The road ran us out of Se­dona,

Cycle World - - North Rim Adventure -

the sky ket­tle black and up­turned. Rain poured onto that red desert, flood­ing usu­ally dry washes with a thick slurry of sand and wa­ter. We saw it com­ing, a wall of weather punc­tu­ated by jabs of light­ning. The tem­per­a­ture tum­bled to the low 50s in a blink. We had time to close our vents and brace for the worst of it, 10 hours into a 14-hour ride from Or­ange County, Cal­i­for­nia, to Ja­cob Lake, Ari­zona. There’s ex­plor­ing to be done up there on the jagged edge of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.

Jeff Allen and I left on a cou­ple of long-legged ma­chines: a 2017 KTM 1090 Ad­ven­ture R and a 2017 Honda Africa Twin, es­cap­ing the free­way tan­gle of greater Los An­ge­les be­fore dawn. The two were glad to con­sume the long acres of as­phalt be­tween where we were and where we were go­ing, blast­ing across the Mo­jave at the shal­low end of 90 mph. The sun caught us just out­side of In­dio, slip­ping be­neath a shelf of clouds and ban­ish­ing the early morn­ing cool. It would be 90 de­grees by 9 a.m.

To be so sim­i­lar in con­cept, the bikes could not be more dif­fer­ent in char­ac­ter. The KTM is a weapon, a fierce and froth­ing thing. It aches for on-ramps and the con­strict­ing as­phalt of moun­tain passes. Its 1,050cc V-twin has deep lungs, and it fills them with glee, swelling to 10,000 rpm with a broad rush of torque over and over again as you click through the six-speed gear­box. The en­gine is full of char­ac­ter, crass and coarse be­neath you. It’s the kind of thing that would take

of­fense at be­ing called a sew­ing ma­chine.

Say that to the Africa Twin and the bike would beam with pride. Its 998cc par­al­lel twin is smooth, trad­ing a sky-rat­tling red­line for an ocean of ci­vil­ity. It makes most of its power in the lower oc­taves, with a good swell around 3,000 rpm. It’s a proper heart for this puppy of a mo­tor­cy­cle. It is end­lessly ap­proach­able and made more so by a dual-clutch trans­mis­sion. The gear­box is sim­ple. Put it in drive, and the bike does the rest, mer­rily switch­ing gears with an im­pres­sive smooth­ness most of the time. We were well out of Cal­i­for­nia be­fore I both­ered to look for the tach or the gear in­di­ca­tor.

And yet, for some­one who’s spent a fair por­tion of a life­time try­ing to learn the in­tri­cate steps re­quired to op­er­ate a mo­tor­cy­cle, the DCT was un­der­foot more of­ten than not. Honda aban­doned the tried-and-true toe shift for a pair of man­ual shift but­tons mounted on the left han­dle­bar. It’s a pop­u­lar neigh­bor­hood. There are no less than seven dif­fer­ent ac­tu­a­tors on that bar. I lost count of the num­ber of times I blasted the horn or mashed the in­di­ca­tors while go­ing for a shift. The re­sult re­quires a half-sec­ond of thought on which but­ton to press when you don’t have half a sec­ond to spare. It feels like wear­ing your daddy’s shoes. Close to right, but not quite.

The road to Jerome is a tan­gle of as­phalt. The black tar­mac scram­bles over old sand­stone canyons and weaves its way through a spare conifer for­est. Allen, on the 1090 R, van­ished like an ap­pari­tion. Just as well, as the Honda doesn’t de­light in on-road an­tics, at least not laden with four days’ worth of camp­ing gear, tools, and kit. The sus­pen­sion lacks the KTM’S pre­ci­sion, yield­ing slower turn-in, and the low seat makes it harder to po­si­tion your­self on the bike. Throw in a tall, af­ter­mar­ket smoked wind­screen that does lit­tle but get into your line of sight, and you’re hav­ing a bet­ter time at six-tenths than seven.

That storm started beat­ing its ch­est as we ap­proached

Se­dona, the clouds tall and sharp as braced knuck­les. It was beau­ti­ful, the sky rip­pling in op­po­si­tion to the bright and rust­ing desert. We stopped for sup­plies, load­ing what room we had left in our pan­niers with a day’s worth of jerky, gra­nola, and as much wa­ter as we could carry. I was glad to be back on the KTM as we left the gro­cery. The first drops were al­ready on us, and as we climbed 89A to Flagstaff, the sky was in a rage. Wa­ter ran down the road in deep, cold streams. We’d lost bet­ter than 50 de­grees in­side of an hour.

