Indian Country redux
Thursday, June 1, several years ago. Pre-dawn. My Garmin GPS III+, glowing softly, was acquiring satellites. In a moment, it told me what I already knew: I was in Fort Stockton, Pecos county, Texas, on IH 10. Entering Texas from New Mexico on IH 10, some sick puppy in the Texas Highway Department placed a sign which states “El Paso - 1 mile. Orange - 897 miles.” There is a lot of Texas between those two cities. I was 258 miles east of El Paso.
My gray 1999 BMW K1200LT sat quietly in the dark motel parking lot while I checked the knot on the blue silk Buddhist prayer flag brought to me by friends from a huge religious festival they attended last year in Bhutan. The flag is covered in hand-written prayers to protect Bhutanese horsemen and it’s tied to the right lower wind deflector. Motorcycle riders, they figured, probably can use a little extra protection like Bhutanese horsemen.
While I was dressing, the Weather Channel warned of flash flooding for northwestern Pecos county saying numerous roads were flooded and closed from a 10 inch rain last night. They added that the town of Coyanosa to my north was flooded and Coyanosa Draw was severely out of its banks. Fortunately, I wasn’t headed that way. I was headed east. Now loaded up, I pressed the starter and the LT gargled to life about 5:30 AM with Stevie Ray Vaughan singing the prophetic title cut from ‘Couldn’t Stand the Weather’ on the CD player. Under overcast skies covering much of west Texas, I rolled toward Austin, uneventfully, through what must be known as the Valley of the Mammaries. Check it out. You’ll see what I mean. Austin is home, from whence I’d departed 3019 miles and seven days earlier.
I began this trip to Indian Country seven days before -- from Austin, through Lubbock, Texas up to Santa Fe and the Canyonlands country around the Four Corners of New Mexico, Colorado, Utah and Arizona. The evening before I left, Alysia (aka Sunshine), the daughter of long time friends since pilot training, flew in from Atlanta to ride up to Santa Fe with me. She is a lovely woman -- a young version of Sharon Stone (Sharon only wishes she looked that good when she was 23) -- intelligent, funny, beautiful, and she had never ridden on a motorcycle. I invited her, explained the limits on baggage space and she foolishly jumped at the chance to go but could only get away for the first few days. (Work is the curse of the riding class....) She was a great passenger and companion. Originally, I had intended to meet a group from Colorado in Durango, but a bizarre psychotic break episode in one among the group made me think better of it. An axe murder while on a group motorcycle trip can significantly impair your full enjoyment of the road.
We left the next morning in hot, humid weather on an uneventful 400+ mile ride up to Lubbock. Along the way I acquainted Alysia with the joys of passing semi’s in gusting cross winds, the not-so-subtle perfumes of day-old road kill in Texas summer heat, driving through the center of huge dust devils, and other plains phenomena, all of which she handled in good humor and style. A tornado and thunderstorms roared through the Lubbock area that afternoon, but by then we had gotten on the outside of more than one set of Don Julio Margaritas in a handy restaurant. The next morning, in wonderfully cool 52 degree weather, we left early for Muleshoe, Texico, Yeso and other garden spots en route to Santa Fe. As we gained elevation, the weather became cooler and we arrived in Santa Fe in time for lunch on the Plaza. We did the tourist thing for two days in and around Santa Fe where the blond, blue-eyed Alysia stood out ‘... like a tarantula on a wedding cake’ as Raymond Chandler would have described it. We agreed over a bottle of Grand Dame champagne Saturday night, that a motorcycle trip should be an annual event for us. Sunday dawned cold and clear and too quickly. With shared regrets at parting, wishes for safe journeys east and west and several warm hugs, I rolled from Santa Fe and she stayed behind to fly back to Atlanta from Albuquerque later that day. Heavy sigh.
