Editor’s note: Zac’s back home now, but here’s what he had to say about three fantastic stretches of riding he had towards the end of his trip to Overland Expo. Don’t forget to check out the photo gallery at the end!
A day on the Devil’s Highway
After waking up at Martin Sheen’s hunting lodge (see the end of the last postcard), I hit the road for Arizona, with a quick stop in Apache Creek, to try to buy a coffee.
They didn’t have any Joe brewing, so I was forced to stop again in Reserve. This actually turned out to be a pretty cool little town, with a saloon on the main street that dates back to the 1870s.
As if to warn of the dangers of drinking, there’s a statue on the opposite side of the street commemorating one Elfego Baca, a heroic lawman who became locally famous for holding off a bunch of wild lawless cowboys singlehandedly (they’d likely got liquored up at the bar across the street).
While they thought they’d intimidate the Hispanic deputy, the riot lost a bit of momentum after he shot a few of them and more lawmen came to put an end to the affair. Such was life in the Wild West.
A wrong turn on the way out of town took me down a very scenic mountain road filled with switchbacks … and loose gravel, and no guard rails. While the view was fantastic, the riding was dangerous, and I turned back around reluctantly towards the Arizona border, on what the cartographer had drawn as a straight line.
The road turned out to be anything but straight. I hit some fantastic switchbacks as I crossed into the Grand Canyon State, stuff that hadn’t been drawn on my atlas. I asked the gas station attendant about the road ahead, and she said it got even tighter …
See, I was headed towards Rt. 191, formerly Rt. 666, a.k.a. The Devil’s Highway – sounds a bit like a Wanted poster. It looked like a fun ride when I saw it on the map, and the two BMW R1200C riders I met pulling out of the gas station confirmed my suspicions – they were headed there too. Why not tag along, they asked?
Why not, indeed? Not wanting to bin the Harley by unwisely trying to keep up with a couple of hot-rods, I declined, but said I might catch up with them later.
After grabbing a gas station burrito, I was on my way down what’s likely the best road in North America you will never hear about, heading upwards from Morenci’s very massive, very scenic and likely very toxic pit mine.
Everyone’s heard of the Tail of the Dragon in Tennessee/North Carolina, but that stretch of pavement is only 11 miles long. There’s about 90 miles of road between Morenci and Alpine, Arizona, and a lot of it is more challenging than the Dragon. And unlike the Dragon, it’s not well-traveled. If you go off a cliff, hit a deer, or get eaten by a cougar (all possible), it could be days before someone finds you.
I would have loved to stop for more photos along the best stretches of twisties, but it just wasn’t possible – there wasn’t really any shoulder to speak of, in many places. In fact, this road follows Francisco Vásquez de Coronado’s old route during his days of plundering the southwest US as a conquistadore in the 1500s – except he did it on a horse.
As you ride, you’re left wondering what on earth possessed road builders to follow that blood-filled route with pavement. Maybe it was literal possession? No wonder it’s called the Devil’s Highway.
There are a few stretch of 191 that straighten out and give you a break from the left-right left-right left-right switchbacks that snake along the sides of the mountains in Apache National Forest. They also give you a chance to check out the view, and if you want to camp, you could do that too.
I didn’t have to camp, though. I met my newfound BMW-riding pals midway, and one of them, Mike, asked me what I was doing for supper. “Uh, nothing,” I said. What about a place to stay. Again, I confessed to my lack of forward planning.
No problem, said Mike – he texted his wife that he’d met a Canadian en route, and he was coming to dinner, and staying the night. Then Mike and his brother-in-law (possibly named Norton or Tom – my memory of aliases encountered from this trip is sadly lacking) led the way through to Alpine, with a bit of peg-scraping on my part keeping up with the more svelte Beemers.
After a great meal (Mike’s wife Debbie cooked a fantastic steak, especially considering she didn’t know a thing about me), I hit the sack, then went on to Flagstaff in the morning.
Thanks again, Mike and Debbie.
Monument Valley memories
I left Flagstaff’s Overland Expo with a motley crew of adventure riders, had some chicken-fried steak at a local breakfast joint, then headed for the Grand Canyon. After the requisite photo-op, I scooted towards Utah.
This is a pretty deserted area. The roadside has plenty of natives selling handmade jewelry (that may or may not be made in China), and every time you stop for gas, you expect the boys from ZZ Top to roll up to the pumps and toss you the keys to the Eliminator.
After the crowds at the Grand Canyon, though, it was great to get away from the tourist hype, and soon I was on the Arizona-Utah Rt 163. I’d heard good things about it from Mike, and from another fellow traveler at Overland Expo. I thought it might be interesting, but I didn’t just how amazing the ride would be.
The Grand Canyon is vast and inspiring, but you can’t ride through it. Monument Valley, where John Ford shot many westerns (like John Wayne’s The Searchers), has a road running right through it. It’s bumpy, and it’s straight, but that doesn’t matter, because you’re too busy gawking at the landscape.
