Days 64 – 66 Big Sky Country

Yellowstone State Park, WY – Deadwood, SD

460 miles

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Despite the cities listed above, I spent most of the day driving through the glorious Big Sky state of Montana. I woke up in my Tower Falls Campground in the Northeast Corner of Yellowstone to find less frost on my bike than the previous morning (you take the little thrills life gives you). The exit road in that section of the park is Route 212 which turns into the Beartooth Highway (more on this in sec). What surprised me most was that my last 25 miles on Yellowstone turned out to be the most beautiful of the entire park. I managed to get myself out of my cozy sleeping bag on the early side and was cruising by around 7:30am. This allowed me to capture some beautiful vistas in the morning light that you can see below.

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As the park gets closer to Montana, the ground starts to rise and gives way to magnificent cliffs and canyons. This is clearly the best part of Yellowstone from a scenic perspective. Wide, spanning prairies provide excellent viewpoints to observe the herds of bison and pronghorn deer. Everyone in Yellowstone (except me) seemed to possess these massive zoom camera lenses that allowed them to spot a beauty mark on a grizzly bear’s ass. Indeed, on my way out, I stopped to witness young male buffalo hoofing the ground and locking horns with one another. The female buffalo, like their human counterparts, remained aloof and unimpressed.

Due to my early rise, I hadn’t eaten any breakfast and felt famished pulling into Cooke City, the first post-Yellowstone town I encountered. There, I walked into the Log Cabin Cafe and proceeded to have the best breakfast I’ve enjoyed in over 1,000 miles.

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Fresh brook trout, lightly breaded along with two eggs over easy, and a big pile of well-done, well-seasoned hashbrowns. I should also include the homemade, award-winning pumpkin bread, grilled and buttered with a side of honey and a hot chocolate to take the chill out of the morning. Needless to say, I didn’t eat for the remainder of the day, and I noticed a discernable lag in my motorcycle’s performance (must have been the high altitude).

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Leaving Cooke City put me directly on the Beartooth Highway which was the most exciting drive of the entire trip. The road is shut down 6 months out of the year due to its altitude so I felt exceptionally lucky to be able to tear through this dramatic road that rose and fell beside steep ravines and showstopping views.

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The highway took me through the highest altitude of my journey, with some passes creeping over 11,000 feet. By rising into the alpine zone above the treeline, there was nothing to obscure the dramatic vistas of the Absoroka Mountain Range. Added to this was the fact that there were few guardrails on this winding road, no cars on the road, and all of sudden I had myself one HELL OF A RIDE. The hairpin turns had speed limits of 20mph, but pretty soon I got the hang of taking them at 40+mph. Glorious. Riding.

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Pretty soon, the Beartooth Highway started descending into a steep valley and leveled out through Red Lodge, MT, the entrance into Bighorn Country and Custer National Forest. As I entered the Crow and Cheyenne Indian reservations, the topography laid flat with squat buttes punctuating the far horizon.

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I can’t say that parts of the Native American reservations weren’t discouraging. Similar to what I saw when I visited the Grand Canyon, it seemed like the native population was granted exquisite scenery but no way to capitalize on it. I rode East practically never seeing another car making me feel how isolated and beautiful this stretch of country is.

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After a spirited ride through the high prairies of Montana, I finally crossed the border into South Dakota, another first for me. My intention was to make it to Sturgis to spend the night.

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But after arriving and driving through the empty (and surprisingly small) town, I quickly bailed and made my way to more populous Deadwood. Driving through Sturgis felt like walking through an empty convention center, or the guy who sweeps up after the strip joint closes. Without the right people, it just doesn’t work.

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Deadwood is a small Western-themed town that continues to try to desperately cash in on its historic legacy as a gold rush, gambling mecca. The population consists of about 80 casinos occupied exclusively by slot machines and none seemed to rise above 10% occupancy of actual human customers. Despite being Planet Earth’s mecca of $8.95 ¼ inch flatiron steaks, Deadwood does have its charms. The architecture is authentically Western without seeming manufactured and the people have been unfailingly kind. It also might be the cheapest hotel room I’ve paid for this entire trip. Hey, Deadwood’s not so bad.

Tomorrow, I’m not exactly sure where I’m headed. I definitely want to see the Badlands but from there the trip gets a little hazy. I’m generally trying to head East but lack any more specifics. Tips and Midwest travel knowledge are always appreciated.

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY:

Montana is clearly a state I wish I could have spent more time in. I have about 10 days left on my trip to make it home to New York, which sadly doesn’t leave enough time to explore some of the other Montana destinations I’ve read about. Also, Montana is a great state to learn the top end speed on your bike. 122 mph, in case you were curious 🙂

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Day 60 Peaks to Craters

Ketchum, ID – Driggs, ID

240 miles

I started the day on a somber note by visiting the Hemingway Memorial in Ketchum. To be honest, I thought the entire town would be deluged with Hemingway memorabilia and tourist venues. Turns out most people in Ketchum and Sun Valley care more about skiing than they do the Great American literary tradition.

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Hemingway has always been a strong influence on me, both as a bibliographic figure and setting the tone for literary adventure and living life fully. He was a deeply flawed man and an epic genius of an author. But he sought to fill those aching gaps in his psyche with adventure, travel, war and women. He didn’t wallow in the depression that eventually overcame him but actively fought it like the Spanish bullfights he depicted in Death in the Afternoon.

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At first, I was a little surprised at how modest the memorial was. Simply a sign by the road and small path leading to a bust of Hemingway looking away, towards the peaks of the Sawtooth Mountains. And then I realized that Hemingway, who prized economy of words and despised superficial flourish, would have been quite pleased by the simplicity and weight of his memorial. Below his bust are inscribed the words he wrote in 1939 when his good friend Gene Van Guilder died in a hunting accident:

Best of all he loved the fall, 
the leaves yellow on cottonwoods, 
leaves floating on trout streams, 
and above the hills 
the high blue windless skies 
…Now he will be a part of them forever.

