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Mission to Moab

©By Sam Taylor

A long story short:  my friend and I were to have taken a 50-state tour by motorcycle.  Rob was flying from his home in Portland, Maine to meet me at my pad in Sonoma.  He planned to buy a bike with which to make the trip; I, a long-time motorcyclist, was all set.  But our trip was torpedoed when, to my intense disappointment, I couldn’t get away for the 6 weeks we’d set aside.  I felt awful, and he was dressed up with no place to go.

At length, we pondered our options.  Since Rob had bought a one-way ticket to California, he decided to go ahead, buy a bike anyway, and ride it home.  The least I could do was escort him out of the state, go as far as I could, then return, right?

We had a mission.

We found a used BMW R850R on Craig’s List.  The owner, a French woman who was leaving the country, cried when she sold it.  She had loved it that much.  The 850R, with hard sidebags and a big windscreen, turned out to be the perfect mount for my buddy:  light, nimble, a low seat height, with rock-solid stability on the road.  It was perfect for him, relatively new at the motorcycling game, but would have been a great mount for anybody.  I could understood why madamoiselle had cried.

My bike, a BMW R1150RT, was an old friend of mine.  I’d had her 3 years, taken her to Alaska, Cabo, and all over California.  This bike also has hard bags, a full fairing, and a host of amenities.  It is, quite simply, built to tour the open road.  Though not a full-dress porker, light she is not; but I love her just the same.

So, at 5:30 one morning, we left Sonoma, heading east.  The sun had yet to rise.  A cool Carneros breeze chilled us as we rode over the Mayacamas hills....enough of that, though:  commute traffic was already building towards Vallejo and Fairfield, and our primary desire was to get out of both Bay Area and Sacramento traffic before things got really busy.

Inevitably, we ran into a heavy commute just as the sun was rising over the Capital.  I was as dismayed by the long line of slow-moving cars coming down from the foothills as I’d been by the inbound backup from Vacaville to the Bay.  Sorry folks, I know how it is, but I hope you enjoy your homes on the weekends—you sure pay for it during the week.

It was slow going all the way to Placerville.  Old Hangtown was never meant to be a suburb, but it is.  Yet we were finally clear, and US 50 started to open up.

We opted to take the Mormon Emigrant Trail and angle over to CA 88—a good way to shake loose the Interstate malaise.  Back in the 1840s, a band of Mormons had come west to participate in the Mexican-American war.  By the time they got to San Diego, however, the war was over and California was a US property.  They made their way north to Sutter’s Mill and found work there…just as a certain discovery was being made by James Marshall.  For whatever reason, most of them were more interested in getting home then panning for gold.  Determined, they chose to leave via the Carson Pass (the Donner Pass having been somewhat discredited), and blazed the route that now bears their name.

Over 150 years later, Highway 50 was closed by a rock slide, then endless re-construction, and the Mormon Road was pressed into service as an alternate route for the Tahoe crowd.  Consequently, it has been beefed up by CalTrans and is in excellent shape, yet now devoid of traffic.  It would have made a fine TT-like racecourse, but the views of the budding Sierras, the deep pine forests, and the crisp fresh air convinced us to take it easy and enjoy the scenery.

I’d wanted to stop for breakfast in Markleeville, the county seat of Alpine County, at a funky little place I’d been frequenting for years, The Cutthroat Saloon.  The Cutthroat was what most people would think of as the quintessential biker bar, dark, smelling of beer, and with the most enormous brasseires hanging from the ceiling.  They also served a fine breakfast.

Well, the Cutthroat has been transmogrified.  The bras are gone, the wood is stripped and lightened.  There are actually windows that work.  They still whipped up some good chow, and hanging around Markleeville is always a treat.  But I miss the bras.

After our break, we rode along the East Fork of the Carson River, always a delight, with perfect twists and gorgeous views.  Then we headed east over Monitor Pass (CA 88), which affords a breathtaking descent into Nevada.  It’s hard to keep your focus on the twisties as the High Desert opens up before you.

