We are in Monument Valley first thing in the morning. If you are unsure of what that is you can watch some John Wayne movies. Or better yet, if you are inclined to actually see it with your own eyes head to the the only place in the U.S. that you can stand in four states at one time, then proceed to Kayenta, AZ and hang a right. Monument Valley isn’t on the way to anything, so all those commercials and movies depicting folks making cross country trips right through the middle of it are lies. You would only be there if you wanted to be. The main highway through it doesn’t even run east and west. It runs north south, headed south into the Navajo reservation, and north to Blanding, Utah, where it meets up with other roads across southern Utah that you would only be on if you wanted to be in southern Utah or you drive a truck for a living and you service one of the sparsely populated towns in that part of the world.
Lucky for motor tourists everywhere, there are now a couple of highways through this strange part of the world. Unlucky, however, for the desert and those few souls who settled here. They can live off the land if they know how to find water and if not too many other people show up. There are barely enough resources to go around. Some such homesteaders are hard pressed to keep up their original agrarian dream these days. Fortunately for the desert dwellers, we are only passing through to show our respects and not to stay.
There is no straight way through southern Utah and that fact alone should be telling. There is instead a strange maze through bleak deserts and red Canyons with no comparison anywhere on the planet. If you can read a map, you might find your way out. On this trip however due to time limitations we will take the northern Arizona route, not quite as scenic from the saddle but it gets the job done.
At lunch in Kayenta, three stragglers roll into the restaurant, dirty and tired looking. Turns out they were looking for us. Nick, Rick and Lee started somewhere around Indianapolis and have been trailing us for a day or more. They did not catch us yesterday however, because they decided to use the highest route through Colorado. From what I remember this route took them near or above the timber line on their machines. Now, for those of you who have done a bit of mountaineering or at least read about it, you may know that the weather changes at the drop of a hat up there. Freezing thunder storms are not unusual, and lightning is also not a rarity. These three all happen to have sissy bars on their bikes. It is possible that nature might mistake a long, skyward pointing metal rod on the back of your motorcycle as a lightning rod. Well, lucky for them they were off their bikes admiring the scenery when the weather decided to take one of it’s unexpected turns, and instead of striking one the machines, lightning struck Lee. It is not known for sure that Lee was directly hit, but the story follows that he saw a bright light and woke up in a puddle on the ground.
Lee survived being struck by lightning and they rode on into the cold and dark turns of the San Juan mountains after sunset where they would eventually camp behind a closed gas station. The next day they rose early, more likely motivated by the frigid mountain air than a desire to catch up with us. Setting out in the chilly air is simultaneously thrilling and miserable. Convincing yourself to actually twist the throttle in that air, as your outer extremities begin to stiffen is somehow counterbalanced by the sunrise and smell of the pines. Now they will join us on our bolt for the media capital of the world. After Los Angeles, they are off to San Francisco. Lee is moving there. I am impressed, even inspired that his moving van is a motorcycle. These three will prove to be a welcome addition but more about them later. Into the wind blasts that create the dunes, erode the red rocks and pit the windshields of the trucks that frequent the desert in the scorching desert afternoon.
We democratically decide that we should all see the Grand Canyon. For most of us this is our first time to the Fabled Canyon of American Motorist dreams. The pavement takes you practically right up to the rim where we crammed 10 motorcycles into two parking spaces. Sorry folks, but you will have to leave the comforts of your air conditioned vehicles and walk the last twenty feet to the air conditioned lookout area and gift shop from here. We had not felt air-conditioning in quiet some time so instead of the lookout we wandered down a set of well trodden trails on the south rim. We never got too far from the souvenir shop, but far enough to leave other pedestrian tourists behind. Our new friends Rick and Nick toyed with death, playing on the crags and edges just below our position on the south rim. Duane stood on the edge of the great red and orange chasm, resting his palms on the back of his head and gazing into the void. Is he relaxing for once? Does young man from the dark woods of Locust Fort Alabama stop to consider millions of years of rushing water which carved out this gulch? Are his thoughts are silent? We leave him to his meditation.
Meantime, Warren leaves to pay his regards to the gasoline gods. Instead he falls asleep at a closed gas station with no view. We try to find him but he decided to nap behind the station rather than by the gas pumps where he could be found more easily. Who can blame him really. We did a lap around the gas station parking lot and did not manage to rouse him or see him for that matter. When he wakes up we are down the road looking for him at yet another “scenic” side road. Warren wakes and rides on past us, not far however before trouble ensues. To answer the abrupt stop of an SUV whose driver must have been taking in the Grand View, Warren stomped his brake pedal: nothing. Warren didn’t find it necessary to use the back of the Suburban to stop his motorcycle, choosing to split lanes with oncoming traffic instead. Thankfully, this complete and total loss of cycle stopping potential did not prove harmful to our traveling companion. When we finally found him at the next gas station he was disassembling his master cylinder. Unfortunately, the brake could not be repaired by any means at our disposal at Grand Canyon Village gasoline and convenience stop. Warren looks at the rest of us with resolve. “There is nothing I can do. Lets go.” Waves of disbelief spread over those of us in earshot. We understand that it would be futile to dissuade him. Warren will now fully embrace his status as a force of nature much like the wind, difficult to stop. He rides on, no brakes, which he continues to do from the Grand Canyon to Victorville, CA.
