Stage Stop, one runs the counter while the other does the cooking. Although I pulled in at breakfast, anything on the menu was open game. The sisters delivered a BLT against which I will judge all others.
The company was good too. I ate with a couple of camo-clad bow hunters. They had spent their morning crawling through the brush trying to tag an antelope. At one point they found themselves surrounded, but never close enough to take a shot. While drowning their sorrows in plates of pancakes, eggs, and bacon, they seemed more than happy to tell me about the ranching history of the area. I had been wondering about the wildlife.
Ever since Idaho I had constant reminders to watch for elk, deer, antelope, and turtles. But, never saw one. All those false warnings and people will start to believe they’re not serious. That’s about the point when a deer comes crashing through the windshield.
Lone tree with shoes
About 48 miles further south along the Central Oregon Highway at N 43° 31.848 W 119° 47.480, a lone tree at the side of the road stood out among the miles of desolate brush of the Great Sandy Desert. I pulled over to get a closer look. The tree was decorated with dozens of pairs of discarded shoes. I had seen something similar in the forests surrounding Osoresan, a holy site at the far north tip of Japan’s main island. Steaming hot springs and geysers bubbling out to fill a volcanic lake amidst a lotus of volcanic peaks, the Japanese consider Osoresan, or the place of fear, to be an entry to hell.
At this spot, families can commune with the spirits of dead and unborn children by leaving offerings or by paying blind oracles to be their vessels. The landscape is covered with coins, toys, and pinwheels. The coins are to pay the Jizzo, spirits who take upon themselves the pain of the children. The toys and pinwheels are to entertain the children.
The trees outside of the boiling fields have also become a destination for cripples who throw their canes, shoes, and crutches into the trees in hopes that the Jizzo will take upon them their handicap, so they can walk out of the forest. The trees have become so laden with shoes that the monks built a huge shrine to house the mounds of shoes they pick out of the trees.
At the U.S. 20 shoe tree, a couple of bras and some panties among the shoes tells me that this spot may not have the same spiritual significance for Americans as Osoresan has for the Japanese. I ask down the road but can’t find anyone who knows about it. A web search generates nothing but “it’s a mystery.” Even the Geocaching app, which tends to have the inside scoop on every local mystery on the planet, pleads ignorance. Guess I’ll need to do some digging to uncover the underground cult spreading the secret shoe tree practice across the West.
Migrating tumble weeds
Merging from U.S. 20 to U.S. 78, Steen Highway, I headed southeast along more of Oregon’s expansive high desert brush lands. Although the map occasionally shows the name of a town, they seem to be mostly like Crane, Oregon. A solitary abandoned building with crossroads that are dirt roads into the horizon. This invites me to invest in an adventure bike, so I can explore such roads. As for the CTX1300, as capable as it is on the road, I’m not about to take it into desert dirt roads.
I did come across a huge heard of migrating tumbleweeds, tumbling down the highway. They blanketed the road for about a mile. Passing through, some of them aggressively attacking me. Made me very thankful for a good motorcycle outfit. The impacts could get quite painful, especially when they bit me through the pants. I came out of it with a few scratches and welts and had to pick some tumble weed skeleton out of the grill; but, left many a crumbled tumble weed behind as road kill.
The desolate desert theme continued down to Winnemucca, where I was able to get a speed fix heading east on I-80. Not wanting to follow I-80 back to Salt Lake City, I exited the Interstate at Battle Mountain, Nevada and headed south on U.S. 305 down the Copper Basin. The desert continued in Nevada but took on an even more forsaken feel. I was getting used to being alone with the desert brush. Heading south on 306 I can’t recall seeing another vehicle. Occasionally, I would see the dead dreams of a crumbling homestead. But, the 100 miles stretch between Battle Mountain and Austin was pure solitude into the sinking sun.
Turning onto U.S. 50 toward Austin, Nevada, I pulled over to see a sign that helped me grasp the historical importance of this area. The sign said, “Pony Express Trail”, with arrows pointing east and west. The westward arrow pointed directly at the setting sun. Definitely a photo moment; but, also an opportunity to contemplate how challenging this wilderness was for those who ventured West. Made me appreciate my ride that much more; nothing to complain about when I know what others have had to go through before me.