After a quick run up US 395, past Topaz Lake, we proceeded onto the first of several of Nevada’s smaller roads.  The miles began to slip behind.  Suddenly, out of nowhere, we came upon Linda’s Wakutsk Bar, in Wakutsk.  “Biker’s get a free shot”, the sign proclaimed.  We had to stop and see what this was about, with just a thought of adjusting the punctuation.

It wasn’t quite time for a shot yet, at least for us, so a couple of Diet Pepsis had to do.  The other patrons of the bar were not so abstemious, but they were friendly and offered us all sorts of advice.  Linda herself was as hospitable as she could be.  It was the kind of place I’d like to hang out in, if it were a little past traditional cocktail hour—if there were a motel across the street.

Soon, we re-joined US 50 east of Fallon, Nevada.  From there, 50 is called The Loneliest Highway in America.  I hadn’t been on it in a couple of years, and expected it to be less than lonely.  But after you pass the closed brothels east of Fallon, there’s no civilization for over 70 miles, unless you count the solar powered Loneliest Phone in America near Sand Mountain.  In Blue Highways, William Least Heat-Moon describes Sand Mountain as "a single massive mound of tawny sand . . . of such size that, while it wasn't perhaps big enough to be a mountain by everybody's definition, it was surely more than a dune." He doesn't say much about the phone.

The great thing about the high desert roads of Nevada is that you can move across them at an exciting pace, yet still take in the scenery, which is fascinating.  Stark and grand, the views go on for miles as you traverse a series of mountain passes.  You can see each successive range as you descend from the last, and it seems like you’ll be there in minutes, but even at our super-legal speeds, it could take a good portion of an hour to get across the basins.

We stopped in Austin to gas up, always a prudent move on The Loneliest Road.  Rob remarked that except for the utter lack of people, this little hill town would be like Jerome, Arizona, or—with even more imagination—like Sausalito.  True, they're short on water views, but the way the houses and buildings are nestled into the mountainside gives the town a verticality somewhat more charming than, say, Fresno.  Clearly, someone thought so, once:  there are still at least three handsome—if worn—churches in town, built and outfitted at great expense back in the silver days.

Paralleling the original Pony Express trail, we completed the 70 mile leg to Eureka in about 50 minutes.  A Pony Express rider would have done it in a day, having changed horses 5 or six times.  Those boys worked much harder than we did.

After a quick stretch and top-off in Eureka, we continued to our destination for the night:  Ely, Nevada, the last town in Nevada before Utah.  Years before we had both stayed there on one of our first motorcycling trips.  We shared a fond memory of attending a Basque festival, watching wood-chopping contests and eating sheep meat, or something.  Ely prides itself on its Basque heritage, borne from the days when a group of those hardy souls tried to raise sheep out there.  Personally, I’d prefer the Pyrenees, but I prefer motorcycles to ponies, too.

Ely hadn’t changed much, if at all, in 18 years.  It is still a real city, with a downtown dominated by 2 casinos, the Hotel Nevada and the Jailhouse.  It also has enough motels that they compete by posting their rates on their marquees, always an aid for the weary traveler.  We chose one with our usual parsimoniousness, and were rewarded by the smell of curry in the lobby and towels the size of a Kleenex.  But, and I emphasize this, the place was clean, quiet, and sported all sorts of coupons for drinks and food in town.  This was good.

So with a fistful of Free Drink coupons, we ambled down to the Jailhouse.

Hey, let it be said that I’m a big fan of Nevada.  California is beautiful, but Nevada has a soul all its own.  It’s like when Captain Kirk was split in two, one good, one evil.  He found that the one could not live without the other’s darker spirit, which gave him drive and energy.  Ely in particular, with its casinos, bars, whorehouses, but essential charm, has that darker spirit.  We need Ely.

The weary travelers plopped themselves down at the Jailhouse casino bar.  A little lesson in economics was provided by the bartender as we proudly displayed our coupons:  since beers and well drinks were only a buck during happy hour (which went until 7), why not save the coupons for something good, or something later?  We looked at each other and nodded sage Alan Greenspan nods.  This strategy made sense even to our road-tired brains.

