Back in 2005, CMG Editor Mark Richardson rode his 1984 Suzuki DR600 from Toronto to San Francisco and back. The ride out to the west coast is chronicled in his book Zen and Now, but the story of the ride home has never been told – until here, today.
It’s a strange tale about coincidences, perseverance and one helluva road trip across the lowest and highest roads in North America. The bike was an old and uncomfortable motorcycle that threatened to break at any moment, but the 8s held it together, as Mark explains …
The three-week ride to the Pacific from Toronto took a toll on my old dirt bike. The clutch was worn out, the single shock absorber collapsed, the brakes touching steel on steel. I spent a week fixing her back into shape, staying with Ted Simon at his house north of San Francisco, before she was finally ready for the road again. Not great, but ready, so with a firm handshake of farewell and a head finally clear of cheap California wine, I kicked her into life and headed back east.
I was looking forward to this ride. I came out to the coast as a Pirsig Pilgrim, following the route of Robert Pirsig in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and it was important to retrace the trail exactly. That ride became the basis for my book Zen and Now, in which I stayed at the same places and met some of the same people mentioned in the classic 1974 story. On this ride home, however, I was my own boss again and could go wherever I wanted and stay wherever I liked. My wife and kids were away and the journey could take six weeks if I felt like it. I figured I’d stretch it all out over a month.
I rode south from Ted’s house to the Napa Valley, then east to Yosemite National Park and south again to the real objective: Death Valley. This was the third or fourth time I’d tried to make it to Death Valley – every previous ride ended prematurely with a breakdown of some sort, and I was concerned this might too. The single air-cooled cylinder of the 20-year-old Suzuki DR600 tended to overheat and I was headed to the hottest place in North America – hell, the world on many days – and this was mid-August and about as hot as it could get. I rode down from the cool hills of Yosemite to the dry, sun-bleached dirt of the desert and hoped for the best.
Into the desert
The bike was running okay, but she was grossly overloaded. I had a pair of heavy saddlebags, and then a Pelican case with a laptop and camera equipment lashed to the back rack. There was a dry bag on top of it with extra clothing, and if that had been all I’d have been fine, but it was not: there was also a large bag that held a tent, camping gear, and the collapsed, heavy monoshock that I hoped to rebuild at home. The weight of that bag threw off the balance; I should have mailed it home, but I didn’t want to risk losing it.
It took a couple of days to reach the northern access to Death Valley and the heat seemed to build with every hour. I turned off the main highway somewhere near Mount Whitney and headed east, climbing a ridge of mountains. There was a lookout somewhere near the top and I pulled over to take a photo. The valley floor was white and looked intimidating. I was covered completely as protection from the sun, but not with the comfortable ventilated clothing of today: full-face helmet, jeans, boots, gloves and a light leather jacket, zipped to the top. Even here, high above the valley floor, it was hot, hot, hot.
A minivan pulled over into the same lookout – the side door slid open and a couple of boys jumped out to take photos. “Close the damn door! You’ll let the cool out!” called someone inside but it didn’t matter because the boys threw themselves back in as soon as they felt the heat. The van pulled away, I zipped my jacket more tightly and pulled the silk scarf over my neck and rode the highway down a thousand feet or so onto the valley floor.
It didn’t take long to cross to the next ridge and begin rising again and I was pleased to have conquered Death Valley. The heat was extraordinary but the bike slogged on. I’d put synthetic oil in her at Ted’s that allowed a higher running temperature, though if there’d been a problem, I’d have coasted to a halt beside the road with no shade and been screwed. If someone rescued me, I couldn’t leave the bike because she’d probably be stolen by the time I returned; if I stayed for her, I’d roast. There was not a cloud in the sky and not a drop of moisture in the air. The place was a furnace, but I’d come out victorious.
Except that after climbing that ridge and reaching the top, another pullout offered another vista and I looked across a shimmering white valley floor that stretched to the horizon. There was no other side to this basin. That last strip of heat had only been an approach: Death Valley itself was blistering below.
It was only lunchtime. The plan was to ride through and stay that night in Las Vegas, but I realized the naiveté of this as I dropped down and the heat grew. My scarf blew off and my neck started to burn. If anything happened to force a stop – anything at all – I’d be screwed.
