Motorcycle Trips: WFO-6 Park City 2007

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Motorcycle Trips: WFO-6 Park City 2007

In July, 2007 I went to the Western FJR Owners Conference (WFO-6) in Park City, Utah. The WFO convention and its other regional brethren (SFO for the South, and others) exist for no other reason than an excuse to ride to Park City and hang out with other people who own the same model of motorcycle: the Yamaha FJR1300.

I went the long way: north from San Francisco to Oregon, north and east and north into Washington, east across Idaho and Montana, south into Wyoming, and south again into Utah.

You might notice how little Interstate highway there is on this route. That's the way I like it.

Before heading home from Park City I went south to Bryce and Zion National Parks. Then I headed east across Nevada, through Yosemite National Park, and home.

You can view these pictures as gallery or click on the thumbnails here to see the larger images. The numbers in this text correspond to the image numbers in that gallery and to the numbered markers on the map above, showing about where each picture was taken. When a number is missing on the map, the picture was taken very close to the previous one.

1: Starting out. My wife took a picture of me just as I was leaving. You can see on the back of the bike that I was loaded for bear. The big bag holds the sleeping bag, the Therm-A-Rest pad, and a few days' worth of food. Behind that is the yellow bag with the tent, and the green thing is a camp chair. Above that is a black bag with some overflow. I'm glad I took that overflow bag: it made packing much easier rather than having to jigsaw everything together into less space. As it turned out I only camped three nights (instead of my planned six) due to detours, weather, economics (cheap hotels), and laziness.

In the future I don't think I'll plan to camp on a trip like this. I did it to save money on hotels and also for the spirit of self-sufficiency. Now I've proved I can do it, but I don't really like it. I can't seem to pack light enough to make camping lower-overhead than a hotel. By the time I have my tent and sleeping area set up, and I've changed into clothes I can walk around in, and I have the food and cooking set up and then cleaned up after dinner, my tent site looks like a yard sale. In the morning it takes forever to get packed up again. Meanwhile I've got 70 extra pounds on the back of the bike for the whole trip. (I'm too frugal to get truly small and light gear: part of the appeal is cost savings, and small size and weight only comes with a large price.)

Camping doesn't always save much money, either. If you your plan night stops right you'll usually find a hotel with a $35 single rate, assuming you don't much care what the facilities are like. Then again, the big cities might not even have an inexpensive campground nearby: the KOA outside Bozeman, MT (northern gateway to Yellowstone) was $32 for a tent spot! While I might still camp sometimes, I think it'll be where I can set up once and stay for two or three nights. (I've done that a few times in Death Valley in the winter.) Either that, or I'll see if I can pack lighter and be more efficient, even if it means being less comfortable.

2: I seem to collect pictures of bridges. This isn't a very good one.


 

3: A winding road running off into the distance can be a photographer's best friend. This one is California Highway 1, around Rockport or Westport. Up this far north hardly anybody calls it the Pacific Coast Highway, though of course that's what it is.

When you're going north on US101 from Leggett to Eureka, you have a choice of whether to ride The Avenue of the Giants. That's California highway 254 and it takes you through the redwood forest of Humboldt Redwoods State Park. The road swings back and forth under and over US101 and you can take the whole thing or just segments of it. If you've seen Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, this area probably inspired the flying-motorcycle chase scene through the forest of Endor. I didn't take the side road this time but if you haven't done it a dozen times already, it's not to be missed.

My original route plan had me turning inland at Eureka and then north right away on CA96 to Happy Camp, but I got up to this area too soon. I had left home early to miss the Bay Area and Wine Country traffic, and I guess I succeeded. When I was approaching Eureka, I saw I would get to camp by 6:00, before the day was really over. So instead I headed east on my favorite northern California road, CA36, and ran up and down the mountains as far as CA3. This road (Highway 36) is a "Quit your job, leave your wife, and come ride this road!" road. When I turned north toward Hayfork, I fell in behind another biker. We had a great time on the curves, trading the lead and admiring each other's technique. When we got to CA299 he turned east and I turned west, and that was that. This happens all the time: sometimes you stop and chat when you run into a kindred spirit, and sometimes you just wave.

I got gas in Willow Creek before turning north on CA96 and got to talking with some locals. They said there had been a fire up north and the road had been closed, and might not yet be open. I called the automated California road status number (800-GAS-ROAD) and it said Highway 96 was open. Later when I went through Hoopa, I saw two sheriff's cars and two tribal police cars stopped. The various officers and deputies were just talking. I asked them about the road, and they used their radio and asked their dispatcher, and nobody knew. I guess what happens in the next county is no concern of theirs. Seeing those guys all in one place let me know the road ahead would be free of speed patrols for a while.

Farther up the road, I saw my first-ever bear cross in front of me. It was black in color, but I don't know if it was a black bear (the species) or another kind. I've seen deer and smaller animals (and I would see larger ones in Yellowstone!) but never a bear before.

It turns out the fire had been contained, but I guess it was bad: when I got up to Happy Camp the place was crawling with fire crews. Many were leaving the area to return to their home bases, but some crews were spending the night. The campground where I stayed was near the local headquarters for the firefighting. The temporary "Evacuation route this way" signs were still up. No tents for these guys: the firefighters just parked their trucks, threw sleeping bags on the ground, and sacked out. Maybe I should learn to camp that way.