All day we have been plowing headlong into wind and sand of the north Arizona desert. For of us on lighter bikes this has been an amusing experiment in physics and gas mileage. Before the Grand Canyon our group is a mammoth accordion, opening and closing, spreading apart in each gust of wind, cramming back together for gasoline stops. After leaving the south rim Grand Canyon we find dusk descending on us, the afternoon wind storms recede and the group unites into a perfect staggered pattern for the first time. The group rides into the pink and purple dusk, not even close to the end of our ride for the day.
Around midnight we land in Laughlin, NV. Group splits, some to camp, some to the casino. Creighton, Lee and myself head to camp on the Colorado river. Actually calling it camp is a stretch, with the gambling lights of Laughlin in view, this is one of those state park things with more pavement and steal, picnic tables, campers, hookups and facilities that we probably won’t use than actual trees or anything else you might expect of a park. Lee and I converse about the dilemma of expectations on a trip like this. I am sure he didn’t expect to get hit by lightning. Surely Warren did not expect a non response from his brake earlier today. I am also sure that at this moment, this camp is absolutely perfect for sleeping, despite my projection onto it of being a paved slab of nature eating monster. I overanalyze, but Lee is happy to have a place to lay his head. Lee’s peace is infectious. In reference to past cross country cycle jaunts he says, “I learned a long time ago to just go with it.” That’s it. Thats is what I was fighting when Taichi left us in Kansas. It’s why some of us get restless during our 30 minute gas stops. Groups like this don’t function on the desires of a single individual, and that’s exactly what makes it worth traveling with them. No leaders necessary, only the will of the whole, balanced by individual idiosyncrasies. Shreds of common interests thread the group together, the journey we are on, the place we are going, the pleasure and humor of the company. I consider the question of individual vs. whole and attempt for a second to defeat my selfishness. More people should be like Lee who is now asleep on his bedroll next to his bike.
I am beat too, ready for a good night’s sleep. However, just before I put my head down next to my bike, I hear a rumble in the distant dark night. Here come the loud bunch with beer and firewood strapped to their motorcyles. Next thing I know I am standing on Warren’s shoulders pulling kindling off a palm tree. Another late night.
Duane wakes up and throws his underwear in the river, then chases it and drags it out again, washing his undergarments in the waters of the Colorado. We will be in Long Beach by the end of the day. On the way from our camp to the mighty freeway at Needles we take a road that rides more like a pothole obstacle course than a highway, so it is no surprise really when Warren’s oversized adjustable spanner shakes loose from his pack and bounces off the pavement, sending every bike behind him sprawling and dodging. Warren jams ahead, concentrating on the holes ahead of him while Alabama Nick straps the wrench to his mess. We stop for breakfast at a roadside Cafe in Needles, California, which declares itself, “HOT SPOT, Known for absolutely nothing, 20 miles from water, 2 feet from hell.”
Jerimiah first points out a slapping sound and a loss of power in his bike at our second gas stop past Needles. He mentions that his bike may have run a little a low on oil, but he has since topped the oil off. That’s encouraging... Maybe a piston pin has wiggled (or melted) loose. In the fabled past people have been known to ride years with a slapping piston, or so I have heard. Jerimiah decides to ride on, but will not ride years with this one.
As the next stretch of desert freeway opens before us I snap a picture. The group eases up to freeway speed and all seems right with the moment when a plume appears around Jerimiah’s bike. In an instant it looks like a giant cloud of smoke has enveloped his cycle from my position directly behind him. Not milliseconds later, those of us riding behind are bathed in oil. The ill fated rod has come away from the piston and sliced through the front of his engine case, making rubble of the bottom end of his engine and locking his drive train. Through the greasy blur on my sunglasses I see Jerimiah enter a 75 mile per hour skid. The spray trail of lubrication assists his graceful slide to the shoulder of the freeway. The three oil drenched cyclists behind him pull over to congratulate him on his stellar performance, but his thoughts are already consumed by something else.