After reflecting for short while, I got back on the bike and headed south on Route 75. The mountain scenery was still stunning, but I started to notice that the sharp, dramatic mountains were starting to grow softer, rounder and quite a bit lower. It felt odd to be leaving the mountains that I had come to associate with “the West” and seemed to be returning to the flat farmland that I associate with the Midwest.

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Route 75 which took me south through the mountains eventually intersected with Route 20 which I took East following signs for Craters of The Moon and Rexford. Craters of the Room is this crazy lava field in the middle of the high desert plains of Idaho that makes you feel like you’re in the middle of Maui. The ground is black with volcanic soil and sharp rocks. Apparently there are crazy lava tubes and caves that are open to the public and free to explore. I could definitely see spending a bit more time there on a future ride.

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Along the way, I kept spying off-road turnouts that seemed to lead out into the horizon forever. I grew tempted to maybe abandon my plans for Driggs and explore some of these dirt roads just to see where they lead. My off-road experience in New Mexico had taken a lot out of me. But time heals all wounds, and I was feeling a small itch to get some dirt under my tires. Alas, I had no maps and not enough water to risk another off-road adventure at the time so reason prevailed and I kept heading southeast to Driggs.

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As I pressed on, the long straight roads seemed to stretch to infinity while the golden plains of the valley surrounded me on both sides. Potato fields and dairy farms dominated the even landscape. But then, far off in the distance, I could just see the tips of two massive spires rising above the horizon. My road began winding slowly towards these two mountains, and before I knew it I was staring at the impressive Teton Range, the geologically youngest part of the Rocky Mountains. Gorgeous.

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I pulled into Driggs around 5:30pm and was famished having not eaten since breakfast. I quickly made my way to the Forage Lounge for curried rice noodles with 10-spice chicken. Driggs seems to surprise you that way. The population (according to the sign) is only 1,100 but the outsized landscape seems to match the offerings in this cool mountain town. Despite living in the shadow of its larger, more cosmopolitan cousin, Jackson Hole (a few miles over the Wyoming border), Driggs has sophisticated culinary scene along with every outdoor outfitting store you could imagine.

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To top off the evening, I rolled out of dinner and into my first drive-in theater to catch Apollo 18. It was a little weird on a motorcycle, but they gave me a handheld radio tuned to the audio frequency for the movie that I could perch on my tank bag while I watched the movie, munching on fresh popcorn, under the cool night sky bursting with stars. Great way to end an unexpected day.

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Next Stop: Yellowstone National Park!

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: The days continue to be more unexpected than I think. I thought today was going to be a routine, albeit scenic, travel day. Rather, the Hemingway Memorial hit me harder emotionally than I thought.  Then, I was surprised how quickly the mountains melted away into flat farmland. I totally stumbled upon the Craters of The Moon National Monument unexpectedly (I could just read a map, I suppose). And at the end of the day, I was treated to the epic views of the Grand Tetons, and the deluge of cultural offerings in Driggs. Also, I might just be the fattest person in the State of Idaho. I went from experiencing puma-like svelteness throughout Mississippi and Texas, to feeling like the fat girl at prom in Idaho. I’m pretty sure everybody here hikes 30 miles a day and is on an Olympic Team.

Day 58 Back In The Saddle

Boise, ID

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After 7-week hiatus, I flew back to Boise, ID to get back on Bumblebee and finish my Great American Motorcycle Trip. I was amazed at how much I missed being on the road, and the simplicity of each day. Getting to Boise meant a brief layover in Salt Lake City. It’s easy to forget how grand and diverse America is because the view of Rotary Park and the Red Butte Mountains outside the terminal brought home that I am now in the the glorious West, and things are a lot a different out here. How different? Stay with me because this gets good.

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I arrived at Boise Airport and was generously picked up by my friend Kipp and his wife Signe, who were also kind enough to let me store my motorcycle while I flew back to NYC. As you can tell, these are amazingly hospitable, kind people, and I am very lucky to know them. We quickly pulled out of the airport and Kipp turned to me with a glint in his eye and asked me how tired I was feeling after my flight. I had grabbed a quick catnap on my connection from Salt Lake City so I told him I was up for anything. Kipp then gave me a sly smile and turned his Suburban towards the private aviation area of the Boise Airport, and informed that we’d be taking out his plane for a sunset flight to Smiley Creek Lodge. Normally, this remote culinary destination would be a 5-hour drive by car or bike. But in our Cesna T-210, it would be a 20-minute flight over the stunning Sawtooth Mountains.

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Smiley Creek Lodge is this gourmet lodge nestled deep in the Payette National Forest. Most people fly in on small bush planes. And apparently Sunday mornings look like a parking lot of small aircraft along the grass runway.

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I’d like to tell you that the best part of the trip was digging into the fresh mountain trout with capers and balsamic reduction sauce (it was amazing), but I’d be lying.

I got to fly the plane!

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Flying a small plane (not that I’ve flown large planes) felt surprisingly natural, and very much like paragliding but at much faster speeds. The controls were very sensitive and responded well to small inputs, similar to the glider I fly. It was amazing to be able to feel the lofty mountain air gently translate through the controls in your hands, making the plane instantly feel like an extension of my arms. As the sun started to set lower over the National Forest, the Idaho sky was brilliantly illuminated with stretching crimson and orange colors as Kipp took over the controls and landed us gently back in Boise Airport.

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What a fantastic surprise and what an appropriate way to get back in the saddle on finish this adventure.

