The Road to El Paso

Way back in January, 2011 I had the pleasure of accompanying my wife on a business trip to Phoenix, Arizona.  She suggested that we go out early and rent a bike, and that I keep riding while she did her business-trippy stuff.  Sounded like a great plan to me, so I set up a rental in Phoenix and started picking out a route that would let us see a ton of stuff, as well as let us cover as much ground as possible.  It went a little something like this….  

OK, so we picked up the bike at Buddy Stubbs in Phoenix at 2 on Friday. Knowing that we wanted lunch in El Paso, I wanted to get as far east as we could that evening, and things were going along just fine until the sun started to disappear. Leaving Phoenix, it was up in the 60s….Long sleeved T and light gloves, as we sailed past Firebird Raceway at speeds that would have probably gotten us a podium finish.

Heading out into the desert towards Tuscon, I was amazed at the scenery. I’ve spent plenty of time in California and Nevada, so I’ve seen the mountains and the desert before, but it impresses me every time, regardless. The road got more interesting as we neared the New Mexico border, but between the rising elevation and the falling sun, it started getting cold.

We put our jackets and heavier gloves on, then got back on the I-10 raceway. By 5 it was cold. By 5:30 it was cold and dark, and I was still wearing sunglasses. Laughing at myself thinking I was going to make it to El Paso or even Las Cruces that night, we stopped in Lordsburg, NM. After warming up a bit, we ventured out to literally the wrong side of the tracks to a little restaurant named El Charro; about as authentic of a Mexican place as you can find. The food was spicy and delicious, and the waitstaff was beyond friendly.  We only had to wait 10 minutes in the parking lot for a train to pass to get back to the motel.

We woke up the following morning, and Dana went to the motel office to get breakfast for us. She said it was chilly, but not really cold. 10 minutes later as I was scraping ice off of the bike’s seat, I had my doubts. We managed to make it exactly one exit before I had to pull over and wrap a scarf around my face to keep the 30 degree blast off of it. Looking around, we saw a sign commemorating Camp Lordsburg….One of the notorious Japanese internment camps from WWII.

There was nothing left of the camp itself, other than a few posts lying around. Just a single reminder of a really screwed-up point in our history.

So we continued on, stopping in Las Cruces, then heading into El Paso. I really can’t say much about Texas, other than I had a great meal a a Mexican place that Dana used to go to when she lived there.

But for me, now the fun part of the ride was coming….After I missed my turn and nearly crossed into Mexico, we got on County Road A003, which parallels the border across a good chunk of New Mexico. The road eventually turns into Highway 9 at Columbus, but other than that tiny little town, it might as well be on the dark side of the moon.P1020741

There was an old railbed on the right side of the road that we followed for probably a hundred miles or so. I really wanted to stop and look at it, but the only other vehicles we saw were the Border Patrol, and I really wasn’t interested in having a conversation with a bunch of guys with guns.

We turned onto Rt.80 and dove back down towards the border. At some point, we crossed the Continental Divide, and I was disappointed that the sign wasn’t bigger.

A little further down the road we came across a monument to Geronimo surrendered to General Nelson A. Miles, so that sort of made up for it.

We stopped in Douglas, and managed to find a gas station that only sold 87 octane gas. Not my bike, so we gassed up and hauled butt towards Tombstone.

A funny thing happens when you load a 900 pound Harley with two people and their gear, put it 4000 feet above sea level, and feed it 87 octane gas. It sounded like a bowl of Rice Crispies having an argument with corn in an air popper. Guess what happens to your power when it starts pinging like that?

Note to self, do not try to pass 4 cars on a 2-lane when your bike is having a temper tantrum over its fuel.

We got into Tombstone in one piece, just  in time to watch the Ravens lose to the Steelers in the playoffs. Oh well, good day of riding, with two more good ones ahead.

Tombstone was a cool little town that was the right mix of Southwestern small town and history.  The OK Corral was worth the trip, and the food in town was superb.

Based on both local opinion, we headed back east to see Bisbee, which was a blur on the way to Tombstone. Come to think of it, the section of 80 between Bisbee and Tombstone is a nice stretch of road, both for the scenery and the riding. Lots of elevation changes and curves. Nothing really technical, just a lot of fast sweepers.

