July 5, 2009 I headed west from New Milford, PA on my 2009 Harley Davidson Low Rider. I wanted to drive it across the country to California’s Pacific coast and back, touring several national parks and the fabulous Rocky Mountains. Three hundred miles a day, barring bad weather, was a loosely set goal. The objective was to experience the country from the seat of my motorcycle; up close and personal, the wind in my face. I planned a very flexible route that would avoid storms by detouring around them when possible. My navigator and weatherman at home advised me of Great Lakes storms and I avoided them by heading about 75 miles south in Indiana. The Midwest seems to generate lots of nasty storms.
Wanting to explore a part of the original Lincoln Highway, America’s first east-west route, I took route 6 across PA, Route 30 across Ohio, to Indiana where I headed south at Fort Wayne. I wanted to avoid large cities and 4-lane interstate highways as much as I could, crossing Illinois, Missouri and Kansas on two-lane Rt. 36 – a beautiful highway through some of America’s nicest small towns, it’s heartland and breadbasket. I stopped many times along the road to talk with the locals, especially the farmers. Farming in the Midwest is fascinating big business with gigantic farm equipment and many farms in the thousands of acres.
Irrigation with complex watering systems made crop production possible in many otherwise dry areas.
I enjoyed many home style meals, often eating in small, family-run diners along the way. This was the right way to see America – cruising the back roads on a Harley.
Colorado was the high point of my trip in many ways. In the eastern CO plains, between Limon and Colorado Springs I experienced my first supercell thunderstorm.
Foolishly trying to drive through it, I was blown from one lane to another before I decided to stop and sit out the storm. Wind driven hail hurts and the sudden 50 degree drop in temperature was surreal. After the storm passed, I drove I 25 south to Pueblo (85 MPH at 104 degrees). The next day I drove the steep, twisting, scary road to the summit of 14,110-foot Pikes Peak. Boy, was that fun. The bike performed flawlessly, though I could sense that it did not like crawling in low gear behind Nervous-Nelly drivers. The view at the top was breathtaking – as was the lack of oxygen, causing a mild lightheadedness.
After my descent, I zigzagged through the back mountain roads of Colorado, seeing as much of this awesome Rocky Mountain ruggedness as I could, taking in many high mountain passes and crossing the Continental divide multiple times. It was such sweet riding – carving through the hairpin curves and mountain switchbacks on the Harley. I camped and dined streamside in beautiful Redstone Colorado. Had I not had a goal of the Pacific Coast, I would have been thrilled to just continue riding Colorado’s scenic back roads and mountain passes. Ahh - So many roads – so little time.
Independence Pass at 12, 093 feet was the highest, a half-dozen or more were over 10,000 feet. I stopped frequently to take pictures and drink in the beauty of the scenery.
My PA plates and sleek black Harley drew admiring looks and comments wherever I went. In Durango, I visited the train station and saw the D&SNGRR returning from Silverton, did some shopping, and had a nice dinner. Locals interested in my journey told me I HAD to take Rt. 550 north to Grand Junction – that it was an absolute MUST-DO – and the road was made for a motorcycle.
I was not misled. That wonderful experience proved beyond any doubt that CO’s Rt. 550 running from Durango, through Silverton, Ouray, Delta and Montrose on its way to Grand Junction has some of the most beautiful scenery in America – and some of the sweetest motorcycle riding anywhere. This part of the trip provided great feelings of ecstasy and never a dull moment. In the quaint little mountain town of Ouray, a pair of mule deer browsed casually on resident’s lawns as passerby went calmly about their business.
Snow-capped mountains, crystal clear streams, beautiful stands of forest, crisp, clean air and a rich old-west history added to the enchantment.
I finished this leg of my Colorado tour driving a very desolate and hot (105 degrees) Rt. 139 through desert scrubland, oil and gas fields to a very hot but breezy campsite near Rangely. Besides many oil and gas wells and drilling rigs, I saw a lot of antelope, but very little traffic. My return leg would bring me back here to enjoy northern Colorado and its Rocky Mountain National Park.
Utah came quickly after breaking camp. Vernal Utah was a nice small city with flower planters lining its streets and lots of friendly, helpful people. I drove below Salt Lake City and into the Sevier desert.