WHAT I LEARNED/DISCOVERED TODAY:

The obvious lesson here is that I frickin’ love airplanes and really love flying them. But that love may be the forbidden kind if I live in New York where most forms of private aviation are prohibitively expensive and generally the exclusive purvey of hedge fund managers or Hamptons divorcees. No, the deeper lesson here is about the diversity of experience within America. Kipp explained that he can get from his house to his plane within 15 minutes. House to Work in 10. 20 minutes gets him to the local watersports like to enjoy waterskiing and wakeboarding. And all of this glorious activity is framed by dramatically stunning mountains and expansive state parks to light up every direction you look. All of this for about 1/3 the cost of living in New York. Sort of makes you think. Also, playing Xbox flight simulators is a surprisingly effective training for doing the real thing.

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Days 49 – 52 Portland & Seattle

Portland, OR – Seattle, WA

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On Day 49, I awoke under the Redwoods and was off to Portland for the first time to meet Ali and also conduct an overdue tire change. I had an appointment at Portland Motorcycles on Saturday so if I didn’t get there before closing, I wouldn’t be able to pull out of Portland until late Monday. Despite having a bit of time pressure, I drove the first half of Oregon along its beautiful coastline where I saw countless stretches of rocky beach virtually uninhabited.

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But by noontime, I had still about 200 miles to ride so I cut inland and headed for the I-5 Freeway to make up some time. I arrived at Portland Motorcycle with 30 minutes to spare. The great folks at the shop threw Bumblebee on the stand and got me on my way in no time.

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So this was my first visit to the city of Portland, and man, I was impressed! What a great town! Ali and I stayed at the Kimpton (another first for me) which is a terrific quirky hotel brand that resembles a W, but is notoriously pet friendly and throws a great happy hour in the lobby where they encourage guests to mingle and get to know each other. Great location and a great hotel.

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We woke in the morning and decided to head to the region’s well-known Wilmette Valley wine country where many of the country’s best Pinot Noirs are grown. We visited the tasting rooms of Barking Frog Vineyards, Adea Vineyards, and Winter’s Hill. But by far, Monk’s Gate Vineyard was our favorite. We approached their red barn which also served as the storage shed and tasting room. We quickly met with the owners and winemakers, Ron and Linda Moore, who let us taste their Pinot Noir and Pinot Rose and play with their bloodhound who kept sniffing our shoes (we didn’t step in anything). For all the reasons I criticized Napa Valley in an earlier post, this wine trip had a feeling of discovery and building a relationship between the wine you taste and the people and place it came from. Building those connections is the entire point of wine tasting.  And the best part is that each tasting was merely $5 (or free). Go to Portland. Drink great wine. Forget Napa.

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We ended the evening back in Seattle sampling the famous Voodoo Donuts because there’s really nothing like a 1,200 calorie, sugar-laded gutbomb to help you sleep easy in your bed. Pretty fun scene at 11pm, and the freaks were definitely getting their fix on.

The next day, we made the quick hop up to Seattle, and checked into the Sheraton downtown. Ali headed into her office, and I had meetings down by the fish market with a creative team interested in creating a graphic novel for my podcast, The Leviathan Chronicles.

On our last day, I followed my typical Seattle routine by heading to Vivace Coffee that pulls this unreal expresso drink called a Café Nico. Basically, its a 4-ounce mixture of espresso, steamed half and half, orange and vanilla syrups, orange spritz and cinnamon. I’ve talked about how it’s tough to make the needle jump for me caffeine-wise, but just on taste alone, I normally drink 4 of these in a single sitting.  So delicious.

Next morning, it was time to say goodbye to Ali and to Seattle before making my final push north to Vancouver. Time to get some riding done!

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WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY:

I’m done with wine tasting trips to Napa. I was so enchanted with the approachability of the Oregon Vineyards along with the outstanding quality of their wine. Also, Portland has the best food truck culture I’ve ever seen in a city. Vacant lots are used for all the trucks to congregate together selling everything from exotic fruit smoothies to Vietnamese chow to Hawaiian food to BBQ. Pure heaven. Why isn’t NYC doing this?

Days 46 – 48 The Lost Coast

San Francisco, CA – Fort Bragg, CA – Redwood National Forest

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Today, I left San Francisco in great mood with everything coming up Christof. I had a newly repaired bike that purred like a kitten and felt great due to some newly installed bar risers for improved ergonomics. I had some congee in my belly. And I was heading out to experience some of the most anticipated riding of my trip. I was finally entering the Pacific Northwest. I crossed over the Golden Gate and made my way through Stinson Beach and over to the Pacific Coast Highway. The PCH can be very slow going due to the steep switchbacks, or more often, just a slow car ahead of you. But the views of the cliffs overlooking the Pacific Ocean can’t be beat.  I’m also not in a rush.

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It occurred to me that despite having been on the West Coast for almost 2 weeks now – I hadn’t seen much of the Pacific Ocean. I’d seen a glimpse of it as I came down in Ojai and I saw some more in Santa Barbara, but mostly I had been riding inland in Solvang, San Luis Obispo, and San Francisco. Having the ocean on my left side gave me such a strong sense of how far I’d come.

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The riding was gorgeous and every so often a strong scent of clean salt air penetrated my helmet. One of my favorite stops is at the Tomales Bay Oyster Farms about 80 miles north of San Francisco. I stop there just about every time I come through these parts. They sell local beer in a can and sell oysters by the dozen while you sit on a wood bench enjoying the view.

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Later in the day, the skies grew overcast and a light fog was captured by the craggy hills causing traffic to slow cautiously around the hairpin turns. Riding the coast is simply exhilarating, and constantly feels like the final shot of late 70s movie right before the credits role.

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I was pushing miles to meet Ali in Portland in two days, so I made it all the way to Fort Bragg by around 8pm that evening. I was promptly told that my dining options in town were rapidly dwindling.  By the time I got to the great North Coast Brew Pub at 8:30pm, I was informed that they had just stopped serving food. Really? 8:30pm is too late for the chef to flip a burger? Yeesh, I get better service in Philly.

