Founding Editor Rob Harris loved a good road trip, though he was never quite sure about the United States. Even so, he braved the American Dream back in 2003 to ride clear across the country, from Daytona Beach to Los Angeles, on a BMW K1200 GT.
It helped that he hooked up for a couple of days with an organized Edelweiss tour to restore some sanity.
It was one of the longer trips and certainly one of the most memorable. Enjoy. -Ed.
I’m not a big Daytona fan, but yet there I was, enjoying the opulence of a BMW press gig, initiated to ensure maximum exposure of the first ever US round of their Boxer Cup.
As thrilling as the race turned out to be, I had another agenda. I wanted to live the American Dream – before it had chance of turning into a nightmare. Daytona was a suitable launching point for this dream, and gave me the elements I needed along with access to a brand spanking K1200GT, a free flight and a good excuse to try out my new tent.
The game plan was to spend 10 days riding due west, along the southern strip of the US, ending up at the BMW California depot to drop off the bike. This meant a quick dash across the Florida Panhandle, through Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana, before slowing it down through Texas and then exploring all that New Mexico, Arizona and California had to offer.
Since I was riding alone, unfortunately any photography was left to me. That means lots of shots of the bike at various different locations across the US. It’s a bit like the film Amelié with the traveling gnome – only not as funny.
LIFE’S A BIG FLAT BEACH (Florida to Texas)
With the madness of Daytona behind me, I found myself riding west towards the city of Tallahassee, where the map indicted that Hwy 98 would fulfill my first American Dream requirement – a ride along the Gulf of Mexico.
For any of you that have taken the time to explore Florida by bike, you will have no doubt noticed that it is in fact just one big sandbar. This means that it is inherently flat, the roads are inherently straight and the ride is inherently boring.
As expected, the hike across the stump of Florida proved to be a mixture of tedium and close-shaves with speed traps. It wasn’t until the town of Panacea, 350Km later, that I got my first glimpse of the mighty Gulf, which in turn prompted Joni Mitchell’s ‘Refuge of the Road’ with its Gulf references to start playing in my head … all the way until day’s end at Panama City Beach.
Back on the road in bright Florida sunshine I quickly discovered that Hwy 98 west of Panama City Beach was basically a long strip of boring two-lane roadway and endless strip-malls. As progress was proving slow, I broke my no-Interstate rule and joined the Transcontinental Interstate 10 out of Pensacola and was having breakfast in Alabama by 9 am.
Joni’s ‘Refuge of the Road’ had been replaced in my brain by a screwed up mix of ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ and Neil Young’s ‘Southern Man’ (the latter of which spurred Lynard Skynard to write the former, or something like). This mental conflict made it a difficult choice between just blasting through the Southeast on Interstate, or slipping north slightly onto minor roads to give it a fair shake of the stick.
Although the road did get slightly entertaining just before crossing the Mississippi River, I was still finding it hard to find an excuse to stop to even take a picture, never mind finding anything nice to say.
As the sun sank rapidly towards the horizon I took a bed at a Motel 6 in the next big town of Alexandria, Louisiana – just shy of Texas. Which, sad to say, was all I needed to retire the tent for the rest of the trip.
TWO DAYS WITH THE LONE STAR (Texas to New Mexico)
Having spent the last two days getting board, I was hoping Texas would offer something more.
Unfortunately, the road was proving to be much the same and I was already half way through the day. As I had so far managed to avoid any brushes with the law, I decided to up my pace a notch.
This got me thinking about how to avoid the attention of the police, concluding the following danger zones where a nabbing is more likely:
1) Any time the speed limit drops
2) Especially at zones where “fines are doubled”
3) Usually on a straight stretch of road (thus allowing for maximum speeding)
4) Either coming into, or going out of, town – although coming in is more likely as that is usually combined with #1, sometimes #2 and rarely, but possible, #3 as well.
It was exactly as I was pondering what #5 would be that I looked up to see #1, having just completed #3, right at #4, with the cop parked off to the side. As I passed, breathed deeply and looked in the rear view mirror, the cop pulled out and hit the lights.
