July 27, 2005 GMT
Do Not Try This At Home--Or in Utah

John the Snor--, I mean, Paramedic--originally named his bike Carmen, but changed it to Carmen The Wonder Bike after one particularly deft road-to-offroad recovery maneuver for which John seems to think he was not entirely responsible. Now that Beagle has endured the harsh Utah/Colorado desert shale, cacti and mud on a bald tire through heat and cold and all the drops to which I subjected her without missing a beat, 13,000 miles from the starting line she earns the "Mighty" prefix.

The last two days since Jackson have been very hard on the bike--and on me. Neither Jackson Wy, nor Idaho Falls had a tire in my size. At this point I would take anything round and made of rubber with a hole in middle. Salt Lake was the next large town South, so off I went down the dreaded interstate. Freeway driving is the worst and most dangerous, I think--especially when you are fully loaded and unable to keep up. I filled up with gas at place in Idaho not on the map and called Salt Lake to make sure someone would have my tire. LIttle did I know the 25th was a Utah state holiday and everything was closed. Now what? I called Fred at Arrowhead Motorsports in Moab. He had lots of tires that would fit if I could make it there. I could, but not on Monday. There being no reason to be on the interstate anymore, or to be anywhere but Moab by Tuesday afternoon, I pulled out the map and looked at my options. I was basically at a crossroads and could go any direction, all of which were unknown and circuitous. Ah yes, another metaphor. This particular day I was thinking of Tom Hanks' character in Castaway, standing at the crossroads at the end of the movie, trying to think of which way to go. Everyday we are at a crossroads if you think about it, and choices are almost limitless. Unfortunately time is always linear, and some of the forks we take in the road of life cannot be retraced. Sometimes a new fork will take you where you would have been had you taken on earlier, and sometimes that road is forever closed. Fortunately (or unfortunately) we have a rear view mirror called hindsight that lets us see whether our decisions were good or bad, even years later. On this trip, decisions have immediate consequences and judgment is tested without need to look behind you. Like Raul Julia's character in "Gumball Rally" said as he removed the rearview mirror, "The first rule of Italian race car driving is, what is behind you does not matter."

What was my point again? I forget. But I think I know what Tom Hanks' character was thinking at that moment. And I realize that everyone has their own decisions to make and their own adventures to take. At this point in the road hindsight wasn't going to help me. I looked forward at the options ahead of me, picked my route and went southeast.

And I chose ... poorly. The most boring ride through high scrub plains, 435 miles and a sore butt with nothing but my own thoughts about past relationships bouncing around and around in my head. After the great interactions in Jackson, it was a lonely ride to Flaming Gorge Nat'l Rec. Area. But when I got there the sun was setting and my shadow was cast across the road and in silhouette on hillsides. A beautiful night. I found a campground nearly deserted but for hares hopping all around every time I took a step. I put on my cowboy hat, unsaddled the Beagle at sunset and set up my tent.

From Flaming Gorge to Moab, you can either go the long way around through Colorado or the long way around through Utah. I saw a map somewhere that showed a dirt road that goes straight through the Utah desert, across rivers, through a forest and over a pass. Bald tire, low provisions, and heat wave be damned; I chose the short cut.

And I chose ... poorly. Again. This unmarked "road" follows a natural gas pipeline at least part of the way, so I did see an occasional big rig on the first half of the ride.

The road was filled with huge mud bogs up to two feet deep, dried ruts, gravel and razor sharp rocks that make the Dalton look like a cakewalk. So I go through one bog and just about lose it. The bike spins all over and I don't know which way it is going to stop. She rights herself and I take photos of the mud on my boots.

Little did I know, this was a dinky puddle compared to what was to come. The next major puddle was about 20 feet across, fairly dry to one side. I take it high on the pegs, revving high in first gear. But the caked front wheel went out, then the rear, and over the bank I went. D'oh!

I shut off the bike, shut off the petcock, take off the luggage, and still can't lift it. So I dig. The front tire is down the embankment, the rear up on the "road" in the mud. The bike weighs almost 435lbs, and the easiest way to push it upright is to roll it down to the brush. But would it ever get back up the soft embankment again? I remembered Sacha's first crash on Vancouver Island, and how we needed the 4x4 to tow it out. I saw no trucks for at least 30 minutes of trying.

It was at least 95 degrees by now, near noon. I had all my gear on since 7a.m. on what had been a cool morning at 6000 feet. I had eaten nothing all day. I had less than a liter of water, a Snicker's bar and a bruised banana in my bag. The sun was brutally hot and there was no shade anywhere. I don't know if you really get superhuman strength in these situations where you need it, but I managed to get it upright and drag it inch by inch back up to the mud. I put everything back on, fired it up, and went on.

I got about 1/4 mile and there was a 75 yard long puddle with no way around. It looked deep. I got off the bike and walked along the embankment, this one above the bog, for a way around. Maybe 45 yards of it is do-able, if I can get it up the soft embankment, but then I'd have to drop down into the mud again at the deepest part. A long flatbed semi comes up behind me to show me the way. He goes in slowly and the water/mud looks to be about 8-10 inches deep. About 50 yards across, it begins to slide left, and sinks another 10 inches deeper on the left side. He spins and chugs and straightens it out on the other side, leaving a wake that causes loose dirt on either side of the embankments to fall into the bog too. Oy.

