In 2016, a friend of mine called John and I hatched a plan to ride motorcycles along the Backcountry Discovery Routes (“BDR”) of Utah and Colorado.
I met John a couple of years before when I was hired by his Californian based company to investigate fraud and misconduct at one of the company’s factories in Malaysia, including the kidnapping and attempted murder of one of their directors. I will not go into much detail about all of that, but between all the chaos and drama in Ipoh we discovered we shared the same passion for motorcycling and adventure.
The BDRs are off road trails and dirt roads that have been charted by adventure motorcycle enthusiasts across America’s most iconic and beautiful States.
The Utah BDR is a 871 mile long route of sand trails and gravel roads passing through locations such as Moab, Valley of the Gods, the Abajo and La Sal Mountain Ranges, Nine Mile Canyon, and the northern Wasatch Mountains.
The Colorado BDR starts at Four Corners (New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Colorado – as in the TV series “Breaking Bad”) and takes riders across high elevation trails, mountain passes and along the lush valleys of the Colorado River through a number of iconic locations such as Telluride, San Juan Mountains, Continental Divide, Collegiate Range, Northern Rocky Mountains and Leadville.
I had actually planned to ride the Colorado BDR with John in 2015 on my KTM 1190 Adventure R, but a sudden bout of peritonitis prevented me from doing so. I have to say it was a rough old time and I nearly died from sepsis and gangrene in my guts, but somehow or another I survived to ride another day.
Rescheduled to September 2016, the new Honda CRF 1000 L Africa Twin was now available in the USA and so instead of shipping my KTM from South Africa to America, I decided to hire one from a motorcycle shop in Boulder, Colorado.
So, task number one, get to Boulder, which I could see from the map was, and still is just north of Denver in Colorado.
A cheap ticket with United Airlines meant I only had a baggage allowance of 23 Kgs to carry all my motorcycling and camping gear. The only solution was to wear some of my heavy biking kit, including my enduro motorcycle boots through the various airports and onto my flights.
I did get quite a few strange looks as I clomped aboard, but not as many as when I stepped on board a flight with my paraglider on my back a few years back! No use it being down in the hold if the plane breaks up at 30,000 feet, is there?
Inevitably the flight was long and miserable. The in-flight fodder was served to its human captives with the grace and finesse of forking out silage to cows, but edible with huge dollops of Tabasco sauce that I somehow smuggled through the security checks. Unlike most Asian airlines, United Airlines had no in-flight entertainment, and I had forgotten to bring a book! It was going to be a long flight.
I sat in the rearmost seat amongst a group of very excitable Chinese from Fujian or Guangxi who spent the entire flight arguing, shouting, jumping up and down, trashing the lavatory, swapping seats and coughing up their lungs. It was a very long flight, indeed.
On arrival at San Francisco International Airport I fought my way through US customs and sidestepped the delightful and charming TSA and legged it in my motorcycle boots and all my clobber to the domestic departure gates on the other side of the airport for my connecting flight to Denver, getting there by the skin of my teeth.
As I settled into my seat and peered out of the aeroplane window at the expanse of desert and mountains below my mood immediately improved and I was positively excited about what lay ahead.
Somewhere down there were the routes I was going to ride over the coming weeks.
By the miracles of longitude and a spherical Earth I arrived in Denver before I took off in Hong Kong. My body clock deceived by bright sunshine and blue skies.
From the airport I took a shuttle bus directly to Boulder where I was to hire my motorcycle, at a place called the “House of Motorrad”, and in the early evening of the long good Friday introduced myself to the owner, Benjamin with whom I had been corresponding by email for several months.
I was very excited and itching to see one of the first Africa Twins in America. However, when I was taken into the shop I was a bit underwhelmed to see the bike I was going to ride.
Yes, apparently in the land of red, white and blue, Honda decided to export a dull looking grey bike, instead of the iconic red, white and blue Africa Twins that they export elsewhere in the world. Why? No idea… its all Japanese to me.
But it wasn’t the colour that grabbed all my attention. It was the tyres. They were 100% smooth treaded road tyres, the ones I guess the bikes were exported to America with, AND totally unsuitable for the harsh BDR trails that lay ahead.
I quickly checked my email history with Ben and saw quite clearly that I had asked many many times for Metzler Karoo 3s or Continental TKC 80 tyres to be fitted. In fact, I would have been happy with a pair of Dunlop D606 or Pirelli MT21s or anything remotely off road orientated. Seriously?
I raised the issue with Ben and he informed me that the tyres were ‘good enough’.
Hackles prickling on the back of my neck.
I explained in a John Cleese manner that they were indeed ‘not good enough’, but I immediately got the impression that this yank thought this limey pom didn’t know what he was talking about, nor cared.
‘Where you going, anyway?’, he inquired without real interest.
‘Well, as I explained in my emails, the Colorado BDR…I am meeting a friend in Park City tomorrow’.
‘Yes, we are doing the Utah BDR as well’.
I could see the immediate alarm and uncertainty on Ben’s face, and to cut a long story short he explained it was impossible to ride a motorcycle like the Africa Twin on the BDR, and in any case he would have to charge me an additional US$421 to change the tyres, and repeated many times that I would be liable for the first US$1500 of any scratch, nick, dink or damage, however minor, to the bike.
I was disappointed, tired and jet-lagged and in my despondency easily persuaded to rent a very nice KTM 690 Enduro instead. It had the right tyres on at least, and I do like this motorcycle very much, so I agreed and took it.
Without further ado the shop closed, everyone disappeared and I was left outside in a car park trying to strap all my kit onto a very slim and tall enduro bike ….and failing miserably. Just not enough luggage space.
Now it was dark, I had been awake for 2 days, I couldn’t afford (nor wanted) to pay US$100 odd for a grotty motel room in Boulder and so I decided to ride into the wilderness and find a spot to camp.
I had declined the extra expense of renting a Garmin GPS at US$10 a day and so I used the Sygic maps app on my iPhone to navigate. Given all the great map apps on smartphones nowadays, a GPS is rather redundant, and akin to a Betamax video recorder.
I had not got a chance to buy a US SIM card for my mobile phone due to all the rushing about and so I went in search of one of those in the various stores and malls around Boulder. This took longer than I expected as it seemed open cellphones and “pay as you go” GSM SIM cards were not the way things are done in America.
After finding a SIM card and plugging it into my phone I immediately received a string of WhatsApp messages from John who was preparing to ride from his home in Walnut Creek in California to Park City in Utah and after a ping pong conversation it was clear he was not happy about my choice of motorcycle and strongly suggested I return the KTM and get the Honda Africa Twin as originally planned. He said words to the effect that I was a stingy git and to fork out the extra money for a set of proper tyres.
I reminded John that he was technically my “client” and responsible for paying me to sort out the shit his company had got itself into in the Far East, and that my lack of money was technically his fault for not paying me enough.
There is logic there somewhere if you look hard enough!
I was now fading from tiredness and so I rode about 10 miles out of Boulder with all my luggage piled precariously high on the back seat of the KTM. After riding into a more rural area I spotted the dark silhouettes of some people sitting by a fire on some farmland and asked them if I could pitch my tent in their field.
‘Sure, buddy’, came the reply from some shadowy figure, ‘mind out for those cactus–and the rattlers!’
Cactus and rattle snakes were the least of my worries, and in a very well rehearsed procedure my tent was up, the ground mat blown up, and sleeping bag unravelled. In seconds I had squeezed into my “maggot” and was out for the count, lying heaven knows where and with what?
I woke up as the the sky was turning from purple, to red, and finally orange.
As the sun peered out above an unfamiliar horizon I was already packed up and set my course for the ubiquitous American diner, Dennys for my favourite breakfast of eggs and spinach, and a quart or two of black coffee.
By now I had not washed in nearly three days and men have certain body parts that will start to rot if not attended to. Luckily, Dennys had a bathroom, it was very early, very few customers (if any), and so I took advantage of a strategically low hand basin. All in the pursuit of cleanliness and hygiene, I should add. At least I didn’t dry my nuts in the hand dryer, like Hong Kong men do in changing rooms! As pragmatic as it is, you have to draw the line somewhere.
Now fed, watered, rested and “cleaned” I could appraise the situation a little better, and in the light of day I decided to follow John’s sensible instructions and return the KTM, incur the extra costs and get more suitable tyres fitted on the Honda, re-pack everything and head across Colorado to Utah.
I was waiting in the car park of House of Motorrad when Ben arrived and informed him that I had changed my mind. On careful reflection I would revert to the original plan and would indeed be taking the Africa Twin–and I would like a set of off road tyres fitted.
Ben showed me a pair of Mitas E07 tyres that I am not too familiar with. They looked like dual sport 30/70 types. Not ideal, and certainly not the TKC80s or Karoo 3 tyres I really wanted, and indeed the BDR route ahead required.
But no choice. So, ho gwoh mo as they say in Hong Kong.
Ben also decided that he wanted to fit more robust SW Motech engine bars as he had firmly decided in his mind that I will drop the bike and the SW Motech engine bars were definitely better than the standard Honda ones, which to be honest are rather cosmetic and more suited to holding on extra lights and other weekend warrior stuff than doing what it says on the box… protecting the engine.