It took all af­ter­noon to get out from un­der that storm, the heavy clouds haunt­ing us through Flagstaff and out to Page. The desert turned alien as we rode, pur­ple and sage hills of sand and stone wan­dered out to im­pos­si­ble walls of rock, the eons of our Earth writ­ten in their strata. We watched the rain swell and ebb, saw it fall in great sashes to the empty desert. The low scrub was glad of the gift, and the air erupted with the per­fume of that place: mesquite and ju­niper.

It was a long, hard day, full of hot, flat miles and empty hours, but the rid­ing got good again out­side of Cliff Dwellers Lodge. The North Rim is 1,000 feet higher than its south­ern coun­ter­part, and the sun be­gan set­ting as 89A climbed out of the basin. The light slipped through the storm to paint the hills gold with the day’s em­bers. Rain fell on our hori­zon, bent like a thin sum­mer skirt in a breeze, the drops catch­ing the dusk as they fell. There was noth­ing to do but laugh at the im­pos­si­ble beauty of it and how easy it is to miss th­ese mo­ments en­tirely,

to live out our days crav­ing the cheaper balm of a glow­ing screen. Th­ese are the wages of the mo­tor­cy­cle.

We stayed the night in Ja­cob Lake, got up early, and cov­ered the 42 miles through the high for­est to the lodge on the North Rim. At more than 8,000 feet, the sky’s clearer, the air sharper than down be­low. Flat-bot­tomed, white cu­mu­lous clouds lazed their way above us as we rode through the open range out­side of the park, black cows and calves wan­der­ing through the pine, the smell of their ma­nure mix­ing with the morn­ing air. That road is a won­der, a smooth and gra­cious two-lane that cour­ses its way to the edge of the North Rim. It tum­bles in and out of high mead­ows, lush and green un­der the late­sum­mer sun and yes­ter­day’s rain.

There is no pre­par­ing your­self for the canyon. It doesn’t mat­ter how many times you’ve seen it or how many pho­tos you’ve taken. Putting eyes on that vast chasm stut­ters you. Your mind fum­bles the con­cept of dis­tances so wide or depths so deep, and you find your­self look­ing from spot to spot in a rush, des­per­ately try­ing to take it in. The riven earth spills out be­neath you, and the sense of your own in­signif­i­cance rings loud in your ribs. It’s a trea­sure. We took it in at the lodge with the rest of the tourists loung­ing on their deck chairs. Hung out long enough to watch the eclipse and pick up our back­coun­try camp­ing per­mit.

Our plan was to stay in the park the first night then re­lo­cate to the Kaibab Na­tional For­est the next, but the ranger be­hind the desk had some un­for­tu­nate news. The fore­cast called for rain, and the for­est roads can turn to a mire with a


lit­tle pre­cip­i­ta­tion. We took a knee on the first night of camp­ing and headed off the plateau. Af­ter a day and a half of pave­ment, we were ready to get some dirt in our teeth.

What started as a 60-mile loop through the Paria Canyon-ver­mil­ion Cliffs Wilder­ness de­volved into a seven-hour slog, first when Allen and I lost each other for an hour or so and later when I some­how man­aged to find a 3-inch dry­wall screw with the Twin’s rear tire. It wasn’t un­til we un­packed the tools that we un­der­stood just how long our day was about to get. In our rush, we brought the span­ners for the KTM’S rear axle but not the Honda’s. There was no get­ting the wheel off. Allen vol­un­teered to ride it the 35 miles back to the mo­tel at Ja­cob Lake. Our flash­ers il­lu­mi­nated the twist­ing road as dusk fell and night rose, the two of us rid­ing in a 25-mph pa­rade.

Af­ter bor­row­ing an ad­justable wrench from the ho­tel the next morn­ing, we got the tire off only to dis­cover that our long ride on the rim had de­stroyed the car­cass. The clos­est re­place­ment was two hours away in St. Ge­orge, Utah. Allen sad­dled up and rode the KTM west with the Honda’s rear wheel strapped to the rack while I made calls and an ap­point­ment for a new tire and tube. By midafter­noon, both bikes were back to­gether and gun­ning down Point Sublime Trail.