My solo route would now take me up NM Highway 44 through Navajo and Apache pueblos and reservations, stopping along the way at roadside stands and memorials to learn some history of the Navajo nation. If you stopped at even half the places of interest, your average speed made good would drop to somewhere near six miles per hour. The scenery varied from beautiful to stark desert scrub. Several hours along, the Chaco Culture monument speaks quietly of resourcefulness, grit and resolve back to the 7th century. Ship Rock unexpectedly sprouts a half mile out of the desert floor west of Farmington, and Navajo tradition says it once flew on its own wings. I’m doubtful. But it did mark a change in the desert from mostly low sage scrub where roads were straight as a string for miles upon miles, to tortuous, sculpted hills, weird formations, washes and outcrops of the high desert where geology dictates roads must become more enjoyable. All this was made more exciting by the west’s principal driving game -- Dodging Tumbleweeds. (The point system is too complicated to go into here, but write and I’ll explain it.) For its size, the LT is surprisingly nimble, cornering, braking and riding like a motorcycle half its weight. I stopped and took my picture on the LT entering Arizona. I got underway singing along with George Thorogood and the Destroyers - ‘’... ‘Cause I’m ba-a-a-d, I’m nationwide....’ I was.
A quart of electrolyte drink later, and a hard right at Teec Nos Pos, AZ took me to the anti-climactic Four Corners Monument, the only place in the United states where four states (AZ-NM-UT-CO) are contiguous at a single point. Various tourists were making fools of themselves for family albums I hoped I’d never have to look at. From there, Highway 160 is pretty straight and bland through scrub desert over Red Mesa, home of the Red Mesa High School Redskins, and the first half of Highway 191 north from Mexican Water was as well. But then I began to see the red rock geology emerging from the desert again, bringing with it more curves, hills and (usually) dry washes. I spent that night at the San Juan Inn on the river in Mexican Hat, UT. The Navajo taco was billed as the main attraction in the restaurant, according to one of my gastronome riding buddies but in its present version it was a culinary shadow its former self. The Zagat Restaurant Guide will not have mentioned it, nor did J. & M. Stearn’s Road Food -- a compendium of back road eateries in a format fit for motorcycle touring. It is a shame it can’t be downloaded into the Garmin so you could scroll for pork chops, but it will load into Google Maps.
The dawn ride from Mexican Hat (named for a nearby rock formation which looks like something no Mexican I know would ever wear on his head) south through Monument Valley and through the Navajo Tribal Park on Highway 163 was staggeringly beautiful with reds, blues, vermilions, ochers, browns, yellows, oranges, pinks, and an entire additional palette for which there are no adequate names. The colors settled on the valley formations bit by bit, like a virgin’s blush. It was a dramatic scenic change with Navajo Hoohgans and the odd Tipi dotting the landscape in stark counterpoint to the former array of flashy casinos and trading posts owned and operated by the Indian Nations, and which were strung along the roads behind me.
At the Burger King in Kayenta, AZ just to the west on Highway 160, there is a terrific display about the Navajo Code Speakers and the critical role they played during World War II. It is worth the stop. The encrypting of their native speech was the only secure communication code which baffled enemy intelligence services and was never broken by the Axis powers in that war. While enjoying the display and a fast food breakfast, I met a group of five or six riders and passengers from California and England, mounted on Triumphs, rented BMW’s and other marques who were also en route to the north rim of the Grand Canyon. We visited for a bit and then I lit a small Cuban cigar and rolled solo for a visit to the Navajo National Monument, with 700 year old cliff dwellings, at Tsegi, nine miles west on 160. Then it was down past Black Mesa to AZ 98, then up to Page, the impressive Glen Canyon Dam and Lake Powell and down 89 and 89A passing places as beautiful as their names suggest - from Antelope Pass across Navajo Bridge to Marble Canyon, Vermillion Cliffs, Cliff Dwellers, and up the twisties and into the sweet smells of Pinon forests over the Kaibab Mountains to the north rim of the 277 mile long, one mile deep Grand Canyon - at elevations near 9000 feet. Along the way, I was entertained by many signs stating “Don’t Let the Sierra Club Drain Lake Powell!” It seems the west has broken the modern code of the pseudo-environmental movement.
The north rim of the Canyon is far less commercial (so far) than the south rim some 12 miles away as the crow flies, but if you are not a crow, it is a 210 mile drive, point to point. The north rim is closed in winter, and unfortunately a controlled fuel burn in late April and early May got out of hand and further closed a significant part of the park. It continues to smolder in a few places. The park area east of the entry was closed, but you can still get an appreciation of the area. To do so well wants an 1150GS instead of the LT for exploring, unless you have the cardiovascular system of a Sherpa. I don’t. In my case, a moderate hike, a decent dinner in the Lodge dining room, a bottle of very indifferent wine and another Cuban cigar on the Lodge deck at sunset finished off a nice ride and marked the midpoint of my peregrinations. Tomorrow I would point the LT east for the first time in five days.