It was Saturday morning and he said I would have to wait until five other rental bikes had been prepared for other customers. My faffing had resulted in me being relegated to the back of the line. I had a long ride ahead, but I realised there was no point arguing from a position of weakness… its always counterproductive.
As I had a few hours, in fact all morning to whittle away, I laid out and inspected all my kit in the car park, dumped my big travel bag with a last minute selection of things I was sure I didn’t need with Ben, prepared the KTM 690 Enduro I had already paid for and took it for an explore around Boulder.
I rode around Boulder, explored a few hill roads in the outskirts, chatted with some bikers here and there, drank more coffee than I needed, bought some camping supplies from a huge superstore called REI, bought my book for the trip, Johnny Rotten’s autobiography, “Anger is an Energy” from a very well stocked Barnes and Noble store, looked around some motorcycle shops at their new bikes, and got verbally berated by a very angry middle aged Karen at a set of traffic lights for an alleged “wheelie” incident.
I know from past experience that finding a good cup of tea in America is like finding an American who can point to Shanghai on a map. I am English and I hate tea flavoured with spices, herbs and fruit extracts. I also hate the way American’s use luke warm water, and suspend the “tea-ish” bag thing above the water from a tampon string. If King George hadn’t been so mad America would still be a colony and tea would be tea flavoured and served with marmite toast and Victoria sponge.
Having been to America many times before I was well prepared for this culture shock and in addition to Tabasco sauce to flavour all the sugar and lard I had brought with me copious amounts of Yorkshire Gold teabags.
Whilst whittling away my time in a Starbucks coffeeshop I asked if I could use my own tea?
‘LIKE, TOADALLY, LIKE, NO, LIKE’, was the answer given by the young tattooed, nose studded barista. I was then given a patronising lecture and told it was against their insurance policy, or something.
‘Oh! …OK… how about a mug of boiling water?’, I inquired.
‘Hat Warder? OKaaay, like, I gess so, like’.
Sorted. How hard could it be?
After the American tea party, I returned to The House of Motorrad and the Africa Twin was ready.
It looked absolutely superb. Ben had done a brilliant job fitting it out with quality after market accessories necessary for true adventure riding.
These included: Altrider belly plate (tough and effective); SW Motech engine bars and luggage racks (well designed); Wolfman soft panniers and tank bag (superb); Barkbuster enduro handguards (strong and protective); and Doubletake mirrors (clever design)
As I was strapping down all my kit onto the excellent luggage rack in the configuration I have used for years I was given another lecture by Ben with the main theme being if I drop the bike — which he assured me in no uncertain terms I will — don’t come back.
His attitude and the threat of forking out 15 hundred bucks had reinforced in my brain one thing, and one thing only … DON’T DROP THE FUCKING BIKE. It became my mantra, and in a way sort of dampened the trip because it clipped my wings and sapped my confidence. Next time I will ship my own bike or buy one there and flog it at the end of the trip.
One problem remained, and it was a glaring one. I still didn’t like the tyres.
(Rant Starts!) I know from experience riding this Africa Twin off road on Metzler Karoo 3 tyres in Wales, and indeed riding my KTM 990 Adventure, KTM 1190 Adventure R and other bikes around the world on various tyre combinations along extremely challenging roads in the Rift Valley in north west Kenya, the Sahara desert, Nubian desert in Sudan, Kalahari in Botawana, Namib desert in Namibia, Baviaanskloof in South Africa, Serengeti in Tanzania, Masai Mara in Kenya, Sinai in Egypt, Cardamom Mountains in Cambodia, Gobi desert in Mongolia, Tibet, Gansu and Qinghai in west China, Simpson desert in Australia, Alps and Dolomites in Europe, blah blah blah (you get my drift), that the motorcycle I ride and my ability to ride it is capable enough… provided I decide how the bike is set up and don’t get railroaded and bullied into bad decisions.
(Rant over, for now)
Anyway, it was what it was, nothing more I could do, and I was itching to get going.
I worked out how far I could travel in the remaining hours and set a course largely along Highway 40 to a place up in the Colorado Rockies called Steamboat Springs where I planned to camp and the following day continue to the Hilton Hotel in Park City, Utah for a rendezvous at 12 noon with John and his Yamaha.
As I roared off towards the mountains I immediately found the Honda Africa Twin to be a very comfortable touring bike indeed. It cornered really well and I would put its handling as one of the best adventure bikes I have ever ridden.
It has a super smooth engine and gear box. The riding position is perfect, both sitting down on the seat and standing up on the foot pegs. Later, I would ride for over seven hours almost continuously up on the pegs and was very comfortable and balanced. Sounded nice too. Just right.
The only niggle, and its a well documented niggle, is that Honda have swapped the positioning of the indicator switch and the horn which means that old farts like me who have been riding for decades will be unable to naturally find, and cancel the indicators, and instead press the tinny sounding horn …..every single time. Its annoying, and when performing turns in busy traffic, possibly even dangerous. Even after a fortnight I was still having to look down to find the wretched indicator switch.
At 94 BHP the Honda is not a very powerful bike, and being about 230 kilograms + 35 kilograms of kit + 19 kilograms of fuel + 93 kilograms of Rupert its power to weight ratio is no where near as good as say, a KTM 1190 Adventure R, but this belied its true ability as a very high performing and capable adventure bike.
The only time I could have done with a bit more power was when I was overtaking, but I was often doing 100+ mph on the open highways and easily overtook the RVs and monster trucks that occupy the Colorado landscape. When not overtaking, I cruised very comfortably at 70- 85 mph on the single lane highways across the beautiful Rockies.
It was Saturday afternoon and as I ascended the mountains outside Denver the roads were congested with recreational vehicles and people enjoying outdoor pursuits. SUVs were adorned with kayaks, bicycles, dirt bikes, and all sorts of camping equipment.
The Harley Davidson weekend warriors were out in droves, most wearing silly bandannas, grey goatie beards, an assortment of leather waistcoats, unnecessary chains, chrome bling, daft trousers and professing allegiance to some warrior gang or Big 4 accounting firm.
As I rode along I must have encountered thousands of other motorcycles. In America bikers passing each other in different directions greet each other by saluting with their left arm outstretched and pointing at the floor, as opposed to a nonchalant sideways nod that we Brits give.
I did accidentally wander into a “Terminator” type pub later on in the trip that had rows of Harley’s outside. Inside was a true gang of something or another that looked me up and down and dismissed me as one of them “new fangled adventure riders” and a foreign one to boot.
I greeted them all as I entered and they collectively sort of nodded and grunted something and got on with what they were doing. By that time near the end of the trip I was covered in red dust, smelled vile, had shaven my head, grown a grey beard, had evil patchy sunburn, and blood shot red eyes. I decided not to provoke them by asking for “A Flock of Seagulls” or the “Pet Shop Boys” on the jukebox.
Anyway, anyway, riding across the Rockies I had altered my course somewhat along the way to escape the droves of RVs and eventually got on some of the high mountain roads with very little traffic, passing through small towns and sprawling commercial parks, and eventually pulled into the very touristy ski resort of Steamboat Springs.
I rode around for a while and looked for camping sites, but all I found were truly awful RV parks with all the charm and attraction of some sort of Soviet gulag concentration camp. And very expensive. Like the RV parks from the alien comedy “Paul”.
Nope. Not for me.
So now what?
“When in doubt buy beer” and so I stocked up on some pretty decent craft IPA I saw being sold at the side of the road and decided to push on as the light was fading and stopped about 20 miles further on at a isolated bar I saw glowing in the dark.
As soon as I walked in I became the centre of attention, largely, I suspect because everyone inside was a local, and I obviously wasn’t.
I met a very friendly bunch of people and was fed with a huge pork rib sandwich (I was indeed quite hungry), bought me some beers, made conversation that was largely making excuses for Donald Trump, and directed me to a nearby campsite, warning me to go very slowly and carefully at night because of elks and deer leaping into the road, and reinforced this warning with some graphic horror stories of destructive encounters between wildlife and vehicles over the years.
An enjoyable, relaxing, and quintessentially American evening after a very long journey. Good fun. Good people.
I took the risk of a close encounter of the elk-Honda kind and eventually camped up just off the road in the dark and woke up and packed up while it was still dark… and bitterly cold. My tent and ground sheet were covered in ice, and my water bottles frozen solid.
I had ummed and aahed about bringing my huge North Face expedition sleeping bag that we used when Fanny and I rode across China and camped high up in the Himalayas in Tibet a few years previously. A top of the range sleeping bag, rather bulky, but not that heavy, and with some effort can be squeezed quite tight into a compression bag.
Bringing it was a very good decision as it turned out because in the weeks ahead the nights would be pretty darned cold in both the deserts of Utah and up high in the 10,000 foot plus mountains of Colorado.
I also had a North Face tent and a top of the range ThermaRest sleeping mat that is actually more comfortable than a bed. I have to say I slept brilliantly the whole trip.