Soon a very celebratory woman bought us a round.  Seems she had just won $250 on the slots and wanted to spread the wealth.  Jackie became our new best friend, regaling us with accounts of how her first husband used to beat the shit out of her, how her second husband—that guy, over there—completely ignores her (he was), and how to pour beer properly (the latter ironic, since at one time in our lives that was Rob’s and my main area of expertise).

After a couple more drinks, the road grime wore away.  That, plus we calculated that we’d spent a total of four dollars, plus tip.  Not bad, considering how this was turning into dinner.

No gambling for us that night as we felt we were already ahead of the game.  Soon the 590 miles we had put on that day called us to bed.  It was a sound night’s sleep in the Curry Palace.

Day 2

We awoke ready to ride.  Instead of breakfasting in Ely as planned, we wanted to hit the road (metaphorically speaking, please).  Gassing up just out of town, we left US50 for an even lonelier highway, Nevada 488/Utah 21.  Once we passed Great Basin National Park near the Sacramento Pass, then crossed the border into Utah and the Mountain Time Zone, we got to have a little fun with the bikes.

I had wanted to know what was the top speed of my RT.   For the record then, with 38,000 miles on the clock, at about 5,000 feet altitude on a 75 degree day in western Utah, a fully-laden BMW R1150RT (two sidebags, one topcase, one tankbag, one Sam @ 155 pounds of solid muscle and 10 pounds of “other”) will travel 122 MPH, as indicated by the speedometer.  Fortunately, there was no “independent radar confirmation”.  Nope.  No cops, no cars, no cows, no deer, nobody.  Just me, Rob, and the road.  For miles.

The straightaways between summits were even farther, yet shorter by illusion, than those on Highway 50.  The road through the summit passes was perfectly maintained, banked, and appropriately twisty for high-speed motorcycling.  The weather was not too hot.  In short, it was motorcycling nirvana.

Despite all the fun, the serious miles we had already racked up that morning demanded a butt-break.  The problem was finding one.  Every time we came to what was a dot on our AAA maps,  there was, at best, a boarded-up café.  I was jonesing for a cup of coffee, though the morning had been pretty stimulating.  We went through one town, Milford, which—though comely—had a few unlikely-looking and seemingly uninhabited coffee shops, and decided to press on to Beaver.

Beaver, Utah, lies on Interstate 15, north of Cedar City by about 60 miles.  It was a logical place to stop, regroup, check our maps, have a greasy breakfast (including 8 cups of watery coffee) at the El Bambi Cafe, and decide which way to approach the easterly portion of Utah.  There are not many options.  Because we intended to make time, we chose to link up with I-70 and shoot east.

Intensions.   Our particular road to hell that morning, though paved,  had an inadequate number of gas stations.  When we left Beaver, we could have gassed up right there, but I had computed that Rob’s tank could easily take him another 60 miles, based on tank size and gas mileage we’d calculated back in Sonoma.  Surely, there’d be another gas station on the interstate, for crying out loud, within 60 miles.

There was, at about milepost 59.9.  Unfortunately, our meticulous calculations had failed to consider that we’d been traveling at high speeds, and Rob’s R850 was not a very aerodynamic bike.  It’s not that non-fairing bikes get worse mileage per se, but they do seem to experience a wider fluctuation in MPGs depending on conditions.  Our condition had been speed.

So he wasn’t getting 48MPG, as he had been back in the law-abiding days in California.  He was probably getting 40.  Those 8 MPG made all the difference.

Looking in my mirror, I noticed he was slowing down.  I reduced speed to let him get ahead of me to see what was up.  He barely did, then pulled to the side of the road, bone dry.

It could have been worse.  With Rob riding bitch, we rode about half a mile to the next exit, but it had no gas.  It was only 5 or so miles to the next opportunity, where the nice lady who ran the little mom-and-pop station lent him a gas can.  We reversed course and were happy to see the little R850 still on the other side of the highway, unmolested.  Since there were no handy exits where I could turn around legally, we pursued a road less traveled, a dirt cutoff between the interstate lanes.  It’s fun being naughty.

Replenished, in both fuel and spirit, we proceeded on.