Once before, I got to an area just after the firefighting was finished. A couple of years ago, I went north from home for a four-day ride around Redding, California and there had been a fire along one of the roads I took. The fairgrounds in Red Bluff was the HQ then, and I'd never seen so many fire crews in one place before. Going through the fire area just hours after the road reopened was eerie: the trees were freshly-blackened sticks and there were white areas on the ground: ashes that had been limbs and leaves. The landscape wasn't still smoking but it was easy to imagine. Most of the time when you go through a fire-damaged area, even just weeks later, things aren't so stark: the ash has blown around into indistinct patterns and there is some regrowth. Not there, not then, not yet.

Yet another time I passed through a much smaller fire-damaged area locally, east of Livermore. Once again there was the terrible sense of loss, of desolation, of a detached force of destruction erasing all life from the land. After I'd ridden through this wilderness-turned-wasteland, I saw a large home-made sign somebody had put up: "This fire was arson. Reward." There was a phone number for the tip line. Wildfires are no different in their effect, but this one wasn't back-to-nature Kumbaya "Circle of Life" stuff. Somebody caused it. I left the area thinking dark thoughts about carelessness and malicious mischief and worse, and the great power of small actions to destroy and unmake.

Happy Camp, then, was my first night stop, Saturday night. I camped in a National Forest campground for $11 or so. I heated and ate a can of Campbell's Chunky Soup for dinner, which I now think I prefer to Army rations (MRE's, "Meals Ready to Eat"). What I like about MRE's is the variety: there's a little of this and a little of that, cheese and crackers, applesauce, all in one package. But the main dish part is a pain to eat and the texture is wrong and it doesn't taste good enough to be worth the much higher cost. My little pot and stove are fine for heating soup, and I think that's the way I'll go in the future.

4: This is what southern Oregon looks like, at least along the way to Crater Lake. Back when I was turning north at Willow Creek, I had gotten a tip from those locals besides the one about the fire. They told me about a road over the mountains between Happy Camp and Oregon Caves National Monument. You can't always tell from the map or the GPS whether a road is paved or unpaved, one lane or two, or too beat-up to be fun, so advice like this is golden. The road (Indian Creek Road) was sweet and untraveled. It took me northwest to CA199 and then Grants Pass instead of my original plan of taking CA96 east to I5 and north to Crater Lake.

In Grants Pass I had to flag down a fellow motorcycle camper to tell him his load was unbalanced and had shifted dangerously when he turned. We stopped at a gas station and found a way to secure his load better.

Backtrack for another story: a couple of weeks before, on a day ride up Carmel Valley Road, I joined up with another biker on a BMW and we were both having a great time. I had on my good, high-performance tires (more about this later) and I really feel like I'm getting better in the curves. Eventually I let him pass me so he could go faster if he wanted, and then after a while something happened: the gear loaded on the back of his bike fell over against its straps and started rubbing against his tire. I flashed my lights, honked my horn, waved at him, but he didn't stop. He was in the Zone, I guess, not paying attention to his mirrors and not hearing my horn because of the music he had in his helmet. For a long way I couldn't quite catch up to him and pull alongside. Finally he must have felt something was wrong, because he put his hand behind him and discovered things weren't where they ought to be. Finally he stopped and I stopped behind him. When he could hear me at last, I said what I'd been trying to say for the last five miles: "YOUR SHIT IS ON FIRE!" Of course he was the one who paid the price for not stopping sooner, but I was also mad at him for blowing off my signals. Sure, this time I was trying to help him. But it could have gone the other way: for all he knew, maybe I needed his help. He said he thought I was trying to tell him he was going too fast and he decided to ignore me. Thanks a lot. His decision to ignore me could have cost him much more if something had gotten caught in his wheel and taken him down. I hope he pays more attention and thinks through more possibilities in the future.

5: There is a scenic point on the road to Crater Lake called The Chasm. It's a little canyon with a river running through it. It seems unnaturally deep and narrow as canyons go, and in fact it wasn't formed the way most canyons are. Instead of being gradual erosion, the river water is following part of a network of lava tubes created by the volcanic activity in the area. It's worth a stop and the very short hike to the overlooks. I took this creative little mirror shot so I'd be in some of my own pictures, even if it does look like it's from the movie 2001.


 

6: I told you I collect bridge pictures. But this one (and several other pictures in this set) calls to mind something about picture taking generally. When I'm on a trip like this, I'm riding. That's what I'm doing. The sightseeing and picture taking is definitely secondary. This limits how much camera I'm willing to take and how much time I will spend on pictures. I'm sure there was a very nice picture of this bridge available, but I didn't look very hard. I walked a ways back up the road so I could get the bridge from an angle and not shoot into the sun, but that's about all I'm ready to do. My protective jacket and pants are too hot and awkward to walk in, my camera is not very high quality, and I'm not that good a photographer, so investing more time and trouble in picture taking is unlikely to produce better results.