Very early the next morning I got up, made coffee, had some porridge and was off riding again before the sun came up. I love camping and in the coming weeks I would just set up camp where ever I could, preferably in a wood next to a stream, or creek as Americans call them.
Throughout the morning I rode high up along mountain passes, next to numerous stretches of high altitude lakes and reservoirs which were full of speed boats, kayaks, water skiers and other recreational activities. The hillsides were ablaze with the colours of Fall. All very pretty.
I arrived in Park City at noon as planned and checked into the rather ghastly Hilton Hotel where I was to meet John. The reception staff were a bit snobby, and the rooms were characterless and rather gloomy. Not my thing at all, but hey.
John had already booked a twin room for us to share so that we could get a good night’s rest before we started the BDR ride the next day. Whilst killing time I made the mistake of turning on the television and was immediately reminded that American TV is awful. Mostly commercials, nothing to watch, gravitating to the lowest denominator, and painfully annoying.
Anyway, I had better things to do than watching annoying drug commercials and sports I don’t understand. Drinking beer, for instance.
It wasn’t long before John arrived on his Yamaha having crossed the Bonneville Salt Flats from his home in Walnut Creek, some 900 miles away. A long old ride indeed.
That evening John treated me to a very delicious steak dinner and a good bottle of wine, as he had promised. We had made a bet two years ago about losing weight and I won. John maintains that cutting out internal organs to lose weight is cheating, but a bet’s a bet.
John maintains a collection of various types of motorcycle and pedal bikes which he is very competent and experienced at riding, from touring, trail, dirt to track. I guess you would describe him as a successful and wealthy American, with a very comfortable lifestyle…and lot’s of man toys.
I haven’t shared a room with anyone except my other half for decades, and during the night I had to put in earplugs due to the terrible noise John made while he slept. My goodness what a dreadful racket!
In the morning when John woke up, he stared at me alarmingly and said, ‘Shit, you are a fucking noisy sleeper’.
So that was it. Camping from now on, with tents spread sufficiently far apart!
I had made the assumption that John had downloaded all the GPS way points for the Utah and Colorado BDR routes into his Garmin, and he had. I think its best to just have one person in charge of navigation and as its John’s home turf and he had a proper Garmin GPS, that responsibility fell to him.
The problem was we were traveling north to south in Utah and the BDR GPS way points, of which there are hundreds, were now the wrong way round. It doesn’t bode well when you immediately go the wrong way as you set out on an expedition? And we did.
The Utah BDR does run along a few tar roads, but mostly follows gravel and sand tracks that wind through stunning countryside, idyllic rural scenery, mountain trails and impressive deserts. The sort of places that the average person won’t come across.
There is a lot of debate as to whether the “Back Country Discovery Routes” are 100% suitable for large adventure bikes, like John’s Yamaha Super Tenere, KTM 990/1290s Adventures, BMW R 1200 GS, and Honda CRF 1000 L like I was riding …. OR … more suited to smaller enduro and dirt bikes with 450cc and 250cc engines…and lighter luggage.
We shall see, won’t we?
The GPS way points showed the turn off points and we quickly found our first turn off just outside Park City and the only indication of the track was a post with a number written on it. To confuse things the route numbers would often change without meeting another trail or any obvious change in direction.
Immediately, one got the feeling of being remote and off the beaten track. This first section was of hard packed gravel roads that meandered left and right, up and down, and through hills covered in pine, deciduous trees, and the famous Aspens that covered the hills in a blanket of greens, browns, reds, oranges and yellows.
The autumn temperature during the day was very comfortable, in fact, pretty much perfect. John was leading and riding at a much slower pace than I am used to, but I got in the rhythm and thoroughly enjoyed drifting through valleys, across streams, through woods, past impressive ranches, and over hills and rocky outcrops. This is what its all about and I was really enjoying myself.
So far the Utah BDR was quite easy, very enjoyable, and incredibly picturesque.
By the end of the day, the scenery was becoming less wooded and increasingly open rocky desert. As the sun was fading we found our first campsite just off the track up a hill and settled into our respective spaces. As we chatted about a great day’s riding and what lay ahead I got the impression John was anxious about the cold in the mountains of Colorado and that he was inclined towards staying in motels and lodges.
I, on the other hand, wanted to camp the whole way. I was well prepared for camping and unlike John, didn’t have the cash to fork out on hotels. While we were chatting I also shared one of my phobias, and one I had no intention of confronting.
I have developed over the years an absolute fear of lightening and will not under any circumstance place myself in a situation in which there is any risk of being caught exposed during a storm. Not least that the ground turns to claggy mud through the heavy rain, the lack of visibility, and general dangerous riding conditions.
No, for me the risk of being struck by a bolt in open desert, or above the tree line in the mountains in the late afternoon is all too real.
This fear of lightening really took hold in the deserts of Namibia during the rainy season back in 2000s when I was caught in a storm with lightening crashing around me. On my KTM 990 Adventure I was the highest object from horizon to horizon and sitting on the only lump of metal. Terrifying!
On one occasion while camping near Windhoek a small tree a few meters from my tent got struck by a bolt of lightening in a relentless and frightening storm, and that was that. Even in Hong Kong on the island I live the lightening seems intent on finding its mark and a tree outside our apartment has been hit several times.
I knew that in the Rockies several people had been killed by lightening during August and general advise was that afternoon storms were to be avoided. However, when I checked the forecast for the coming days it predicted lightening in the desert we were traveling across and as an avid micro-meteorologist from my paragliding activities, an “A” level in Geography, and sufferer of “astraphobia” I can recognise every cloud in the sky and forecast exactly what lies ahead.
We set off rather late the next day after faffing about having a long breakfast at a diner and getting petrol and water. Soon after John pulled off the tar road and started riding along a rather technical and challenging section of trails.
This cannot be the route, I thought to myself, as we crashed and skidded along. There is no way we will complete even 30 miles in a day. Eventually we came across a really steep rocky section and John wisely decided to turn around, go back, and bypass this section.
As we rode back the way we came to the gravel road I was certain in my mind he had taken a wrong route. There is no way “this” was a section of the BDR aimed at duel purpose motorcycles. It was challenging enough for a mountain goat.
After about 15 minutes I pulled alongside John and got him to stop. ‘I am sure that wasn’t a section of BDR… we must have gone past the turning… let’s go back’, I pleaded.
And we did and quickly found the correct turning and a long gravel track disappearing off into a wide expanse of desert.
We followed this track for an hour or so and then John made a sequence of wrong turns with us going every wrong way and even up into the mountains where there was a high altitude communication station. Again we came to cliffs and steep sections and whilst doing so the sky was increasingly turning black. I could see the cells of cumulus nimbus and lightening started grounding all around us, and it started raining, a lot.
I stopped next to a rocky outcrop and contemplated camping up until the storm passed. The weather forecast for the next 5 days was sunny sunny sunny. Why risk being exposed in the desert in a storm? There is no Faraday cage effect on a motorcycle! I knew John thought I was being a wuss.
We scouted the area and found a few suitable campsites. As we were sheltering from a vicious gust front I was sitting next to a mound of rocks and I just glanced to my left and could clearly see the face of a snake about 10 cms away from mine. Was it a snake? A forked tongue suddenly darted out and that cleared up any uncertainty. Fook me!
John was more worried about the rattlesnake nest we were sitting in than the lightening. I was undecided.
As a storm cell moved across the desert valley beneath us a maintenance truck from the communication station drew up along side John and they had a conversation.
John shouted over, ‘There is a campsite down by the canyon wall about 3 miles away’.
I thought about this and decided we could make a dash down the mountain and across the desert valley where the lightening had been ground striking and find the campsite where we could settle down and wait out the storm.
I did not hang about and belted down the wet mud track, found the junction we should have taken three hours previously and hoofed it down the muddy track. My Honda with its Mitas tyres was fine on muddy gravel and I charged along at 60-70 mph, lest the next storm cell explode above my head.
After about five miles there was no sign of this alleged campsite.
A few miles further along we found an isolated municipal information station with shelters and I thought it was a suitable place to pitch our tents under and perhaps camp overnight. I could see another huge black cloud reaching up into the stratosphere and flashing from internal cloud to cloud explosions of lightening.
‘I am staying here’, I told John.
John was not having any of it and said he was pushing on to a town 30 miles away where he could find a motel.
I looked ahead and the storm was huge and it was clearly developing and raining heavily. I had checked the weather forecast and it predicted heavy storms all night.
‘Nope, you go, I’m staying here’, I insisted. ‘I will meet you at Green River in the morning’ and with that John rode off in the direction of the storm.
I was left in the middle of the desert with at least a partial concrete shelter above my head as I watched the storm drift northwards across the huge expanse of desert valley. I reflected that it was not a good idea to part company with John, but I was not going to be coerced against my better judgement to ride into the eye of a storm. Even though we got lost many times we were ahead of schedule due to making progress along long sections the previous day, and it was already late afternoon.
I did a little bit of a recce of the immediate area and found a very nice campsite above a spectacular canyon and watched the lightening show in the far distance. Its crazy to ride into that, I thought, not least flash floods in canyons and the sand road turning into a gooey quagmire.