The next morning, again at dawn and in 42 degree weather, I rolled from the park as the soft, crisp light silvered new leaves on Aspens, their pale bark seeming to shine in contrast against the dark pine forest. Mule deer, dark gray Kaibab Squirrels with white tails, Ravens and one lone bear looked up as the LT murmured out of the park with an appropriate New Age piano piece by Michael Jones whispering from the CD. Highway 89A down Cornfield Valley was marked by Indian jewelry and rug stands and trading posts in profusion until The Gap, and then it became more agrarian and smoother.
I turned east on Highway 160, and at Tuba City turned south on 264 through Hopi country and up onto the Mopenkopi Plateau. Hopi are most famous for their silver and kachinas, and their trading posts, highway stands, galleries and more dotted this 119 mile stretch of two-lane. Only three paved roads cross Highway 264 in this distance. The Hopi, in my experience, are friendly without exception and every time I stopped to drink in the view or more gatorade, passing cars or trucks stopped and asked whether I needed help. As the heat grew, I twisted the throttle a bit harder. About sixty miles into the desert, I crested a small rise and was vividly reminded of Peter Falk’s line in the movie The In-Laws -- “... Oh jeez, pigs!!!” Hopi country, like most of the reservations, is open range country, but in this instance the macadam disappeared under a herd of sheep, not pigs. Wool probably makes a collision with sheep softer than with pigs, but just in case, I invoked the name of Kokopelli and Our Lady of Blessed DE-celeration and got on the brakes hard, relying on the Hopi ABS gods to do what they do best. It was the first time on the trip I was glad sweet Alysia was not with me. I didn’t buy any mutton.
The rest of the 119 miles rolled by as easily as the names of the towns rolled off the tongue -- Old Oraibi, Kykotsmovi, Sipaulovi, etc., and I finally slid into the Hubbell Trading Post and National Historic site just before Ganado, AZ. Opened in 1876, on the centennial of the nation, it has been in operation continuously since that year. I’m not sure how -- I bought a woven Navajo sash for my sister, and they gave me a discount without my asking for one. I suspect there was sufficient lagniappe in the price, even with the 20% discount. If my sister doesn’t like it, she gets strangled with it!
I back-tracked five miles to Highway 191 north, and rolled in to Chinle, AZ home to the Canyon de Chelly (pronounced ... de ‘shay’) about 2:00 PM. I found the rent-a-hovel that would be my home for the night and left immediately for the Canyon. Simply put, this is the most beautiful natural feature I have ever seen, and this in a part of the country with no shortage of natural beauty. Much smaller than the Grand Canyon, perhaps 15 miles long in four main canyons which join at their downstream ends, there are rim-top overlooks which allow you to view the wind- and water-sculpted vertical sandstone walls and the verdant floor of the canyon as much as 1000 feet below. Michelangelo would have been proud to have painted this place on a ceiling somewhere. Accompanied by Navajo guides you are able to arrange tours down into the canyon to see Anasazi (Ancient Ones) cliff dwellings and ruins some 1000 years old, including the White House ruin, reference to which is included in old Navajo chants. Modern Navajo live and farm in Canyon de Chelly today, in small modern homes and in traditional Hoohgans. This is a site which has seen conflict among Indians and Spanish explorers, betrayal by the U. S. Army, and a few dust-ups with white settlers over the early years of exploration and settlement in the region. I’m going back in the fall to spend several days in the Canyon itself, to revisit a deeply spiritual experience I had at White House overlook with an ancient Indian woman and her son, who gave me a turquoise necklace, and to smoke a few more Cuban cigars on the rim. I’ll remember to bring my own wine on that trip since reservations are mostly ‘dry.’
Which brings me to yesterday, Wednesday.