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Back in my hotel room that night, while I contemplated self-cannibalism to assuage my bereft stomach, I looked at the map and was surprised to see the highway veer off from the coastline 20 miles north and not return until Eureka, near the top of the state. The reason, I learned, is that the coastline in that section of California was deemed too wild and untamable to build a proper road. It was dubbed the Lost Coast and is a mecca for intense off road riding, hiking and remote camping. I REALLY wanted to check it out and get lost in what is essentially an untouched preserve. But I have too many miles to make, and I wasn’t too keen on banging up my freshly rebuilt bike. Definitely a spot to revisit through.

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I kept riding north being amazed by the beauty of the Pacific Northwest shore line. There’s an authentic, wild quality to the beaches here that’s absent on the East Coast. The rough sand is nestled in between the natural boundaries of the high cliffs and rock, as opposed to where you can find parking in the Hamptons. I stopped at one of the beaches and simply had to walk up to the surf. A little girl asked her mother why I was wearing a snowsuit on the beach.

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As I got closer to the Oregon Border, a funny thing happened. I pulled into a rest stop off the 101, and I saw two women standing beside their KTM 990 Adventure motorcycles. Now, this is weird for several reasons. First of all, the KTM bike is widely considered the best competitor to the BMW 1200GS Adventure (my bike), but it is very infrequently seen in the States. In fact, it’s damn rare. It’s also rare to see a woman riding a motorcycle by herself (not in a larger group), let alone two women by themselves. That coupled with the fact that both were riding uncommon bikes, I felt like I was supposed to say something, maybe hi, and acknowledge our mutual affinity for enduro motorcycles. From the luggage that they had strapped on, they looked like they were loaded up for adventure, and clearly so was I.  Now frankly, I’m a little shy in these circumstances, and I honestly considered the fact that they might be lesbians in which case the last thing they might want is some fluffy blond guy chatting them up.

But with the spirit of adventure motorcycling coursing between us, I approached them and wanted to find out their story. They were both very friendly and interested to hear where I was going and surprised to hear I was riding all the way from New York. One of the women was German and almost as tall as I was. She wasn’t a fan of the BMW bikes because of the weight and their reputation for being underpowered. She had ridden her bike throughout South America and Eastern Europe and sounded pretty damn accomplished for someone so friendly. I really wanted to ask them both to dinner to talk more about bikes, but I was worried that it might come off the wrong way. I sort of regret not doing it now. Damn shyness. If this trip is supposed to be about anything, it’s learning NOT to hesitate.

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We said our goodbyes, and I soon entered Redwood Country which was one of the few must-see spots I had for my trip. The trees and the thick density of the forest that surrounds them were utterly mesmerizing. I had never seen anything like it before in my life.  I mean, I know Redwoods were big and I knew they were old. But 2,000 years old? 50 stories high? It’s one of those things that needs to be seen to be believed. I felt like I was playing World of Warcraft, the 3D version. I mean, look at the scale below!

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I drove through The Valley of the Giants where the Redwoods lined each side of the small two-lane road. There’s just something about the otherworldly thickness of these mammoth trees that feels reassuring. The entrancing drive was shrouded in near darkness by the massive canopy of the Redwoods transforming the landscape into a lush emerald carpet that I wanted to stay in for weeks.

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But I got my wish met halfway! A few miles before crossing into Oregon, I entered the Redwoods National Park and managed to snag the very last campsite available. Yes, it was right next the restroom facility, but that’s not unlike the seating treatment I receive at most fine restaurants.

The best part was driving into the campgrounds – I saw my first bear!! It was a little black bear and he was hightailing it away from me, but I saw him nonetheless. Hope he doesn’t try to eat my cigars tonight!

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WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY:

The Redwoods are like, older than Jesus and we should all try to protect them. Also, if I want dinner, I need to start eating earlier. Northern California isn’t exactly South American in its dining habits.

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Days 41 – 45 Sideways and Byways

San Francisco, CA – Napa, CA – San Francisco, CA

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With my motorcycle safely in the shop, Ali and I decided that we should use our bike-free time to visit our old haunts in Napa Valley and also explore some new vineyards. Napa is obviously a huge epicurean playground. It’s pretty hard to find a bad meal anywhere, and vineyards litter Route 29 with tasting rooms and cellar tours. In fact, my wife and I have probably visited Napa over 10 times in the last 10 years, and during this last trip – I had an epiphany.

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It’s not as great as it used to be.

Now hear me out. It’s still terrific, and if you haven’t gone – you should absolutely check it out. You’ll have a marvelous time and eat like you never had before. But you might have had a better time 10 years ago.

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With the exception of Chimney Rock, Ali and I visited about 6 vineyards that were all good, but not great. That would be fine, except that every vineyard in Napa Valley is now charging $20 – $40 dollars for a tasting flight. Think about that. You’re really paying $20 (or more!) for what amounts to a glass and a half of wine. At the upper end, you’re actually tasting sips of wine that would be cost prohibitive to buy an entire bottle (i.e. at $40 tastings, you’re drinking $150 – $200 bottles of wine), so I guess that’s OK.

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But bear in mind that most tastings in Napa used to be free. And on top of that, none of the wine struck me as that great (not bad, just not great) which was in direct contrast to the platitudes espoused by the tasting room employees. And again, 10 years ago you’d be having the winemaker or owner walking you through their vineyards and talking you through each of their wines. Now it’s an out-of-work actor in a Hawaiian shirt reciting a routine script written by the owner who probably lives in New York regarding the wine you’re drinking.

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Please don’t get me wrong! It’s an amazing time, and I had a ton of fun. But I sort of feel like someone’s Grandpa describing what flying was like in the 1950s on Pan Am versus being crammed onto a Spirit Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale. It’s still a miracle just to have achieved the gift of flight, but we’re sort of talking apples and oranges.

Ali and I had the pleasure of staying in the town of Napa which is located right on the Napa River which now has a lovely boardwalk – ideal to watch to 4th of July fireworks.