The Silver Rush
In addition to being a stop for riders, the Pony Express apparently had an even larger impact on establishment of the area. As the story goes, a Pony Express horse kicked over a rock that proved to be silver ore, and the first Nevada silver rush began. Just around the bend from the Pony Express trail marker are the remains of Nevada’s first silver boom, Austin, Nevada. Not sure what the attraction was, but the folks apparently named the town after Austin, TX.
After fueling, I started to ride through the town; but, quickly stopped when I saw what looked like a large ghost town that required closer inspection in daylight. I found cheap lodging at the Lincoln Motel, across the street from the International Hotel. The Lincoln is apparently a popular spot for firefighters; but, some of them had been called to a job, leaving Room 4 open for me.
My biggest smile of the day came when I noticed a sign at the check-in desk that reads: “U.S. 50. I survived America’s loneliest highway.” Considering that in 500 miles and 13 hours of riding I’d hardly seen another car or few signs of living humans, I couldn’t help but proclaim to Julie behind the counter, “that’s so true!” She gave me an “I survived U.S. 50” booklet that I could get stamped at various spots along the highway.
The International Hotel across the street is both diner and saloon but has no rooms to rent. During the initial silver boom, the International Hotel had been shipped from Virginia City and rebuilt as the jewel of Austin. With the silver gone, the miner progeny today declares that “There’s plenty to see and do” in Austin, as it serves as the gateway to Toiyabe Mountain Range, popular for various recreational activities.
After sharing with me some of the local history, the owner-cook told me about her struggles to keep her Trump banners on the building. The front of the hotel is draped with a huge “Make America Great Again” banner, and various other pro-Trump signs. She said that someone had painted over the “Great” and replaced it with “Hate” and had written other derogatory terms on the other signs. She said that “someone” tried to get her to think it was the “Mexicans” staying in the Lincoln across the street, but that “they” were just trying to cover their own tracks by blaming the “Mexicans”. But, that evening, the International Hotel was proudly proclaiming its champion with clean banners. Regardless of the political turmoil, the pizza was pretty good, especially to the tune of rowdy fire fighter patrons cursing up a storm.
The choice to inspect Austin in the daytime proved fortuitous. Literally a living ghost town, the original buildings seem mostly intact and still occupied. Unlike the clean and well-maintained back country pioneer towns like Panguich, Utah, Austin, Nevada feels more authentic because many of the buildings are crumbling and some are shuttered, but most are still operational. After giving friends and family a Facebook Live tour of the town, including peaks through the windows, I packed up my gear and rode out of town.
Another good thing about my decision to stay was that on the eastern side of Austin is the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest. No better way to start the day than with a twisty ride through a mountain range. A short stint across the range on U.S. 50 led to a southern turn onto NV 376 down the Big Smokey Valley. The valley offers a scenic ride between two mountain ranges, sparsely populated with about 3,000 residents. Historical markers herald folks like Jedidiah Smith, John C. Fremont, and Kit Carson as early pioneers in the area, and emphasize the historical importance of the Pony Express and silver mining for bringing settlers to the area. The sparse economy is fueled by an operating gold mine in the Round Mountain area.
At the end of NV 376 is Tonopah, an active mining town that is also host to the Tonopah Test Range, a military site more commonly known as “Dreamland”, “Paradise Ranch”, or “Area 51”. Considering the conspiracy theories around Area 51, NV 376 is also known as “The Extraterrestrial Highway.” I had ridden the entire length of the Extraterrestrial Highway hardly seeing any humans, let alone any aliens. But, maybe I just didn’t look hard enough—or that’s what they wanted me to see.
Tonopah shows some deep mining scars but is a must-stop for fuel and grub. After gas and bagel, I headed south on U.S. 95. Although I had dealt with heavy cross winds throughout Idaho, Eastern Oregon, and Central Nevada, the cross winds on U.S. 95 seemed particularly brutal. With the brush giving way to sand and dirt, the entire landscape was filled with swirling dust blowing skyward. I didn’t know how much of a punch those little cyclones could deliver until one hit me smack on the right side. I had been fighting the cross winds for most of the day, but that dust devil knocked me into the oncoming lane. Fortunately, as usual, there was no traffic; so, I just bounced back where I belonged.