Sometimes, I daydream about having a better camera and learning to use it properly, so I have more "keepers," more pictures I'm happy with after a trip like this. After returning from this trip, I actually went out and bought a Canon Digital Rebel XTi, full-blown digital SLR. I tried it out for a while, but I decided to return it. I found that carrying a  DSLR is a burden I'm not willing to bear. First there's the cost of the camera and its lenses, which quickly gets up to $1,500 or more. Then it's bulky and needs its own bag, so it's a hassle to carry around and it isn't at hand when you want it. It's also delicate where I am clumsy. It is a magnet for thieves, being obviously expensive: simply by having it out in public I feel more conspicuous as a target. I also think it would put me at one remove from whatever I'm doing: I'd be looking for angles and changing lenses when I should just be enjoying Paris or whatever. And it's impossible to use casually: any time you've got it out, you look like you're Being a Photographer. It's not just a camera, it's Gear. It puts you in a separate category when people see you with it. Internally, the camera has "point and shoot" modes for snapshots, but on the outside it doesn't ever get smaller or less intimidating. It's just not a good match for what I want from a camera.

Back to the ride. Not long before taking this bridge picture, I dropped my bike on a gravel road. It was at zero miles an hour, in the middle of a U-turn after I decided the road I was on wasn't going where I wanted it to. U-turns on motorcycles are always tricky, and this was in gravel and on a hill. I got the bike partway around and then misjudged the momentum, the hill, and the weight - I stopped and had my foot down but I knew I couldn't keep things upright. All I could do was get out of the way and give the bike a soft landing, so that's what I did. Fortunately there was a guy not 30 yards away cooking in his backyard, and he helped me get things upright. I might have been able to do it myself, especially after it occurred to me to remove the 80 pounds of crap on the back, and also remove my jacket and riding pants so I wasn't braising in the sun. But it was nice to have the help. This was the first (and, knock wood, the last) time this bike has been on its side.

The bridge in the picture is at the southern end of an Oregon forest road called NF-19 that runs north from Westfir. That road is so good for motorcycling it should be kept quiet. Don't tell anybody, or the state will ruin it with increased patrols or speed bumps or something. Ken Hattan (of whom more later) told me about this road and I'm a little mad at him for being so careless: I clearly can't be trusted not to let others in on the secret, so telling me shows poor judgment on his part. Don't believe your map or GPS if it says any part is unpaved: it was smooth and wonderful the whole way up to OR126.

A road I could not take was OR242. It was recommended to me as a "don't miss this road" kind of road, from a spot called Mckenzie Bridge to the town of Sisters. But it was closed: it washed out earlier this summer and it was still under repair. Maybe next time.

I stopped and camped at a private RV park on the Mckenzie River. While planning this ride I was thinking in terms of National Forest campgrounds and the like, so I was a little unprepared for the luxury of having a hot shower and a washer/dryer at my disposal. One thing you find at campgrounds and RV parks: people are really friendly, they want to talk and tell their stories and hear yours, and they will usually share anything they've got that you didn't bring with you. That's how I was able to get some laundry soap and wash my T-shirts and socks and such. I was only two days away from home but it was nice to get clean.

7: My route through Oregon was basically provided for me by Ken Hattan, a Portland resident with whom I'd shared a hotel room at another FJR1300 gathering (TechWest) in 2005. At Ken's web site he describes several routes, including an "Oregon Cascades" ride that I was following in reverse, south to north. At Government Camp I turned east and followed a different ride of his, across the middle of Oregon through towns like Fossil, Spray, and Monument. This picture is from that section of the ride - I think it's the town of Antelope. This is another example of how I wish I had a better camera, and I were a better photographer, and I were willing to devote more time and care to it. This picture doesn't look a thing like what I saw when I stood on that hill overlooking the town. You can barely see the people in rafts getting ready for a river run. In person, the building on the left looked a lot more like an old mill or something, with a much more distinctive outline than I captured here. Ah, well.

8: This is another place where somebody could really have taken a great picture, but it wasn't me. This is an abandoned schoolhouse in central Oregon. Many of the towns I went through on this freeway-averse ride were practically dead, and here was this very substantial, iconic school building sitting behind an weed-grown basketball court and a forlorn swing set.  From one angle or another I could have said something about grand civic ambitions, the traditions and symbolism of public architecture, optimism about the future, the turning of the years, rural flight, generations of bright-eyed children representing the future and how they weren't there any more, and the withering-away of small American towns. But I didn't.
 

9: Somewhere in Oregon I noticed that my rear tire had somewhat less tread on it than I would like. I had left home with what I thought was plenty of rubber for this 4,000-mile trip - about half the original tread on these tires. What I didn't fully appreciate was that at my last tire change I'd bought and mounted Michelin Pilot Power tires, which are soft and sticky and sport-oriented, not the longer-lasting Pilot Road model. By the time I was in Antelope, it was clear that I wouldn't make it to Park City on the tires I'd started with. I called home and asked my wife to do some legwork for me: get a list of motorcycle shops in Missoula, Montana, which I thought I could reach before my tire went totally bald and the steel belts started showing. This was Monday just after noon, and I figured that the next time I had a cell signal I could retrieve her message and start calling around to see who had tires in stock.

What I didn't count on was that "the next time I had a cell signal" wouldn't be for a while. Several hours later I'm in Long Creek without cell signal, but now it's past 4:00 and when I look at my tire, I don't think I'll make Missoula after all. I stopped at a store outside Dale and the nice lady let me pay her $5 to use the land-line and call all the places I could find in Lewiston and Clarkston, twin cities on the Washington/Idaho border and the first places along my route big enough to have motorcycle dealers.