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After 2 days of wining and dining, we headed back to San Francisco to pick up the newly renovated Bumblebee. I think you can see in the photos that the repair work was quite an improvement. She’s now ready to finish the drive up the coast and back home to New York. I love that bike so damn much!

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Before

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After

Next stop: Up the West Coast to Portland & Seattle

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY:

The bloom is off the rose in Napa. I’ve heard numerous wine experts lament the fact that many winemakers now think they can slap a label on a bottle that says Napa Valley and automatically charge $70 a bottle, regardless of quality. The fact is, it’s hard to grow a bad grape there, but it’s starting to get a bit egregious – not that it slowed our consumption one bit.

Days 37-40 California Dreaming

Solvang, CA – San Luis Obispo, CA – Carmel, CA – San Francisco, CA

The time had come to leave the Tyrolean oasis of Solvang and head further north up the West Coast to meet my wife Ali in San Luis Obispo. There, we would be staying at the home of her friends and colleagues, Tom and Alison Mendoza. It felt good, as it always does, to get back on the bike after a long spell.

But as I drove up the coast, some of the damage of the last few weeks started to really present itself. The biggest issue was my windshield. The BMW 1200GS Adventure comes with a more robust windshield than the stock GS motorcycle that I have clearly taken for granted. Because my windshield is now broken and lying flush down, I’m getting the full brunt of the wind as I ride. I find myself having trouble holding on past 80 or 90 miles per hour. Even going 60 mph is far more physically taxing than I realized. It’s causing my helmet to literally lift off my head as I hit higher speeds (don’t worry, chin strap prevents it from coming off but still…). I also had to re-duct tape all of my auxiliary lights to the main body of the bike. My mirrors are also pretty bent out of shape making changing lanes a bit more harrowing than usual.

Because I was looking to make some time, I rode the 101 Freeway North and stayed off the slower but more scenic U.S. 1 which hugged the coast. I met Ali at San Luis Obispo Airport where she rented a car and we went off to see the Mendozas. She was a sight for sore eyes.

I’ll be honest.  There was a little part of me that was definitely apprehensive about spending time with others after I’d been on my own for so long. But as we arrived at the Mendoza’s home, everyone wanted to see the bike (battered as she looked) and hear stories about the trip, and generally made my transition back into civilized society very painless. I found that doing some laundry helped this process along.

That night, we had a glorious dinner on the rooftop of a beautiful house in Avalia Beach where Tom grilled soy garlic shrimp while Ali made her famous spicy guacamole while we all sipped on a crisp rose wine made locally in the Santa Barbara region. Avalia Beach is a tiny beach community in central California that seems quaintly stuck in the 1950s with its boardwalk, pastel homes, and fishing wharf extending out into the Pacific. It definitely worth checking if you have kids, and still great if you don’t. It was a sublime evening, especially with Tom and I smoking my carefully transported cigars, solving the world’s problems puff by puff. And inevitably I found myself slipping into the old “you know, I could live here” trap that seems to affect me wherever I go.

The next day we got a late start and decided to head to Carmel, CA instead of pushing all the way to San Francisco where Bumblebee had an appointment at the BMW Motorad dealership for some badly needed repairs. Coincidentally, the Mendozas were heading to their other house in Carmel, so Ali and I ended up getting a hotel room across the street from them, and subsequently enjoying in a group feast of the best Chinese food I’ve eaten in over a year.

I like Carmel for two reasons. First, it’s a car town, primarily because of the Concurs D’Elegance that is held every year in August at Pebble Beach. To say that the premier classic car showcase in America is breathtaking, is like saying Daytona Beach Spring Break might be interesting to a teenage boy in early puberty. Even after the festival is over, it seems you can always observe a plethora of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, and even the occasional Bugatti on the streets of Carmel.

Second, it was especially nice to see Ali with her co-workers, and observe how much they respect and care for her. Ali has been killing it the last few years at her job, and it’s a distinct pleasure to see someone you love be appreciated and admired for her accomplishments. I’m so proud of her, and it made being in Carmel and San Luis Obispo extra special for me.

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Next morning, we took off in the cool Carmel mist for San Francisco. For the first time since I removed it back in Virginia, I had to reinstall my jacket liner for warmth. I’ll admit I had a small case of the nerves that morning because I somehow got us a little bit lost and was nervous about being late for the appointment at San Francisco BMW. You see, my next stage of the trip was pretty much on hold until the repairs on Bumblebee could be completed. With 4th of July only a few days away and most dealerships closed on Sundays and Mondays, there was some urgency to get the bike into the shop.

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I pulled into BMW and quickly met with Carlos, an AMAZING parts rep who I’d been emailing photos of my motorcycle’s broken sections (a lot of emails). He managed to have most of the parts already ordered so that the repair time would be minimized.

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As I removed my bags off the bike, another 1200GS Adventure pulled up next to me with a husband and wife riding together. I couldn’t help but notice their bike looked like it had some miles on it.

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Them: Ah! You’re from New York! Did you ride all the way here?

Me: [puffing out my chest, cleaning my sunglasses nonchalantly] I sure did. I’ve been on the road about 40 days now. How ‘bout you guys? Where are you rolling in from?

Them: Brazil!

Me: [dropping my sunglasses on the pavement] What? Brazil? Like Soccer Brazil? Carnival Brazil?

Them: Yes. We’ve been on the road for 6 months now.

Sigh. I am such a cream puff.

With the bike now safely on the operating table, Ali and I could now have fun exploring my second favorite city in America and one of the best places to eat. Our hotel was right on the border of Chinatown so I was especially looking forward to having congee for breakfast (my total favorite) which I’d been living without for the past few weeks.

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I also discovered something completely new that sort of changed my life. Kyoto Style Ice Coffee. Oh sweet god in heaven, I have found my perfect morning beverage. Using the amazing Famous Foods web app, I discovered that Tyler Florance’s favorite coffee drink was at 66 Mint in San Francisco.