Death Valley is a national park, and there’s a community not far in called Stovepipe Wells. Nobody lives there permanently – it’s a tourist stop, one of three managed by the private company that looks after the park for the parks service. There’s a gas station with a gift shop and a motel with a restaurant and that’s it. I pulled up to the motel registration office, went inside and asked the cost of a room. Sixty bucks, said the clerk. Done, I said – I’d have paid six hundred. The room was just a few doors from the office and I went back out to move the bike in front of its door, but I couldn’t pull in the clutch lever because it was so hot it burned my fingers. I put my gloves on, pushed the bike over, went inside and lay on the bed with the air conditioner blasting away. It was at least an hour before I could move.
When I finally got up, I walked across the street to the gas station to buy a cold drink. The thermometer in the shade above the door read 118.
An oasis in the Valley
The new plan was to leave at dawn and head for Vegas. At dawn, it would still be at least 100 F but I’d be shielded from the intensity of the sun. I’d have ridden at night, except the bike’s headlight wasn’t strong and animals on the road were a very real danger. As dusk fell, I bought beer at the restaurant and sat on the porch watching the moon over the mountains. I was so happy to finally be there.
It was a comfortable ride the next morning, on a deserted highway and with low light from the rising sun stretching my shadow out across the desert to the right. I rode south on the straight road and passed through Furnace Creek, then stopped at the Badwater Basin to appreciate the lowest point in North America. The altimeter on my GPS agreed I was at 282 feet below sea level. There was nobody to be seen and I hung around until the heat began gaining strength, and by the time I reached Death Valley’s southern exit, the sun was high in the sky again and the asphalt road was sticky against my boots. I thought the temperature would fall when I left the park but it only dropped to maybe 115. By the time I reached Vegas, I was cooking again in my leather jacket.
There’d been a billboard on the approach to town that advertised rooms for $20 and that sounded great, so I pulled off and rode to the motel’s front office. It was a big place, with a pool and a casino, and I wanted a shower and some respite from the sun.
“Hello,” I said to the clerk inside. “I’d like one of your $20 rooms please.”
“Certainly sir,” said the clerk helpfully. “That’ll be $60.”
“What? How come it’s not $20?”
“Those rooms are sold out for tonight, I’m afraid.”
“Tell me – how many rooms do you have here?”
“And how many cost $20?”
“Two. Did you want a room?”
“Sure.” And I handed over my credit card and the clerk rang it up for $60. For the second time in two days, I went inside and lay on the bed with the air conditioner blasting away.
No such thing as coincidence
The heat was ridiculous in Vegas. I’d planned to ride all around Nevada, looking for Area 51 and doubling back up to the Loneliest Highway that runs through the middle of the state, but to hell with that – the next morning I took the direct route that crosses quickly over the baking scrub into Utah. There was no pleasure in fighting the heat, and it was just an endurance run on the interstate to St. George, Utah. There was a state welcome centre and I pulled in for a drink of water, but the centre was closed. “Back in 15 minutes” said the sign.
I’d wanted to go in and ask about the roads in the region, because I could see two choices: straight up the interstate to Salk Lake City, then into Colorado and higher ground, or straight east from St. George onto some squiggly lines on the map, ending up in Colorado’s south. With nobody to ask, I sat beneath a shade tree next to my bike and pulled out the map again. I wanted to head for the squiggly lines, but if the road stayed low it would stay hot and take twice as long to get up into the cool mountains. I’d just decided to leave and boot it to Salt Lake when a woman walked by, and she paused to say hello.
“Are you from Ontario?” she asked. She’d seen the bike’s licence plate.
“Yes,” I said, irritated.
“Oh – I’m from Ontario,” she replied brightly, but I just grunted. Ten million people are from Ontario.
“Where are you from in Ontario?” she persisted, and I looked up at her with dull eyes and obvious disdain.
“Toronto,” I said. “Well, near Toronto.”
“Oh – I’m from near Toronto,” she said with barely a pause. “Where are you from that’s near Toronto?”
“Milton,” I said, and hoped that would be the end of it.
“Oh – I’m from Milton,” she said. “Whereabouts in Milton?”