Who'd have thought that nobody would answer the phone? It's not even 5:00 yet on a Monday and nothing's open, and they don't even have answering machines! I must have called five or six places. All I had was the names of businesses. Since you can't ask by category ("Motorcycle parts and accessories"), I'd asked Information for "Places with Yamaha, Honda, Suzuki, or Kawasaki in the name." I couldn't know if they were snowmobile or jet-ski dealers, or even car dealers in some cases. None of the ones I called - not one! - had so much as an answering machine. I began to wonder whether the Last War had started and these towns on the Washington/Idaho border were, inexplicably, targeted in the first salvo.

My lack of success convinced me that I had to turn north on US395 to Kennewick, Washington, where I knew for sure there were motorcycle dealers. Fortunately, US395 north from Dale was laid out along a river and has lots of sweepy curves. That stretch of US395 was a little bit of alright, let me tell you.

I would like to have patronized Desert Valley Powersports in Prosser, WA. Those guys are FJR1300 enthusiasts and great supporters of the owner community. But I couldn't remember the new name or location after they left Sunnyside, and it looked to be an extra hour west when I wanted to go east, and I was bummed out about the detour, and I didn't want to think too hard.

Monday night, then, was in a hotel in Kennewick, Washington. I'm sure it was under $100 but it might not have been under $50, my preferred hotel rate. (I don't much care where I sleep, though big rust stains in the sink and tub do put me off.) It was 8:00 PM and still light, so I went wandering around that part of town. Things were closing: all I could find was a casino/restaurant/bar where I had a very large margarita and an unfortunate chicken sandwich. I also played a few hands of blackjack before returning to my hotel for bed. I think I was up about $10 at the tables, but the meal cost more than that.

10: Picture 9 shows my tire going bald, and picture 10 shows what a new tire looks like for comparison. Even if I thought I could make it to Lewiston/Clarkston, I had not established that there were any dealers there, much less any with the right kinds of tires in stock. I almost certainly could have pressed on to Missoula or beyond instead of diverting to Kennewick, but my detour bought me peace of mind: I didn't have to worry about it, didn't have to feel like I should go easy, didn't feel like every time I hit the gas I was burning up my limited reserve of tread life. First thing in the morning (well, at 10:00 when they opened) I called the local Harley-and-Japanese-import dealer, and a couple of hours and $250(!) later I had my new tire mounted and I was back on the road. After I got home I found out they had not tightened the "pinch bolt" that acts as a backup fastener for the rear axle, and they had over-torqued the axle nut to over 140 ft-lbs (it calls for 90). Now I tell people "Do not go to Shumate in Kennewick." Go to Desert Valley Powersports in nearby Prosser instead.
 

11: This was the road I was not going to miss. My detour had already made me miss Hell's Canyon on Oregon's eastern border, but nothing was going to keep me off US12 across Idaho and Lolo Pass. This "Winding Road Next 77 Miles" sign is famous among motorcyclists, and they aren't kidding. The segment of US12 that leads up to this sign from the west is pleasant and pretty, but from this point on it gets seriously fun. There were a few cars and even trucks on the road, but nothing 125 horsepower couldn't handle. Best of all, once you cross into Montana they know how to set a speed limit: 65mph on a two-lane mountain road. I didn't need to worry about a ticket spoiling my ride.

Missoula came and went faster that I would have believed - once you get to the freeway and turn east the town just ends. I was glad I hadn't pinned my hopes on finding a replacement tire in that town. I figured I would get gas in the suburbs (because the freeway exits tend to be simpler), but it turns out there aren't any. That is one sparsely-populated part of the country.

12: This picture is the view from inside my tent near Bozeman, Montana, where I spent Tuesday night. I had targeted a different campground that I found in my GPS or maybe online, but it wasn't there any more - or else I missed it in the dark. I backtracked to this KOA and paid the $32(!) for a tent site. Later on in Utah I got a hotel with an indoor pool for only $40, so paying this much to use a patch of grass for ten hours seems like robbery.
 

13: Wednesday was my day in Yellowstone National Park. I had wanted to go the long way around, through Red Bluff, Montana and then into the park from the east by way of Beartooth Pass. But my tire change had made Tuesday short so I just went south. This was kind of a mistake: the road to Yellowstone's west entrance is long and straight and crowded and boring. Then I went north and east, this time heading for that corner entrance and the Beartooth Highway.

Here is where I got rained on for the first time, heading north along the northwest quadrant of the figure-eight road system of Yellowstone. I can handle a little rain in my standard gear, but the jacket gets cold once the outside is soaked, so I stopped in the rain to put on a fleece liner. Of course, just moments after I got going again I ran out from under the rain, and just a couple of miles after that I was putting on my sunglasses. Not fifteen minutes after I put the fleece liner on, I had to stop and take it off so I wouldn't get too hot.

Here is where I started daydreaming about the GPS units that can overlay weather maps and real-time radar images on the display: if I had one of those, I would have known I was headed out from under the rain. Since most of my riding is in central California, the weather isn't usually variable enough for this to be useful. But I still daydream.

I stopped for a bite at the northwest corner of the Figure Eight park road, in Mammoth. Then I headed east to the Tower Junction and the Northeast Entrance. Here I left the park and headed for Beartooth Pass to the northeast, back toward Montana. I remembered that road from my previous trip to this area, three or four years ago. Back then I came down the switchbacks at dusk, and I could see it would make for some good riding and good pictures earlier in the day when the light was better.

