Headin’ Down the Highway

Route 66 – It might be the most iconic road in the U.S. Definitely worth riding on for at least a few miles.

There are a few questions I ask myself when planning a motorcycle trip.

  • Where do I want to go?
  • What do I want to see?
  • Do I have enough time?
  • Do I have enough money?

The answers are usually as follows – everywhere, everything, never, hardly!

This year, with my work being shut down because of COVID-19, things would be different. Not completely different, but different enough that my answers to the above questions were now –everywhere, everything, YES!, hardly – but I will make it work! So in early July, I set out on a motorcycle trip across the U.S.

I’ve always wanted to see California. I’d been close. I lived in Arizona for 5 years as a teenager, but never travelled the few hours it would take to get to California. There were a few goals I wanted to accomplish during this trip: I wanted to get to the West Coast, visit my former stomping grounds in Arizona, and see my friend Darryl along the way.

Darryl was along my planned route. He lived in Alabama, but we’d meet in Tennessee. He was hoping to be able to make the trip out to California with me, but he was going to be tied up with work. Instead, we spent a couple of days riding in Alabama and Tennessee. It’s always a good time riding with Darryl, as he tends to have a unique outlook about a lot of things and is funny as well. We met up with a few of his riding friends, rode some back roads around Morgan County, Tennessee, and visited Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary. Though I’ve spent my life trying to avoid prison, I was now actually going to pay money to get into prison! The tour of the prison was interesting, the restaurant and gift shop were enjoyable, and the winding roads leading through the mountains and to the prison were fun.

Darryl and I split off from the others after our prison excursion and headed to his place in Alabama. We got a little lost on the way, and took a detour that led us through Georgia before we found our way. We hung out for a bit, shared some laughs and dinner, and pulled out some guitars for a jam session. Next day was an oil change and some maintenance on the bike before bidding adieu to my friend, hitting the road to travel west. Darryl’s last words before I left were “whatever you do, don’t stop in West Memphis!” I didn’t think much of it at the time, but the words would come back to me later that day.

My plan was as simple as getting on I-40 and riding west until I hit Arizona, then slowing down, enjoying the view, and making my way through some select stops, and then on to California. Time wasn’t really an issue, but I wanted to get to Arizona quickly and wasn’t interested in much sightseeing along the way.

Bad weather is a part of nearly all multi-day motorcycle trips, and my first encounter was in Memphis. I had rain gear on before the rain hit and it seemed like it would be a typical summer storm, but things are seldom as they seem and the highway now resembled a parking lot more than a thoroughfare.

I exited the highway and rode through Memphis, hoping to bypass whatever the issue was and resume my travels. I’m still not exactly sure what was going on, but there were a ton of cops, fire trucks, and ambulances along the city streets and in parking lots. I’d estimate there were a couple hundred police, with some in riot gear! (Here’s a link to what I later found out was happening. )

I managed to find my way back to the interstate, avoiding any more of the commotion, and resumed my westward journey in the rain. Darryl’s recommendation about not stopping in West Memphis was still in my mind as I contemplated stopping for the night. It would have been helpful if I’d looked at a map and realized that West Memphis is actually in Arkansas. Instead, I figured I was now through the west side of Memphis, and should get out of the rain for the night. As I crossed the Mississippi River and into Arkansas, I was greeted by a road sign welcoming me to West Memphis! Heeding Darryl’s recommendation, I plowed through the rain and stopped in Palestine, AK., for the night.

I got a bit of a late start leaving Palestine Monday morning because my phone didn’t automatically adjust to the new time zone. I wasn’t really sure what time it was and it would be the theme for the rest of my trip, as sometimes my phone would automatically adjust to a new time zone or revert back to my normal Eastern Time Zone. So I usually had no clue what time it was and was often an hour off. Nothing much exciting on the road and I stopped earlier than usual for the night in Elk City, OK., hoping to get an earlier start the next day.