Bisbee’s an odd town…

The easiest way to describe it would be like the hippie commune in Easy Rider, though the people weren’t as well groomed. That was something we noticed all through southern Arizona. It was like all the hippies from SoCal moved there in the late 60s and never left. I can’t count how many peace signs we saw on houses and trailers, and the smell of weed and patchouli was all over Bisbee.

We hauled butt back to Phoenix so I could drop Dana off for her conference, and I headed west, with California on my mind.

I had a rough idea of where I was going. I-10 to Quartzsite, then 95 north to Lake Havasu City, then cross over into California, then spend the night in Needles. The following day I’d pop up to Laughlin, then head back down towards Phoenix. I’d wanted to go up and ride old Rt.66 to Flagstaff, but the weather was ugly (lows in the 20s, snow and ice).

So out I-10 I went, then north on 95. There is nothing on I-10 west of Phoenix. It’s downright spooky out there. 95 was a relatively interesting road. So interesting that I completely missed my turn over the Parker Dam into California.  95 between Parker and Lake Havasu City was an absolute rollercoaster, and I was just furious that the bike wouldn’t hold a line worth a damn (stupid rental).  The road was clear of traffic, and it was a joy putting the big bike through its paces.  I watched the sunset in a Lowe’s parking lot overlooking Lake Havasu, while I was figuring out that I was not where I thought I was supposed to be. I’m really glad I missed the turn.

So I continued north and caught 40 into California. I really wanted to get a picture of the “Welcome to California”  sign, but there was no real pull-off area, and it was pitch black out at that point. I saw a sign for 66, and dove off the freeway. I made it all of about 1/4 mile on the old road.  40 is a rough road. 66 was abysmal, and there were no lights at all.  Deciding that it was better to keep riding than it was to wad up someone else’s $27,000 motorcycle, I doubled back onto 40.

I gassed up in Needles and assessed the situation. It was around 6pm (5 in Cali) and completely dark. But I felt pretty fresh and it was warm out. The RGU’s twin headlights throw out a great pattern – especially the high beams – so I decided to go for Laughlin, NV.

I’d never heard of Laughlin, and I figured it was just another sleepy little town like the dozens I’d passed.

Wrong. Laughlin is Vegas South. I rode down the strip, gassed up, and tried to figure out what to do. No way was I staying in Laughlin.  Though I have to admit that it was pretty cool looking at a marquee that pronounced, “Brian Howe of Bad Company”.  I kinda figured everyone had forgotten about him somewhere around 1992.

So with nothing but time, no real deadline for getting the bike back, and still feeling pretty good, I made the call….

I’ve always wanted to go to Kingman. I’d heard of it from the song (of course), and I liked the way it sounded. And I really wanted to ride that stretch of 66.

So off to Kingman I went. Little did I realize that Kingman was through and up the mountains, so the pleasant 60 degree weather in Laughlin vanished within 5 miles. 40 chilly minutes later, I rode into Kingman, and immediately took the turn onto old 66. I had it set in my mind that I was going to stay in a genuine roadside motel, and eat in a genuine roadside diner. After about a mile, I saw nothing of the sort, so I pulled a U-turn and checked into a Motel 6 with a diner next door. I had some of the best chili I’ve ever had, but then again I was cold and tired, so my judgment may have been suspect.

I went back to the room and checked the weather heading east on 66 to Flagstaff, and it wasn’t pretty. 25 in Flagstaff, with it rising into the low 40s by noon.  And I’m in the mountains.  In January.   Oh well, in for a penny, in for a pound…I decided to go for it. Worst case I could turn around and backtrack if the snow and ice got too bad.

At 8am I pulled out of the hotel and hit Mother Road H-D.  After buying the requisite t-shirt, and having 3 people try to talk me out of my planned route, I did my best Pete “Dead Meat” Thompson impression and said…..

“I have a warm sweatshirt, what could go wrong?”

And east on 66 I went. The road was in far better shape than it had been outside of Needles. Leaving Kingman, the road is flat and straight for about 12 miles as it cuts across the desert between the mountains. Then it begins to wind up through them, with nothing but the odd abandoned gas station and motel marking where civilization used to be. Thankfully there are still a few operating snake wranglers and general stores, but other than the tiny town of Peach Springs, there’s nearly nothing between Kingman and Seligman.