The trail be­gan as an over­grown two-track, the ruts sparkling with still, dark wa­ter here and there from the pre­vi­ous night’s rain. The KTM rides smaller than its 456-pound dry weight would sug­gest. It’s made to be rid­den while stand­ing, its bars and tank placed to ac­com­mo­date the hu­man body’s var­i­ous an­gles. It made glee­ful work of the ruts and rocks that be­came the or­der of the day as we rode fur­ther into the pines, up and down steep scram­bles. It’s a mir­a­cle, a dirt bike on growth hor­mone.

We stopped in a wide clear­ing, the road ob­structed by a thick herd of buf­falo. The great wall of mus­cle and bone grunted and stomped in the dust, their brown hides a patch­work of thin and thick hair. For a mo­ment, it was pos­si­ble to imag­ine them spread­ing out across the width of our west, un­bri­dled by ri­fle or fence. We switched bikes be­fore rid­ing through the thick of them slowly, the calves and cows wan­der­ing off the road be­fore the bulls. I wasn’t look­ing for­ward to more time on the Honda, but the ma­chine comes to­gether off road. It’s a thing you have to work to up­set. The soft springs and dampers bound over ev­ery­thing, and the DCT makes stand­ing shifts easy.

The trans­mis­sion showed its lim­i­ta­tions as the road con­stricted again, climb­ing up steeper grades over more loose ter­rain. My right wrist is dumb, in­ca­pable of the fine ad­just­ments re­quired to keep trac­tion in low-speed, tech­ni­cal ma­neu­vers, but that’s all that the DCT of­fers. There is no mod­u­lat­ing

mo­men­tum and tire speed with a clutch. Just spin and pray.

It made for less re­laxed climbs, but the bike and I re­peat­edly got to the top with­out spend­ing any time on our sides. De­scents are another mat­ter. Be­low a cer­tain speed, the Africa Twin free­wheels, los­ing en­gine-brak­ing and leav­ing you to mod­u­late your de­scent with just the rear brake. It takes some get­ting used to.

Even so, both of th­ese ma­chines are a joy. We live in a world that rev­els in gray am­bi­gu­ity, where the mea­sure of our ac­tions may never be taken. Th­ese bikes file us down to the pass/fail point of our­selves, where ev­ery twitch of wrist and an­kle, ev­ery shift in po­si­tion trans­late into mak­ing it over an ob­sta­cle or en­joy­ing a 500-pound dead­lift in full rid­ing kit. Ev­ery mile feels earned, rare, and pre­cious.

I am not a pro rider. Noth­ing on my ré­sumé reads “Baja” or “Dakar,” and yet, the taller, more pow­er­ful KTM feels more con­fi­dent un­der my feet. It’s a com­bi­na­tion of ev­ery­thing: er­gonomics, throt­tle sen­si­tiv­ity, and the fa­mil­iar­ity of a clutch lever. A su­pe­rior sus­pen­sion doesn’t hurt, ei­ther, and when we take a break, I talk Allen out of the 1090 R. I wouldn’t give it up un­til we roll back into Or­ange County.

It is eas­ier to ride not be­cause of push but­tons or an ac­com­mo­dat­ing saddle but be­cause the long days I’ve spent rid­ing have hard­wired the mus­cle move­ments nec­es­sary to nav­i­gate the bike over the in­creas­ingly de­mand­ing climbs and de­scents we faced. I was on the KTM as we ducked around fallen trees and slogged through axle-deep pud­dles wide as ponds, their bot­toms soft and des­per­ate to put me on my tail. I was on it as my thighs burned af­ter bet­ter than 40 miles of pound­ing over un­cer­tain ter­rain and when we fi­nally rounded a cor­ner to see the for­est give way to the canyon, the chasm glow­ing red and wild in the late af­ter­noon light.

We set up our tents and feasted on the pro­vi­sions we bought in Se­dona. The sun went slid­ing to­ward the west, the light drag­ging its way across the points on the far rim. We watched the Milky Way paint its way across the sky and caught shoot­ing stars as they went burn­ing to­ward our hori­zon. It was a good day. One I’ll hold onto un­til they put me in the ground.

This is the mir­a­cle of th­ese bikes. Th­ese same brutes spent one day bash­ing across the in­ter­state and another rip­ping up a road made for light and lithe 450s. They brought us to the ragged edge of the Grand Canyon with­out so much as a change in tire pres­sure, to a va­cant camp­site on the tee­ter­ing edge of our Earth. This is their prom­ise. They are the part­ners with crow­bars wait­ing to break you from the chains of tedium around your neck. The thin ex­cuse you need to get up and go. To run far and wide.


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