Southern Utah is unlike any other place in the world- there is magic in those red rocks and blue skies. I’ve always romanticized the idea of getting lost in Southern Utah on a motorcycle, another form of magic.
Aside from the magic of the sea of opposite colors in a million year old theater… I had two mystical rendezvous to make in southern Utah:
1. A visit to the grave of my Great Great Grandfather, Ephraim K Hanks.
2. A return visit to Deadhorse Point, the ancient spirits that inhabit those cliffs, and the God they report to.
Memorial Day weekend proved to be the right combination of factors to make it happen. Though I fancied the idea of an aimless, agenda-free trip, this journey had a few imperatives. My hope was that this trip would incorporate both. I booked a couple of cheap out of the way motels, plotted a route, and got my bike ready to go.
One thing I’ve been nervous about is the fuel range of my bike. My gas mileage can vary greatly, from 30 mpg to 50 mpg, depending on a mix of things I can and cannot control – head wind vs tail wind, incline, and how heavy I am on the throttle. During the COVID-19 quarantine I found that some gas stations were selling old gas, which gave me extremely poor mileage. Yes, gasoline can, and does, go bad. People have not been driving nearly as much, which means a lot of gasoline inventory has been sitting in storage tanks for a long time before it gets delivered and dispensed. My bike holds 4.5 gallons of fuel, 1.5 of that being reserve. I have a strict policy that I never bank on using reserve – it’s there for emergency use only. If I’m having a bad gas mileage day, those usable 3 gallons of fuel may only last 100 miles. I plan every ride to include a fuel stop every 100 miles. I’ve been to Southern Utah many times, but most of my ride will be along routes that I’ve never traveled. Making sure that my route includes stops in places with functioning gas stations has been a challenge. I began a quest to find the ultimate navigation / trip planning app. I wanted one with the following features:
- Offline function: will still work when I’m out of range of cell towers, which will almost certainly happen a lot on this trip
- Show current gas station locations
- Web interface: allowing me to create / make changes to routes on my computer and have them show up in the app
- Ability to edit routes in the app
- Ease of use – an intuitive way to change waypoints
- Show miles between waypoints
Saturday 23 May 2020
First lesson learned: Do not make any repairs, modifications, or other significant maintenance on the day of departure.
I had a new clutch lever and clutch cable to waiting to be installed prior to the trip. Could I have made the trip with what was already on the bike?
Why would I want to do a thing like that, when I could live dangerously, riding 1000 miles on unproven parts?
Already a few hours behind schedule, I finished packing my bag and descended into the garage to work on my bike in preparation for leaving. I installed the new cable, then the new lever. As I squeezed the lever in to test the placement of the parts, I heard something snap, and saw a small dark object whiz past my face into the abyss of the garage floor.
Somehow, the motorcycle gods guided me to find the airborne part. Upon inspecting the clutch lever mechanism and the rogue part, I discovered that I had broken a clutch cutoff switch. (some bikes are equipped with a few “dummy switches” that exist to keep you from being able to do stupid things, like start the bike while it’s in gear). That said, I do not know if this particular bypass switch worked some other unknown function and if it’s failure would have a detrimental effect. My guts immediately sank at the thought that this one little part would foil my extended weekend of adventures – there was not a not a prayer’s chance in hell that I’d find a replacement switch at 4pm on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend.
I found a way to piece it back together with some Gorilla tape, and ran upstairs to petition the wisdom of riders more experienced than I: One of the few bright spots on Facebook these days is the Yamaha V Star Motorcycle owner’s group I belong to. There are a few thousand people on this group, of every experience level, owning every model year of this bike, all over the world. If you need to know anything at all, no matter how obscure – at least a few people in the group have experience with your question and will answer quickly. I confessed my sins and asked for guidance. Within a few minutes, answers started coming in:
“I broke mine 5 years ago, still haven’t replaced it”
“Does it start? If so, you are good to go”
“Just jerry rig it with some wire if you are that worried about it”
The consensus was in: I’d probably be ok, and probably was enough for me at this juncture.
As I gathered up my things, I got a message from my friend Maren who was in Moab for the weekend: “It’s cold down here, dress warm!”
Look, I ride year round. The longest I am off the bike is for about 2 weeks during the winter – any time it’s above 40 degrees and the pavement is dry, I’m riding. And hell, it’s Memorial Day weekend, the first weekend of summer! How could it be anything but hot in Southern Utah? Maren’s idea of “cold” must be different than mine.
Finally, at 4pm, I double checked my emergency tape job, saddled up and hit the road.
