RID­ING ARI­ZONA

UPS AND DOWNS OF MIN­I­MAL­IST MO­TOR­CY­CLE TOUR­ING

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ARI­ZONA DOESN’T GIVE UP ITS SE­CRETS EAS­ILY.

This state is bet­ter known for des­ti­na­tions than the jour­neys be­tween them. Big in­ter­states. A long bor­der. Lots of mar­quee at­trac­tions mapped out and well trod­den. But there are gems to dis­cover too. Hid­den be­tween tourist traps is some of the best rid­ing and most spec­tac­u­lar scenery in the coun­try.

Our trip is a hunt for road­side ho­tels and red rocks and sweep­ing bends, all with what­ever we can fit in a back­pack. A mid-week, blow-off-work, pack-a-bag-and-go kinda ad­ven­ture. Writer and friend Abhi Eswarappa is quick to vol­un­teer. We’ve known each other for years but have never rid­den to­gether. Still, he’s will­ing and avail­able and has an in­de­fati­ga­ble sense of hu­mor that’ll stand up to long days on the road.

From the be­gin­ning, the clouds have it in for us. Thun­der­storms ring Scotts­dale, dark and some­times sparked pur­ple by threads of light­ning. And from the be­gin­ning, we prod at them, com­par­ing road maps with cur­tains of dis­tant rain. You prob­a­bly know the feel­ing, equal parts op­ti­mism and in­evitabil­ity. And you prob­a­bly wound up soaked to the skin too.

High­way 87 ac­com­plishes the rare feat of be­ing as beau­ti­ful as it is ef­fi­cient. It de­parts Tempe head­ing east. Scotts­dale sneaks in one last gasp at sprawl then the road breaks free of civ­i­liza­tion and starts climb­ing into the Tonto Na­tional For­est. It’s a broad twolane with long bends, per­fectly suited to a Har­ley-david­son’s long stride. The high­way climbs el­e­gantly into the for­est, through the saguaro, and ever deeper into moun­tains and clouds. It’s not long be­fore we plunge into the thick smell of desert rain.

In a model lineup ripe with ex­cel­lent bag­gers, the Sof­tail Slim and CVO Pro Street Break­out are com­par­a­tively spar­tan stand­outs. The rust-red Sof­tail is pure Amer­i­cana. It’s the Har­ley that sport­bike rid­ers en­vi­sion: low, sim­ple, pu­ri­tan­i­cal. With its floor­boards and semi-gloss-black de­tail­ing, passersby won­der aloud how old it is. By con­trast, the Break­out rep­re­sents what Har­ley ac­tu­ally is.

Bass-boat metal flakes make the paint sparkle in the sun. An air cleaner acts as a wedge, push­ing your right knee into the wind. A mas­sive 240mmwide rear tire fills ev­ery inch of fender. The Break­out is an im­age-con­scious ma­chine with layer af­ter layer of sur­pris­ing com­pe­tence and moder­nity back­ing it up. There’s cruise con­trol, ABS, flaw­less fuel in­jec­tion, and, for all the re­bel­lious at­ti­tude, a $200 op­tion will make the Break­out emis­sions le­gal in Cal­i­for­nia. Much as it might look cus­tom, this V-twin is fac­tory en­gi­neered to the hilt.

They’re a cu­ri­ous pair, each rep­re­sent­ing the ex­treme ends of Har­ley’s core com­pe­tence. For a loop that will take us through the best of Ari­zona, they’re per­fect.

It isn’t rain but hail—nasty lit­tle pel­lets that plink off our hel­mets and bikes and sting our shins through our jeans. The pin­pricks make us feel alive. There’s some­thing joy­ous about rid­ing into a storm in denim and get­ting away with it, the pre­cip­i­ta­tion not stick­ing long enough to soak through, just like the ice bounc­ing off big cac­tus. The desert sucks up mois­ture so fast the road seems steamy rather than wet or dry.

You haven’t lived un­til you’ve smelled rain in the desert. Jeanette Ju­rado, a park ranger and botanist, cred­its the ubiq­ui­tous cre­osote bush. Resins that pro­tect the tough lit­tle plants from mois­ture loss be­come aro­matic when wet. Just breath­ing on the leaves is enough for them to give up their fra­grance. But the smell of desert rain touches some­thing deeper. It’s the smell of life be­ing sus­tained, and it’s in­tox­i­cat­ing. All that fresh air stuffed up your hel­met and into your nose is al­most nar­cotic.

By the time we hit Payson, we are hun­gry and stiff from the cold, and the clouds are only get­ting darker. A few long trains of tour­ing bikes pass us, fog lamps cast­ing glare off the wet road, rid­ers decked head to toe in rain gear. We’re wear­ing Kevlar-re­in­forced denim and leather. Min­i­mal­ism takes one on the chin.