After about two hours the storm cell had indeed drifted northwards. There were some other cells to my west, but east towards Green River had cleared somewhat and so in the interest of not losing John, and perhaps digging him out of the mud, I decided to make a fast run towards Green River.
The sun was low and the route took me through a truly spectacular rose coloured canyon that was glowing due to the setting sun. I was also riding at my normal comfortable pace, skimming across ruts and corrugations, sliding the back round corners. What a joy!
The sandy track meandered through a steep sided canyon and for the first time that afternoon I was really enjoying myself, not least I was motoring at a fair lick and the Honda was riding beautifully. This is more like it.
Better than my KTM 990 Adventure? A bit, perhaps. Smoother and more comfortable to ride. Better than my KTM 1190 Adventure R? Perhaps not. My 1190 is over 50BHP more powerful and suspension is definitely more robust off road. That said they are all outstanding motorcycles.
No more than 30 minutes since I started I came across a river bridge and saw John standing by the side of the road. He had set up his tent under a burnt out tree that on one fateful day had been struck by lightening.
‘You didn’t go far’, I challenged him, jokingly. I was happy to see him.
We caught up and I decided to set up my tent in the same spot, but away from the trees. We cooked up some freeze dried camping food from Rei that I thought was pretty good, and got a brew on. For the second night we realised we had forgotten to buy any beer. Oh well, Yorkshire Gold it is.
As the sun went down we were treated to an absolutely spectacular lightening storm that exploded all around us and thundered through the canyon. It then started to rain and the lightening started striking the cross shaped valley we were in.
I eyed a reasonably clean and simple municipal concrete ablution block not far away and told John, ‘I am bringing my stuff in there… its going to pour tonight and camping in a river bed under trees that have nearly all been struck by lightening during a storm isn’t the greatest idea’. And off I went and set up my ground mat and sleeping bag inside the “heads”.
A slightly turdy disinfectant smell, but tolerable, and more importantly, safe and dry.
Soon after John joined me and placed his entire one man tent and contents inside the small concrete structure. We set up our camping chairs just outside to watch one of the greatest shows on Earth. The storm lasted until 5.30 am and the flashes and bangs were amplified by the cauldron shape of the canyon we were in. Quite amazing.
After porridge and coffee the next morning we packed up and carried on to Green River, passing across desert sandy tracks until we reached the busy Highway 70 that routed us into the city. We refueled again, the idea being we always keep our tanks filled up when we see the opportunity. This is something Fanny and I always did on our expeditions, especially in Africa and Asia where fuel availability is very much less certain than in America or Europe.
The Honda Africa Twin has a 5 gallon tank and petrol costs between US$2.10 – 3.50 a gallon in the US depending how remote the fuel station is. Usually it was about US$2.70 for 91 Octane fuel.
I had worked out that while riding on the trails and tracks in mostly 2nd and 3rd gear I was getting about 57 miles to the gallon which is pretty good. This went down to 46 miles per gallon when I was hoofing it above 80 mph. Not bad.
It meant I had a safe range of about 230 miles on a tank. John’s Super Tenere had a 6 gallon tank and was making less mpg than me and so effectively we had the same range.
After Green Point we continued on the BDR towards Moab where we planned to stay that evening. Again we got lost a few times on gravely sand type trails but they were manageable. John then turned onto more rocky and steep trails that wound up through the hills. At this point I was having doubts we were actually on the correct trail. There were steep sandy inclines, deep ruts, large rocks and lots of twists.
For the first time on the trip the limitations of my tyres became apparent, accentuating the weight of my bike. My front was all over the place and I was constantly rescuing the bike from slides. My brain was filled with DON’T DROP THE BIKE and I think this was affecting my confidence. I kept thinking what’s the point of this risky technical riding when we can see the same things and yet take a more manageable gravel track.
John seemed fine and was clearly very used to riding his big beast on such sandy rutted surfaces. He was a very good technical off road rider.
I was riding a lot slower than I liked and I was also making mistakes. I was not riding well. Was it the bike? Just one of those days? Lack of confidence? All I think, but lack of confidence is the greatest risk and definitely affects riding performance.
I was getting sufficient traction on the back tyre, but the front was sliding away in the deep sand sections and being knocked sideways by large rocks, none of it helped by following in John’s dust wake.
My head was down instead of up, I was paddling when I should be standing up on the pegs, my elbows had come down. I was doing it all wrong. Off road riding and sand riding is a head game and my brain was on strike.
I caught up with John and told him I was struggling a bit on the sand and he said, ‘This is Utah, man, its going to be all sand from now on’.
I continued following and was OKish when I increased my speed and got in the flow, but when I followed at someone else’s pace I was making all sort of adjustments to stay upright. I kept changing between 1st gear and 2nd gear when I should have stayed in a smooth 2nd or 3rd the whole time.
Then it happened. I was immediately behind John and I lost my track and in order not to drop the bike I went off piste and down a vertical section and into a sand pit. I wrestled to keep the bike upright but I was on a steep slope with an even steeper drop to my right. I was frozen… unable to move.
I waited to regain my composure.
Losing the whole bike and the deposit was flashing through my mind, but more importantly than that I was determined to return the bike in pristine condition to make a point to “Doubting Benjamin”.
However, I was stuck. I couldn’t get off the bike without risking it toppling sideways and so I waited for John to come back and help me.
I waited and I waited.
Is he coming back? Evidently not.
I would have to get out of this situation by myself, and so I gently allowed the bike to lean again the uphill side of the sand on the left pannier and hand guard and squeeze out my trapped leg from underneath the bike. Not so easy, but I did it. The slope was steep and sandy and so I had no worries about about any scratches in soft sand if I lowered the heavy beast slowly.
With the bike against the soft sand slope and my leg free I could appraise the situation a little better. I clambered up to the trail I came off and surveyed the scenery. Still no John. Surely he would realise I am not behind him and come back and help.
I tried to ride the bike up without sitting on it like I did on the Honda course in Wales when we all practiced U-turns on steep slopes. However, the back wheel was sliding and the front burying itself further into the sand. There was no option. I had to get all the luggage off, haul it all back up to the trail and then try and ride the unladen bike back up the steep slope.
And that is what I did.
With all the luggage unloaded and having had a bit a breather, and to be honest in a better mood, I purposely and confidently rode the bike back up the slope like a 125 trial bike, put all the luggage back on and carried on.
‘Good old Honda… crap old tyres’, I was muttering to myself.
Further along the rocky trail I saw John’s bike, and then I saw John laughing and smoking a cigarette. As I drew up alongside I shouted, ‘Why didn’t you come back and help? I went off the track!!!’.
I can’t really remember what John said, something about walking back a quarter of a mile and giving up, but by then the red mist had truly filled my helmet and I was not a happy camper. Any further chat with John would not go well and so I decided to leave him there, smoking his cigarette and grinning like a Cheshire Cat.
In a somewhat bad mood, I sped off at a ridiculously fast pace.
Strangely, the bike was suddenly in its element as I zipped across the trail. My faffing about attitude had melted away and I was back in the groove.
Pretty soon afterwards I came to the end of the trail and to a T-junction with a tar road in front.
I waited a while, looked over my shoulder, waited a bit more. No John. So I thought I will turn right, pull over and wait a while. Still no John.
Of course, I had not planned the route, that was John’s job, but as it happened I had got myself onto Route 128 that runs along side the Colorado River and through Castle Valley towards Route 191 that passes through Moab.
After riding for another hour along the Colorado River I wasn’t sure what to do and was getting a bit tired from all the riding and manhandling the Honda in the sand and so I thought about camping up. I had calmed down by now, but had now lost John and had no signal on the phone. I was seriously regretting stomping off.
Alongside the Colorado River seemed to be lots of camp sites, but like many in Utah and Colorado you have to pay a fee for a plot of ground with no facilities. What’s the point? I can camp anywhere else with no facilities for free and so I carried on into Moab to check it out and have a rest. I also thought in the urban area I might get a signal on my phone and a message from John.
Moab was not what I was expecting. Very very touristy and a centre for outdoor activities and adventure sports in the vicinity. Far too many dull lardy looking people in RVs and “born to be mild” types on Harleys for my liking and so after stocking up on supplies and checking messages and internet I carried on south and found a more remote camping site near a stunning lookout point called “The Needles”.
I assumed John was going to book into a bed and breakfast somewhere near Moab, but I wanted to camp and this was one of the most beautiful camping spots I have ever been to.
I would rest up and try and contact John, but at the same time plan the route ahead in case things didn’t work out. He knew we are going to connect up on the Colorado BDR and no doubt I would run into him or make contact.
As I was riding and navigating on my own now, I downloaded and configured the BDR GPS way points onto my iPhone from a program called Rever when I was in Moab, and bought paper maps of Utah and Colorado upon which I plotted the various routes and way points. Not as good as the Butler BDR maps John had, but good enough to orientate myself.