Stansbury Park to Green River: 207 miles
First fill up in Spanish fork. Averaging 49 mpg.
Price canyon was beautiful, but unbelievably cold, and I have thick skin. I’ll ride any time it’s over 40 F. Not sure if it was actually that cold or if the cold was relative to my expectations for a warm afternoon of riding. Maybe Maren was right.
I checked into my motel and then rode up and down the main road of Green River looking for a place to eat that wasn’t Subway or Arby’s. I settled on a cafe attached to a neighboring hotel, ordered a chicken burrito and my favorite beer. This was the first meal I’d had all day, and it felt kingly. It’s funny what legitimate hunger can do to one’s sense of appreciation.
I topped off my gas tank before heading back to the motel – 55 mpg – Impressive. It pays to take it easy on the throttle. Usually I get around 32mpg, but that’s also because the majority of my miles are spent doing 95mph on I-80 twice per day.
Sunday 24 May 2020
Green River to Blanding: 294 miles
After sleeping better than one should in such a motel this cheap, I dined on a gas station breakfast and began reviewing the details of today’s ride. Of utmost importance – the soundtrack!
I’m headed to Deadhorse Point and then Monument Valley, and Valley of the Gods today. I was thinking about how bummed I am that there will probably be tons of tourists at Deadhorse Point, but I got thinking…
I don’t come to the cliff with any specific inquiries. It’s more of a check in. Just swinging by while I’m in the neighborhood. We’ll commune with The Gods if there’s an opportune moment. More than anything I just want to make good on the promise I made to myself to and those ancients that I’d come return to receive further light and knowledge.
En route to Moab on I-70. I know that I have a turn coming up soon. I begin noticing that the highway signs are talking increasingly about Grand Junction, CO, enough to make me suspicious that I have missed my turn. I pulled off on a seldom used exit ramp and checked the map – I had indeed overshot my exit to Moab. Upon closer inspection I noticed another route that would take me to Moab – 45 miles along a road with barely a presence on the map. I saw road sign that seconded the notion of this road leading to Moab. According to my mileage, I probably had 55 miles left in the gas tank. As for fuel, I had 3 options –
1. Turn around and backtrack on I-70 to find fuel, which was probably about 50 miles away; risky and a big time / energy suck.
2. Stay on I-70 toward Colorado and trust that a service station will pop up somewhere along the way. With no cell service to verify that fact, this would be a big gamble.
3. Take this new road to Moab – take it easy on the throttle to conserve fuel, and hope that I don’t get lost even more.
Option #3 was the winner, and I was off on my way onto a perfectly maintained road with lots of hills, dips, and perfect curves, winding through open cattle grazing country. Soon the road found it’s way to the Colorado River and begin running alongside it through breathtaking red rock canyons, all the way to Moab.
Lunch for the bike and I in Moab. I was happy to find ethanol free fuel at lots of service stations along the way. (My engine runs noticeably smoother when burning ethanol free). I arrived with just a little fuel to spare, averaging 46 mpg.
Following an incredibly average and wildly overpriced burger in Moab, I set out for Deadhorse Point.
Regarding that rendezvous at Deadhorse Point – Many years ago, I was shooting a wedding in Moab. At the end of the day, I made my way up to Deadhorse point. The sun was setting, there were few people in the area and they all were leaving. I pulled up to this particular observation point, turned off my car, and was surrounded by silence.
Utter, perfect, permeating silence. I stood on the edge of the cliff in complete awe that something so massive could be so completely silent. At this point in my life I was agnostic in my spirituality. I had no agenda, nor any clue as to what was really going on in the greater scheme of things. As I stood on the precipice of the cliff, taking in millions of years of natural forces – I was all but overcome with a spiritual epiphany. Though I was not a praying man, I dropped to my knees and prayed an honest prayer – “God, I don’t even know if you exist. If you do, and if you are there, I am here.” I communed with the spirits of the original inhabitants of this land for a while. Before leaving, I knew that I’d return to that place some day for a spiritual follow up of sorts.
Today was the day. I realized that, being Memorial Day weekend, the park would be full of people. I decided to abandon all expectations, all contemplations of how it was the first time, to just make good on that promised return. What would need to happen, would happen, even if that was nothing.
My youngest daughter, Makelle, and I have a shared love of the musician Steven Wilson. He has a song called “The Raven That Refused To Sing”, it’s a song about lost family ties, reconnection, hope, loss, and the spirit realm. For Makelle and I – the Raven holds special significance. To take a page from the native Americans – the Raven is our ‘animal medicine’. For us, the Raven symbolizes loving returns, healing, and connections to the spirit world.