We stop at a café and order cof­fee. Or I do. Abhi, some­how, doesn’t drink cof­fee. So I order him hot choco­late. It does lit­tle for our hard-assed im­age but worlds for hands that have been frozen into claw shapes around han­dle­bars. Lo­cals wan­der in from the north, drenched. We’re go­ing north.

Park rangers at Tonto Nat­u­ral Bridge are as­ton­ished to see us walk in all bedrag­gled and wet. “You picked the one rainy day,” they tell us.

I’d al­ready dragged Abhi into a hail­storm, in the desert, on a work day. Some­how, morale holds to­gether. A good rid­ing part­ner is worth his or her weight in gold.

Our ho­tel is booked in Se­dona—two hours and a moun­tain range away—and the weather radar in­di­cates a grind. We spread the at­las across the coun­ter­top. Abhi pokes his fin­ger at a state park in the mid­dle of the map and asks if I’ve been there. It sits con­ve­niently be­low the dark greens and yel­lows of a thun­der­storm. I haven’t been, but I’m sure it’ll do nicely.

The park rangers at Tonto Nat­u­ral Bridge are as­ton­ished to see us walk in all bedrag­gled and wet. “You picked the one rainy day,” one of them tells us. I’ve just come close to wip­ing out the $26,000 Break­out on an im­pos­si­bly slick cat­tle grate. My boots squelch when I walk. It’s not a thing we wanted to hear. We start hik­ing and don’t even bother to take off our hel­mets and gear, pre­fer­ring the com­fort of dry-ish hair to a hike that’s both stren­u­ous and soggy.

But by the time we get to the foot of Tonto Nat­u­ral Bridge, we’ve dis­pensed with ev­ery­thing but awe. In the rain, it’s a mir­a­cle of a place. It’s the largest traver­tine bridge in the world, with wa­ter­falls cas­cad­ing off its sides while a stream runs straight through its mid­dle. Rain­wa­ter fil­ters through the lime­stone and falls as jelly-bean-sized drops, splash­ing into pools or off rocks. The drops fall so slowly you can see them wig­gle in the air and catch them in­di­vid­u­ally in your hand.

Thun­der rat­tles the canyon. Our gear dries on stones. De­spite the clouds, col­ors are brighter. Wet lichen is rich with reds and greens. With the rain, there’s not an­other soul in sight. The cold and slick roads are worth the trou­ble. Co­cooned in the cli­mate-con­trolled bub­ble of a car we would never have found this place. Our on­board nav­i­ga­tion would have routed us right on by, and with­out frozen hands and wet boots we’d have never stopped.

The rain ta­pers off and we make a run for it. A straight shot to Se­dona for sun­set. We punch our way through the clouds. The moun­tains and storm let us go all at once, and we find our­selves de­scend­ing out of the pine forests into a grassy plain and sun. It’s not long be­fore the first of Se­dona’s red rocks pierce the hori­zon, and by the time we hit town, ev­ery­thing but our boots has dried.

The sun sets. We’ve trav­eled 200 miles. We’ve seen mist ris­ing through forests,

wit­nessed hail in the desert, and basked in the warm glow of red rock canyons. We’ve met a dozen peo­ple along the way, and our mo­tor­cy­cles have been re­li­able trans­porta­tion, con­ver­sa­tional ice­break­ers, and ea­ger play­mates all along. And that’s just a day.

Har­ley-david­son calls any­body who isn’t a white Amer­i­can male over the age of 35 an “out­reach de­mo­graphic.” That in­cludes my friend, Abhi, the peo­ple of Asia, South Amer­ica, and Europe, and ev­ery woman in the world. Why did it take us so long to fig­ure out that mo­tor­cy­cling was an ex­pe­ri­ence for ev­ery­one? Why do we have to call the vast ma­jor­ity of the world “out­reach customers” for one of Amer­ica’s most iconic prod­ucts? Why are we so damn bad at spread­ing the word about how won­der­ful rid­ing can be?

Se­dona seems im­pos­si­ble in the morn­ing. It bus­tles, caf­feinated and merry. Tourism Jeeps and schlock T-shirt shops lure sun­burned tourists with the promise of mem­o­ries. And all around are stag­ger­ing views. We find a cof­fee shop on the way out of town, and bask­ing in ci­vil­ity, we eat like kings.

Se­dona’s ap­peal is strong. We stop for pho­tos on the way out of town then play like id­iots on the High­way 89A hair­pins. Abhi makes an art of long, gen­tle scrapes of the Sof­tail’s foot­boards. I do my best to not grind away the soap-bar-shaped pegs on the Break­out. The bikes are show­ing their tem­per­a­ment now. Ari­zona is thick with high­ways that have long sweep­ers and gen­tle cam­bers. On a sport­bike, you would want tighter bends and a more ag­gres­sive rid­ing po­si­tion. On the Sof­tail, you want a taller seat. On Har­ley’s big 110, you want for noth­ing at all. Some­body at Har­ley spends a lot of time think­ing about back­sides.