It was yet another lonely, very hot (105 degrees) road. Mirages made it look like there was water where there was nothing but hot, dry sand. Hate to break down out here. It was desolate but peaceful and beautiful in its own way. After a night in Ely, Nevada, I drove America’s Loneliest Road (Rt. 50- aptly named) across Nevada to Carson City. Inappropriately named the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest, it was still another hot, dry desert with nary a tree in sight for hours on end. Ely, Eureka, and Fallon were “Old West” towns – quaint oases in an otherwise inhospitable area. They allowed refueling and rehydrating and momentary respite from the parching dryness.
Carson City was a pleasant diversion, a welcome respite from the desert. I found bargain priced dinners at the casinos and cheap hotel rooms, meant to entice gambling visitors, in Nevada’s capital. I did not gamble though, because casinos were the one place where I could not find a smoke-free environment.
Departing Carson City, it was a cool morning – jacket required – as I headed around Lake Tahoe, where Nevada becomes California. Dense pines covered the hillsides which were dotted with expensive homes and a fire station every mile or so. This was forest fire territory and burned-over areas were not uncommon.
Route 50 was a sometimes steep and winding mountain road with many blind curves and intense traffic. Just past South Lake Tahoe, I was passed by a woman driving a big white SUV and talking on a cell phone. Moments later, on a blind curve, traffic came to a screeching halt, with cars behind me skidding into one another. The car that had just barely stopped short of hitting me was rear-ended, as was the car next to him, and so forth. The white SUV that initiated the pileup was a mangled, smoking heap in the middle of the road after crashing into two large sequoia trees and the concrete dividing barrier. Sadly, its driver was seriously hurt. I counted my blessings to escape unharmed and credited my fast reflexes, good brakes and gremlin bell luck for keeping me from being part of the carnage.
I stayed in Sacramento – a nice city, as cities go. The capital buildings were quite grand. I wandered into Napa County and just drove around enjoying the scenery and vineyards.
At one point I stopped to examine the grass along the road and common throughout the landscape. I was amazed to find how dry and brittle it was – seemed like it would take very little to ignite it and it would burn furiously. I had a lot of time before I had to meet friends in Santa Rosa, so I drove out to Sebastopol and the coast at Bodega Bay.
There I anointed my Harley with Pacific Ocean water and rode back inland, exploring Santa Rosa and then meeting and staying with my friends in Guerneville. They put me up in their lovely canyon home, fed me well and gave me directions to Yosemite.
Next morning found me headed into the rush hour madness of the Bay area. A complicated route, It was 101 to 580, across the bay bridge – sheer terror and madness – past Oakland, inland to Rt. 120. I had to stop many times to make sure I was going in the right direction. The Harley’s responsive power and quick acceleration made re-entering kamikaze 6 and 8-lane traffic possible – but nothing would have made it easy. Body shops must be in big demand out here! It was getting hotter by the mile but traffic was returning to a level of sanity as I left the Bay area behind. More desert scrubland made riding almost intolerable. My outside thermometer was reading an honest and nearly unbearable 114 degrees – while riding. It zoomed past 120 degrees when I stopped. There was no shade, no C-stores to duck into – just hot mile after mile until I reached the mountains on the edge of Yosemite N.P. I cruised into Yosemite, temperatures moderating into the upper 90’s.
I had never been to Yosemite National Park before and it was one of my goals on this trip. The road into the park was exciting with awesome views into Yosemite Valley. I took in Bridal Veil Falls, El Capitan, Half Dome, and Yosemite Falls – among many other scenic wonders mobbed by tourists.
At the end of the “loop”, the visitor center, no one was going anywhere, either on foot or car – or motorcycle. It was one unpleasant jam of humanity. If I had not promised John a T-shirt, I would have avoided it. But, that’s what I deserved for visiting a major national park in mid-season on a very busy Saturday. Live and learn. After I escaped the masses, I drove a very calm, pretty, scenic, wooded, and comfortable road across the rest of Yosemite into the Meadows on the eastern side. There I was fortunate to get the last available campsite next to a nice guy named Paul. We shared adventure stories over a few exceptionally great tasting beers – he’d been hiking for a week. In the morning I broke camp and headed up CA 395 to Carson City and connected with I 80, heading back east.