Tuesday morning was an early start. I skipped breakfast and hit the road early, hoping to cover a lot of ground. I did take a few minutes while in Texas to stop at the Cadillac Ranch. Interesting place, but not really worth going out-of-the-way to see. It happened to be right along my route, so it was worth a short visit.

Scenery started getting better once I hit the west side of Texas and then into New Mexico. New Mexico presented an interesting challenge, as many gas stations along I-40 were closed. I’m not sure if it they were shut down because of the pandemic or some other reason, but it was sometimes difficult to get gas.

I hit Arizona Tuesday evening and was presented with the same challenge of finding an open gas station. There were billboards along the highway that advertised gas stations, but some of these places looked like they had been out of business for years. I did manage to find gas, but it took more than one attempt at exiting the interstate to find something open.

Now that I had made it to Arizona, it was time to slow down and really start enjoying the trip. I rode through the Petrified Forest for a short time, before stopping for the night in Holbrook.

I was excited to get started Wednesday morning, knowing I’d be visiting some places that I’d lived as a kid 35 years prior. Things started off a bit rough, as I noticed a nail in my rear tire while I was loading the bike. It was just one of a series of issues that were thrown my way during he trip, but after a quick repair, I was on the road and heading toward Flagstaff.

Large pine trees dominate the views near Flagstaff before giving way once again to the sparse desert scenery. Pulling into my old hometown of Mayer brought back a ton of memories from my youth. I stopped at the high school and grabbed a few photos, then made my way through town to where I used to live.

Much had changed since I’d left back in 1985. My old residence was no longer there and the roads were now paved. Many new businesses were operating in what was once nearly a ghost town. It’s still a very small town with not much there, but it was progress. The old garage where I worked, Cliff’s Automotive, had closed long ago, and whatever had taken its place was now out of business as well.

I spent a couple of hours in Mayer, just riding and walking around to see how much had changed. It would have been great to stay a few days revisiting familiar sights, and though I had a fair amount of time before I needed to head home, there were other things I wanted to see.

Things really started heating up as I made my way from Mayer to Phoenix. By the time I stopped for lunch at In-N-Out Burger, the temperature was a less-than-pleasant 110 degrees. (There are no In-N-Out Burger locations in my home region, but I’d heard a lot about them and had to check it out. I am now considering moving just so I can stop at In-N-Out on occasion!) I had originally intended to spend a couple of days in and around Phoenix but things in that area were getting bad with a COVID-19 breakout, so I skipped Phoenix and decided I’d have to come back another time when things were more normal.

Nightfall found me getting a place to stay in Salome, AZ. I was about an hour from California now, but I decided to stay in Salome for a day off. I had to catch up with laundry and email, and I could use a little rest. I spent the day walking around town, taking pictures, reorganizing my stuff on the bike, and even managed a nap in the afternoon. It was a good day in all, and I probably enjoyed it more than I should.

Laundry stop in Salome, AZ.

I decided to leave ridiculously early the next day, hoping to beat the heat as I made my way toward the coast. I was on the road by 3 a.m., and while it wasn’t 110 degrees like the previous day, it was still hot! I was in California before the sun was up and was pleasantly surprised as to how cool it was getting. I swung by Joshua Tree National Park to grab a few photos, but my goal was the coast, so I cut my visit short and got back on the highway.

It was still early morning when I went through LA. Traffic in LA is everything it’s cracked up to be, but I managed to get through without too much delay. LA was surprising because it wasn’t what I’d expected. I realize I only saw it from the freeway, with the exception of a gas stop, but it seemed run-down. I’m not really sure what I was expecting, but I know I didn’t get it.

Things did get nicer near the coast, and by the time I got to the Pacific Coast Highway in Santa Monica, the scenery was more like what I expected. I stopped for a few photos at the beach, then meandered along the PCH for a couple of hours before cutting through some canyons to catch I-15 to start making my way back East. The canyons were fun to ride and I hope to get back one day soon and spend more time exploring the area. As far as I was concerned, my adventure was over and the only thing that remained was getting home to the East Coast.

Turns out I was wrong, and there were many enjoyable miles and views ahead. 