But not this day. Something like 50 miles outside the park and just 30 miles from Red Lodge is a spot called The Top Of The World. It's a gas station, a store, and who knows what else. A couple of groups of motorcyclists got there at about the same time I did, and we all saw the same thing: nothing but a wall of gray cloud to the east, right over the steep switchbacks leading down off the mountain and into Montana. Thinking about it, I realized I could either turn around now or turn around later, so I continued east to see just how far away the rain was. I started to get wet just two miles beyond the gas station. That was enough for me - I headed back and told the other groups at the store what I'd seen. Then it was back to the park.

Returning to the west and still very high up, I saw a turnoff to a Forest Service fire observation tower. I thought it might be fun to go there and check it out, so I turned. What the sign didn't say was just how many miles of hot, dry, rough dirt road I might have to travel to get there. I turned back. I can handle some dirt and gravel but not too much, and less when it's hot, and less still when I have no idea how far it is or how many days could pass before another person comes by to offer help if I need it. And not when the rain might be coming to turn the road into a muddy river. 

Back in the park, I got this picture (number 13) of a buffalo. Seems to me this is the photo everybody who goes to Yellowstone tries to get: an up-close picture of a buffalo. (Or a bison? Don't give me a hard time about that, please. The park's brochures all call them buffalo.) I was able to get this shot because the animal was just off the road to my right, visibly deciding whether to charge me. He took a few steps toward me after I stopped, but when I rolled the bike forward a little he turned aside.

14: The colors are completely different (there's that crummy camera again), but this is the same buffalo after he decided not to charge me after all. Those guys are big, and they look densely-packed and heavy. At another point in the park, one of them crossed the road in front of me. (Why? Don't ask.) Traffic was already stopped where a bunch of animals were hanging out on both sides of the road, so I wasn't moving at the time. It is very common in Yellowstone for cars to stop in places where large animals are unusually close and visible. They call these "wildlife jams." So here was this guy approaching the road from my left and coming up to speed. I guess he wanted to get across fast, at a run not a mosey, and it takes a while for 1500 pounds of bovine ruminant to get going. Once he got across, he slowed down again and just walked away. Gave me a new appreciation of their mass and bulk.

After turning south at the northeast quadrant of the figure-eight, the park road climbs and curves around the west shoulder of Mount Washburn. Once again I could see rain to the west. I tried to beat the approaching front by getting south of it before it arrived, but the speed limits and the traffic foiled me. I got good and wet, even though I could see blue sky ahead and with each mile I thought I was just about to get out from under. There aren't a lot of places to stop along this road, and the ones they do have don't offer any shade or rain protection. By the time I got to Grant Village on Lake Yellowstone (the southern tip of the figure-eight), I was out of the rain but I was cold and my outer layers were soaked. I knew there was no camping in the area lower than 7000 feet, so it could be 45 degrees overnight and nothing would get dry. So I decided to get a hotel at Grant Village.

The hotel at Grant Village is a big place, but it was also high season. I went in and the woman at the desk said there might be one room left. Then she took two phone calls in a row, making me wait. Meanwhile, there was another desk clerk who was helping another couple of people. I'm afraid I got a little testy, as the second call went on into its fifth minute, thinking the other guy could be giving away that last room - my room. In the end I got a room (she said it was the last) so all was well. I cooked camp food in the room and zonked out.

15 and 16: After getting out of the rain and before Grant Village, I snapped these two pictures of Yellowstone. The first shows burned-out sticks of trees with some low growth under them. This is the result of fires as long ago as 1998 when the National Parks Service decided to "let them burn." This was sound natural conservancy policy, I suppose, but not nearly as pretty as you see in picture 16, which is what the un-burned areas look like.
 

17: Leaving the park to the south, I entered Grand Teton National Park. This photo is from a fairly standard overlook at Jackson Lake. I parked the bike and climbed up the hill a little bit to get the vantage point - about as much Being a Photographer as I can manage. I've been to Grand Teton before, and on that occasion I took a picture I'm rather more proud of. Later on, I saw a calendar that had almost the same picture I'd taken, but I could tell they'd doctored the sky and the reflection in the lake.
 

18: This is literally a postcard-perfect shot of Jenny Lake in Grand Teton National Park: at a local gas station/gift shop I bought a post card with almost the exact same framing of this mountain across this lake behind these trees. To get the clouds to "pop" like this I shot it while holding my polarized sunglasses over the lens at just the right angle. My improvised polarizing filter dimmed the blue of the lake and its reflective surface, but enhanced the sky and the clouds.
 

19: This picture of the sign outside a tiny town in Utah is only interesting if you grew up in a place called Bloomington. There are at least 20 towns and cities called Bloomington in the USA, making it quite a common name but well short of Springfield with at least 36.
 

20: If my days in Oregon were hot and dry and my day in Yellowstone was wet and cold, my trip south into Utah from Grand Teton was just right. Somehow I kept skirting isolated thunderstorms, so the air temperature was cool while I stayed almost completely dry. Time after time I'd see gray clouds in the distance, only to find that my route headed down the next valley or over the other ridge, the one where it wasn't raining at the moment.