Normally, interstates are anathema to us on sport-touring motorcycles.  We prefer the Blue Highways, to crib again from William Least Heat-Moon.  For years, I was quite snobbish on this point.

But as the number of roads I’d conquered in California, Nevada, and Oregon somewhat asymptotically approaches 100%, I’ve sometimes found the Interstates to be all that are left.  I’ve also discovered that they can be a treat:  I-5 north of Redding, at least to Ashland, Oregon, comes to mind.  Even I-80 from Reno to west of Donner Summit, if not too crowded,  is admittedly a fine road.

Well, I want to add I-70, from Salina to Green River, Utah, to the list.  First, on that Friday mid-day, it was nearly empty.  Second, the slab carves through splendid canyon formations that—though not as striking as those in the canyon parks—are no slouches in the awe department.  Third, there are several rest areas with mini-Grand Canyon like vistas to enjoy.  Plus, the road is in great shape.  Nice work, Utah CalTrans.

We gassed up in Green River, forgotten prudence now at the fore.  Green River is known for three things, as a key wayside for weary travelers along I-70, as a center for Melon growing, and as the home of the John Wesley Powell Museum.  Regrettably, we didn’t give the latter the attention it was due, but we did see some melons.

With only 55 miles to go to Moab, we soon left our friend I-70 and headed south on US 191.  First, we passed the northern entrance to Canyonlands National Park which, sadly, we would have to forsake on this trip.  Then in 30 miles or so we descended into the Colorado River valley and arrived in Moab.

Moab, Utah, altitude 4,000 feet, population 4,800, lies on almost the exact parallel as Sonoma, 1000 miles east.  The town is laid out on a gentle, s-curving, strip, with most of the businesses, motels, and restaurants on or one block off the main road.  As strips go, it’s surprisingly accessible and attractive, and there is no evidence of a Wal-Mart, yet.

We took our time cruising the town looking for suitable lodging.  We quickly discovered the going rate, about $49, to be consistently applied by most of the non-chain motels.  Why on earth one would choose a Super 8 or Best Western above some of these attractive, smaller places, I have no idea, but then that’s me.  We settled in at The Virginian, whose proprietress—though not overly friendly—provided us with welcome kits containing Power Bars and Advil.  I guess we were supposed to all be attacking the slickrock with our Treks the next day.

Let’s face it, we were tired and terribly thirsty.  With some trepidation, owing to a slim knowledge of Utah’s liquor laws, we ambled into Eddie McStiff’s brewpub.

Now, one of the cardinal rules of the road, right up there next to “never eat at a place with the word ‘Mom’s’ on the sign”, is “avoid brewpubs with cutsie names”.  You know the type:  Carlos McGonnagle’s,  Drinky McBrews, that kind of thing.  So, at the outset, Eddie McStiff’s had a strike against it.

All we wanted was a beer.  We quickly discovered that’s something you can’t do in the Beehive State.  One of the rules is you must have food with your ale.  Another is that, without the requisite license, your ale—or lager—is going to max out at 3.2% alcohol by volume, about 25% weaker than your average Budweiser.

This 3.2 thing seems to bother people who, in all their American fascination with big portions and value measured by the size, seem to feel they’re getting cheated.  In reality, the McStiff’s product was a tasty joy to behold, once we’d promised to order a bowl of chips for 49 cents.

Click their picture to go to McStiff'sI had one or several of their Jalapeno beers, a light, easy-to-quaff cream ale with a bunch of jalapeno pepper slices thrown in.  Sounds awful, tastes divine, though perhaps it’s an acquired taste.  But at 3.2, you can afford the acquisition.

Since Rob and I were planning on staying an extra day, and since it was Friday night, after all, and since we had lots to discuss, we decided to chat up the local barflys to find out where else we might sample some of the Moabian nightlife.  We were directed, and proceeded on foot, to Rio’s.

Rio’s was one of the two or three local watering holes where, well, the locals went.  McStiff’s, though good, was a family place that closed by 10, and, hey, we were still on Pacific Time, raring to go.

Another piece of Utahania:  if you want to sell more than (3.2) beer and wine, you need to be a “private club”.  So Rio’s hit us up for a weeklong membership, $4 for the both me and my date, which we grudgingly paid, and they paid, to the State of Utah.  It was the least and only thing we could do.