I had decided to avoid southern Nevada, the Mohave Desert, and southern Utah (I had previously enjoyed the magnificence of Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef and Arches parks, and the Mojave Desert, with my friend Jim in 2005) as I’d already had enough desert heat on this trip to last a lifetime. But it was not to be – I had two more major desert areas ahead of me. The only way to avoid them would be to drive all the way up to the Canadian/U.S. border. Compromising, I decided to zoom across on I 80. The Northern Nevada and Utah’s Great Salt Lake Desert were more tolerable at a manageable 98 to 100 degrees. After navigating the madness of Salt Lake City’s traffic, I returned to Vernal Utah and took 40 across northern Colorado into Rocky Mountain National Park. It was much more tolerable. At the park, I was greeted with a traffic jam. The road was a parking lot for over an hour. They were re-paving it (in the midst of tourist season!) and traffic across much of the park was alternating one-way on very rough, dusty, and loose gravel – no fun on a motorcycle you care about.
But it was all worth it. Rocky Mountain National Park, one of my planned destinations, was awesome in its beauty and abundant wildlife. Snow capped mountains were everywhere. First, I caught a glimpse of a fast-moving bighorn sheep, then came upon a large herd of elk in a high mountain meadow. I saw cute little Marmots chasing each other around in the tundra. The mountaintops were in and out of the white puffy clouds, with another herd of elk very near the summit road – so near that kids were approaching them and getting close enough to touch them. As I descended from the summit, I saw another bighorn sheep on a steep hillside but could not stop to admire it because of the heavy traffic on the narrow road.
After the park I stayed north on Rt. 6 until it connected to I 80 in northeast Colorado, headed into Nebraska. The power and comfort of the big Harley made me comfortable cruising with the traffic 75-80 MPH on the interstate and I decided that was the best way home.
As I approached Lexington, Nebraska, the sky turned a very ugly black with clouds swirling rapidly about and lightning flashing. I ducked under an overpass and donned my raingear, then proceeded to drive the 4 miles to the next exit. About a mile from the exit, the sky opened up – another supercell. I made it to the exit ramp and parked between two big rigs. Lightning was all around, it poured buckets, marble-size hail pummeled me and the wind was so ferocious it would have blown me off my bike and the bike off its kickstand had I not had one foot planted on the guardrail. Debris was flying everywhere. Fire trucks, ambulances and police soon raced down the highway, into the maelstrom. As the storm let up, I went to a nearby C-store and called home. Radar showed it to be a local but very intense storm, and it was heading south. I waited with other motorcyclists at the travel plaza as reports of multiple accidents and vehicles blown over came in.
After an hour or two, I felt safe returning to the highway. About 3 miles down the road I came upon a double Fed-Ex tractor trailer on its side in the median, then saw a large luxury motor home on its side in the median, with fire trucks and police still on scene. Several other cars remained against the guardrail, where they had evidently been blown during the storm. That evening, safely ensconced in my cozy motel room, I watched news footage of the carnage on the local station and the Weather Channel. Indeed, I was wise and lucky to have survived this big nasty supercell by not driving into the heart of the beast.
With the grandeur of several national parks and the Rocky Mountains, and the goal of the Pacific Coast behind me, and the storm-frequented Midwest ahead of me, I just wanted to get home in one piece and avoid storms where possible. Heading west, if a storm is encountered, it is usually a short lived affair. But heading east, one could end up traveling with a storm for a day or so. Not desirable in the least. As it turned out, with guidance from my weather navigator back home, I was able to either stay ahead of the storms or stay behind them as they, and I made our way east. Staying on I 80, unfortunately, took me through a lot of congested big cities but allowed me to cover 500 or more miles in a day. Three days in a row, through Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio and into Pennsylvania, I managed to get to a hotel just as a storm broke.
The Harley had been through it all without a single hiccup or whimper (more than I can say for its driver!) Wet or dry, 52 or 114 degrees, sea level or 14,000 feet elevation, it ran flawlessly and always started quickly. In 7,110 miles it needed no attention save a routine oil change and some wash jobs to make it sparkle. I even avoided a planned tire change as the tires lasted far longer than expected. Were I to do the trip again, the only thing I would do differently would be to take a more northern route and avoid the desert heat.
All in all it was a delightful grand adventure. I saw and learned so much and met so many great people – many of them admirers of my beautiful Low Rider. As is always the case on my adventures, the comforts of home were missed and sincerely appreciated when I returned. Can’t help but wonder where or what my next adventure will be.