After some quick talking on my behalf — during which said policemen somehow got the impression that I was fresh off the boat from England, licence and all — I managed to continue on my way unscathed.
Unfortunately, the road continued in its same old boring fashion until slightly west of Austin, where the scenery finally started to get interesting as I hit hills coming into the historic town of Mason.
Now I know that sounds like something out of a tourist brochure, but Mason is actually really very cool. Its centre is a big square, within which sits the town hall, and around which are all the main shops. Thankfully, somehow it had managed to avoid the wrecking ball of the evil developers and so had retained the look and feel of a mid-Texan town of a hundred years or so ago.
After spending the previous two days devoid of history and/or culture, Mason — and the hills within which it sat — was a welcome relief.
I took refuge for the night in the aptly named town of Junction and spent the morning of the following day exploring the all-together more enthralling landscape of western Texas under a clear blue sky and a blazing sun, surrounded by a minimalistic and expansive landscape.
By afternoon, a rather interesting option to the MacDonald Observatory opened up, and hairpin bend to hairpin bend became the norm as I climbed up to the highest point in the Davis Mountains. Once at the top I managed to resist the urge to enter and expand my astronomical knowledge in favour of more of the same on the way back down.
Although the road out of the mountains and back to Interstate 10 straightened out some, it was saved by frequent long sweeping bends, allowing for a steady 120 mph to be held, with lots of knee-out corner taking. Of course, this also meant that I was in the high-risk police-nabbing mode but it was so blissful I just didn’t care.
I hit El Paso’s city limits just as the sun was going down and had made it to the western edge of Texas in two days. I was quite frankly knackered but pushed on, as only twenty minutes down the road was the city of Las Cruces and the next State of New Mexico!
THE BEAUTY OF THE DESERT (New Mexico to Arizona)
Heading northwest of Las Cruces gets you into the Elk Mountains, where the road carves its way up and over said mountains with nary a straight stretch. As the elevation climbed, the trees got bigger and the land more lush. The temperature also dropped significantly, which is, I suppose, why I was now surrounded by greenery, so close to arid desert below.
It was simply magical, the rawness enhanced by the fact that there were also no barriers at the road’s edge – just unforgiving drop-offs into the deep valley below. As a result I was faced with the choice of carving up the road, or taking it easy and absorbing the beauty around me. It was a no-brainer – I hadn’t come all this way in March for the view.
As simple a statement as that is, it was brought home to me when I got to the turn-off to the Gila Cliff Dwelling National Monument. A valley where there are still over 40 dwellings carved directly into the side of the valley’s cliffs by the Mogollon tribe of the late 1200s.
It all seemed very interesting, but it was at the end of the road and would have required parking followed by a hike to get to see. If I was to make Tucson — where I was set-up to enjoy three days with the folks at Edelweiss Tours — before dark, without resorting to the Interstate, I had no time for sightseeing.
Oh well, at least the initial tedium of the southeast was now behind me. I had done my time and having explored chunks of the southwest before, I knew what lay ahead was going to make the trip. I just had to exercise restraint in the speed department.
THE WILD WEST (Exploring southern Arizona)
After four nights of motels and one of camping, I awoke in an altogether more opulent surrounding of the Westwood Look Resort, the launching point for the three-day Edelweiss Tour.
I’d managed to miss day one of the tour, but day two was to be a leisurely ride to the Olde West, with lunch in the charming town of Bisbee, followed by a stopover in the aptly named Tombstone on the return leg.
This is the place where Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday — and a few more, less well-known dead people — conducted the famous gunfight at the OK Corral. Unfortunately, now it’s a commercially sanitized tourist trap, full of oddball types who have seemingly found that their calling in life is to dress up in wild-west garb and walk around endlessly for the amusement of others.
However, believe it or not, this was not the cherry on the cake. That honour was taken by a local junior ‘talent’ contest held on mainstreet, which consisted of a troupe of girls aged between 5 and 15 years in various period-piece costumes.