Riding through Monument Valley is like riding on Mars, with sand blowing everywhere, unearthly rock formations randomly rising from the desert, and a sky so blue you’d think it was an atmosphere from another planet. Think Total Recall, without the interstellar colonization.
Of course, it helped that I rode through at the perfect time of day, with the sun headed towards the horizon, but this was a truly breathtaking ride that I couldn’t believe I’d never heard about before.
The ride after Monument along 162 and 160 (you’ll cross Rt. 191 again as well) isn’t bad, either – you get more of the desert landscape, lots of moderately curvy roads, and a few very tight turns in areas.
Eventually, it dumps you into Colorado, where you can work your way through towards Durango, then head north to the Million Dollar Highway.
Million Dollar Highway
The Million Dollar Highway is just one of Colorado’s many fantastic roads, but it’s one of the best known. Running about 40 km between Silverton and Ouray, Colorado on Rt. 550 (although the twisties start before Silverton!), this route takes you up and down and around mountains.
Like 191 in Arizona, there are sheer drop-offs to the side in many places, along with signs warning of rock slides. At one point, I had to maneuver around a backhoe that was running back and forth across the road, cleaning up debris that would have spelt death had I hit it on two wheels (I didn’t see any earth-moving equipment operating on 191, but it was quite obvious in spots that road crews had cleaned up landslides recently).
Colorado certainly isn’t a nanny state when it comes to speed; speed limits across the state are usually high, and the locals are used to pushing them. You might find the locals, who know the road well, can be a bit pushy behind you on the Million Dollar Highway. There are plenty of campers to get stuck behind as well.
If you’re going to do this route, come prepared for chilly weather in the mountains. There was still snow in several places. You might want extra gloves.
People who like the Rockies will especially love this route. Frankly, I thought the Rockies repeated the same old snow/trees/rocks theme that I’ve seen all my life in Canada. True, the rocks were bigger, but they were still rocks. And maybe, just maybe, I missed the ocean, just a bit.
In any case, while the ride was fun, I actually enjoyed my later stint down Rt. 133, along the Crystal River, much more. I’d return to Colorado to ride, but I’d probably prefer to do it when it was a bit warmer next time.
And, that was about the end of the fun rides for this trip. From a tire change at Aspen Valley Harley-Davidson, it was mostly four-lane the rest of the way home. The extreme elevation changes through Vail Pass on Rt. 7 were fun, and the Switchback’s fuel-injected motor made short work of the slowpokes I encountered, but after that I hit the plains of Nebraska, Iowa, Minnesota, and so on.
It was great having the Switchback for this stuff, as it could hammer out the long-distance miles through heavy headwinds without shaking at all. But, frankly, were I to do this trip again, I’d find another way home. I don’t think Nebraskan cornfields are much of a draw for anyone, especially motorcyclists.
Check out all the pics that go with this story! Click on the main sized pic to transition to the next or just press play to show in a slideshow.
[…] I traveled the southern half of New Brunswick on that bike, and realized I’d need something with a little more jam to get much further from home if I only had weekends. A year later I was married, but still managed to sneak home with a Suzuki DR650. Then I was laid off from my newspaper job, picked up work with CMG, and started riding madly off in all directions. […]
Well done, Zac an excellent set of articles
Nice write up. I spent a few months last year on the road. 1st pit stop was Glenn Springs Co. spent 5 days riding the roads there, (Moab, Arches N.P., Black Gunnesion, etc.) then over to Cortez where I feel in love with the beer at the Main St Brewery, (Mesa Verde, the cliff cities, and checked out the roads in that area for 4 days, (Million dollar highway, Telluride etc.) then through Arizona/New Mexico for a few weeks, (Apache Forest and many others too numerous to mention), then on to Southern California and rode the southern part of the state for a few weeks, (Did the northern part of California the year before as well as Nevada, Oregon, Washington and all of B.C.) Then toured Utah, Zion Canyon, Bryce Canyon, Bonneville Salt Flats, Idaho, Wyoming and Montana, (again too many highlights to name any) then on to Calgary where I left my stuff and flew home for a few weeks. Spent a few weeks in the Kootanies riding with Western friends and then the long dawdle home past the Corner Gas set, and then explored the Dakotas. from there it was a sleepy stretch home across the Upper U.S. breadbasket. Sure beats working… Thanks for refreshing the memories.
Really well written, i enjoyed reading them.
And nice to hear there are still guys like Mike out there.
Nice piece, Zac. I envy you the trip and agree about the rocks and trees things in the Rockies, lol.
Enjoyed this. Thanks.
Definitely do CO again! And when you do, be sure to head to Colorado Springs/Manitou Springs to make the trek up Pikes Peak. The road to the summit is fully paved now, so you don’t need to worry about gravel. Whether you go to the summit via rail or road, it’s absolutely worth it.
I checked the Morenci-to-Alpine route on Google Maps. Wow, that looks righteous! 😀