As I passed through the town of Randolph, Utah, I saw another bike like mine stopped at the side of the road. The owner wasn't around - I think he'd stopped to read a historic marker or visit a museum. Seeing that bike this close to Park City meant he was probably going the same place I was. After I left town I stopped to take this picture of the view behind me because of what I saw in my mirrors: a downpour centered on Randolph and that poor fellow biker, the very definition of "isolated thundershowers."

Here's another little story about driving in Utah. As everybody knows, the state of Utah is dominated by Mormons. Alongside the highway I noticed a series of billboards for a builder of housing developments. The ads were unlike what you would see anywhere else in the country. The first one said something like "You've got 12 kids. Our houses have lots of bedrooms and big closets." Another was along the lines of "A year's worth of food for your family? Our houses have large pantries." In effect, they were saying, "We know you're Mormon and we take that into account in our home designs." Interesting.

21: I didn't take very many pictures during the WFO-6 convention. It was the sixth annual "Western FJR Owners" convention. This photo shows Dale "Warchild" Wilson leaning over my bike and declaiming something, as is his wont. Dale is probably the most respected member of the FJR owners' community for technical information. He was instrumental in cracking the nut on The Tick, an internal engine problem that some FJRs develop (including mine - twice!). He test-drives accessories for manufacturers and advises them on improvements. He's also been asked by manufacturers to test-drive new models of tire, including the one I plan to get next, the Michelin Pilot Road 2CT. (It won't be available in the US until mid-September, but I found a PDF press kit online.) Dale was also one of the organizers for this event, and he announced at dinner the first night that in 2008 there would be a national (indeed, North American) convention (NAFO) in Denver. That's a big deal and I'm sure it took a lot of planning and organization to get vendors like Yamaha to agree to participate. He and the crew have done a great job on that and several other gatherings and conventions over the years.

I spent Thursday, Friday, and Saturday nights at the convention hotel in Park City. I shared a room with a guy I'd never met named Ed Grant, who turned out to be a bridge player and a Tour de France fan. He downloaded the highlights from the stages to his laptop every day and watched them in the room at night.

The structure of the convention was pretty loose: dinner was arranged for Friday and Saturday nights, and otherwise we were pretty much on our own. There were two "organized" rides at the convention but I didn't go on them: they were designed to be run as 1,000 miles or 1,500 miles in 24 hours, which earn Iron Butt Association certificates. Doing a thousand miles in a day on Western freeways is pretty easy, and I've also done it once in Nevada and multiple times on California highways. But these were not freeway rides, and the hard one - fifteen hundred miles in 24 hours - means you have to average 62 mph. To keep that pace you have to ride like the devil's after you. It was a great challenge and congratulations to the guys who did it, but that's not how I wanted to spend my time in Utah.

There were also some suggested local routes posted on a wall off the lobby. You'd notice a group getting together in the parking lot, ask which ride they were going on, and decide whether to go out with them. Or you could start such a group, or just go out on your own, or hang out at the hotel and kick tires and swap lies with everybody else who wasn't riding. Also, Yamaha was there with their big blue semi and a collection of bikes. They were leading groups of riders out for 40-minute demo rides. (More on that below.)

Friday I joined one of those impromptu groups for a short ride (only 200 miles), heading north from Park City through something called East Canyon on Utah highways 65 and 66. This was amazingly great. Riding with people who are better than you is a way to get better yourself, and riding with others also lets you gauge how you're doing. I didn't expect I would be the second-fastest in the turns, but that's how we sorted ourselves out. I figure the ride leader wasn't riding at ten-tenths of his abilities, but I was riding at maybe 8/10 (more aggressively than I usually do), and I had a great time. The next leg of the ride was south over something called Duchesne ridge or some such. This was pretty but not as much fun: too much straightaway between the sets of curves.

The key to successful, entertaining motorcycling (for me) is not going fast in the straights. Anybody can do that, and they are welcome to the speeding ticket consequences. I've visited triple digit speeds occasionally, but not for long. No, it's the turns that really do it for me. Leaning over, arcing through, feeling the road and the suspension, the G-forces, getting good enough to tell that stiffer fork springs or a cross-brace would help, those are the moments I crave. I ride a motorcycle for the same reason people ride roller-coasters, and I get a better view. Those Michelin Pilot Power tires might not have long tread life, but they sure are sticky and handle well, and I was able to go very deep into turns with confidence.

When bikers check each other out in the parking lot, one thing they look for (well, certain ones, anyway) is the size of the "chicken strips" on each other's rear tires. See, the tread in the center of the tire gets worn when you ride straight, and as you look out toward the sides the tread only gets wear when you're leaned over in a turn. The strips of un-worn rubber at the extreme sides of the tread area, the parts you haven't leaned over far enough to mar the rubber surface, are your "chicken strips." The narrower they are, the harder you corner. (The wider the strips are, the more of a chicken you are. Chicken strips. Get it?) If you zoom in on picture 09 of the "bald" tire, you'll see that my strips were pretty narrow. Look at the left side of the tire just under the shadow line: you'll see an arrow pointing up (in the direction of rotation) and below that a little shape. That's an elephant, part of the Michelin brand logo. I have heard that hardcore riders try to "make the elephant disappear." I'm not good enough to do that, especially not in left turns (where you get closer to oncoming traffic in the center of the road), but on the right side of that tire I did wear off the top notch of the arrow and half the elephant. I'm kind of proud of that.