I left Chinle before dawn after dreaming of the flute player, intending to reach Carlsbad, NM if the aliens didn’t snag me at Roswell and confiscate the LT for their own trip home. And before my beard caught fire in the desert heat. I rode east into the dawn, crossing back into New Mexico near Window Rock, then down 666 to Gallup, NM and then south on 602 to 36 to 603 and 60 east across more mountainous Zuni country. Zuni are famous for fetishes -- small stone carvings of many different animals which can confer their traits on their owners. (Okay, I’ll buy that, but then why are there toad fetishes? That might explain Bill Gates.) There was no shortage of shops and trading posts along the way and I pulled onto I-25 at Socorro heavier laden than when I began the day and missing the cool elevations of 80 miles in the Datil, Gallinas and Magdalena Mountains. Was it my imagination, or were the truckers a lot less friendly without Alysia on the back in her tank top? Probably just my imagination. I left I-25 ten miles below Socorro, and headed east at Highway 380, billed as the ‘gateway to historic Lincoln county’ some 100 miles further on.
Before reaching Carrizozo you cross the Valley of the Fires, where the landscape looks like the lava fields at Kilauea, Hawaii. Weird. Further on you wind through Capitan, the apparent ancestral home of Smokey the Bear, and past there are Ruidoso and Lincoln. The town of Lincoln was very picturesque, with old crumbling adobe and somewhat more modern homes and stores as well. It was a center of cattle raising in early days in the area and was worth the stop to wander among living history. The miles spun past under the LT, and high clouds kept the temperatures in the low 90's. I saw Artesia and then Carlsbad, NM, and decided to press on to Pecos, Texas or a bit farther on Highway 285. Along the way, I ran through a heavy dust storm near Loving, NM which reduced me to one useable eyeball before it abated and I stopped and poured the contents of one of my water bottles over my face to wash the mud from my eyes. Texas welcomed me with open arms and a light shower between the state line and the old town of Pecos (which Judge Roy Bean was the law west of, presiding in his town of Langtry, which he named for his dream paramour, the actress Lily Langtry.) The shower did little to clean the bugs off the windshield, but I had stopped and put on my Belstaff Typhoon jacket to be safe, just inside Texas. The cold air down-rush from the distant storm which kicked up the dust storm dropped the temperature from a sunny 97 to a gritty 77 in a matter of minutes. I loved it.
Ahead, the sky was light with a dark storm off to my left (the direction in which it should continue to move, away from my track) so I decided to press on to Fort Stockton, 54 miles away, and about 690 miles into the day. About the mid point of that last leg, things took a turn against me, and the sky darkened from horizon to horizon across my track. Then it began to rain in earnest. There was a roadside rest and picnic shelter ahead and I elected to pull off and roll the LT under the lean-to roof. It did no good since the rain was falling sideways. A semi and two other trucks were parked there on the side, and I rolled the LT up next to the semi which blocked much of the sideways rain. Everything sticking out from under the Typhoon jacket was soaked. After about ten minutes, it appeared the track down Highway 285 was clearing or at least getting lighter but now lightning danced to the left and right of the track as well as bracketing the spot where we sat. Since I was largely soaked, I decided it would be preferable to gut up and get past the storm rather than wait it out in the rain next to the tallest metal structure for thirty miles in every direction. The occupants of the three vehicles in the pull-off watched with incredulity as I fired up the LT and pulled onto the road, heading for the intersection of Coyanosa Draw and Highway 285. The semi stayed, but the pickup and the van pulled out behind me to follow the madman on the sleek gray motorcycle into what would become the teeth of a west Texas summer thunderstorm.
About five miles down the road, visibility in the driving rain had reduced my progress to first gear. The Rain-X on the windshield works well, but not when a fire hose is trained on you. At speed, the air scoop under the windshield produces a nice, refreshing stream of rain-drops in your face, but at least the flow regime is laminar. I was thinking about the many times I had told my passengers and new riders about riding in rain. I told them raindrops feel like hailstones on a motorcycle. They don’t, actually.
I was laughing out loud like a maniac at the miserable conditions in this full-bore Texas downpour, running slowly with emergency flashers and high beam in first, when there was a louder rap of impact on my half coverage helmet. The second ˝ inch hailstone hit me on my lower lip, the pain and the realization that this was a very severe storm causing me to sit bolt upright. Actually that turned out to be fortunate, because doing so caused me to get a brief glimpse over the top of the windshield. At that moment I was coming up on the intersection of Highway 285 and the Coyanosa Draw minutes after it over-topped its banks in the flash flood I would hear about on the Weather Channel in ten hours. It surged across the two lane road about six to ten inches deep. Fortunately that country is generally VERY flat so, while there was a lot of water (the desert was rapidly becoming a shallow sea in all directions), it was not going to get very deep. I thanked provenance that I had the visor on my helmet to protect my face as more hail poured down on me, rattling off the windshield, fairing, my helmet and the shoulder pads in the Typhoon. I continued slowly forward looking mostly straight down at the white line on the edge of the traffic lane as the hail pummeled me and the LT. Hail began to accumulate between the tank and my crotch. The effect was, well, chilling. I bailed with one hand.