I for one stuck with the 3.2 stuff because it means you can have a session without suffering.  I’m not much of a sipper as I get blabbing, so for me this 3.2 thing is a good thing.  I recommend it.

After an appropriate amount of conviviality, we shuffled back to the Virginian hungry enough to eat our bikes.  in desperation, Rob had tried a couple of pickled eggs at Rio’s, but we were still on empty.  For all of Moab’s strengths, late-night dining is not among them.  We settled for a bag of Doritos from the mini-mart, watched a few minutes of HBO, and enjoyed a very sound sleep.

Day 3

The next day, after a breakfast at the popular Jailhouse Café, we doffed our helmets—no helmet law in Utah—and rode up to Arches National Park.  What a perfect park for motorcycle sightseeing.  The eye is treated to magnificent views just from the act of slowly meandering through the Park’s two or three roads.  Inspired, we even got off our duffs and hiked around some of the more interesting structures.  All in all, we spent about 6 hours in the park, and I could easily have gone back for more.

That evening we rode out about 25 miles to the Sorrel River Ranch Resort, a splendidly converted ranch right on the Colorado River catering to a crowd with more cash in their pockets than I had.  Alas, those pesky Utah liquor laws prevented us from enjoying an early evening cocktail on the resort’s well-situated porch, as all the seating was reserved for diners, not drinkers.  Somewhat abashed, we rode back into town and landed at the Sunset Grill.

The Sunset was a restaurant up on a hill overlooking the Moab valley, with views of about everything.  We procured the necessary appetizers with which to legitimate our vodka tonics, watched the sun set over the red mesas, and all was right with the world.

The establishment itself was once the home of Charlie Steen, the first person to strike it rich in uranium mining back in the early 50s.  Obviously, back then uranium was a hot prospect, so to speak, as Hiroshima and Nagasaki had recently proven to be such an efficient way to wage a war.  The brief uranium craze gave the otherwise somewhat listless town of 1950s Moab a real western-style boom that it would enjoy only briefly.  Moab did not boom again until the somewhat healthier craze of Mountain Biking found the surrounding sliprock in the early 80s.

Meanwhile, it was down to McStiff’s where Rob and I were about to get a true education.

We stopped in Eddie’s for our last chance to quaff Jalapeno Beer and a little more food—not that we had a choice—and it just so happened that Saturday night at McStiff’s was Casino night.  There was no true gambling, of course, but what they do have a nice little setup upstairs, complete with blackjack and craps tables.  John, a former dealer from Wendover, Nevada, runs a gig where he teaches people to play the big games.  Since neither of us knew any more about craps then we did about the half-life of uranium, we paid the very reasonable tuition (tipping John) and tried to improve our lot.

The combination of Jalapeno beer and a long day at the Arches made for poor students, but we deserved an A for earnestness.  As the place filled up, we had a table-full of classmates tossing dice and squealing in delight, or pain.  I don’t remember too much about craps, but I do remember how John had positioned one well-endowed young lady at the end of the table, telling us later what every dealer in Vegas knows instinctively.  Always put the women, especially the ones with low-cut blouses and short skirts, at the end of the table, because they have to bend farther over the table to roll the dice.  This action affords the other patrons—and the dealers at adjacent tables—endless entertainment.   Ah, the joys of pursuing a higher education.

After our stint at McStiff’s, tired but full of knowledge, we called it a night.  The morrow would bring sadness.

Day 4

It was still dark when the alarm rang, and Rob and I went about our chores, packing and preparing for our separation in silence.  I just hated to leave, both the town of Moab and my good riding buddy.  But he had many miles of adventure ahead of him, with more than 10 days to get back to New England.  I had two days to get back to work.  Understandably, I was the more glum.

We said our goodbyes and, literally, turned in different directions at the end of the driveway.  I began to retrace my steps.

Being alone has its advantages.  You can stop when you want, push when you want, and pretty much do whatever you want.  Rob and I are so simpatico that this had never been an issue, but still, I was able to make quite a bit more time as I bombed back across Utah.  After gassing up in Green River, I didn’t stop until I hit Ely, Nevada, and took a quick break.

