Posted By Carla King,
Wednesday, November 05, 2014
Updated: Wednesday, January 28, 2015
I caught a brief hint of wood smoke through the aspen forest as we floated around another curve, a blur of white tree trunks stuttering in my peripheral vision as I followed Brad, trusting his local knowledge. This part of the Alpine Loop above the Sundance Resort in Utah was only open to bicycles and motorcycles this week, and so far we’d only seen a couple of dirt bikers disappearing into single track and one lonely bicyclist in turquoise spandex, head down and pedaling fast.
Brad flung the big BMW K1200GT around blind corners like a sport biker, but then, he lives here, and knows every curve and pothole. I tailed him trustingly on a classic BMW R100GS Bumblebee and Jonathan took up the rear on his KTM 950 Super Moto. We were laughing in our communicators; it was just too much fun and there was nobody up here but us on the sun-dappled black tarmac, weaving through budding leaves and spring flowers pushing up through damp leaves. This was our fourth day here. We only planned to stay three, but we would be here another two, and why not? Each scenic ride ended with a soak in our private hot tub, a visit with our hosts, maybe a walk to dinner at the famed Sundance resort, or an in-house dinner party with a private chef. More hot tub or drinks and dancing at the rustic celebrity hot spot, the Owl bar. We deserved it. We’d been working hard and staying put was a well-deserved splurge in a low-budget exploration of the Arizona and Utah park system that began from Overland Expo in Flagstaff.
From Overland Expo we made a beeline to Highway 89, gritting our teeth through the Flagstaff traffic and breathing a sigh of relief when the few remaining RVs turned west at the signpost for Grand Canyon Village. Suddenly our heavily-laden bikes seemed lighter as the road runs long and straight through the high desert. We’d leave this flat, dry landscape behind in a mere few hours for the delightful twists and turns through the geologic wonderland that defines northern Arizona and Utah, but not before we were bombarded by dodging dust devils racing west across the road through the Navajo Nation.
For many miles Jonathan and I shared epitaphs via our SENA headsets... “oh no, no... woooowooooaaaahhh... Dang!” They were attracted to our slipstream and, unlike attacking dogs, were not tricked by quick acceleration. Though we were well sheltered by protective gear from helmet to boots, the impacts slammed our overloaded bikes into precarious tilts that were hard to recover from. After the first few hits, we learned to meet them with an aggressive lean left and soon it became almost normal in that way things do when you have no other choice.
We approached the Utah border where vertical cliffs of Navajo sandstone rise from the desert floor pale in shades of pink and gray, sporting eroded caps of smooth white domes. Turning off on Highway 89A, we continued to gain altitude and over the next ridge there was a sharp bend to the west where we were plunged into the Vermilion Cliffs National Monument. Finally, we had left the monotonous pastel landscape behind. The cliffs flickered yellow and orange in the waning daylight, prompting numerous stops to photograph our orange and yellow motorcycles against a series of striated upturned cliffs jutting toward the road in cuestas streaked with iron oxide.
Traffic was nonexistent, so we lay in the center of the road to photograph each other riding. I wanted to stand here for hours to watch the light change on the cliffs and the dark blue sky behind white puffy clouds stained with its deepening indigo.
Our destination the first night was Marble Canyon and we arrived just before sunset. Last year after Overland Expo, I made the same trip, only I stuffed 12 dollars into the box at the entrance of Lee’s Ferry Campground and pitched my tent at a site overlooking the Colorado River. When the sun rose in the morning, I crossed the street to bathe in the freezing river, as the site has only toilet facilities. The shadow of the cliffs made the experience shockingly invigorating, but the sun soon rose high to send shafts of light onto the beach which baked my head dry.
This year we rested at Marble Canyon Lodge, a simple ‘60s-style travelers’ motel. Unfortunately the lodge and restaurant has since burned to the ground, leaving an accommodations void in the area.
At sunset we walked across the old Navajo Bridge, the sides of which are an open weave of steel bars with dizzying views to the river 470 feet below. The air currents sent water spray scented with sandstone upward to buoy the dozens of swallows swooping and twirling in a graceful hunt of invisible insects. We kept an eye out for California Condor with their 10-foot wingspans. They were almost extinct in 1987, motivating alarmed conservationists to capture the remaining 22 birds to breed in zoos and be released little by little as their numbers increased. Now there are about 250 birds, but we are disappointed to leave without seeing any.
Marble Canyon has no marble, but was so named by explorer John Wesley Powell, who thought the polished limestone looked like marble. In case you missed your American history lessons, Powell was the one-armed Civil War veteran who led the Powell Geographic Expedition in the summer of 1869. They set out to explore the Green and the Colorado Rivers and made their way down the Grand Canyon in wooden boats. A description of their travels can be found in his book, The Exploration of the Colorado River and its Canyons.
The next morning we made the short ride down the red rock canyon road to Lee’s Ferry, lined with cliffs, hoodoos and balanced rocks. We reached the dead end at the Colorado River where white-water guides were busily rigging their boats. Before the Navajo Bridge was built, this was the only place to cross the Colorado for 600 miles in either direction.
Jonathan and I sat in the shade of the picnic area above a vast parking lot where tour buses would soon deposit excited river rafters. We feasted on a breakfast of bread, cheese and salami and watched the river guides prepare for their journeys, stuffing dry bags with fresh produce and plastic bladders of tequila and vodkas to augment their rations of freeze-dried meals. In contrast, the success of the one-armed expedition leader seemed all the more extraordinary. Poor Powell and his crew ended up with spoiled bacon and musty flour, moldy dried apples and melted sugar, rotted canvases, no hats and few clothes, but a big sack of coffee survived to keep them caffeinated and alert.
