Two brothers share pain, fear, fatigue, anguish, frostbite and motorcycles on a priceless journey into the American southwest.
On a gorgeous sunny morning my brother John and I rode out of Page, Arizona on Highway 98. We were already eight days into our long-planned journey into the American southwest—John on his BMW K1200, me on my R1200GS. We’d already been through Colorado and parts of Utah, and had even stopped to peer over the northern rim of the Grand Canyon. This morning in Page, sunlight accented the striking rock formations and I stopped at a spot where I saw a dirt trail going up a small rise thinking it would make a good photo-op with my bike. On the way back down the red dirt turned into sand, but the same colour. My front tire bit into it and I felt myself losing balance. No big deal, I thought. Not at this speed. But as the bike slid out my foot became pinned between it and the ground. I felt instant pain but still managed to clamber out from underneath. John came over and helped me upright the bike and with an aching foot I rode back to the highway.
We pulled into a rest stop down the road where I took my off boot and applied ice to my ankle. It was already really swollen but I didn’t think I’d broken anything. Even if I had, I was in Arizona and a long way from home. Time to suck it up and keep going. I didn’t know then that little crash would give me months of problems.
We pushed on through Arizona, and up into Utah, hitting the big ticket stops on the American southwest tour: Monument Valley, Natural Bridges National Monument, and even the towering Mokee Dugway Mesa. Trip Advisor suggests that anyone with a fear of heights bring a clean pair of shorts up the Mokee Dugway. The Dugway is a graded, gravel road that descends from the edge of Cedar Mesa, about 1200 feet to the floor of the valley below—in less than three miles. It was built in the mid 1900s to haul ore down to the uranium mill in Mexican Hat. This narrow, unpaved road has few turnouts but many hairpin switchbacks that seem to overhang each other. But the views are incredible. This was why I bought the GS—to have the ability to easily transition from pavement to gravel and just keep on going. At the top of the mesa, pavement returned and we carried on along the highway to the entrance to Natural Bridges.
But when we pulled into the Buck Horn Lodge in Moab, my foot was really swollen and turning dark purple. By morning it was a multi-coloured mess that I wrapped with a tensor bandage and then just carried on. No one ever intends for problems to come up but stuff happens and you just have to deal with it. I was still enjoying being on the road with my brother and that is what mattered most.
It was already hot when we left Moab, but we experienced a range of temperatures on the way to Price. High winds and colder temperatures, the threat of rain as we went over Soldier Summit, then more wind blew the clouds away as we reached Provo, where we found ourselves on the town’s Fourth of July parade route. Early spectators watched as these two Canadians on motorcycles rode past. We went through Park City, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics, then got onto I-80 to Evanston, Wyoming.
We made pretty good time through Wyoming and just outside Afton we traded bikes for a bit. I think John was really enjoying the GS because we rode like that for over an hour. Meanwhile I was leaning forward on the K1200 thinking I liked the riding position on my R1200GS much more, though John’s bike definitely felt faster.
We got gas at Alpine Junction, Wyoming and checked into the Three Rivers Motel. My foot was really throbbing and I spent an hour icing it and keeping it elevated. I thought it probably looked worse than it was—at least that was my theory and I was going to stick with it until I got home and had it X-rayed. The day ended with fireworks that we watched from the motel parking lot, drinking beer and talking to two guys staying at the same motel.
The next day started with breakfast in the Yankee Doodle Café, a typical local spot filled with Americana of all kinds, posters, photographs of American flags, soldiers and other patriotic themes. The scenic Highway 89 to Jackson was great but as we neared the town we were faced with a lot more traffic than we’d been used to. We stopped at the park in the centre of town then left to carry on to Grand Tetons and Yellowstone National Park. Twenty bucks got us passes for both parks and we slowly cruised through. Once in the park it’s best to just relax and accept the flow traffic. We stopped for photos at the sulphur springs, where we saw a herd of buffalo. The ride out was cooler and the clouds held the threat of rain.
By Cooke City, Montana it was raining, so we decided to get something to eat, and—considering that the Beartooth Pass was still to come—maybe wait for the weather to improve. The high-elevation Beartooth Highway is a shared asset between Wyoming and Montana that starts somewhere at the 6,000-foot level and rises to its full height of 10,947 feet in the Beartooth Pass. It’s a roller coaster ride with hairpins, countless switchbacks and pulse-quickening side-of-road viewpoints with sparse guardrails.
Luck was against us. The weather refused to break. By the time we finished eating, it was raining quite hard. But we had decided to ride the pass anyway because it was just too early to stop for the day. Although the rain eased up when we started our ascent, the temperature continued to drop as we gained elevation.
THE NEXT CURVE FELT EVEN tighter than the last, but I kept my focus on the road surface ahead. There was a lot of loose gravel thrown off the shoulders by cars that failed to navigate the turns and it was getting harder to see through my visor. The wind kept building strength as the elevation increased. This was not a good sign because we were still a long way from the top. Our raingear kept us dry but after two more sets of switchbacks snow flurries were sticking to my faceshield. I kept asking myself, is this possible in July? Welcome to the Beartooth Pass.
By the time we reached the Top of the World store at the summit, it was all I could do to keep my visor clear. At this point all we could do is carry on. Even in summer there is still snow on the ground near the summit but today it was falling from the sky and we were both very cautious in the corners. The wind was blowing the snow sideways across the road and the ride became an extreme test of concentration. The rain we finally encountered on the descent actually came as a relief.
On the other side of the pass at Red Lodge, Montana, we checked into the Alpine Motel. This would be our last night together on the road, so it was kind of a sad one knowing it might be a long time before we would be doing this again. At the same time I felt so lucky to have this connection with my brother. It began in 1970 when I got my first motorcycle and we rode across Canada and now 40 years later we still enjoy getting out on the road together.
The next morning John struck out toward Billings to connect with the interstate system that would take him all the way back to Barrie. I waved goodbye and turned onto a gravel road that would take me north. By the time I’d made it past Grand Falls I was on to a great road I’d ridden a number of times—Highway 89, which runs along the Rocky Mountains to Glacier Park.
I was ahead of the bad weather and near a small town called Browning on Highway 89, where I had to slow down for a group of riders on horseback. They were going to drive a very large herd of horses through town and into the fairgrounds where a big powwow was happening. It was an incredible sight to witness a hundred or so horses galloping beside the highway. As I followed the procession into town there were people lining the road all the way to the fairground. Once again I had managed to become a part of a parade and it was an amazing end to the day. If I had come along 15 minutes later I might have have missed the whole thing. Sometimes the timing just works.
Story & photos by Terry Peters (Canadian Biker, August 2013)