Immediately upon arriving, a raven circled around and perched itself in a tree next to my bike, as if to greet me. It stayed long enough for a picture, then left.
I spent some time staring into the carvings and canyons that are countless aeons older than the human species itself.
There were no major epiphanies, no prayers, no otherworldly communion with the ancient natives and their horses. I simply made good on my return. I’m in a very different place than I was then. Many messengers have come to me in various forms between then and now. I’ve learned so much, and yet still have so much to learn. That said, I came to the edge of the cliff feeling whole, comfortable in my being, no agenda but gratitude for the chance I have to ride on two wheels through this amazing place. As I prepared to saddle up and leave, the raven returned, lighting on a nearby branch and flying a few circles while I left, as if to bid me farewell and safe travels.
Refueled again in Moab and set out for Blanding. 46 mpg.
The ride to, and the town of Blanding, all live up to their name. Bland. Miles and miles of flat, dull green / grey sagebrush and scrub oak. Once I finally arrived in Blanding, I had my final bout with the Harley Davidson app that I’d been using for navigation. It tried very hard to send me in the opposite direction of my motel. Blanding only has a couple of streets and it only took me a couple of minutes to locate my motel just by driving around. I checked in, took a few minutes to rest and refresh, and then set out for Valley of the Gods.
I was getting a later start than I hoped for, but decided to make a run for it anyway. I reconfigured my backpack, brought my camera, and made my way further south into the Native American Reservation and toward Valley of the Gods.
I don’t know how else to say this, but the Reservation has some dark, palpable, fucked up energy. It feels as if a force field exists, and once you’ve crossed into it, the feeling is tangible. As I proceeded south on 191, there was a point where I had a foreboding feeling, as if something terrible was about to happen. I considered turning around and heading back. I’m only moderately superstitious and I don’t always follow the guidance of my intuition, so I tried to ignore the dark energy of this place and stayed the course.
I contemplated the other times I drive through a reservation: en route to Burning Man. The past few years, the Bureau of Indian Affairs officers have been harassing Burners as they traverse the road through the reservation. I tried to ignore thoughts of being pulled over and harassed by a tribal cop tonight.
“At least I don’t have anything illegal on me, so even if I get pulled over for something, it probably won’t end too poorly…” I thought, attempting to comfort myself.
A quick mental inventory of my backpack followed. Much to my horror, I remembered that I did, in fact, have a 10mg cannabis gummy in one of my pack’s internal pockets – one of the few times I’ve been upset to remember that I do, in fact, have weed on me. (I wasn’t ON cannabis, I simply had some with me incase a relaxing post-ride evening called for some).
With this revelation fresh in mind, I approached a white car with some unfamiliar markings pulled over to the side of the road. As I passed it, I saw what I was dreading: it was a tribal police officer. He began following me.
I rode like a goddamn technician. Not a mile over or under the speed limit, following my lane with precision, every movement smooth and deliberate. I would have made my Motorcycle Safety Foundation teachers proud. After successfully navigating several speed changes that were obvious speed traps, the tribal cop fell back and disappeared to wait for other less careful prey.
By the time I made it to Valley of the Gods, the sun had fallen behind the horizon, and I realized that the road to access Valley of the Gods is a gravel road. Unwillinig to navigate a gravel road in the growing darkness, I turned around to make yet another futile attempt at capturing the granduer of the landscape.
I am not a landscape photographer. I’m a very capable portrait photographer, but when it comes to communicating the awe inspiring scenes of nature, I’m just a noob picture snapper.
The only restaurant in town, a Subway, was closed. I stopped off at a convenience store to refuel and pick up something for dinner – 44 MPG. I then learned just how bland Blanding really is – it’s a dry county. I was happy to discover that I had one IPA left in my pack from the previous day’s provisions.
Upon further research, I learned that the residents of Blanding have deliberately kept the dry county law in place as a way of discouraging visitors and tourists. I’ll second that sentiment of the residents:
Never go to Blanding.
Monday 25 May 2020
Blanding to Hatch: 295 miles
I slept for a long time last night. I didn’t even finish last night’s journaling… Around 10:30, I was seduced by the bed, to just “lay down for just a minute, just to see how it feels”
“How it feels” turns out to be waking up at 3am with my lights, music, and clothes still on. I got up, properly got ready for bed, and slept again till about 8am.