It’s bizarre out there….Like something out of The Postman, or some other post-apocalyptic work.  The road winds through ancient rock in some of the most forbidding landscapes this country has.  And then out of nowhere, you’ll see the remnants of roadside kitsch….A long forgotten place that kids begged their dads to stop to break the monotony of the road.  I was so taken with what I was seeing that I utterly neglected to stop and take pictures.

And then I saw The Sign.

As rode, the elevation rose and the temperature dropped. I ended up around 5,000 feet, and the temperature fell into the 20s. The Lee Parks gloves gave up the ghost, so I pulled over and put on the Gerbing’s heated gloves (unplugged, unfortunately), the sweatshirt, and wrapped my face in a scarf. The heavy sweatshirt performed admirably, and between it and the FXRG jacket, my core was toasty warm. Cruising along, dodging patches of ice in the shade where the road’s cut into the mountains, I saw a sign that said, “Grand Canyon 120”.


I gassed up in Seligman, and asked the attendant about The Sign.

“Was that for THE Grand Canyon?”

“Yep, ’bout a hunnred miles.”

“Only a hundred miles? Can you show me on the map?”

After a couple of strange looks and rudimentary directions (“go to Williams, turn left, stop before you fall in”), I hit the last 17 miles of 66 before it re-joined 40.

So at Williams, I turned left onto 64. 64 runs due north through the Kaibab National Forest, which had surprisingly few trees. What it did have were more spectacular views of snow-covered mountains. Once again, I would have loved to have pulled over and taken some pictures, but the snow was right up to the side of the road, and there was nowhere safe to pull off.

I got to the park entrance right at noon, parked the bike next to an enormous snowbank, and hiked over to the south rim. I’ve seen the Grand Canyon on TV and in the movies, and I’ve flown over it plenty of times. Nothing really prepared me for what I saw. It’s freaking HUGE. The crappy iPhone pictures I took don’t begin to do the Canyon justice. Standing at the rim, with the wind whipping around me, I felt tiny.

I got back on the bike and headed south, ’till I got to 180. 180 cuts southeast to Flagstaff. What I wasn’t counting on was that it also went straight up. Those beautiful snowy mountain peaks I was looking at? Suddenly I was 8500 feet up and riding through them. The view was amazing, and I was hard pressed to keep watching for ice and slush in the shaded corners. The bizarre thing was that my leathers were reasonably warm from the sun, but the air was bitterly cold. Families in minivans gawked at me as I passed them, the kids’ faces pressed against the windows as I waved at them.

After 50 thrilling miles of this, I finally made it to Flagstaff. I spent another 3 miles or so on 66, then hit I-17 for the return to Phoenix. A boring interstate, it is not. 17 is mostly sweepers coming down the mountains from Flagstaff into Phoenix. I blew past a group of sportbike riders in a corner at well over the legal (or sane) speed. I’d gotten used to the bike’s twitchy handling, and was able to push it reasonably hard.

I made it back to Buddy Stubbs at 4:05pm…..Almost exactly 74 hours after I left. The rental guy was stunned at the mileage, even more so when I told him where I’d been.

I wish Dana had been with me the last day and a half. Not just for the pictures she would have taken, but for the shared experience. I’ve done an awful lot of riding the last two years, but I think the trip from Kingman to Flagstaff was probably the best. Better even than Ireland, in a totally different way.

Let me just say this….I rode a small section of 66 in Missouri coming back from Eureka Springs in 2010 last y. It was cool, but it was only a mile and there really wasn’t much to distinguish it from any other road. I cannot find the words to adequately describe that 112 mile stretch from Kingman to Ash Fork. Other than right around Peach Springs and Seligman, the road was empty. The scenery was spectacular, and the abandoned buildings were sad reminders of what the road had been. I’m kicking myself for not stopping to take more pictures, but they wouldn’t really capture the…..I dunno, the emptiness out there. 66 is a reminder of a sadly bygone era….An era I was never really a part of, yet I find myself longing for that simpler time that I never really had. I’m too young to have been a part of it, but having been there, I felt its pull, and feel like we’ve lost something important by abandoning that roadside culture for fast food and strip malls.

I want to go back and ride all of what’s left of 66 before it’s all gone, and I want to do it during the winter again.  And I think I’d like to do it on a simpler bike.  Why make it easy, right?


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