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A Southwest Odyssey

By Richard Carpenter

Take the long way home

Ulysses rider wanders through the Navajo Nation

I left the Kiwanis campground near Gallup on Sunday afternoon, having just spent an intense weekend with a group of other men, taking a good hard look inside ourselves and each other. I’d committed to be in Gallup for my own good, and in Phoenix two days later for the good of my business. In between, I planned to enjoy a nice long ride on back country two-lanes, and I started right away, heading down 602 to Zuni, New Mexico.

A few raindrops cooled my face as I rode past striated red and white mesas, but the sun was soon fully out again. I stopped for gas in Zuni, smiled at the curious children passing by on the sidewalk, and started out again without my customary soda, and with no music on my iPod, either. Although it had been a demanding weekend both physically and mentally, I felt unusually sharp and alert.

Passing into Arizona, the rough pavement was suddenly new and smooth, deep black asphalt with that “just-laid” smell but no construction zone to slow me down. I had plenty of time to examine shadows with my mind, eyes and camera. An old car sprang from a field near Witch Wells, riddled with bullet holes and neglect, yet still more fundamentally solid than most new cars. The Ulysses roared along through rising, rolling plains of volcanic rock and prairie grasses as clouds gathered ahead over the mountains. By the time I reached Show Low, the air was cool and damp with the coming storm, and I decided to stop for the night.

Show Low has no shortage of the classic small motels that I favor when traveling, and I cruised slowly, looking for a likely spot. The Kiva Motel offered “Free Internet and Spa” and I pulled in. The friendly proprietor noticed my jacket, and not only put me in a room next to the spa, but invited me to pull the bike in by the door out of the rain. I unpacked, watching The Empire Strikes Back—a classic Hero’s Journey—and then went across the street to Fiesta Mexicana in search of margaritas and mole enchiladas.

It stormed during the night, but after the hot soak I didn’t wake until sunrise. I repacked the bike, filling every inch of the large sidecases, and noticed that my tent was missing. I hoped it had fallen off at Gallup and might have been noticed and recovered by a friend from Durango; it was older but serviceable and filled with good memories. After a farewell to the hotel owner I was off down the road, deciding as I pulled out that breakfast could wait until the next town. I passed a Starbucks and uncharacteristically kept rolling, away from the demon caffeine, feeling quite awake and alive without.

The road was still damp from the previous night as I climbed into the mountains, and the countryside was suddenly familiar, all tall pines and cedar with the familiar smell of sage upon the wind, much like home. I could head to Payson or south on 60 to Globe, and I chose the latter, having ridden from Phoenix to Payson on 87 some months before.

Route 60 is a lovely winding two-lane that leads among the evergreens and limestone cliffs. I stopped at Cedar Canyon for a shot of a tree that grows from the canyon floor up past the bridge, and noticed as I rode on that time seemed the least bit elastic this morning. After 15 minutes or 50, the road suddenly became a sportbikers dream as it entered Salt River Canyon, descending curve upon curve to the canyon floor, where today the river ran a muddy red. I turned off to investigate the dirt road by the bridge, and found that for the price of a tribal pass, any dual-sport biker could spend the day in the canyon floor, riding the dirt roads and camping near the river. However, I was short a tent and victuals, and decided to ride on and save this adventure for another time.

The other side of the canyon was even more fun, with no RVs or trucks to block the way uphill, and I was soon entering Globe. I stopped for fuel, and was anticipating breakfast eagerly as I headed into town, but none of the generic restaurants and fast food joints appealed to my appetite as I rode by. I considered going downtown, but missed the turn. Ah well, thought I, better a later meal if it’s a tastier one, and just continued on through Miami, climbing past the stepped-earth of the copper mines, into the boulder-strewn landscape of saguaro and jackrabbits, up the next mountain pass into road-widening construction that passed right through a small mountaintop town called Top-of-the-World.

According to the signs in everyone’s yard, Top-of-the-World was none too happy about the new road, and felt it should have bypassed them rather than bisecting the town with four lanes. There was a forlorn defiance about the yard signs exhorting passersby to sign an online petition as the scrapers and rollers went about their business mere feet away. I descended now into the familiar heat of the Arizona desert, down into Superior, a listless ghost town with a broken-windowed mining complex and onto the four-lane highway. The heat was a full-on 100 now, and I was becoming irritably hungry. Gold Camp hove into view and I stopped at the Red Sage for excellent biscuits and gravy, bacon and eggs.

I hadn’t realized how close I’d gotten to Phoenix; traffic fairly flew, and I with it. I was at the hotel posthaste, unpacked and then rode off to Scottsdale for a few clothes and an afternoon plate of pulled-pork nachos at The Salty Senorita while I prepared for the week’s conference. Time to focus on my business again and become the wolf at my competitors’ doors…

Sunday morning found me back on the road, rolling out at 9 after a farewell breakfast with friends from around the world. The conference had been held in Mesa, and it was with some surprise that I noted I’d ridden a good 50 miles by the time I got to the north side of Phoenix. I sped north up I-17 through the late morning heat, stopping briefly for gas and air at a lonely Chevron station, then continuing through Camp Verde (aptly named, as the road drops from nondescript high desert into a valley of green) and into Flagstaff, where the climate was noticeably cooler.

I pulled into Starbucks, feeling quite ready for a bit of the old caffeine, then decided to eat first, and walked down the street a block to Strombolli’s Italian Restaurant for an excellent lunch of pizza, garlic bread and salad. Back then to Starbucks for a quiet cup of sweet blonde coffee, and I was ready for the long haul through the Navajo Nation.

Outside of Flagstaff I followed 89 north for an hour, then split off on 160 to Tuba City, riding through badlands of wind-sculpted rock akin to the Mars of Bradbury’s imaginings. I continued through the Navajo Nation to Cow Springs, which features an old gas station that falls apart a little more each time I pass it. Every car on the road seemed to be driving either substantially over or under the speed limit, and I tended to err with the former, though not always on purpose. (I will say that the Ulysses has a notable sweet spot around 4000 rpm.) On thus through Tsegi canyon and into Kayenta.

It was a long couple of hours with nothing but my thoughts to keep me company. I had plenty of time to plan changes and refinements to my business and life, and to chase shadows through the recesses of my psyche. Finally I came back out onto 491, past Towaoc and then through Cortez. Getting to this last stretch left me feeling already home. I meandered through Mancos and up into the La Platas, admiring the fall colors that had burst onto the mountainsides full-blown during my absence–Colorful Colorado indeed!

Down the final stretch into Durango now, and I stopped on Main Street for a short cup of coffee while I checked phone messages and rested my neck, then I headed up Florida Road to my mountain home past oak trees full of orange, and aspens turning gold. I reflected once more on how spectacular it is to live here in a place so beautiful that tens of thousands come each year to visit.

I do love to travel, but it sure felt good that night to be home again… and isn’t that how you know it’s home?

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