I’d heard the ride from LA to Vegas was mind-numbingly boring. It wasn’t nearly as bad as I had been led to believe, but what lies beyond Vegas was much more interesting. I got as far as Mesquite, Nevada before stopping after a 17-hour-day on the bike. Turns out Mesquite is just a few miles from the Arizona border, so I was further along than I thought.

Interstate 15 cuts through just a small piece of Arizona, and I was in Utah in no time. Utah turned out to be the biggest surprise of the trip. I’d never given the state much thought before, but now it’s a place I have to return to one day for further exploration.

Utah was the biggest surprise of the trip. The scenery is breathtaking, even along the interstate.

Even without leaving the interstate, the scenery was breathtaking and there were many places to stop and catch a great view. Gas stations were a bit far apart during one section of I-70, so that’s something to be mindful of if you’re ever traveling in the area. There was so much to see from the roadway, and I was regretting that I didn’t allow for more time in this area. I did pull over at many locations along the highway, grabbing some photos and taking in the landscape. Colorado was just ahead and I knew it would also have great views.

The interstate runs next to the Colorado River for many miles and offers plenty of scenic views. It’s hard to make good time in Utah and Colorado, just because there are so many great places to stop and so many things to see. Traffic came to a standstill around the Idaho Springs area, but I was able to bypass much of the Interstate, get around the problem, and catch some great views as I made my way.

I was advised to swing by Estes Park for some great riding and terrific scenery. The views were spectacular, but another traffic jam cut my exploration of the area short and I made my way back to the highway.

Once through the mountains in Colorado, the scenery becomes nearly nonexistent. There isn’t too much to look at, especially considering the past week had been spent with such fantastic views. As the interesting landscape disappeared, I headed north on I-25, making my way into Wyoming.

Weather in Wyoming was proving to be more interesting than the landscape. I’d see storms straight ahead, then the highway would turn toward clear skies again. The wind was really picking up by the time I hit Cheyenne and though I hadn’t encountered any rain yet, things weren’t looking good. Just before Nebraska, fierce winds and sideways rain forced me to pull over and get back into rain gear. It was actually hard to stand up, let alone pull on the rain gear on the side of the road. (A smart person would likely have stopped for the night, but I am not a smart man!) I was near the edge of the storm, and could see where the ominous looking clouds ended. I raced toward the edge of the cloud, hoping the wind would dissipate. It was only about 20 minutes until I reached the edge of the storm. The wind receded, and I had missed most of the rain. It was probably the worst wind storm I’d ever ridden in. There was no place to pull over and take cover, and I was fortunate to catch only the edge of it. It was getting dark and I rode on to Sidney, Nebraska to stop for the night.

The next couple of days were uneventful. I continued along I-80, heading east until I reached home. There wasn’t much in the way of interesting topography, but I did see a lot of corn – and windmills! I’d make a couple of stops along the way to see something that caught my eye and grab a picture, but I understand why this region is referred to as drive-through or flyover country.

Traffic definitely increased as I travelled east, but with much of the country shut down due to COVID-19, traffic wasn’t nearly as bad as normal. I stopped one last night on the western side of Pennsylvania before returning home the next day. Riding through Pennsylvania’s Pocono Mountains is always a treat and made for a final bit of interesting, though familiar, scenery as completed my travels.

Overall, the trip lasted just over two weeks and was 7,746 miles. I went through 40 tanks of gas and drove through 24 states: New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Arizona, California, Nevada, Utah, Colorado, Wyoming, Nebraska, Iowa, Illinois, Ohio, Indiana.

OBSERVATIONS:

  • “It’s a dry heat” doesn’t make it any less hot!
  • They need to open an In-N-Out Burger in New Jersey.
  • I should move out West, maybe back to Arizona or Utah.
  • Riding with friends is fun, but I prefer traveling alone.
  • However prepared you may be, unexpected things will occur.
  • No matter how much time you have, it’s not enough.
  • The Pennsylvania Turnpike has been under construction since I was a little kid and is still in bad shape.

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