This month I packed up the GS and headed southeast from Los Angeles for Mormon Lake in Northern Arizona to attend my first Overland Expo. A kind-of convention meets campout, the three day event has something for everyone with an interest in overland travel on two or four wheels. Boasting dozens of vendors from vehicle manufacturers to outdoor travel suppliers and equipment, it was easy to lose the days pursuing the exhibitors and meeting interesting people. Being around so many like minded people and capable vehicles and equipment was inspiring – so much so that by the third day, I needed to actually get out in the world and do some real overland travel.
Overland Expo is more than just a convention in some stuffy convention hall, however. Attendees can attend numerous seminars and lectures or a wide range of topics like, “Building Mud Ovens.” to “Escaping Illegal Restraint.” Both certainly useful skills if you plan to travel over land through some of the most remote parts of the world. Even more exciting, is that the event offers the opportunity to get really hands on. Land Rover offered test drives and training on a Overland skills course, and Rawhyde adventures offered two wheeled skills instruction for adventure motorcyclists in the Rodeo Arena. I spent hours hotdogging my BMW R1200 GS Adv in the Rodeo and attending lead rides with Rawhyde coaches on the back trails around scenic Mormon Lake.
At the end of each day there were happy hours, movie screenings, and parties hosted by event sponsors and exhibitors. Feeling most at home with the two wheeled crowd, I spent the evenings in the motorcycle village. Transforming my GS into a mobile hospitality bar, complete with fresh limes, Ice cold beer, and two kinds of tequila and rye whiskey, I set myself up amidst the throng of parked adventure bikes offering a drink to anyone who seemed interested. Sort of like hanging out in the kitchen as a house party, everyone comes through that room and it gives you a chance to meet lots of people while standing in one spot. Since people are pulling up on different bikes it’s also a chance to ask people about their machines, specific load-outs, gear choices, and if they want an ice cold beer.
When exhaustion finally set in I packed up the bar and rode back the short distance to my tent to sleep off the day. That is, I tried to. Just as I found an semi-comfortable position on my inflatable bed roll and got the sleeping bag just right, the snoring began from the next tent over, loud and wet like a tearing canvas sheets again and again. Then as if a croaking bullfrog answering from across a pond, more snoring started from another the tent on the other side as well. The novelty of camping around hundreds of like minded travelers with adventure motorcycles in tents suddenly got stale as I laid there listening to a dozen snoring people within earshot, all dreaming no doubt about the next day’s seminars, instructive rides and camaraderie. All things I too enjoy but now felt clouded. The notion of traveling so far and into nature to then make camp with tents packed together only feet apart felt too much like being in the city I was getting away from. It was just then that I decided that I needed a vacation from the vacation. I lit the headlamp and began poring over my newly purchased Arizona, Butler Motorcycle maps to plan the next couple of days.
By Sunday, the Expo was winding down, and as the sun was rising tents were being packed up and loaded into panniers and soft bags. Motorcycles were being fired up and travelers and exhibitors from all over the U.S. were headed home. I said goodbye to friends old and new and began my journey north toward the Grand Canyon. It had been many years since I’d been there. Like most tourists, my experience with the place involved a long drive in a car, followed by an hour or so if walking around the rim taking photos, then promptly getting back into the car for another long drive. This time was going to be different. On two wheels with everything I needed to be self contained for at least a couple nights in the wild I was going to push for something deeper and less traveled.
Heading North through Flagstaff, AZ, Highway 89 descends onto a massive semi-arid grassland. The turn off the highway was at a place called Gray Mountain. There was no Mountain nearby as far as I could tell, but the place was indeed very gray. There was a closed down Indian trading post and shuttered hotel. Years ago someone must of had a vision for this place, a road stop for tourists on their way North to the Grand Canyon, a place for the Native American locals to work and make a living. Now that vision seemed little more than a broken dream. The gas station was the only business left open, so I did my part contributing to the local economy, buying a bag of beef jerky and can of Red Bull, then turned off for the dirt.
Not more than half a mile past the highway, I was already lost. On the maps the road seemed clear enough, but on the ground there were numerous spurs and turns. I had to back track a few times before I was able to get on the correct dirt road. Barely marked with signs for roads with names like RTE 6150, after some effort I was able to match the map with the GPS and seemed finally on the right path. The landscape transformed into the surface of an alien planet with layers of colored rock, in black, red and green, carved out by washes and mesa tops. The sky, covered by a featureless, gray overcast made the remoteness of the landscape serious. There were isolated homesteads intermittently scattered about. Shabby structures with abandoned pick-up trucks slowly rusting away. Most steads also had an octagonal building on the property – a traditional Navajo ceremonial structure called a “hogan.” The property lines were unclear and sometime the road veered close to a home. The forbidding remoteness of the place mixed in with a sense that I was interloping here.
Ascending from a wash through a section of red silt, onto slick granite, I came across a small herd of wild horses. The mares galloped away while a stallion turned to face me, head high and unkept mane whipping in the wind. A scene from another era, still alive in America, living as it had for countless millennia in this remote pocket on the Colorado Plateau of Arizona. When the horses retreated out of sight, it was time to get moving again. The goal was to make it to the north rim of the Grand Canyon and there was a long way to go.
I was lost again. The GPS no longer corroborated my location as heading Northwest on RTE 6150. In fact, the GPS gave me no information at all. The screen was blank green field with no road visible. The only detail it gave was “Heading North.” Zooming the distance out on the display, I saw that I would eventually intersect with the highway, so rather than backtrack and loose more time I decided to keep heading North. The tactic of simply staying on the most traveled looking dirt road proved a mistake, but there was not time to get caught up in my poor navigational skills, this was an adventure after all.
Back on Highway 64, I was now heading West again toward the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. To the North, the plateau began to show the deep scar of the Little Colorado River. On Pavement now I was making up time but the glimpses into the crevasse were haunting. There were numerous scenic overlooks to stop at but I found myself wishing I was back on some dirt. The motorway with busses and looky-loo tourists was precisely the thing I was trying to escape. Paralleling the highway, I noticed an old road halfway up the mesa. At the first available turnout I left the main highway and found myself on “Old Highway 64.” Completely unmaintained, with uncleared rockfalls and foliage growing through cracks, the narrow two lane road had barely any pavement left. Unlike the new highway below which cut through the topography to allow vehicles to travel unimpeded at 70 miles per hour, the old highway followed the contours of the Mesa. Quiet and a little bit perilous it evoked travel from another era. When getting somewhere remote came with some of measure of risk. A time when the lure of the West was reserved for intrepid souls, brave, desperate or even foolhardy.
I stopped along the highest point and took in a humbling view of the Little Colorado River Canyon. The landscape around it – flat unremarkable grassland, then dropping unbelievably away into the radical escarpment of the canyon. This spot while just an horderves for the actual view on the grand canyon, was more special than the view I later see from the actual South Rim. On an untraveled road, solitary, it was my discovery. That overlook on the Old Highway was reserved for those of us who want to go deeper. The wrestles ones who are unsatisfied with the traveled routes and willing to go just a little further off of the path. Adventurers who are looking for something in the grandness of nature, so much bigger than ourselves in the hope that perhaps we may find something about our potential when faced with what is more than beautiful, something more then just a risky path, something in the vastness of the sublime.
Up Next Part 2. The North Rim.