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A Kyoto Ice coffee takes about 24 hours to prepare as it is created drip by slow drip through a crazy mad scientist glass tube contraption. Because the coffee is effectively cold brewing, it only absorbs the rich nutty flavor of the coffee bean without any bitterness. As a result, 66 Mint only has about 50 cups to sell each morning until they are sold out until the following day. I’ve always been told of the faint fruit flavors that coffee aficionados are able to detect, but have sadly always alluded my taste buds.  However, in this glorious cup of Kyoto coffee I was able to pick up lots of it. No sugar or milk needed. But here’s the best part.

It is the most powerful cup of coffee you’ve ever had.

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I’m known among friends as being a little crazy with my coffee, frequently ordering 5-6 shot lattes at Starbucks. It’s not that I love coffee that much (I don’t frankly), but I really crave the caffeine and being a man of robust build (cough) it takes a lot to make the needle jump for me. Blessed Kyoto ice coffee had my head spinning within about 3 sips. Seriously, it was that strong, but not in any way bitter, chalky, or unpleasant. There was a clear lightness to each sip that made it a delight to enjoy slowly, letting the ice cubes tinkle in your cold refreshing glass.

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Above, New Orleans Ice Coffee on left, Kyoto Ice Coffee on right.

The good news is that I’m starting to see it more and more in other coffee shops now that it’s starting to become mainstream. If you see it, try it. Hoooo-Doggie!

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Next Stop: Napa Valley!

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY:

They have great (not good, great) Chinese food in California. Mornings are getting colder. And I wish I could start every morning of my life with congee and Kyoto Ice Coffee. Also, never get cocky until you see the other guy’s license plate.

The Half-Time Report

Now that I’m officially halfway done with the trip I thought it might be a good time to sit back and take stock of the trip so far. This journey has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life. There have been so many enriching experiences that taught me so much. Below I’ve listed some of the things that have gone right and wrong on the trip.

Things I Did Right

– My Packing Set Up: This was obviously something I was concerned about, owing to the fact that I’d never previously set up a motorcycle for such a long journey. The setup of having the two hard Zega Pro panniers with the soft, vulcanized rubber duffel on top has been rock solid. Its enough room for all my gear and tools, and provided me with a little bit of back rest when I would sit back in the pillion (passenger seat). I like this better than if I had a hard top case.

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– Picked Two Hotel Brands and Stuck with Them: So far, I’ve been going 50 / 50 between camping and staying in hotels. I made the decision to stick with Holiday Inn and La Quinta because both were running the best specials during the summer in terms of generating loyalty points. I now have several free nights in each that could get me most of the way home if I really wanted. I’m glad I didn’t just stay in random spots.

– Turning Back South from Colorado: My original plan was to head due west after crossing the Colorado border. But ultimately the lure of 10,000 Waves Spa, green & red chilies, and solpapilas pulled me back south to Santa Fe. So glad I went back down through Taos, New Mexico and Albuquerque. Not only is Santa Fe one of my top three favorite cities, but it forced me through Arizona which got me to the Grand Canyon.

– Hitting the Blue Ridge Parkway at Dawn: I know I’ve already written about this, but it really was breathtaking and something I’ll keep close to me for the rest of my life.

– Not riding at night: I just feel so much safer, and its nice to be done riding before the sun goes down.

Things I Would Do Differently

– More Research: I probably could have done more homework in terms of knowing what’s around me. I know I missed out on a lot of attractions, but this way I can always look forward to doing it again.

– Make it down to L.A. and Southern CA: Meeting up with friends has been such a terrific part of my journey and I feel like I neglected a lot of people I care for in that area.

– Brought a chair: I’m a little on the fence with this one because I’m not entirely sure where I would put a folding chair on my bike. But most of the campsites have not had picnic tables, and those that did, were not always comfortable after sitting in the saddle for 6 hours. It be nice to have my chair to sit in while watching the sun go down.

– Have some business cards made for my blog to give out to people I meet.
Best Meal of the Trip (Fancy)

Coyote Café (New Mexico)

Best Meal of the Trip (Casual)

Tie: YaYa’s (Alabama) / City Market BBQ (Texas)

Best Camping Meal

Backpacker’s Pantry – Pad See You with Chicken

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Worst Meal

Tie – Waffle House / King Fu’s Chinese Restaurant (Louisana)

Best View of the Trip

3-way tie – Blue Ridge Parkway / Grand Canyon / Lighthouse Point just South of Fort Bragg

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Most Random Thing That Happened

Deciding to stop at The Biltmore in Asheville, NC and then spending the night at the hotel, followed by clay shooting in the morning. Who woulda thunk?

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Equipment That Rocked

JetBoil: This thing rocked! Boiling hot water in 90 seconds.

Twisted Throttle Electrified Tank Bag: Having my tank bag hooked directly to the battery of my motorcycle, allowed me to keep my iPhone and iPad fully charged most of the time.

Mountain Hardware Monkey Man Fleece: Not only did this jacket keep me warm during some of the cool coastal nights, but the jacket was soft enough to be used as my pillow every night I camped.

BMW Rallye 3 Suit: Remember, this is the jacket and pants I’m wearing every day, rain or shine, hot and cold for 50+ days straight (yeah, I washed it). First of all, the suit did its job protecting me from the crashes I had while driving off road during Shadow of the Rockies. Second, the suit did a great job keeping me warm during some of the early mornings and high altitude passes. I will admit that the suit did get toasty when driving slowly along the Gulf States, but I think that would have been true of any riding suit. I felt good ventilation as soon as I got above 30 mph. Great pockets, good comfort. This suit will go with me to the ends of the Earth. Love it.

– Famous Food Web App: Every traveller MUST bookmark this! The address is http://www.famousfood.us/. This site cross references your location with all the destinations on the Travel Channel and Food Network. I’ve used it as my main dining guide in unknown places.