Back on 89A, we stopped just six miles west of Marble Canyon at the intriguingly named town of Cliff Dwellers to pose next to one of the precariously balanced rocks and browse the jewelry crafted by Navajo women at a row of makeshift roadside stands. At ten in the morning in May, the temperature had already soared to over 100 degrees. A peek inside a small house made entirely of huge stone slabs with ledges for sitting and sleeping chiseled into its sides revealed the attraction of such primitive lodging. It’s a constant 75 degrees in here, morning and night.
My polite, cursory tour of the Navajo jewelry stands quickly became a buying spree, as I found that a lot of the trinkets here are of high quality at wholesale prices. I couldn’t afford not to stock up on turquoise and silver for birthday and holiday gifts and, okay, a couple of things for myself, too. During our sales transactions, I learned that we were still in the Navajo Nation we’d entered since just a little north of Flagstaff. The Nation spans over 5000 square miles and is the largest reservation in the country. There’s nothing but rabbits and rattlesnakes here, one woman told me. The men are mostly gone. There’s no opportunity for commerce, so this is the only chance to make a living save going into the cities to sell wholesale, which is also “too far” and dangerous and lonely and crowded. Staying here is better, she said.
Standing in the shade of a rock on the hillside to drink some water and gaze south over a vast acreage of nothing but scrub, I didn’t blame them for choosing this vast and rugged peace over the din of a city. I donned my helmet, grateful in a “for the grace of God go I” sort of way that I did not have to make that kind of decision.
We headed out to pass by the Cliff Dwellers Lodge, first homesteaded by Blanche Russell, a Ziegfeld Follies dancer who quit her job in 1920 to drive her husband Bill west to nurse his tuberculosis. Their car broke down here and they simply stayed, trading food for labor from passers-by to build their rock house. Over time they expanded their spread to include a trading post, restaurant, gas station and then a lodge catering to the few motor tourists headed to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. But their best customers were the hoards of Mormons driving the Honeymoon Trail on the road to sanctify their marriages at the temple in St. George.
As we rode west, the Vermillion Cliffs faded to beige under the white-hot sun but the air cooled as soon as we hit the switchbacked road up to the Kaibab Plateau. We rose into a landscape of scrubby pines struggling to root in the rock and then into a full-fledged forest with pines, aspens, junipers and fresh, clean, pine-scented air.
Jacob Creek up on the plateau bustles with a visitors’ center, gas station, store and motel, plus the area has a large network of campgrounds. At the restaurant we ordered beautiful fresh salads and a burger. German tourists on rented Harley-Davidsons were intrigued by our loaded bikes and especially my classic R100GS Bumble Bee. They were headed to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, but we encouraged them to change their plans and explore the North Rim just 12 miles south. Other locals at the counter agreed and, though the Germans gave us all the thumbs up, we’re pretty sure the language barrier interfered.
We headed to Bryce Canyon, only to be disappointed with limited views from pullouts. But the historic lodge, built in 1925 among towering Ponderosa Pines, has a great buffet. As we lunched with busloads of tourists, we decided that next time through we’d stay here and take some hikes through Bryce to see the stunning rock formations not visible from the road. It’s also one of the only three “Dark Skies” parks in the United States, as there is no ambient light from traffic, signs or housing, so stargazing is purported to be spectacular.
Continuing east on Highway 12, we agreed that this scenic byway is one of the most beautiful motorcycling roads in the USA, perhaps even in the world. Highway 12 passes through Red Canyon, Bryce Canyon National Park and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, meanders over Boulder Mountain in the Dixie National Forest and terminats near the entrance to Capitol Reef National Park.
When we reached Escalante, we decided that we would have rather stayed here than in Bryce yesterday. The unpaved Hole-in-the-Rock Road begins about five miles east of town, which is the main access to the Canyons of the Escalante, the Devil’s Garden and the Hole-in-the-Rock, all geologic wonders that we only read about in our guidebooks. The charming small town has plenty of cabins and lodging, and a charming Mercantile with healthy groceries, and even a small airport. Because we were on a schedule, this time it was just another place to add to our “next time” list.
A few of the 4x4 instructors at Overland Expo had recommended a stop at Calf Creek Campground on the way east, because they thought it was the most beautiful campground in the USA. The sign appeared suddenly around a bend and we swerved to take it, descending steeply into a canyon. I halted at a concrete bridge overrun a little by a marshy creek. I was not willing to ride through without walking it first, but Jonathan, unintimidated by the inch-deep water, headed on across. So I watched, half-horrified and half-bemused, as he and the KTM did a slow, graceful twirly dance in the center of the bridge before toppling over.
It took the two of us plus four campers to haul the KTM upright and slip and slide it back onto the road – a comedic Icecapades-esque show enjoyed by a group of about a dozen who gathered to watch.
Back on Highway 12, we occasionally paused at lookouts, but mostly the road and the landscape evoked deep appreciation for raw nature and occasionally for road builders. Rising to the top of a mountain, we were suddenly aware that we were riding its spine. For several miles we were awed by the scenery from this vista, but only for brief glimpses, for there was no shoulder, no guard rail, only a precarious stretch of asphalt at the top of the world from which a fall would pitch one straight down into the valley below. I felt as if I was floating atop a living breathing thing. I was suddenly connected to both to earth and sky. Yes. This is why we ride.
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