Just in case, I started to slow down even more, and kept a sharp eye for dust devils lurking near the road. To those who say I should wait out the wind, the wind had been my constant companion since starting; so, waiting for the wind would mean I’d still be in Phoenix rather than heading back to Phoenix on U.S. 95.
Heading South of Tonopah toward Beatty is still desolate desert, but seems to be sprinkled with brothels, lots of brothels. With large signs advertising truck parking, I could kind of tell who their primary customers are. No motorcycle parking advertised, I just kept going.
Beatty is a gateway to Death Valley. Built on the Scotty’s Castle theme, the Death Valley Nut & Candy Company is a welcome oasis in an increasingly scorching desert. I chatted with a couple who were riding a Ducati Monster from San Francisco to North Carolina. The boyfriend had bungied a foam pillow over the skimpy girlfriend seat. The girlfriend said she thought she was comfortable. I have to say, I couldn’t imagine doing a cross-country ride on a street bike. But, they were in their 20s and I’m approaching 60; so, maybe they have stamina that I can’t imagine anymore.
Since I hadn’t been to Death Valley since getting lost there during a pre-kindergarten trailer vacation with the family, I thought I might take a detour into the park to check the accuracy of my memories. But, too many detours were putting me behind, the temperature was getting dangerously hot, and I was so over making it about the journey and just wanted to get home to see my wife. The trip down Death Valley’s Memory Lane would have to wait for another ride.
Taking a tip from my dog, who jumps in the Highline Canal beside our home whenever she gets overheated on walks, I doused my jacket with water at the gas pump and headed south on U.S. 95 toward Las Vegas. The dousing turns 106 degrees into a cool and invigorating ride. But, the dry cycle completes in about 20 minutes, giving me a good excuse to do frequent breaks as the riding day gets longer and hotter.
Approaching Las Vegas, the traffic started to pick up. I’m surprised at how resentful it made me feel to be on a packed highway after 2,500 miles of solitary riding. It’s like I started feeling that the road belonged to me, and anyone that came across my path was intruding on my space. Well, Las Vegas is all about intruding on personal space, especially on the roads; so, I just weaved my way through the traffic on I-515 to get through town as quickly as possible.
I stopped in Boulder for fuel, then headed toward Kingman on U.S. 93. Arriving in Kingman around dusk, I decided to stop for rest before taking my final leg into Phoenix. With heavy traffic, riding through dusk seemed a bit too dangerous. So, I found a BBQ joint for brisket and break. Rested, I did an obligatory but brief ride through the Route 66 section of town, then headed back to U.S. 93 for the final leg of the ride.
Approaching Wickenburg, I could see the Phoenix skies in the distance lighting up with lightning. Checking the satellite, I could see a nighttime monsoon was approaching Phoenix. But, I also soon sensed that wet sand odor that precedes an Arizona monsoon. I contemplated stopping to do the rain gear bit, but decided it was so hot the rain could help me cool off.
The Wickenburg rain proved driving but short, so the cooling benefit was short lived. Entering the Valley of the Sun, I was greeted by strong winds and heavy rain. The 303 was relatively clear of traffic, but I could tell I was close to home when I merged onto the I-10 traffic.
A recent study conducted by Automatic.com found that Phoenix drivers are the most aggressive in the nation. I could have told them that and saved them the cost of the survey. These are the kind of drivers who interpret a turn signal as an invitation to speed up and close the gap so the person signaling can’t change lanes. Most drivers quickly learn to not signal and just quickly turn into any open space. This triggers angry honking and tailgating, which leads to road fights and shootings.
A safe driver must start planning lane changes about 12 miles in advance and may still end up driving the loop around the valley before finding an opening for changing lanes. Anyway, even during a monsoon, the character of the drivers helped me realize I was close to home. After a 633-mile ride in 15 hours topping a total of 3,133 miles during 6 days of riding through winding mountains, vicious storms, brutal crosswinds, scorching deserts, migrating tumbleweeds, and dive bombing birds and I didn’t feel unsafe until I got within 15 miles of home.
Time to prepare for another long one-way ride out of town.