No-one else except me seemed to be the slightest bit disturbed by the fact that children were not only dressed up like 19th Century harlots — including the exaggerated swagger — but could also not hit a right note if their college fund depended on it.
Things then went from bad to worse when a troupe of eight prepubescents broke into the Cancan – dress lifting and all. I felt like I was at the main entertainment of a pedophile convention – not helped at all when the next act involved three 6 year olds, mics in hand, strutting seductively into the audience and serenading unlucky onlookers.
Of course, I was targeted immediately, much to the amusement of the rest of the group, and felt so dirty that I suspect even a shower and a big scrub brush wouldn’t have left me feeling clean.
Needless to say, Tombstone was a hit.
The next day’s weather forecast was betting on rain, but not until the afternoon. Since this was the final day of the scheduled tour, and everyone had to fly out that afternoon, it seemed that a quick jaunt up Mount Lemon — just northeast of the city — was a sound idea.
Although I was fully aware that on a weekend there’s a resident patrolman that drives up and down the road, enforcing the pitifully low 35mph speed limit on any weekend warriors, throttle control was proving torturous.
I honestly tried to respect this limit as much as possible, but after 30 seconds of gloriously tight sweeping bends my addiction to fun slowly took over and the throttle opened accordingly. The GT was in its element as I flipped it over from one side to the next, scrapping pegs, centre-stand and feet. It was glorious.
Ironically, just as heavy drizzle had set in, I decided that that was enough fun for the day and edged off the throttle just as I turned a corner to see said patrolman coming the other way.
I grabbed a big handful of brake, held my breath and watched in the rear view mirror to see the familiar U-turn and lights routine.
Thankfully a combination of the rest of the group passing and laughing at my fate, along with my trusty English drivers licence, saw me off with a warning.
At the top I was greeted by a group of bemused comrades over a warm cup of hot chocolate, at a rather splendid lodge at the base of the Mount Lemon ski slopes. At over 9,000 feet the trip up the mountain goes from the sweaty desert below to a chill inducing snow covered forest at the top. I loved it, and all in thirty minutes – forty-five minutes, if you’re law-abiding.
OLDE WEST TO OLDE ENGLAND (Arizona to California)
With the Edelweiss group gone, Dan escorted me out of town via the Saguaro National Park – a great little road that twists through a couple of cactus covered hills, before flattening back out for a long trek across the desert courtesy of hwys 85/86.
I think the miles in the saddle were starting to take their toll, combined with my recent police scare, meant that the long straightish road was losing its entertainment value – my arse was also losing its tolerance and I was just getting tired.
The original plan for day’s end was Lake Havasu City – situated on the banks of the Colorado River. Lake Havasu’s claim to fame is its London Bridge – painstakingly dismantled from Jolly-Olde and then rebuilt in the middle of the Arizona desert, by the guy who is credited as establishing the city itself, Robert McCulloch.
British legend (and what I heard when I was growing up) has it that Mr. McCulloch thought that he was buying the altogether more spectacular Tower Bridge. Only discovering his error as they started to reassemble the bits in Arizona.
Of course, this story is of great amusement to us Brits, but is probably untrue, unless this guy was a complete idiot and didn’t take a quick gander at his purchase first. However, judging by the tourist Mecca that has grown around this bridge, I would be inclined to believe that he knew what he was doing.
Actually, the only person who didn’t know what he was doing was myself. Not only did I know that there was a high probability that Spring Break was still in full swing, and that Havasu Lake City was a Mecca for the young and brainless. I also didn’t think it would be wise to phone ahead and check on motel availability and prices.
Stupid, stupid, stupid.
Excessive motel quotes and hoards of drunken youth, meant that I was forced to battle fatigue and forsake the chance of a warm pint of English beer, ploughing onwards to the next cheap motel.
Oh well, at least I ended the day in another State — California — and saved an hour by crossing into the Pacific Time Zone to boot.
CALIFORNIA DREAMING (California, duh!)