I noticed that the shallowest water was over the oncoming lane, so I edged over onto that lane bringing with me my short parade of lunatics who were at least drier than the one who was leading the procession the wrong way down a flooded two lane road. One minivan crept toward me on the oncoming shoulder. I was in his lane. The water was shallowest on the shoulder where he was, but it left him no margin if the water forced him sideways a mere foot -- he’d be off the road in soft sand and deeper water. I shrugged. We smiled and waved -- partners in lunacy. The lunatics were running the asylum. His wife’s eyes looked as large as fried eggs as she stared at me in the hail and streaming water. I don’t recall if she was homely enough to stop a clock, but at that moment my engine quit. The clock was okay. Water was now about eight inches deep in my lane, but about four inches on the shoulder where the mini-van had now passed me. I coasted to a stop, dead in the water so to speak, and the parade gathered around me. I could see ahead and could see the white stripes on the oncoming lane through the flowing flood water. The southbound lanes were hopeless. The pickup driver cracked his window and shouted that he couldn’t see shit and asked if I was okay and was I going on? I told him yes, if I didn’t drown first and if I could restart the engine. I looked at the soaked prayer flag from Bhutan and thumbed the starter. The LT caught instantly. I told him to follow me until I gave up, to give me some room, and not to let anyone run over me from behind. I let out the clutch and slowly rolled ahead in the hail and rain in eight inches of flash flood. The LT never sputtered. I have no idea why it died when it did. After about a mile the water began to thin out and the hail stopped. Fortunately (!?!) the flash flood was sweeping the hailstones from the road so they were collecting in the ditch and not massing on the road to cause me to slip and fall on the accumulation of half inch ice marbles. I thought about the three inch hailstones I once held in my hand in Austin in May and kept in my freezer for two years. Finally, after a total of perhaps four miles in the shallow flood, I reached a high point on the road, then more flood and another high point. Then I was out of the flood and the sky ahead grew lighter and seemed to be clearing. I eased on the power, drying the brakes, and slowly worked my way up into fifth gear. The flood was behind me and ten miles or so ahead was Fort Stockton.
I pulled into yet another rat-infested pensione and walked in and inquired about a room for the night. The young woman behind the counter looked at me in disbelief as water streamed from me, my boots squelching when I walked. It may have been that they had not seen rain in Fort Stockton for months. It may have been something else. I looked at her in equal disbelief. She was tall. Beautiful. A redhead. Blue eyes. Too pretty and too finely sculpted to live and work in Fort Stockton. Perhaps she was just there biding time, waiting for her knight -- someone she knew she would recognize instantly; someone to take her away from there and spoil her in the ‘big city’ in fine restaurants, in expensive dress shops, with fine silks and all the temptations that his world contained. Perhaps the storm had steered me here, at this time, to this place. My sleeve irrigated the registration counter as we concluded the registration formalities. I turned to leave. She hesitated, then said “Hey, is there anything else you might need tonight?” I looked back at her, considering the possibilities. Was I the one she was waiting for? Was she the one for whom I had been looking? Were Indian spirits intervening in my life again? I thought about what else I might need that night. It was a question loaded with delicious possibilities and potential. I squelched back to the soaked counter and leaned on it as a wet Cary Grant might have for an elegant, young Grace Kelly, or even for Alysia, now safely back in Atlanta.
“Yes, there is something. Towels ... and the nearest liquor store.”
I had already met The One and she didn’t live in Fort Stockton.
Free at last!
Austin & Crystal Beach TX, Drummond, WI
CCRs - Hot Springs '01, Santa Fe '02, Breckenridge '04, Jackson '05, Braselton '06, Osage Beach '07, Midway '08, Black Hills '09, Killington '10, Boise '11, Duluth '12, Bend '13, Chattanooga in '14, and Coeur d'Alene in 2015.