I’m intimidated by today’s miles. They don’t look that long visually on the map, but it goes through some terrain that I haven’t navigated before, and the navigation apps are telling me it’s going to be my longest day yet. Furthermore, today’s ride includes the central attraction of this whole trip: Ephraim’s grave. From what I’ve been able to deduce via blog posts and maps, Eph’s grave should be easy to find. Failure to find it would suck severely.
As I packed up to leave, I had an extra water bottle to deal with. Space is scarce on a trip like this, so I had to carefully consider where each thing would ride. I got the feeling that it would be good to have an extra bottle of water on hand, just in case. I found a place for it to ride and set out for the next leg of the trip.
The ride from Blanding to Hanksville, along highway 95, was (for the most part) unbelievably breathtaking. Again, I tried to take a few pictures but I just got frustrated at how small and unimpressive everything looks in my pictures. The motorcycling was beyond magnificent: Perfectly maintained roads, lots of fun twisty roads through the most stunning scenery on the planet. It was heaven on 2 wheels. On multiple occasions I found myself cheering with joy, to myself, as I cruised along that stunning back country highway.
Part of today’s route passed through Bear’s Ears National Monument. A couple of years ago, there was a big political ruckus regarding some politicians in Utah who wanted to open Bears Ears up to oil drilling. I’m not going to get into the political history of this matter. All I will say is that I am firmly on the side of keeping all mineral / oil development out of this area. I don’t care about how many jobs it will provide. I don’t care how much money is under this ground. There are some things that are more valuable than “progress”, and this landscape is one of them.
If the 749 residents of Blanding can vote to keep booze out of their county so that they don’t get any tourists (read: tourist money), then certainly the people of Utah can tell the mineral developers to get out, and stay out.
I am endlessly fascinated with the massive rock walls of Southern Utah. These walls have been staring at the sun for longer than our species has been in existence. It is a humbling thing to stand in the presence of their millions of years of experience. I often wonder what they know, what they think of us.
A carefully curated playlist queued up “I want you” by Third Eye Blind – a song I chose for the vibe, but today the lyrics stood up and grabbed my attention:
“An open invitation to the dance
Happenstance set the vibe that we are in
No apology because my urge is genuine
And the mystery of your rhythm is so feminine
Here I am and I want to take a hit
Of your scent cause it bit so deep into my soul”
My mind delved into a lost love, her essence distilling into every part of me as I rode along. I may never know all of the real reasons she retreated from our brilliant love affair. I suspected a big part of it was because she could not forgive or trust herself. The song continues:
“The village church yard is filled with
Bones weeping in the grave
The silver lining of clouds
Shines on people Jesus couldn’t save
You want to know how deeply my soul goes?
Deeper than bones”
Who are these “people Jesus couldn’t save”? It’s such an interesting idea. In the parlance of Christianity – this refers to people who do not allow themselves to accept the free gift of reconciliation. Indeed, there are some people who are quite committed to self flagellation, to the point that they will never let themselves enter into Heaven – which is not in this place or that place, but it is within me, and within you – and for a moment – within her. Heaven is a state of being, and it is right here and right now, or it is nothing.
Today, I am in Heaven – though, like Lot’s wife, I did look over my shoulder for a moment at her, and went down some of those paths that don’t seem to lead anywhere.
Ephraim is buried in a town called Caineville, in the Capital Reef area. Caineville is made up of a few houses along route 24. Half of them are abandoned. It’s hard to imagine why anyone lives here and what they do to get by. I eventually found a promising sign:
I rode for what felt like a mile on this dirt road. I began to watch my odometer – when it became obvious that I had ridden close to 3 miles, I turned around to make another attempt at finding the cemetery.
Finally, success. The Caineville Cemetery is a small plot of land encircled by a makeshift chicken wire fence. There are no more than a dozen graves -some of the graves are pioneer era graves, a couple are fresh, within a couple of years.
Within the small cemetery, is another group of plots that are fenced in on their own. This is where my great great grandparents are both buried.
Ephraim served in the Mormon Battalion in the Mexican – American war. I wonder what he’d say about Manifest Destiny, Mexico, and America if he were alive today.
Someone had been to visit the graves in the past 24 – 48 hours, as there were some potted flowers that were almost all dried out and beginning to wilt in the dry desert conditions. I remembered that I had packed an extra water bottle, “just in case”. That case just became clear. I watered their flowers, sat between them to each some lunch, and had a heart to heart conversation with my great great grandparents, seeking the wisdom of these hardy forebearers.
Fuel in Torrey – 37 mpg.