Jerimiah looks stressed for the first time since I have known him. Of course the emotions have nothing to do with his bike’s his engine having self destructed. He chooses this moment to tell us that he has a warrant out in California. The news puts a damper on the otherwise jovial mood created by witnessing an engine blow up on the freeway. With a certain sense of camaraderie Rick and I pile Jerimiah’s saddle bags, backpacks, lunch boxes, etc. onto our bikes and our bodies and wherever else we can find room. Jerimiah entered this trip well prepared. He awkwardly climbs aboard J. Body’s cycle along with J. Body’s luggage, displacing J. forward onto his gas tank. They said this was fun. I don’t believe him.
The rest stop we find one mile down the road will only be enjoyed by the folks who were behind Jerimiah when his engine blew up. Along with enjoying the oil bath together, we also have the pleasure of sitting around a picnic table in the California desert and recounting the once in a lifetime experience. Everybody else is miles down the road. While Jerimiah works the phone lines with triple A, using his sharp Chicagoan charm to temper the conversation, J. Body and Rick climb a fence to go rattlesnake hunting in the Mohave. I take pictures from the other side, maintaining my status as a law abiding citizen. We spend about an hour there, drinking the water offered to us by the rest stop clean up crew. We enjoy strange stories about their families and probe them about the joys of government work, filling in the time before a triple A truck arrives with Jerimiah’s motorcycle already strapped down. Jerimiah will make friends with the the tow truck driver on the way to Victorville, California. Rick parts ways with us at a Barstow exit to find the rest of the Indiana faction where Nick’s frame has cracked on this unforgiving freeway. J. Body is a road warrior, never issuing a word of complaint and enjoying every moment of this trip since day one. We ride together, leaning sideways into headwinds of the Mohave. L.A. here we come.
Body and I meet back up with Jerimiah and the tow truck in Victorville. Bacon lives here and we will pick up the rest of our companions at his spread on the edge of the desert. Bacon keeps his friends on their way to destiny. He will cart a Jeremiah to town for tomorrow’s festivities. His cycle parts collection also has Warren back on the road with full braking potential, which will now be offset by a new short term road companion, Ryan.
I say offset because Ryan is having slight transmission or clutch issues and where stopping is no problem for him, going means leaving rubber at every stop. A true bat out of hell, Ryan is a fan of the higher end of the throttle. He blasts off down the last 60 miles of freeway into the sprawl of the second largest city in the United States. We grip our throttles tight hold on through the maze of traffic and freeway ramps. Its dusk again, but this time the valley that opens before us is full of lights as far as the eye can see in every direction.
Warren and Ryan split for their friend Will's house only a couple of exits past the Long Beach exit where we will make the last mile to the Hotel de Jon Tubbs. Jon Tubbs, a one time resident of our hometown, now resides in the land of perfect weather, a great deal of motorcycle history, and the hit television series True Blood and Monster’s Garage. I don’t know Tubbs as well as some of the others in this crew but I might make a character judgement based on the fact that he is willing to let this group of haggard, sunburnt vagrants sleep in his house and he is further willing to fill us with beer. This makes him the final completing piece of our Western movement. We appreciate his hospitality by drinking his beers and exhaustedly insisting on staying up to celebrate our landing in Long Beach. From the road right back into a garage. Tomorrow we will celebrate with the masses.
Born Free is a gathering of vintage custom motorcycle enthusiasts. In attendance are a large quantity of vintage custom motorbikes and their owners. My friend for years before and years to come, Alabama’s own Nick Resty, wakes up early, without stirring the rest of us and rides to Signal Hill (a place with a different name but seems to be only four blocks from Tubbs’ house) for the bbq. Nick is, in a manor, an overarching reason for this entire adventure. Nick always makes sure that everyone knows we are getting together. This trip was no exception. Nick celebrates. I spent last Christmas eve at Nicks house with his fiance and his mother, while I waited for my mother’s delayed flight from Texas because Nick is there for you. Nick heralded the word Supertrip, went on a mission, and extended the invitation. Several RSVPed and some of us even came along. Nick could probably write this story himself. There is no question that he is more observant of intricate details than I am. This morning the diligent Nick is up early hoping for a place to park his bike. He leaves us to our much needed sleep.
When Creighton, J. Body, myself, and Tubbs drag ourselves to the show, it was already populated with thousands. I spent the day in a haze, one third road haggard, one third amazed and one third drunk. It appeared to be several city blocks long and every inch was covered with living relics of machinery. I paced from end to end repeatedly trying to get a grip on the level of the event, staring into the details. After filling my mind with dreams that looked like David Mann paintings, I left the museum of the street, carefully curated by a thousand individuals. I find my friends crammed like tinned fish into the back ally where the beer was being distributed. We spent the rest of our time doing absolutely nothing but enjoying the company of our cross country companions in the chaos and joy that surrounded us.