We stop in at Slide Rock State Park to dip our feet in the icy wa­ter and Abhi chases an ice cream sand­wich with a scor­pion lol­lipop. We’ve killed so much time in the canyons that we’ll have to move quickly to make Peach Springs by dark. The road has other ideas. A con­struc­tion project has the road torn down to a barely lev­eled bed. Truck traf­fic has made waves out of the dirt, and the giant rear end of the Break­out balks over the bumps. My vi­sion doesn’t re­turn to nor­mal un­til Flagstaff.

We make In­ter­state 40 and haul ass, rac­ing the sun. Cir­cum­stances spit us con­tin­u­ally onto old Route 66. A loose vi­sor screw. Hunger. We roll through Wil­liams, where you can still take a train to the Grand Canyon. It’s long roads and

The view over the edge changes dra­mat­i­cally around ev­ery bend. Min­ing de­bris. Old tun­nels. Cars that have plunged off the edge and been left to de­cay.

ro­man­ti­cized all-amer­i­can mid-cen­tury ide­al­ism. Our ho­tel just out­side of Peach Springs is a well-kept relic, com­plete with rusted-out Amer­i­can hulks and a faded yel­low sign. The Wi-fi is spotty, and there’s no mo­bile ser­vice. The main at­trac­tion at the Cav­erns Inn—spec­tac­u­lar nat­u­ral dry caves that were once a fall­out shel­ter—has al­ready closed up shop. It’s as close to the 1960s as you’ll ever see. With­out our phones to en­ter­tain us, we take a late mo­tor­cy­cle ride, dodge swoop­ing bats, and catch a spec­tac­u­lar moon­rise. The next day we’ll have to make up for our lan­guid pace.

Three-hun­dred-plus miles. That’s the toll our plod­ding is sched­uled to ex­tract. Our course through the moun­tains has placed us in the plains, and we’ve got a long down­hill slog be­tween us and Scotts­dale. But there’s one more de­tour be­fore we give our­selves over to High­way 93, cruise con­trol, and the blur of beige desert.

Oat­man is an old gold-min­ing town on Route 66. One more dried-up place in the Wile E. Coy­ote desert. I love it. The road into town from the east is daunt­ing. It climbs a thorny hill­side, pitches over a pass, and de­scends wildly to­ward the val­ley floor. The view over the edge changes dra­mat­i­cally around ev­ery bend. Min­ing de­bris. Old tun­nels. Cars that have plunged off the edge and left to de­cay. We stop for pho­tos at a beau­ti­fully re­stored old gas sta­tion and have a cold drink, know­ing more are wait­ing just over the hill. Both bikes lose a lit­tle more peg. We hit town, and the lo­cal gang of wild bur­ros in­spects the bikes then wan­ders off to pick the pock­ets of tourists. One nabs a box of choco­lates and con­sumes a fridge mag­net in the process. Later, a lethar­gi­cally staged Old West gun­fight breaks out in the street.

Hel­mets, jack­ets, sun­glasses, socks, sun­screen, a credit card, rid­ing jeans, boots, long un­der­wear, back­packs, and a map. That’s most of it. Ev­ery­thing needed to be an evan­ge­list for mo­tor­cy­cles you can dig out of your closet in half an hour.

It’s hard to re­mem­ber the al­lure of the open road and that it’s so ac­ces­si­ble. For­get stalling un­til you find the per­fect tank bag. Don’t wait for your one big trip ev­ery year. Find a friend, take what you’ve got, and just go. Will you be mis­er­able some­times? Will your spine scream at an­other hour with your knees too high and your hips too low? Will you curse at the weather? You won’t know un­til you go.

And you can tell ev­ery new mo­tor­cy­clist you meet that you were happy you did.

BY CHRIS CANTLE PHO­TOG­RA­PHY BY JU­LIA LA­PALME

Far left Parched, Cantle doesn’t wait to re­move his hel­met be­fore guz­zling a cream soda in the desert.

left De­spite the heat, Abhi is a tra­di­tion­al­ist when it comes to cur­ing straight-road bore­dom.

Bot­tom left The warmth and cin­e­matic scenery of Cool Springs, on Route 66, is wel­come af­ter the damp and low clouds of Ari­zona’s pine forests. Re­gard­less of weather, both boast bril­liant rid­ing.

be­low Route plan­ning at the (very) moto-friendly Grand Canyon Cav­erns Inn. The road­side mo­tel sprung up around spec­tac­u­lar dry caves and was once one of Ari­zona’s most pop­u­lar at­trac­tions.

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