[Stories yet to tell: of the footpeg lowering kit from MotorcycleLarry, and the way my bike wouldn't start in the parking lot, and the long talk I had with the Yamaha regional service rep after dinner Friday.]

Saturday I did three separate rides: two demo rides on Yamaha bikes, and a quick little mountain run to two ski areas near Park City. Did I mention Yamaha was one of the vendors at this convention? They had their big blue semi-trailer truck parked on the road outside the hotel - something the neighbors weren't prepared for. Apparently the hotel got some grief from them - thanks Marriott for giving up most of your front parking lot for us and not shutting them down. Good on ya'. The Yamaha folks were offering guided "demo rides" on a range of motorcycles, from cruisers and tourers to the current-model FJR1300 to the semi-sport FZ-6 and FZ-1.

My first demo ride was on a high-end cruiser, and it served to confirm my belief that it was not the bike for me. I'm sure it was very plush and comfy and stylish and sounded great or whatever, but it couldn't seem to get out of its own way. Even when I owned a cruiser it was a Honda Magna, which is a 750cc V-four. It looked great on the street like a cruiser should, but when you hit the throttle things really started to happen. That's how I like it.

Between my two demo rides I looked at one of the suggested nearby rides that takes in two ski areas, Brighton and Alta. You can get to Brighton the long way around, via Salt Lake City, or you can do what I did: cut across the 2.5 mile dirt section across Jupiter Hill and drop into Brighton from the east. This let me run down the canyon road from Brighton to UT210, then turn south and west and up the second canyon road to the Alta ski area. Then I turned around and went back the same way. This meant I got all the curves and none of the flat straight boring parts, at a small cost of some easy dirt road. There was too much traffic to explore my performance envelope or the bike's, however. Also, this was almost the only part of the whole week-long ride where I saw law enforcement on the road, outside of towns and National Parks.

Having yet more time to kill before my late-afternoon second demo, I made some bathtub lemonade and visited the hotel's swimming pool. "Bathtub lemonade"? Well, it's like this. I'm intensely frugal in some areas, and I don't like to pay a dollar for a canned soft drink from a hotel vending machine or $2 for a Coke at the hotel bar if I can help it. Instead I'll mix up one of those little drink packets that you pour into a 20-ounce water bottle. At home I got box of 50 of those for $5 (ten cents each!), and brought a bunch with me. Since the cups and glasses in the hotel room aren't big enough for the mix, the water, and the ice, I took to using the ice bucket. It works great but it all seems improvised, which is why I call it bathtub lemonade.

The second demo ride was on a Yamaha FZ-1. This is a not-quite-pure sport bike. They had a couple of their pure sport bikes (the R-1 and R-6) on display, but they don't offer demos on those. The FZ-1 has about as much motor as my FJR but it's pushing 300 pounds less bike. It's also tuned more like a sport bike - not completely, but the power band goes way up high and it has a red line above 13,000 RPM. When you're screaming through the corners above 10,000 RPM in second gear with a big smile on your face, you can wonder what all those other gears are for.

I definitely saw the appeal, but I knew I wouldn't want one: I like to combine long days and exciting roads, and this bike didn't seem like it had the comfort to go the distance. Also: early in my riding career I test-drove a Ninja 500 or something, a sporty flickable power-monster. I could tell that it was too much fun: on a bike like that I would lose my license or my life in no time flat. Like they say about heroin or crack cocaine, "Some things are so good you shouldn't even try them once."

22: Sunday was when I started home, sort of. This picture is of some fellow conventioneers leaving Park City and entering Provo Canyon. (Maybe this picture needs a "UV haze" filter? Also, you can see shadows at the top and right where my camera's image sensor has dust on it. A while ago I dropped the camera and it split open a little, so it's not sealed any more.)

I spent Sunday going south into Utah to get to Bryce and Zion National Parks, by way of UT12, a highway they call Escalante ("The Staircase"?). This highway runs up and down and across ridges and all sorts of things. Lots of varied scenery and road types. I got there via UT72 which appeared to be a little-traveled back road and was lots of fun, and I got there by way of Interstate 70. In Utah, even the Interstates can be great motorcycle roads, or parts of them can be, but not when construction gives you 30 miles of one-lane traffic in each direction like I found. The canyons and passes were pretty but frustrating behind the lane-wide RVs and semi's.  

23: I got to Bryce Canyon National Park just in time for the typical afternoon monsoon to start brewing up. Standing at Bryce Overlook, I took this picture and some others, but I could see and feel the rain coming. The wind blew straight into my face. I wasn't planning to stay in the park long anyway, so I high-tailed it out of there. I needed that weather-radar overlay on my GPS again, though: I ended up riding straight through the rain and out the other side before getting to the gas station at the entrance where I'd planned to wait it out. The rain never did get to the station, not really. Once again, I got cold but not wet. This taught me that I need to find a balance of clothing that lets me ride in and out of the rain without changing clothes or getting too cold or hot. I had some lunch at the gas station and dried out my clothes some. Once I left Bryce heading west, there was no more rain for the whole trip.

24: After Bryce came Zion National Park. This park has a famous, long tunnel that runs on the inside of a cliff face, with windows cut through the rock to let in light and air. Very impressive.