As I mentioned, my camping setup was near on perfect, and so it should be after living in a tent for years on end during various expeditions. I had enough freeze dried camping food for the entire trip and to be honest, America isn’t like Africa. There is a 7/11, Taco something, Dennys, coffee shop, supermarket, and petrol station around every corner, and you can drink water straight out of the tap, or even out of a creek if you need to.
I spoke to Fanny on Facetime. There was 14 hours between us so conversations were in the evening or first thing in the morning, if indeed I had a signal.
‘Where’s John?’ Came the first question.
‘Oh um, I lost him, we went our separate ways’, I answered trying to evade the issue.
‘AAAAAIIIIYAAAA!’, came the inevitable reply, ‘I KNEW you wouldn’t last more than THREE DAYS, typical, you are a 孤独狼’
That’s for sure.
Its perhaps now I should give some impressions of America, or at least the State of Utah.
I was now in the land of Cowboys and Indians and Coyote Road Runner. The scenery is spectacular to be sure, but the culture? Well there isn’t any to be brutally honest. Anything remotely “old” or “historic” is exaggerated to beyond the point of disappointment. You have the natural scenery and that’s it. Having said that, nature and the landscape is indeed truly spectacular.
The food? I am going to be controversial given I am English and come from a country with some of the worst food (especially in 1960s and 70s), but I will just say American food is edible, although a bit unexciting.
I found I liked two things while in America… scrambled eggs with spinach, and super spicy hot buffalo wings. I don’t care for pizza, hamburgers, taco things, hotdogs, or sandwiches. I’ll eat them, but then I’ll eat anything. I found a cat skull in my hotpot in China once, and since I had paid for it, and so had moggy, I ate it. It didn’t taste like chicken if that’s what you are wondering!
In America any so called foreign or ethnic food is Americanised to the point of ? … well to the point it bears no resemblance or taste to what it purports to be. Too much sugar. The petrol stations are full of lard and sugar and everything is supersized. Seriously! Who drinks a bucket of soda for breakfast? Well I can tell you, a lot of people.
Whilst queuing in a coffee shop, or “waiting in line” as they say in America, I noticed that the locals ordered really strange drinks. I heard one lady ask for a mocha chokka something with organic almond milk. Huh? When I asked for a black coffee the Millennial shop assistant looked at me as if I had asked to sleep with her dog!
America and England? Divided by a common language for sure.
Animals? Didn’t see as many as I hoped. Small dogs, ground squirrels, and big dogs. I was hoping to see a bear or Coyote, but never did. I did see some deer and antelope in the mountains… but I also saw hundreds of hunters, dressed up like southern hick characters in Honey Boo Boo Child and tearing about the place on ATVs (quad bikes to you and me) with gun racks on the front.
Trees dominate the mountain landscape of Utah and Colorado, in particular the glorious Aspens with all their colourful leaves as they transitioned through the autumn into winter. The unspoiled crystal clear rivers and streams that run through the valleys are very picturesque, the mountains are impressive, and the deserts and canyons are spectacular.
Having seen a lot of the world, I feel the best of America is what the Soul of the Universe put there in the first place. It’s a continent scale country and has magnificent natural beauty and big skies. If, however, your goals of a motorcycle adventure include amazing food, interesting cultures, historical sites, diverse flora and fauna… go to Africa or Asia or Mexico!
The saddest part of my trip was when I entered the Navajo indigenous “reserve” and saw the native Americans wandering aimlessly about. It was very sad.
But its the same all over the world where nomadic proud people like Australian Aborigines, South African Bushmen, Canadian Inuit or Mongolian herdsmen are hauled out of their free existence and involuntarily assimilated into the modern western way of things.
Among all my childhood memories from growing up in the 1960s in England the imagery of a proud Apache or Sioux on a bare backed horse in full warrior regalia in the wilds of America stood out as truly “magnificent”. When we played Cowboys and Indians, I always wanted to be an Indian. They’re the coolest ones aren’t they.
Now… these bewildered folk are living in abandoned cars and sucking on quarts of Doctor Pepper, or staggering about, pissed out of their minds in an attempt to find a better reality.
Anomie by any measure.
The next morning I woke up refreshed and in a more positive frame of mind. In the light of day I found myself in a truly beautiful part of southern Utah. I was not completely alone, either. I had pitched my tent in a small camping area on the side of a steep canyon and as I was preparing my breakfast of porridge and coffee some other campers wandered over to say hello.
I always think when you travel alone you meet more people. They see you on your own and feel more inclined to approach and chat than when you are in a group or with someone else.
The exception to this is when I travel with Fanny. She was extremely popular on our travels. A lovely, kind, gregarious, super smart and unusually loud Shanghai woman. Throw a huge adventure motorcycle into the equation and she is always going to attract a lot of attention.
Me? Just another grey balding middle aged “gammon” having a mid life crisis as snowflakes like to describe me. However, it was my Honda Africa Twin that attracted all the attention, and all sorts of bikers, and indeed other travelers would come up to me and chat, and many would ask for my impressions of my motorcycle, which I have to say were very favourable.
I understood at the time of this expedition that the Africa Twin was very hard to come by in the US and a surprising number of bikers I met were on a waiting list to own one, and so inevitably they wanted to know who I was, and what I was up to?
Not an easy one. I am English, live in Hong Kong, and also in Shanghai, and in UK and in South Africa where I have homes.
Where did I start my journey? England, Hong Kong, Cape Town, Boulder.
When did you start your journey? Thirty years ago, ten years ago, June 2010, last week. I am quite sure people went away rather confused. I certainly was.
During the morning of the first day on my own I spent time planning the route ahead and intended, as much as possible, to stick to the BDRs, but also wanted to factor in a few detours to see some interesting sites along the way.
Each evening setting up camp and packing up in the morning was very quick due to being very well rehearsed and having a good luggage system. The Wolfman soft panniers were very spacious and very easy to load up. In each was a yellow dry bag that I could pull out, fill up with whatever and push back into the sturdy soft pannier and strap down securely.
I had food, water and cooking equipment in one pannier; biking kit, camping chair and tools in the other; and all my camping gear and spare clothes in a yellow North Face dufflebag, the same one that I have used all over the world. I strapped this very securely across the SW Motech luggage rack with bungees. I also brought my black sheepskin seat cover, but rarely used it as the Honda seat is super comfortable, more so than any of my KTMs.
I had a small Wolfman tank bag in which I kept camera equipment, maps, chargers and cables; and my valuables were kept in secret pockets in my Rev’It riding gear that I kept with me. I would have preferred a larger tank bag with a bigger map pocket on the top, but I was very impressed with the Wolfman soft panniers and these will definitely be added to my “perfect adventure bike” kit list.
I rode a few miles to a touristy look out point called “The Needles” with panoramic views over the huge expanse of Canyonlands and the meandering Colorado River. I then went to look at some arches in a government controlled park that was teeming with tourists and a popular destination for Harleys and other touring bikes. When I got there I could not see why this area was singled out as a location of special interest, and I was certainly not going to pay US$25 to see what I could see all around me for free.
I found a small store and petrol station near the national park, and despite a slightly more expensive price and only serving 85 Octane “gas” I topped up my tank and set a cross country course to pick up the BDR and continue towards Duchesne, Price, Horse Mountain, Twin peaks, Bluff, Mexican Hat and the highlight of the trip, Valley of the Gods.
I turned right off the tarmac and for the next few days I didn’t see a tarmac road again. I rode across gravel and light sand trails that were perfect for the Africa Twin and never saw anyone for most of the day until I started riding up into the mountains and bumped into a husband and wife couple on Suzuki 250s who were on holiday from New York and kept their bikes nearby.
They were a bit surprised to see such a big motorcycle in dirt bike territory and warned me to be careful as the hunting season had started and hunting parties were tearing about on ATVs and camped up in various places.
I was now in thick woodland on single track mud trails high above the surrounding expanse of hot desert. Very enjoyable riding and quite cool in temperature.
My maps showed a few tracks, but there were in reality hundreds of unmarked trails crisscrossing in all directions. Occasionally I came across beautiful deer and antelope as they bounded out of the forest and froze startled in front of me.
Not long later, I would come across the persecutors of the local wildlife, dressed head to toe in Honey Boo Boo “make merika great again” camouflage clothing and tearing about on ATVs, or camped with 4×4 trucks in openings in the wood. I chatted with a few, disguising the animosity I feel towards hunters, and they seemed normal enough people, but I couldn’t understand what the attraction in shooting animals could be. No one in America, especially with expensive trucks and ATVs, is starving, nor needs to live off the land. I cannot for the life of me imagine killing one unless I was in a survival situation.
Don’t get it. Don’t want to get it.
I rode up and down trails in this range of mountains, often crossing streams and dry sandy river beds. Occasionally, I would ride along long sections of sand, some of it deep and the limitations of my tyres and the weight of my bike would become all too apparent.
The scenery became quite remote and as the sun was fading I realized I was probably not on the trail I thought I was and had drifted west, rather than east as intended towards a town called Blanding.