Equipment That Let Me Down

Big Agnes Seedhouse SL 2 Tent: There were a few things I didn’t love about my tent. Being 6’4, I found the tent a bit cramped and found myself usually sleeping in a slight ‘J’ shape diagonally inside. This obviously made turning over a bit cumbersome. The tent pegs that came with the kit were also a bit lackluster and I find myself doing much better with aftermarket tent pegs that I picked up in Boone, NC. Setting up the tent was generally pretty quick (once I had the right pegs) and the size was perfect, fitting right into my pannier. But I sort of feel like I should have kissed a few more frogs before committing to this tent.

Shoei Helmet Pinshield: This will only be of interest to motorcycle people, but before I left I installed a pinshield on the inside of my visor. Let me be clear that my Shoei Multitec Flip Up helmet has been AWESOME – I’m just talking about the visor here. Pinshields are an extra layer installed on the inside of the motorcycle visor to eliminate fog. But in this case, I found my vision getting really distracted between what I could see through the pinshield and what was through the visor. I ended up taking it out after a few days and have never looked back.

BMW Electronic Tire Gauge: What a piece of crap! I could never get a straight reading off this overpriced piece of farkle. I bought a $10 analog gauge at AutoZone in Louisiana that worked just fine.

Best Night’s Sleep

10,000 Waves Spa (New Mexico)

Worst Night’s Sleep

Lake Ute State Park (New Mexico)

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Best Road

Skyline Drive (Virginia)

Worst Road

Capitan Gap (New Mexico)

Best Travel Tip I Figured Out

Picking up little “airline” bottles of booze to enjoy while camping. They take up very little space and are the perfect serving size (when you drink three).

If I left out any categories or lists, you’d like to see – please feel free to email any questions of comments.

One lap cross-country down, one to go.

Days 31 – 36 The Glamorous Life

130 miles
Santa Barbara, CA – Solvang, CA

I’m now half way done with my trip. Wow. It feels very odd to write this, yet also an accomplishment.

I spent the weekend in Santa Barbara with Jonathan doing some hiking, tasting some Central Valley wines and generally recuperating from the 4,500 miles I’d ridden so far. There were apparently over 7 weddings being held at the hotel during our stay and frustratingly, none of my exciting tales of harrowing cliff side riding or camping in the rough wilderness of KOA campgrounds elicited even the slightest of favorable responses from the forlorn bridesmaids that occupied the hotel bar. Sigh. Time to get back on the road.

In the meantime, some real world responsibilities were beginning to pile up in my absence, and I needed to find someplace to hang out for a few days while I did some writing work and also waited for my wife to join me for a few days in California.

I left Santa Barbara in the late afternoon and rode north with no particular destination in mind. Around 7 p.m., I figured it high time to find some shelter. I’d been been staying in Holiday Inn Express hotels when I haven’t been camping so I started my search by looking at the two closest ones to my location. There were two that were equidistant; one in Lompoc and the other in Solvang.

I pulled over to a rest stop and figured it was a good idea to give each hotel a call to check on availability as well as get a feel for each location. The woman manning the front desk at Lompoc indicated that they were located at the regional airport with the town center being a short drive away. Here’s my conversation with the lady at Solvang:

Me: Hi! Do you have any availability for tonight?

Chipper Lady At Solvang Holiday Inn: We sure do! Come on over.

Me: Umm…wow, thanks. I might just do that, but first is there anything to do right around the hotel?

Chipper Lady At Solvang Hotel: Our hotel is located in the middle of Solvang. All we do here is shop, eat and drink a lot of wine.

Me: Done! I’ll be there in 7 minutes,

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Solvang, it turns out, is this totally delightful little town that is modeled after a small Danish village. As you can see the entire place looks like a cross between Disneyland and Oktoberfest. Even riding into the town I got a good feeling as I passed an ostrich farm (my favorite meat in the world – shut up if you haven’t tried it) as well as The Hitching Post, the famous restaurant in Sideways where Paul Giamatti shouts, “I will not drink Merlot!”

Clearly, I needed to have my first dinner at The Hitching Post.  In addition to enjoying a delectable filet, I was presented with my first roasted artichoke which required detailed instructions kindly provided by the young lady sitting next to me at the bar. Turns out, I like artichokes!

The next few days were spent at my keyboard at one of the countless coffee shops and bakeries in town. I had so many Danish cookies, fruit berry turnovers, and chocolate croissants that I have come to resemble Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka. But the weather has been perfect, and the town conducive to writing so I really can’t complain.

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As an added bonus, my friend Randall who was kind enough to host me in Houston was passing through California and he and I and his whole family got to enjoy lunch together, feasting on Danish meatballs and herring (the kids said no f-ing way and ordered spaghetti and red sauce).

The Danes who settled Solvang did so because it was reputed to have some of the best weather in all of California. All I can say is that getting a few days out of the saddle in their wonderful (albeit slightly touristy) town has been a little slice of heaven and a very pleasant discovery.

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WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: Driving without a plan continues to offer great results and memorable surprises. I loved walking around Solvang and feeling like I was suspended in a little pocket of Europe while I contemplated the trip past and going forward. Loved stumbling on this fun little town. Also, I need to lay off the pastries. I only have one riding suit and Velcro has a breaking point.

Day 27 – The Grand Canyon

Holbrook, AZ – Kingman, AZ

460 miles

The rising sunlight always wakes you up early when you’re camping, so I was able to get a good start on my westward journey to meet my friend Jonathan in Santa Barbara. Because of the distance and timing involved, I made the decision to veer off my mission to explore small roads (after Shadow of the Rockies in New Mexico, I’d had my fill of dusty desert) and headed onto I-40 to get some fast miles under my belt.

As I mentioned, at this point the desert was beginning to get a bit monotonous. Obviously, driving on a big interstate makes it more so, but after a few hours, a beautiful oasis appeared in the distance.