A short run west of Needles on Interstate 40 gets you to one of the few remaining sections of the famous Route 66 – created in 1926, to connect Chicago to L.A. Unfortunately it’s now been mostly replaced by Interstates, or merely left to turn into rough side roads. Still there’s a magic to the name, although in reality it’s a very, very straight road through a featureless desert, all posted at a unfeasibly measly 55 mph.
Twenty-Nine Palms — it’s a town — served well as a lunch stop, although I couldn’t help but notice that there were considerably more than 29 palms in the town.
Twenty-nine (plus) Palms is also at the entrance to the Joshua Tree National Park. Named by some lost Mormons who thought that the weird trees, with their limbs raised, resembled the prophet Joshua – waving them on to the Promised Land beyond. Which, if said Mormons happened to be motorcyclist, would not be too far from the truth.
The Park not only offers a whole load of Joshua Trees, but a whole load of curvy pavement to boot. Unfortunately it’s posted at 35 mph and peppered with tourists traveling considerably slower.
In fact it was the demon speed that led to the high-point of the day. Just out of JTNP, there’s a road to Mecca — no, not that Mecca — that winds its way down a narrow and shallow, but curvaceous, canyon. The road initially seems to beg for a touch of speed, but is really a series of decreasing radius bends that quickly let you know who’s in charge. I learned quickly and slowed it down in time to round a corner to find a car, spun-out with its arse-end in the ditch.
The Mexican occupants — two guys and two girls — appeared unharmed, although the driver seemed to be suffering from a severe bruising of the ego. As seemed appropriate for the area, the only other guy to stop and help was a fellow Canadian and between us, a jack, some rocks under the rear wheels and a tow, the car was freed from the grasp of its roadside prison.
It was all quite a pleasant experience of teamwork overcoming adversity, two cultures bonding … Canadians being the only ones trusting enough to pull over to help four stranded Mexicans.
Although all the affluence of Palm Springs was wasted in the dark, all I cared about was finding the Promised Land of the local Motel 6, professed to me by my mate Joshua.
I awoke the next day to a sunny Palm Springs, only to realize that it was also the last day of the trip.
Since I had to be at BMW’s California centre before day’s end I decided to keep the route simple and the distances down – opting to backtrack through Palm Springs and hit the surrounding hills.
These hills are the southern end of the Coast Mountains – thanks to the high populace of southern California they also abound with well-maintained and gloriously twisty roads. It doesn’t really get any better than this.
Then I came across possibly one of the most bizarre points in the trip — the Rim of the World (ROTW) highway — running along the edge of the hills, overlooking a distinctly yellow looking LA
The bizarre bit was the ROTW when it deviated off the rim and down into the bowl of LA At this point it turns into a four laner, switchbacks and all, carved into the steep sides of the hill. It was also the scariest part of the whole trip.
Imagine – 60 mph, passing a truck on the outside that’s doing 50 mph, in the middle of a switchback. My footpegs were grinding out, the truck’s wheels were squealing and I became painfully aware that at any moment it would either run wide into me or flip over on top of me. Mid-corner with pegs scrapping gives you little choice but to hope that said truck driver knows his — and his vehicles — limitations.
With adrenal gland empty and pick-up trucks duly put in their place I took one last gasp of clean air and became consumed by the chaos and smog of the big smoke.
Thankfully, I just had to cope for a night, dropping off the K1200GT at it’s new hazy home and finding my way to the shelter of the Motel 6, killing time till my triumphant return to Montreal the next day.
Then it hit me – the dream was over. My new way of life had only lasted for 10 days, but I had embraced it and experienced it to the full.
Twelve hours a day with an ever changing and unique landscape is a long time to be alone in a helmet, but this one trip not only put me in touch with myself, but also gave me a previously lost appreciation of just taking time-out. I had not only lived and enjoyed the American Dream; I had rediscovered serenity in the process.
I knew that it would be short lived once I returned to the chaos of CMG, but even five minutes of this is more than most people get in a year.
I’d had 10 days over 4000 miles and it was glorious.