No worries. There were lots of wonderful places to set up camp besides little rivers, and streams and suitable to build a fire without burning down the forest. I was on my own in the wilderness and my mind drifted towards the prospect that my food might attract bears. In fact, I had seen a few signs warning about this. There were also mountain lions and people told me there were lots of them. I guess like leopards in Africa, the chances of encountering one would be rare. Despite an encounter with a creature that might like to eat me, I really wanted to see a bear or mountain lion.
That night the sky was completely clear, and there had recently been a full moon and so it was still quite bright in my isolated and peaceful camping spot. There was a lot of wood to make a fire, the water in the stream was crystal clear and tasted pure.
I cooked up some camping food that was pretty good, especially with some dollops of Tobasco, and drank a huge can of Mexican low alcohol beer. Apparently in Utah, for some daft religious reasons, you can only get low alcohol beer. Really? During our last conversation, I don’t remember the Soul of the Universe mentioning what the alcohol content of beer should be, nor which hand I should wipe my arse with, for that matter.
For entertainment I had my Johnny Rotten autobiography and I managed only a few pages before I fell asleep.
I woke up slightly alarmed in the middle of the night due to some scuffling noises and found the source of this noise to be a few deer outside my tent. They didn’t seem too bothered by me and I was quite happy they were about. As there was no rain and it was not freezing I had left the outer cover of the tent off and could see the stars through the the flysheet. This is what its all about. Riding all day in beautiful surroundings on a superb motorcycle and camping under the stars with a fire in the woods. Bliss.
The next day I was up and packed quickly and plotted a route along the remainder of the Utah BDR to Four Corners, but wanted to include a few more sights such at Monument Valley, the one with the Wile Coyote scenery and huge sandstone buttes, and also Mexican Hat and of course the switchback escarpment twisties of Route 261 down to the Valley of the Gods.
A very enjoyable days riding in which somehow or another I managed to ride a total of 485 miles, much of it off road. Considering the BDR is 850 miles long, that is quite a bit of a diversion on the last day of the Utah section.
Both Mexican Hat and Monument Valley were impressive, but there were a lot of tourists and that sort of blunted the impact. Valley of the Gods, however, was the highlight of the whole trip. Not a long section of off road riding, but passing through scenery that lived up to its name. Almost unearthly.
As I was riding up on the pegs on the bright red dirt through a helter skelter of amazing rock structures, arches, spires and buttes I came across a solitary open top white sports car with a well dressed couple who waved excitedly at me. The lady was jumping up and down on her seat whilst filming me and the scenery as they drove passed. The driver was beaming a very wide smile, and looked remarkably like David Hasslehoff
Only in America, I thought.
I had seen Four Corners monument in the TV series, “Breaking Bad” and thought I might as well take a look. On the way I passed by some rather scruffy Navajo Nation settlements, dominated by the trophies of the poor… broken down cars, discarded household goods and tatty trailers.
I refuelled at a Navajo petrol station that was also a ten pin bowling center and burger bar. I didn’t play bowls, but I did have a burger. Afterwards, as I struggled to digest the lump of meat I wished I had eaten the bowling ball or bowled the burger.
I have never really seen native Indians in the flesh so to speak, or at least in large numbers, and I was surprised how Asian they looked. Maybe the Chinese did discover America first, or their ancestors migrated across the Baring Straits.
When I got to Four Corners I was rather taken aback that I would have to pay to see what is essentially a man made and rather unexciting monument. Arizona meets New Mexico meets Utah meets Colorado.
Seen, done, off riding again in 10 seconds.
As I was riding in the early evening towards Cortez on what is essentially the first leg of the Colorado BDR, I could see a strange structure on my right hand side. What the hell is that?
As I got nearer I realized this was not a structure, it was some sort of volcano or “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” like mountain.
I have got to take a look at that, I said out loud in my helmet.
I found out its called Ship Rock.
Wikipedia describes it as:
Shiprock (Navajo: Tsé Bitʼaʼí, “rock with wings” or “winged rock” ) is a monadnock rising nearly 1,583 feet (482.5 m) above the high-desert plain of the Navajo Nation in San Juan County, New Mexico, United States. Its peak elevation is 7,177 feet (2,187.5 m) above sea level. It lies about 10.75 miles (17.30 km) southwest of the town of Shiprock, which is named for the peak.
I rode 20 miles away from my planned route to Cortez to take a closer look and it is truly surreal. It really stands out from the surrounding area and has sort of radial arms stretching out like hands of a clock. Experts say it is the erosional remnant of the throat of a volcano. No wonder the Navajo revere and protect it.
I couldn’t hang about, nor was I allowed to as the Navajo Nation restrict people like me camping in the vicinity, so I continued to Cortez and was pleasantly surprised when I got there that it was a really nice town with lots of restaurants, bars and motels.
I went into one of the bars and had some spicy buffalo wings and a beer, and was entertained by some very talented and entertaining musicians. Before I knew it it was late and I had no chance to find a campsite and so I checked into the cheapest motel in town, one that smelt of curry like a corner shop in England in the 1970s.
The motel was a bit depressing, not well maintained, and as soon as I was washed up I decided to go out again and explore. I went into another bar just down the road and watched a superb one man band called Hurricane Jake (https://www.facebook.com/HurricaneJakesOneManBand/).
He was really good but there were only a few people around and I think I was one third of his entire audience. Later I found out there was a “Blues and Brews” festival in Telluride, that was where all the people had gone, and that was actually where I panned to be the next day.
Again in the interests of escaping Vindaloo Motel I went to some late night supermarkets and stocked up on fruit and veggies, and took the opportunity to fuel up my bike at the “gas station” across the road.
As I did so I bumped into two young Norwegian lads, Christian Mørck Røde and Peter Saxhaug Solnør on “adventured up” Kawasaki 650 KLRs.
I like KLRs…Fanny and I have one in Hong Kong
They were riding from Alaska to Argentina and had called their expedition, Chasing Borders (www.chasingborders.com). It was great to meet such excited and positive explorers and I was full of admiration, and dare I say, a touch of envy.
The next day I followed the BDR route to the ski resort of Telluride, mostly along gravel tracks alongside a stream called Beaver Creek.
Again, I came across lots of hunting camps and shared the track with ATVs and occasionally horses and cattle. I encountered very few other motorcycles up in the mountains and I could feel that it was decidedly cooler. The Mitas E07 tyres were OK, but I could feel the back slipping again on the steeper slopes.
I got to Telluride earlier than I expected and it was absolutely packed with people. There were hundreds of motorcycles, RVs, SUVs and camper vans in the pretty town. Telluride appeared to be an upmarket ski resort, it was very warm and sunny when I arrived, and the throngs of festival goers were in a party mood.
I rode up to the gates of the “Blues and Brews” festival ground and was told that there was no room for camping. I also noticed that admission was US$250!!! Well that ruled that out, but I wasn’t too disappointed because I heard there were bands and lots of lively activity in the bars and restaurants in other parts of Telluride that evening.
While riding about I saw a black Yamaha Super Tenere in the street and thought it might be John and that we had caught up. But on closer inspection it wasn’t. In fact, it belonged to a young lad from Oregon who was doing an “Ironbutt” ride across America. That means he rides up to 1000 miles a day, up to 14 hours a day. Tough old stuff.
We got chatting and decided to team up and find a camping site for the evening that would allow us to get back to Telluride in the evening and have a few beers.
We found a campsite up in the mountains about 8 miles away from Telluride. It was a government one and so we would have to pay 15 dollars, but the plot was very big and we could share the cost. Furthermore, the camp “guards” (there always seem to be a retired elderly couple whose job is to collect fees at municipal camp sites) told us we could use the cable car from a nearby upmarket ski resort down to the Telluride valley for free, and after setting up camp that is what we did.
A very lively evening where we sampled the local ales and listened to some great bands. By 8 pm, however, I was seriously fading. All I had had was a couple of craft IPAs and some salad and chicken wings, but I was seriously whacked, made my excuses and took the cable car back up the mountain and then back to the campsite.
It was extremely cold during the night as my tent was pitched at 12,000 feet in the Rockies in Autumn, but I was out for the count, despite another visit by some deer and elk in the night.
The next day I was up bright and early. I had the steepest and highest sections of the Colorado BDR ahead of me and was slightly anxious about what lay ahead, bearing in mind what Ben had been warning.
Whilst I did not strictly adhere to the Utah BDR, I did ride on enough sand to prove the tyres on my Africa Twin were limited. I have zipped up and down Sani pass in Lesotho on my fully laden KTM 990 Adventure, up and down Mushroom Farm pass in Malawi and all sorts of challenging roads in the Rift Valley in the north west of Kenya, and indeed around the world. How hard could it be?
I aimed towards the small mountain village of Ophir and then towards the pass. There were signs warning the route was only suitable for 4x4s, and indicating that when wet the road was impassable.
The Ophir Pass is rocky and has a steep scree slope on the right hand side as you go up. I had seen pictures of it, but in reality it is steeper than it looks in pictures.
I stopped half way up to take a picture.
As I got back on my bike it started slipping backwards. Heck! I turned on the engine and engaged 1st gear and the back just spun and the bike started going backwards faster. The rocks were fairly large and recent rains had washed out the gravel leaving large slippy boulders, gullies and very uneven rubble.