Just before the tunnel entrance is a parking area and trailhead. The trail leads up and over to an overlook. That's where I took this picture of the switchbacks you reach when you exit the tunnel. The path to this overlook is unexpectedly treacherous, with narrow sections and steps worn smooth where you could really hurt yourself. I'm used to government construction that over-protects visitors, but these guys seem to believe in minimal intrusion on the natural landscape and let the hiker beware. Good for them.

25: Oddly, there is a Thai restaurant at the main entrance to Zion. Not what one would expect. It was pretty good, too, but it took a long time to get my picnic lunch to go. I was their first/only customer and nothing was hot or ready. While I was waiting I could hear the owner teaching the kitchen staff what to do, how to use down-time for prep so things are ready during a rush. I could also see her mixing and cooking the peanut sauce for my chicken satay right then; even that wasn't prepared already. Maybe they are newly-opened or they get a lot of employee turnover, I'm not sure.

The only way into Zion is to take their bus. The one road in and out just couldn't handle the load of all those private vehicles, and I guess the traffic jams were legendary. The buses run frequently and it's a fine way to get around. Unfortunately, after the long wait for my Thai food I was hot, hungry, and starting to run down after (by then) almost an hour off the bike. I got off the bus at the main visitor center inside the park, intending to hike to some "grotto" and eat my food there, but in the end I just sat down where I was, on the lawn of the lodge. I can't even blame my biker clothing: I had left my hot-but-protective jacket and pants on the bike back in the parking lot, trusting them to the goodwill of national park visitors. (Later I had second thoughts and worried my way back out of the park, but in the end all was well. Next time I'll bring a cable-lock and run it through the sleeves and legs and chin bar just for peace of mind.) The heat, the clouds, the humidity, the heavy food (too much oily breading on the samosas) and the insects finally got to me. For the first time on this trip I was feeling pretty bad. I perked right up after a couple of miles on the bike, though.

Note to self: next time, schedule longer than "lunchtime" to see Zion National Park. And spend more time in Bryce than it takes to snap one photo. Maybe next year I'll go to Denver by way of these parks and Monument Valley.

26: This is taken from the parking lot near the main entrance to Zion, but it could have been any of a thousand places in Utah. In that state they got geology all over the place: cliffs and mesas and jutting mountains and hoodoos and all sorts of stuff. The clouds are nicely textured, too - I have a separate shot that was exposed to enhance the clouds, and one day I'll combine them and see how I like the result.
 

27: Here, at last, is my favorite picture from the whole trip. I noticed that the setting sun had started to peek under the cloud layer ahead of me, and the landscape in my mirrors caught fire. I saw my chance. For this one I walked a ways away from the bike and used the zoom lens to pull both the bike and the cliff face closer. To combat camera shake, I had set the "High ISO" exposure feature, and unfortunately this captured quite a bit of CCD sensor noise too. At home I Photoshopped the sky to smooth out what I could. Still, in the cliffside there are some dark pixels and false colors that the camera's image-processing logic saw as detail and helpfully "sharpened," more's the pity. Still, I think this one is a frame-worthy picture, and one real "keeper" is about par for me on a trip like this.
 

The rest of the trip home was uneventful. I slept Sunday night in a hotel in Cedar City, Utah after failing to find a campground that had shown up in my GPS. There was a KOA in town but the hotel was only $40. After paying $32 at the KOA in Bozeman, I couldn't see myself trading a shower and a roof just to save $8 without feeling a little silly. Monday I pounded my way across Nevada, setting the cruise control at (ahem) an appropriate speed and running 200+ miles at a throw, tank to tank. Luck was with me and the morning was cloudy, so things didn't get really hot until Tonopah.

Before Tonopah there is a stretch of NV375 called The Extraterrestrial Highway. I guess there is a dirt road leading to Area 51 from there. I stopped in a "town" called Rachel at "The Little A'Le'Inn" (Get it? "Alien"?) where they have a flying saucer hanging from a tow truck's crane, kind of a joke, but I guess I wasn't in the mood. When you're actually there in the daylight it lacks romance somehow. More like "What a dump, let's keep moving."

On the east side of Yosemite I stood firm and refused to pay over $4 a gallon for gas on US395. I have been through here before and I had plenty of gas stops marked in my GPS on the west side of the park. I was well into my reserve before I filled up, but I sure did pay less.  

I got ahead of my expected schedule and went through Yosemite National Park before getting too much afternoon sun in my eyes, a nice bonus. On this trip I didn't worry about speed or "fun" inside that park - too much traffic, too much enforcement, and hey, why not relax and just ride? After leaving the park I did hang out at the top of Priest Grade until there was a gap in the flow of cars, so I could go down those curves on CA120 at a good pace without running up the tailpipes of any Winnebagos.

When I'm coming home from the Sierras, Chinese Camp is the end of the good part and by Oakdale I feel like I'm almost home, even though I'm still 100 miles out. ("Hey, the GPS miles-to-go counter is down to double digits!") I called my wife from Oakdale and she had Greek take-out waiting for me when I arrived home at 6:00, ten days and 4,200 miles after I'd left.

Sorry, that's it. No grand conclusions, no big revelations. Some good riding and some great riding, got hot and got wet, took some pictures and cursed my poor abilities, and all you see here. I'm not even sure I had a Perfect Moment. But I did get one "keeper" photo of my bike with a Utah sunset as the backdrop. I'll take it.

 


This page was last edited April 26, 2008.