Well, I wasn't about to turn back. It just wasn't an option. I picked a line on the right, stayed on the seat this time and used my feet as pontoons. I powered through at 5000 rpm, slipping the clutch, not so much steering the bike as setting the front wheel like a rudder. Another semi coming the other way stopped to watch me. I got through with mud dripping from shins down and axles down and pump my fist. "Yes!" The truck driver gives me the thumbs up.

And so it went, bog after bog. Some spots that appeared damp were really deep potholes. Others were deep ruts. All required patience, extremely slow speed, lots of sweat and strength and balance. All the while, the road is forking into equally-sized paths with no clue as to which is the correct one to go from Utah to Colorado and over the mountain pass. My GPS showed only a yellow field and a blue trail of dots behind me. My paper map showed a dashed line roughly straight south. I made choices again and again taking me onto ever smaller roads in the middle of nowhere until it clear that I was on roads that no one had traveled since the last rain. (When was that?, I wonder.) Just two ruts of dirt and gravel where the tires go, and one strip of weeds in between. I was 99% sure I was on some farmer's little used road that would end in a rusty tractor. This is the road I have chosen to cross from one state to another in the heat of July on a bald tire!

I see tracks finally and they appear to be bovine. Sure enough I round a switchback to go up a mountain and there is a small herd of cattle, including a bull looking straight at me from about 30 yards away. The rest of the herd is going around me. Two small calves stand behind the bull. I am surrounded by cattle and can't go anywhere. Instead of waiting for the angry looking bull to come at me, I revved the engine and scared some of them away, but not the bull. He waited until every single cow and calf had left the road before he let me pass. Thank you bull!

Up the road I continue, 7000 feet, 7200, and the trees are providing a bit more cover. I see more tracks, probably equine. As I round a turn at 25, a large animal darts out of the brush about 20 feet ahead of me and runs straight up the road ahead of me. It's not a cow, not an elk, not a deer. Legs are too thick, fur light brown. It's way too big to be a dog. It was a bear, and he was bookin'.

Every campground I've been to, from north of Vancouver to Montana warned about bears. Pamphlets and lectures accompanied every check-in, and the capabilities and proclivities of bears is quite explicit. "A bear can outrun you at 30 miles per hour; do X if you see a brown bear, Y if a grizzy but Z if a black bear, but not XX if being attacked; they eat this, they behave like that; you should do this, and you should do that; etc.

I can now confirm that the pamphlets are correct: a bear can go at least 25 mph. But I'm pretty sure the pamphlets are silent about the number bear-lengths a motorcyclist is supposed to leave behind a galloping grizzly. (And should you leave less for a black bear?) Who knows. In that 1/4 of a second I got off the gas and stopped lest there be a confrontation. As he ran into the bushes I stopped and wondered if I should go ahead and risk being jumped as I go by. Then I wondered if he had a buddy in the bushes behind me. I rode upward and onward. I still would not have been surprised if that road ended in a gate at any point on the hill.

Just before the summit a big buck was standing in the middle of road. On the descent rock slides made the road impassible to auto traffic. If someone had crossed this pass recently it wasn't in a car. More unmarked forks appeared, but I keep the bike pointed south and end up 100 miles later in Colorado, tires intact, mud dried and caked all over, in 100 degree heat. The Mighty Beagle rolls on.

The road to Moab is windy and picturesque, but I had to get there so I took no photos. I still hadn't had a drink of water or food all day. Not a drop. I just HAD to get there. I found my way into town and eventually to Arrowhead Motorsports, the place from which I have ordered many many parts from in the past. Fred is legendary--in the KLR community at least--for his quick shipping and great customer service. I spent 4 1/2 hours there. And despite telling all customers that he doesn't do any service but tire installation, he put on my new brakes, chain, sprockets and a new rear tire for me. More importantly, he taught me how to do it myself in the future. He charged me only $30 for all the labor. Insane! We chatted about Eagle Mike and Mark B, the two guys who came to Petaluma on tech day in April to help me upgrade the bike for travel. There's something about people like these who run their own businesses; their word is their bond, they go above and beyond to help people in need. Just amazing. Fred is on my permanent Christmas card list from now on. I got dinner at a taqueria and set up camp in the dark after the office closed. I was up and out for supplies by 7 a.m. before the office opened again. I went back later and told the lady there I stayed in her campground last night and paid her for the stay. I think she was surprised I came back. People who know me wouldn't be.

My aunt Mary, TJ the Wrangler, and all the people that let me use their oil pan to change the oil are all on my permanent IOU list. It seems that the more human interaction I have on this trip, the more generous people I have encountered and the richer my experience has been. The same is probably true if I weren't on this trip or on a motorcycle. I think of Jimmy Stewart in "It's a Wonderful Life."

Anyway, I'm going to Arches today, Slick Rock (hopefully), Canyonlands and working my way Southeast. I may head for SF before I go to San Diego for some beach time, but we'll see. Now that the bike had all the moving parts replaced it could probably make it to South America with nothing but a couple oil changes. Or maybe back up to Alaska. Or maybe East to Key West, then NYC. Another day, another fork in the road. I'm looking forward to it.

Posted by James McPherson at July 27, 2005 05:11 PM GMT

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