It seemed I had a rock jamming my front wheel and my back wheel was just skidding and squirming left and right. This ain’t good!
I tried out all four settings of the Honda’s traction control, which can be activated very easily using a button on the left hand grip, even on the go, but my heavy bike was still slipping backwards.
If I continued what I was doing I was going to be sliding backwards into the ski resort I just came from, if indeed I stayed upright that was highly unlikely. Dropping the bike on these sharp rocks would undoubtedly lead to significant damage and so I quickly decided that the only way to get going again was to unload all my luggage and let some of the air out of my tyres… although on these steep rocks that would risk tyre slippage and potentially ripping the valve out of the inner tube.
I was in full bike gear and perched on a steep scree slope, but I managed to get the dry bags out of the Wolfman panniers and get the North Face bag off. I then had to carry them further up the mountain and then go back down to get the bike.
After sliding back down the scree slope to my bike I removed the rocks in front of the front tyre and gouged out a sort of smooth path to get going. I got back on the bike and engaged traction control setting #1 and gradually the bike got going again.
The secret to riding such a big bike on such a surface is obviously having the correct tyres, and in this case the knobblier the better. But more importantly it means going smoothly, preferably in second gear, and keeping up momentum, and that requires confidence and a modicum of skill, but most importantly, confidence.
I had been seriously huffing and puffing due all the exertion at high altitude but gradually got in the flow and decided as I had momentum not to stop to collect my luggage which lay ahead on a surface that was still steep and rocky.
The only slight hiccup came when I had to perform a 180 switch back turn on the very loose gravel and exposed rocks, and I just about managed the tricky turn as my back tyre squirreled about due to lack of traction, the very awkward camber and, to be honest, my poor riding.
I pushed on up the mountain and on a more gentle inclined parked up the bike and ambled down the slope to get my stuff. This was going to be exhausting.
Not long after starting to hike down the mountain trail I saw a 4×4 SUV with two elderly ladies in the front seat crawling up the mountain pass I had just come. As it drew up along side me a Scandinavian sounding lady in the driving seat leaned out and told me they had collected my luggage. Apparently they had been following me from a distance and seen me struggling. That was nice of them.
I hopped into the back of the SUV and gushed my appreciation for “rescuing” me and my stuff. The driver was from Finland and was touring around Colorado with her American friend. Ophir Pass was obviously an easy route for a woman from the land of rally and F1 drivers, but they told me that at their hotel the previous evening that the locals had warned the pass had been washed out badly by recent bad weather and had yet to be graded.
This was at the limits of my heavy laden bike and Mitas tyres, but I am quite sure the Africa Twin would have zipped up on a pair of Metzler Karoo 3s, and with perhaps less luggage and a more confident rider. In fact on my KTM it would have been a breeze as I have ridden up Sani Pass in Lesotho several times and along entire Baviaanskloof in South Africa on my 1190 Adv R with TKC 80s and full luggage. In fact, ridden up tougher roads in Himalayas on a Chinese made CF Moto 650 with road tyres!!!
Stop faffing about Utley.
I expressed my thanks to the ladies at the top of the pass, reloaded my bike and rode down a less steep tar and gravel road on the other side. At the bottom of the slope I came to a T junctions at Million Dollar Highway.
I had two BDR options to Lake City: the more direct route eastwards across the mountain ridges of Animas Fork; or north eastwards via Ouray across Sunshine Mountain. I chose the latter and it was a good choice, a fairly easy off road ride through stunning scenery.
Like much of the Utah BDR, there was a little bit of tarmac in between long sections of twisty steep gravel roads and high altitude passes. I rode reasonably quickly and learned my lesson about keeping up momentum. Yet again, I found myself cursing the tyres and reflecting on the fact that riding a rental bike has its limitations. The only alternative is buying a bike and then selling it after the expedition, which is OK for longer expeditions, but not really feasible for rides of less than a month.
It was still quite early and I pushed on through a place called Cathedral along pretty good gravel tracks, twisty mountain tracks, valleys with beautiful steams and lakes and by late afternoon I had made ridden a fair old distance and made it all the way to Taylor Park Reservoir which had a Trading Post where I could get fuel, a coffee and refill my water bottles.
As I arrived I could see quite a few mid sized dirt and enduro bikes in the car park and went into a restaurant where there were a couple of riders eating some food. I introduced myself and got chatting with two chaps a little older than myself who had been riding more challenging trails than I was.
They knew the area pretty well and advised me which routes I could take. They also decided to treat me to the restaurant specialty of home made apple pie and ice cream that I have to say was delicious and very welcome.
One of the guys was at least 70 years old and riding a stripped down and modified DR 650 in full enduro battle mode. He was camped up with his riding buddy in what he described as a state of the art camper van, or should I say recreational vehicle. The sort that is super luxurious and better equipped and more comfortable than most people’s homes. He told me it had a trailer on the back on which he transported an assortment of off road and touring motorcycles.
Now that’s the way to do it… if you’re rich. With Donald Trump type modesty he assured me he was indeed very rich … and so I didn’t feel so guilty accepting his apple pie.
I thought about camping up in Taylor Park, but I knew Cottonwood Pass was nearby and I could ride over it towards Buena Vista and perhaps camp along the way. I heard at the Traders gas station that the road is OK in the dry and that there were dozens of free camping sites along the Cottonwood Creek near Rainbow Lake.
After struggling up Ophir Pass I was not too enthused with the prospect of an evening battle against gravity, but as it turned out Cottonwood Pass was easy and very enjoyable to ride. Great views, wide hard packed gravel going up and a tar road going down on the other side.
As I drifted down the tar road towards Buena Vista I could see lots of campsite and so I pulled into one of them which was heavily wooded, next to a beautiful creek, and a site that actually obscured quite a few campers who were pitched up already.
I pulled up next to a couple who were riding a KTM 1290 Super Adventure. Attempts to strike up a conversation were dampened by a shrew faced woman with thin mean lips, blonde dyed hair, a really irritating “Fox News” accent, and a thoroughly unpleasant disposition. No idea what was going on there, but I left them to it, and set up my camp further along the river, got some trance music flashing away on my blue tooth iZoom speaker, and got some food and beer going.
I was right next to the creek and again I had nocturnal visits from various deer, elk and ground squirrels. Occasionally, I could hear the shrill nasal tones of “Fox News” woman carried on the wind, arguing incessantly about something, and thought KTM man had one of his few chances for eternal peace, happiness, and a garage full of any motorcycle he liked.
Go on man, do it, its your last chance. Bad things happen in the wilderness. Blame it on the bears, I will gladly go witness!
I might have managed a chapter of John Lydon before I was out for the count. Another very comfortable and enjoyable camp in the great outdoors.
As I was camped in a valley, the sun didn’t appear until an hour after sunrise and so I took my time making breakfast and charting the route ahead. I wanted to have a coffee in Buena Vista and deviate somewhat off the BDR to see Aspen, a high end ski resort that features in the original “Dumb and Dumber” movie and a destination during winter for the more wealthy skier.
As it turned out I had camped not that far away from Buena Vista which was quite a nice little town. I refueled, had some coffee and internet catch up in a very nice coffee shop, and was tempted to a delicious and extremely large muffin.
I chatted to a few locals and then picked up the BDR to Leadville and doubled backed to Twin Peaks and onto Aspen through endless forests of stunning Aspens that were by now every colour of the rainbow. The last colour they go through is a bright translucent golden yellow before they fall off in early winter. I was here at the right time for sure.
Perfect riding in stunning scenery.
When I rode into Aspen I found it to be very upmarket indeed, but it did have a rather confusing one way system in between top end shops and restaurants. Reminded me of Carmel in California. Rich and a bit snobby.
By chance, I found Aspen’s only Australian coffee shop and parked next to an orange 2007 KTM 990 Adventure, almost identical to Fanny’s “bigbiketrip” one.
I got the impression as I walked into the coffeeshop that I was not entirely welcome. People in their smart casual clothes actually recoiled as I got near. Indeed I was a sight, and no doubt I smelled quite bad too. The server was a typical snobby Millennial type with a curt manner and unattractive disposition. So, I sat outside with my coffee and chatted with Fanny on WeChat.
I reflected on the fact that I was near the end of my trip. The time had passed quickly and I never heard from John again. Not sure if he continued with the ride northwards through Colorado or went back to California when he was at the nearest point in Southern Utah and through Eureka or Reno back to Walnut Creek.
Very much later I did hear about John from Fanny and heard he followed up with his threat to leave his missus and retire to his beautiful cabin in Truckee, near the ski resorts and mountain lakes. Well played, Sir.
John, come to South Africa for a ride. I will lend you my 1190 Adv R and I will ride Fanny’s 790 Adv R and you can do some proper riding. I promise to last until day 4!
Anyway, after coffee and some welcome suggestions from the owner of the KTM 990 Adv, I picked up the BDR via Meredith and Basalt and rode alongside a stunning trout fishing river, which meandered and sparkled down from the mountains.
