9 Oct 2012
Monday’s ride was a long one. After a spectacular dawn trip through Zion National Park the day went like this: ride an exciting, curvaceous road up a mountain range, reach a pass above six thousand feet, ride down the western side of the same and enter an awesome valley with the next range visible across the entire plain. I must have done this ten times yesterday.
Zion itself is a most amazing National Park. Its rocks are colored like milk and orange cream soda. Some rock faces are naturally scribed with lines that look like huge checkerboards. Other rocks are layered like fine puff pastry. In the middle of the park is a long—LONG—two lane tunnel which is unlit except for occasional openings in its sidewall which allow daylight to enter. (I shot HD video of my ride through the park that I will post when I learn how.) I cannot do Zion justice with a few words, but if I could those words would be “go see it.” I am definitely going back.
You might think the drama of yesterday’s ride was in the desert mountains. They are for sure sensationally beautiful. Some are tree covered. Some are barren. Some are craggy. Some are rounded off. There are cliffs and canyons and plateaus. The formation, color and look of each range’s exposed rock vary significantly from one set of mountains to the next. Riding up, through and down these mountains also provides exactly what every motorcyclist is looking for—twisty roads to carve.
And, yet, it was the valleys between the ranges that I found particularly impressive. Like the ranges surrounding them, the valleys are surprisingly varied and interesting. West of Newcastle, Utah is an immense plain—flat as it can be. (Yes, a Wide Flat Space!) It is ranched and farmed and has irrigated areas that mostly produce alfalfa. Huge stores of large square hay bales are readied for winter near the mowed, green fields that yielded them. The elevation–over five thousand feet–defines a short growing season but allows for deciduous trees, which are mostly found on farmsteads and that are in full fall color just now.
Not many people live in these valleys save for small towns that are often at the base of foothills or nestled just in them. Across the world of each valley you find tiny junctions and towns—some of which have been abandoned with their buildings left to decay. The towns in these valleys have interesting names—pregnant with meanings I do not know–like Old Iron Town, Pinto, Beryl Junction, Panaca and Modena. There are small numbers of people living on farms and in other rural locales. Those places that have not fared well, or that have been left behind, have a burned-out look common to structures that burden under the unforgiving sun of the American Southwest.
Unlike riding highways through the mountains, roads through these great valleys can run perfectly straight for long distances—sometimes twenty or thirty miles—without so much as a kink. In Utah, for kicks I guess, there are large road signs posted with localized names for stretches of rural highways. Yesterday I rode the Extraterrestrial Highway; today I’ll be on the Loneliest Road. These long and straight roads provide no opportunities for spirited cornering. What they do provide is a super-fast conduit that can get you across these giant basins at surprisingly high speeds. There is little traffic (sometimes you don’t see another car for fifteen or twenty miles) and you get the sense that no one could possible care how fast you ride since there isn’t anyone around to care in the first place.
Here I have to comment that I’m glad to ride a BMW. It’s meant to be ridden fast and is stable and happy at higher speeds. Its boxer engine is powerful and sounds great without making obnoxious noise, the ride is smooth and comfortable and the handling predictable and capable.
Riding fast, carrying gear and going up steep grades means you drink a lot of gas. The distance between fueling opportunities is something worth studying before setting off on a ride through the desert. Yesterday I saw a sign warning there was no gas for the next 144 miles. I had figured as much simply by looking at the map and seeing no dots for towns on that part of the route. This caused me to take a twenty-mile round-trip detour just to fuel. It’s good I did, however, because I found the best thing I’ve eaten since leaving Sedona; a locally made, custard filled empanada. Yum! (Notice that I don’t write about the good food I’ve encountered on this trip? That’s because I haven’t encounter any!) Yesterday I ate the last of the Turkish figs stuffed into my tankbag.
By the time I reached a gas station in Tonopah, Nevada my bike’s computer displayed only ten more miles of range. I had done this calculation over and over in my head and felt confident I could make it, though I knew it would be close. I ran out of fuel recently (broken fuel gauge but, yes, I was stupid) and though most experiences in life have their rewards hitchhiking into town for fuel is not that much fun. And here, in the wide, vacant expanse of desert, it could be not that much fun for a long time. About thirty miles or so from my destination, with the low fuel warning light looking at me with a skeptical eye, I went into fuel conservation mode. I slowed down and used my throttle more gingerly. Running out of gas is an adventure I don’t need to enjoy again.
Tonopah, where I spent the night, is an old mining town. It has a few places to gamble, a newish if utilitarian high school (Home of the Muckers), many old buildings and a wonderfully restored old hotel. I set off on foot to explore. I met Carl at the Tonopah Garage, who told me how fire recently destroyed a building where engines had been manufactured for Hupmobiles—a great loss of an historic building, Carl reckoned sorrowfully.
This is a town with a lot of history. Fires—including deadly mine fires—are part of its heritage. Wyatt and Josie Earp lived here and were seen frequently in town. Like many towns bent around precious metals mining there have been periods of boom and those of bust.
East of town is an old military airfield with a few abandoned large hangers. For three years during World War II the base serviced B-24 and P-39 aircraft and trained their crews. More than 700 B-24 crews (7000 people) passed through Tonopah during three years of wartime. In 1944 a hanger was converted into a secret facility to develop glide bombs, the precursor to today’s smart bombs. Bunkers and other military buildings are still standing but are in varying degrees of disintegration. The US Department of Energy operates a rocket test site nearby and there are other military flight and test ranges in this part of Nevada as well. These kinds of facilities are a big part of Nevada history yet they remain mysterious and subject to both myths and revelations of truth.
Today I ride to Virginia City. I have revised my route to one a little longer but perhaps a little better. It’s hard to imagine anything much better than that which I have already experienced these last two days. Except maybe there will be some decent food in store for me . . .