And it turned out that Wilma and her husband Pete, who was waiting in their car in the parking lot, lived just three blocks from my home. It also turned out that they were on a fly/drive vacation arranged by their son, who worked for Air Canada and had a baggage allowance that let them take heavy bags on their flight at no charge. And they were a lovely couple.
They gave me a bottle of cool water and I gave them my bag with the tent and shock absorber, and some other stuff that wasn’t really needed. They took it happily and I collected it all safely the following month.
Into the mountains
Once I’d loaded my heavy bag into their car, the welcome centre reopened. I went in to ask about the squiggly lines. “Ah, that’s Hwy. 12 out of Zion National Park to Escalante,” said the tourist adviser. “It goes straight up into the mountains and you’ll be 30 degrees cooler up there. And it’s one of Car and Driver’s 10 best roads in America – great on a motorcycle.”
I fired the still-hot bike to life, headed for the squiggly lines and never looked back.
The ride across southern Utah was wonderful. The bike handled far better for losing the heavy bag and the temperature was ideal. The roads dipped and doodled around the low mountains and my mood rose with the altitude. At last, this was the road trip I was hoping for: Hwy. 9 through Zion, with its towers and monuments, then up to Hwy. 12 with its swooping esses and switchback zeds, and even a stretch known as the Hogsback that rides right on the spine of the mesa with 1,000-foot drops to each side.
But this story isn’t about the beauty of the road trip – there are enough others to tell those tales. It’s about another look at the map once I made it to Colorado, when I saw another squiggly line outside Denver that had a piece of type pointing to it, which said “Highest Road in America.” It was the road to Mount Evans, which is paved to the very top of the peak at 14,230 feet. It’s more than 100 feet higher than Pike’s Peak off to the south. How could I not go there?
In fact, the ride to the peak – fifth highest in all of Colorado – was relatively straightforward. The weather was perfect and I rode slowly and carefully and just kept slogging upwards. The road started out through trees, came out near a lake and then passed above the tree line to rolling grassland; the last few thousand feet were switchbacked and very steep. My old carburetted motorbike coughed a bit for the altitude but kept on going all the way to the top. There’s an old burned-down stone restaurant there (this is America, don’t forget) and a parking lot and a short scramble to the absolute peak of the mountain. I took the GPS from the bike to carry its altimeter and stood on the marker of the peak and felt like a god – albeit a god who’d just twisted the throttle to get there. Then I climbed down again and coasted back down the mountain, careful not to ride the brakes.
In less than a week, I’d travelled from the lowest point to the highest point and that really felt like an accomplishment, although the achievement belonged to the bike rather than myself. But the euphoria of Hwy. 12 was fading and she was starting to sag again. The brakes were wearing down and the turn signals weren’t working properly. It would be at least a week to get home and I started wondering if she would make it.
We weren’t quite finished, though. I wanted to ride around Rocky Mountain National Park before leaving, so stayed in the high ground just north of Mount Evans and, the next day, set off into the park. The road quickly climbs above 10,000 feet – above the treeline – and once again, the weather was clear and warm. Traffic was fairly light and a few large animals wandered back and forth across the road, and I had a good time and then it was time to leave.
I followed the loop out of the park and down from the mountains, heading east. I knew I’d not return for some while, and probably – hopefully – never on this motorcycle. As I rode down to the prairie, though, I was watching the bike’s small speedometer, because the odometer was about to turn 88,888.8 km. As soon as it turned, I wanted to pull over for a photo. I’m a guy. It’s what guys do.
And looking across at the GPS on the handlebar as the 8s rolled into place, the altimeter showed my height. At that exact moment on the steep descent, it showed 8,888 feet.
There’s no reason to this. It’s just a coincidence. It means nothing, except it means everything. In Asia, eight is the luckiest number and the more the better. On this trip home, wondering if I’d make it and dropping from the mountains to reality, my bike showed me all the 8s – all of them. I knew it would be okay.
The next day, the speedometer broke and with it, the odometer. I relied on the GPS to know my distance and when to stop for gas. The front brake pads faded against the thinning disc, and the replacement shock absorber began leaking fluid. The headlight worked only on high beam, so I tipped the lamp down a little and carried on. And after a week we made it, all the way home, safely and intact, just as the 8s promised. I knew we would.