This is not to say I didn’t enjoy the scenery, which always looks different when you’re on a reciprocal course.  The canyons along I-70 gave way to relatively lush, rolling fields that industrious Utahans have created out of high desert, and those pastures gave way to just plain high desert, and that gave way to the casinos of Ely.  Average speed on this leg of my journey:  about 85 mph.

After my break and a few calisthenics to loosen up, the Loneliest Highway in America got real lonely again…lovely, but lonely.  Feeling a tad blue, I decided to stop in Eureka for some company, when I saw a half-dozen or so bikes parked in front of the Keyhole Saloon.

As you recall, I ride a BMW.  As you may understand, it is more customary to see Harley Davidsons parked in front of places like the Keyhole.  And whereas I confess to an array of human prejudices, my feeling is a rider is a rider, and we’ll always find something in common.

Common, in a good sense, is a good description of the Keyhole.  It sports the following amenities:  a good juke box, iced mugs for very cold if undistinguished beer, a pool table, pickled eggs (Rob, take note!), a pleasant bartender, and $2 drafts.  Plus, the very fact it exists and provides cool, dark shelter from the blazing mid-afternoon sun was reason enough to like it.

I got talking with the Harley guys and gals and quickly determined the one thing we had in common was that we’d ridden all over the West.  So we compared notes, they strong on bars like the Keyhole, I carrying the load on brewpubs.  But we’d established a wonderful rapport, and I have some new friends.

After one very small cold one for the road, I headed west.  More lovely loneliness.  In fact, I didn’t see one vehicle on the road until I got to the other side of Austin, 70 miles from Eureka.  Or should I see until Deputy Pachegi saw me.

Actually, his radar saw me first, probably.  Great technology, that instant-on stuff.  It’s quite unnerving to see the patrol car (SUV in this case) coming at you with its lights on before you even register that it’s there.  But he registered me just fine, at 98 MPH.

Fortunately, he was a pleasant bloke, and wrote me for 80, only 10 above the limit, which kept me out of jail in Battle Mountain, about a million miles out of my way.  He toyed with me a bit, saying, “I’ll give you a choice.  You can get the lecture and the ticket, or…just the ticket.”  I asked if we could renegotiate.  He wrote.  I settled; no lecture.

My mood strangely unaffected, I continued into Fallon and obtained lodging at the very first place I saw that was near the old downtown.

The Value Inn, while not quite “a find”, was a typical ratty little motel with one distinguishing characteristic:  a funny, friendly, innkeeper.  I walked into the office to check in, the overpowering aroma of Tandori chicken greeting me at the door.  I was prepared for the usual uninspiring transaction with an unsmiling woman in a sarong.

Instead, the gentleman who ran the place was all smiles.  He even let me negotiate the price down a couple of bucks, and told me what fun that was—no one ever haggled here in America.  He made a few jokes, gave me some good advice about food options nearby, and let me check out the room.  It was serviceable, but I would have stayed even if there had been blood sprayed on the ceiling.  The power of salesmanship.

After a brief visit to the friendly folk at the Headquarters Bar and Casino and the Frog Daddy Sportsbar, the latter tended by the most attractive woman I’d seen in Nevada, I got a take-out burrito at El Comedor.  I took it back to my crib and made love to it.  Outstanding food.  My experience receiving my traffic award forgotten, I fell into a deep sleep with very nice thoughts of Fallon, indeed.


The next morning I left at the crack of 10.  My hotelier was still all smiles, and wished me “happy trails”, which sounds great with an Indian accent.  Shooting straight over to I-80, I didn’t stop until Truckee, having marveled at the railroad visible alongside 80.  Nothing like it in the world.

Home by 2:30, and it was hot.  I’d put on about 2000 miles and 3 pounds, all of it well-earned.  Rob was on his way past Telluride, Ouray, Boulder, Rushmore, and whatever was to await him.  Motorcycling to Moab may not have been the only way to go, but it’s the only way I want to go.  To coin a phrase: mission accomplished.

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