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Flagstaff.

A giant mountain erupted out of the desert far off in the distance, and as I looked at my GPS, I could see my elevation steadily climbing. What makes Flagstaff so wonderful is that it sits at 6,900 feet. Not only does that provide a welcome cooling effect, but it also gives rise to extraordinary pine forests which create illustrious carpets of green that contrast off the red clay of the desert I’ve been staring at for weeks now.

I pulled into Flagstaff around lunchtime and was looking for a bite to eat. I whipped out my new favorite handy-dandy web app called famousfoods.us which was recommended to me by someone on the Adventure Rider Motorcycle Forum. What it does is cross reference your current location with all the dining spots mentioned on the Food Network and Travel Channel. So awesome! All the places from Diner, Drive-Ins & Dives and Best Thing I Ever Ate are all featured in this app.

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The app told me that there was a place a half-mile away called Salsa Brava that sounded like a bad strip joint in Tijuana, but was actually a well-regarded restaurant known for its fresh salsa bar. Lunch was delicious and the salsa bar had 9 different blends with varying ranges of heat (I went for the pineapple-habanero). You could pretty much spend all day there drinking beer and eating chips. But sadly, I had to push on to make some miles. But before I left, I spent sometime looking at my map that showed me I was really only 2 hours away from the Grand Canyon. The Grand Frickin’ Canyon!!

Miles be damned, I knew I had to see this iconic American natural monument. After all, when else was I going to be back in this neck of the woods again? I drove due north of Flagstaff and soon began to see signs for the National Park.

The weird thing is…the Grand Canyon is a big hole, right? So as you approach from the road, your visible horizon rises above the Canyon itself. Bottom line, I’m getting within 10 miles of this massive, spanning natural wonder and I still don’t see squat! I’m figuring I got hookie-dooked by the Park Service and that song America, The Beautiful, and just lost 5 hours of driving time. But as you get really close to the Park, your breath is stolen from you by the intense, otherworldly majesty of the Grand Canyon.

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Once you enter the Park proper, the road quality instantly improves to that beautiful crystal smooth blacktop asphalt that motorcyclists dream of when they sleep. I was technically travelling on the South Rim Road, but was told my Park Entrance fee would cover me for all entrances to the Park of which there were countless spread out over its thousand miles perimeter.

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Every few miles or so, there would be another stunning turn off where you could park your vehicle and soak in the view. In some ways, this was similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway but you really can’t compare the two. Where Blue Ridge was picturesque and romantic with its rolling, misty hills covered in lush foliage, the Grand Canyon is more awe inspiring, forcing you to feel insignificant in size against its magnificent stature.

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Your mind can’t help but imagine what the first American settlers thought when they crossed the desert and were confronted with the grandeur of this incredible display of nature spanning as far as the eye can see.

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Of course, I wanted to hike down to the bottom to the Colorado River which was truly a squint worthy distance away. But for the life of me, I could not discern even a remotely approachable pathway to take a person from the top to the bottom. The Grand Canyon looks unconquerable at first glance and I think that’s what makes people’s soul stir when they see it for the first time.

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I was skeptical, but this is truly one of America’s greatest treasures, and is absolutely worth the trip. Go there. See it. It makes you want to eat apple pie, shed a tear when someone drops a piece of garbage, and shoot a rifle in the sky for no discernable reason. Seriously, try to see it if you remotely can.

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The one side story to my Grand Canyon adventure occurred as I approached the National Park Entrance, I saw many signs beforehand for scenic overlooks. Bear in mind, I’ve never been to this area or this Park before. So when I see these signs for overlooks, I think they are the OFFICIAL overlooks. As I pulled into the first one, I am confronted by a Havasupai Indian sitting in a tiny booth demanding $2.00 to park my bike at the overlook. Guess this isn’t the National Park, I thought. But I didn’t want to risk a vengeful spirit hex on my motorcycle by telling this guy to piss off and turn my bike around. So I pay the $2.00 and park in the designated lot. The viewing area of the Canyon is 100 yards away, but to get to that area, visitors are forced to walk through a series of vending stalls of Indian jewelry (some quite beautiful) and cheap tourist trinkets.

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And then, when you actually get to the viewing area, it looks…nice. Not amazing, take-your-breath-away amazing, but, very very nice.

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After this, I keep driving and realize that I haven’t entered the formal Park yet, and when I do, I am utterly spellbound. But here’s my beef:

After seeing it all, it was abundant clear that the U.S. kept all the “good views” for itself, and gave the Indian tribes all the lesser and secondary locations. Pretty crappy deal.

But on the other hand, I thought it was really pushy the way the tribe turned a natural exhibit of beauty into a gaudy commercial opportunity that didn’t really deliver very much or give you a sense of the Grand Canyon.

But then again, the tribe has every right to make whatever money they can given how terrible our government has treated them historically, and it’s their land to do as they please. No one forced me to pay a very modest fee and enter their land.

Just feeling a little weird about the whole thing.

The good news is I spent so much time admiring the view and detouring from Flagstaff that the sun was now setting over the Canyon. I can’t even begin to describe the colors and  beauty that sun’s long rays cast over the Canyon. I know I only grazed the surface of the Grand Canyon, but it was really a once in a lifetime experience. Again, another unexpected detour on the trip that rewarded me with a glorious bit of serendipity.

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As the sun went down, I was confronted by the fact that I still had a lot of miles to cover, and I would have to do some riding at night which was something I’ve really been trying to avoid this trip. The relatively flat topography of the desert west of Flagstaff allowed residual slivers of daylight to extend dusk until a bit after 9pm.

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After driving in the dark for an hour, I pulled into the town of Kingman, AZ that seemed to be pretty big, although I have no idea why. I found a Holiday Inn Express and didn’t argue when they told me the last room left was smoking. I still slept like a log that night.

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