There were lots of fly fisherman in their waders flicking their flys into the babbling crystal clear waters. What a lovely way to spend a day. I stopped to watch them in their magical surroundings and made a mental note that this might be a nice way to whittle away some of my twilight years.
I found the turnoff route up over the mountains to a town called, Eagle. I was supposed to ride to Gypsum but made a wrong turn that took me over quite challenging gravel and extremely rutted hard packed mud.
Impassable in wet weather, the tops of the mud ruts were very high which meant I had to ride carefully along the crests like a gymnast on a balance beam. I came across a hunter on an ATV and he said he was also having a rough time of it, but not as much as some bikers he saw further down the track.
In no time I came across this group of motorcyclists on an assortment of adventure bikes, and without exception they were all on their sides or stuck in the ruts. I was up on the pegs in second gear as I weaved and skimmed across the steep mud crests and waved enthusiastically as I passed them.
I couldn’t stop and couldn’t take a pictures or indeed any video. Doing so would mean putting my foot down and I would certainly fall into the deep ruts and the bike would topple over, as indeed the gaggle of adventure bikes had clearly done already.
As I rode by at a fair old lick I felt stupidly superior and had to check myself, because as we all know, pride comes before a fall.
I was enjoying my ride, and particularly this section which was quite technical, but surprisingly similar to the roads I did in Wales during the Honda off road course a few months earlier, albeit a lot drier. With these tyres, sand and steep rocky scree were my enemy. However, on loose gravel and hard packed mud the E07s were no problem at all and I guess this is why there are such varied reviews and appraisals of these Mitas tyres.
I eventually descended down from the tricky mountain trails and onto the tar road between Eagle and Gypsum. I then had a few hours riding following gravel trails alongside the Colorado River through the valleys up towards Steamboat Springs.
Arriving just south of Steamboat Springs I had no intention of going any further north towards Wyoming as I wanted to finish my trip with a blast up Pikes Peak. I recently watched a video clip of the famous road racing biker, Guy Martin cahooning up the hill climb course on a bike he built himself, and I wanted to see it.
It was now dark and so I decided to set up camp near a Lake called Catamount and ride back down south along Highway 40 the next day towards Colorado Springs. I had already been to Steamboat Springs and I knew it was quite touristy, with few options to free camp and so this was as north as I was going.
It was quite exposed and a bit windy next to the large expanse of water high up in the Rockies, but comfortable inside my sleeping bag. I may have been camping illegally as there are regulations about camping near water sources, and so I packed up and got going early and made good progress towards Pikes Peak the next day which I thought would be a fitting end to my trip.
I arrived about midday after some fast road riding along Highway 40 and 70. I could see the summit of Pikes Peak from quite far away and made a wrong turn, as my batteries had all died on all my various electrical devices. I could no longer charge anything up using the 12v socket on my bike because the power cable had broken.
Also, as I was riding the wrong way in the foothills of Pikes Peak something stung me on my exposed neck which caused a nasty red welt that lasted for several weeks. It was unusually painful for an insect sting and I have no idea what it was, but it caused me to stop for half an hour as it affected my eyesight, made everything blurry and made me feel nauseous. Very strange.
As the initial sharp pain subsided I decided to carry on and found the correct route and rode up the twisty road to the top of Pike Peak. I paid a small entrance fee and unfortunately the weather was not as clear as it had been over the previous week, but a brilliant view nonetheless.
At the top I met some other bikers and a multitude of tourists who had ridden in a train to the summit.
The summit is quite interesting but its the ride which is more fun and so I rode back down the mountain and towards Colorado Springs.
I now had to get ready to return the bike and get my flight back to Hong Kong. I still had 3 days to go and found an urban camping site not too far from the airport in the suburbs of Denver on AirBnB.
In the pictures and description on AirBnB the place I booked looked great, but when I got into Denver and navigated through the atrocious rush hour traffic and towards my destination, I found myself on a road called Colfax Avenue, and it became ever more depressing and run down the further I followed it. In fact, the neighbourhood was quite revolting and I recognized drug addicts, prostitutes, and predatory lowlifes shuffling along and lurking on the street corners.
I pulled up in a street of run down bungalows that without exception had an assortment of broken down cars, washing machines and former household appliances sprawled out in their front yards. The street would actually be quite nice if they cleared up their mess, but then it would also be quite nice if these lowlifes did something productive and stopped taking drugs.
What is this? Taxi Driver 1979? I could almost imagine the saxophone tune and the Robert DeNiro character narrating his impressions and feelings whilst driving through this twilight zone.
As I was contemplating doing a runner and abandoning the money I had already spent making a booking, my AirBnB host appeared out of nowhere and welcomed me. She was also not what I was expecting and appeared to be as high as a kite. She did her best to pretend not to be stoned and advised me to ride down the back ally and park my bike next to the chained wire fence at the back of her garden. In the garden I could see a tent and fairy lights all over the garden. It seemed very out of place!
Oh well, all part of the grand scheme of things… let’s get on with it.
After unpacking and doing my best to secure my belongings in an area where most of the zombies walking around would very much like to relieve me of them, I went in search of food.
A big mistake.
As a former policeman I recognised the area as a particularly unsafe place to be after dark. As the only person on the streets of, let’s say, an Anglo Saxon and sober disposition, I decided to err on the side of caution and foxtrot oscar. Let’s not forget I was in a country that celebrates shooting each other and in a States where you can legally buy cannabis and illegally buy anything else. Law and order may exist in Aspen a hundred miles away, but it was like some post apocalyptic nightmare in this part of Denver.
So, I backtracked to my tent, cooked up some freeze dried beans and chili, made a mug of tea, had a very welcome shower in the house, chatted with my host’s very nice elderly mother, and settled down to sleep with a few chapters of my book.
I was up before it was light, the bike was still where I parked it (hurray!) and rode 40 odd miles to Boulder to return the motorcycle, which I am proud to report was in the same condition I received it. Again I arrived early and so I had breakfast at Dennys Diner and was publicly reprimanded by an obnoxious, loud and obese waiter because my motorcycle was parked in a car parking spot, and not a motorcycle parking spot.
‘Where’s the motorcycle parking spot?, I asked rather irritably
‘There ain’t one, man, MOVE IT’
‘Then it will stay where it fucking is’, I replied slowly and quietly in my English accent, ‘ Please may I have a menu’.
Suitably subdued the waiter sidled off, came back in his own time and dropped a menu on my table.
Never a good idea to upset your waiter as they are serving your food, but I had had enough of rude sanctimonious yanks pontificating to me about… well …. about everything to be honest. I had met some really nice, friendly and interesting people on my trip in America, but I had also met some really obnoxious and arrogant ones too, perhaps too many.
Breakfast of eggs and spinach did arrive…..eventually.
Inevitably I never got a coffee refill, and inevitably the only tip the fat waiter got was “no carbs after 5 pm!”
The day was going well so far, wasn’t it?
At spot on 10 am, as planned, I returned the Africa Twin to Ben, pleased that it was undamaged and hadn’t been dropped, and especially pleased that I didn’t have to pay any bike damage penalty.
It had been a great bike and was perhaps the best adventure motorcycle at that time. Given all the gnashing of gums and fuss Ben made when I collected the bike two weeks previously, I should have got a Dick Dastardly and Muttley medal for completing two BDRs on a fully loaded up Honda Africa Twin, with the wrong tyres, and returned it without a scratch.
He played it down of course, but I had made my point. Amen!
My flight back to Hong Kong was the next morning and so I decided to spend the remainder of the day wandering around Boulder, rather than return any earlier than I possibly could to Zombieland.
After patrolling up and down Pearl Street and hanging about in pretentious coffee shops and bars I took the very efficient Regional Transport District (“RTD”) bus back to Denver, and at the central station took a connecting bus to Colfax, all for a few dollars.
I sat on the bus among a group of African-American and Hispanic ladies on their way back from work and we had a really good chat. As the only Anglo Saxon on the bus I stood out a bit to be sure. The female bus driver was very funny and unusually animated and I was getting quizzed from all around me.
It was rather surreal describing my travels, especially around Africa to an audience of predominantly African Americans. I was concerned I was boring them all, but they genuinely seemed fascinated and kept prompting me for more. The lady sitting next to me said she really wanted to visit Africa, but expressed concern it was dangerous. As I looked out of the bus window at Colfax Avenue I assured her it was considerably less dangerous than where we were.
I had a very comfortable and peaceful night in my ghetto campsite and early the next day took an Uber taxi with my cheerful and friendly driver, Charles, to Denver International airport.
I had not booked an Uber taxi before, and it cost a third of the price of the regular cabs. Much to my amusement I could track my cab on the iPhone app as it approached and could see a biography of the driver and description of the car. Isn’t technology great?
After being back in Hong Kong for a few days, and recovering from my jet lag, I reflected on my “small bike trip” in the USA.
The Honda Africa Twin is a great adventure motorcycle, the Utah and Colorado scenery is truly magnificent, everything is clean and tidy, the air is unpolluted and fresh, the autumn weather was perfect, most people were kind and friendly, and it was super fun riding across all the desert tracks and mountain trails.
As good as Africa?
Of course not, there aren’t any elephants.