Following my time at Eph’s grave, I got back on route 24 westbound. It soon developed into more spectacular scenery which continued teasingly for a few more miles. I pulled over for some water, and embarked into what I hoped would be hundreds of miles of magical blue skies and red rocks.
For reasons I won’t burden you with, I soon descended into a most difficult mood. The scenery quickly gave way to a mixture of pretty green farmland, seemingly endless desolate rolling hills of sage brush, scrub oak and cold temperatures, and one jaunt through a lush valley surrounded by picuturesque peaks.
I saw a sign indicating that Butch Cassidy’s childhood home was coming up. I pulled over to check it out. It was typical of many other late 19th century log cabins that have been preserved – restored pioneer era furniture, some period clothing laying out, and a wall of plexiglass separating the display from the public. Fascinating, nonetheless, to be walking the same ground that such a notorious character grew up on. I took a few photos and then
I finally made it to my motel in Hatch, Utah. I dismounted, walked into the cafe / convenience store / motel lobby and checked in.
Once I was in the presence of other humans I became even more aware of how much I was struggling from my experience earlier in the afternoon. I was certain that everyone could tell what I had done. I checked in, took some things to my room, and returned for dinner.
The woman running the counter was a kind, homely, welcoming lady who made sure I knew that they also served “breffast” in the morning. She said it twice. There was something adorable and unassuming that she had never grown out of calling it “breffast”.
In recent years I’ve made the sad discovery that two beloved food groups no longer agree with my physiology:
Wheat and dairy products. Bread, pasta, and ice cream. It’s a sad state of affairs, as if my guts had a midlife crisis – they came home one day with a new hairstyle, new glasses, a sudden interest in mid-19th century Nepalese art criticism, and has asked me to start calling them “Gustavo”. I don’t even know them anymore. I’m not a card carrying gluten / dairy intolerant person, but I do find that they cause me some irritations that are best avoided if possible.
That said, tonight I did not care. Gustavo was gonna have to buck up and deal with it. I had bigger fish to fry. I surrendered to every one of my emotional eater instincts in a desperate bid to find some peace.
I sat in a corner of the cafe and hoped people wouldn’t be able to tell how hard I was struggling, though I was certain they could. I ordered the most comfy of comfort foods – chicken Alfredo with garlic toast and a Coke. While the Alfredo was much appreciated, I still felt out of sorts. Much to Gustavo’s chagrin, I ordered a brownie and ice cream to take back to my room where I fought through the 3 day old brick of a brownie while texting a couple of my best friends in some hope of coming back down to earth.
Hatch to Stansbury Park
I woke up to find that the disturbances of yesterday had passed, and thank God. I had mixed feelings about making the final leg of the journey home today. I was tired of doing 300 miles / day, and yet, I did not want to return to my normal routine. I considered taking another couple of vacation days to continue riding, but I knew that my basic energy levels were low enough that additional 300 mile days would be a chore, and that’s not the kind of energy I wanted to be in. I replenished a dry fuel tank in Panguich – 43 mpg – and set out on Highway 89 northbound.
I drove through Mormon country – past beautiful little settlements named from Mormon lore: Ephraim. Manti. Moroni. While riding, I finished listening to a fascinating audiobook:
The music of Maynard James Keenan’s bands – A Perfect Circle, Puscifer, and TOOL, sounds different to me now. It’s much less dark. I hear his core values of authenticity and commitment to excellence in the music. I hear him inviting everyone to give a damn.
“If you don’t believe in magic on some kind of level, your art probably sucks. You’ve gotta believe in some kind of magic… some kind of God or whatever you’re into… if your heart isn’t lifted by some supernatural thing that you’ve witnessed or that you believe in, real or not… there’s probably going to be something you’re focusing on that has no heart. ” – Maynard James Keenan
Maynard has achieved world class excellence in a couple of fields – not just music, but wine making – by simply being someone who is passionate, who gives enough of a damn about doing things there right way to do it the hard way instead of the “quick way”. His commitment to excellence has paid off.
I found myself relating a lot to Maynard James Keenan. He’s so earnest and so serious – (a quality I’m hard on myself about – reminds me of my mom, who is one of the most humorless people I know. Nevertheless, I love my mother). MJK’s sense of humor is deep, nuanced, and hysterical. He would never be a stand up comedian, his comedy manifests through the mitigating layer of his work. I find Maynard to be one of the funniest people on the planet, in the way he interweaves the ridiculous and the sublime into his work. He is reminiscent of RUSH and also Ephraim in that way. Maynard is absolutely a modern day Heyoka.
When I took my beginner’s safety course a few years ago, they talked about being careful to not get drowsy on the bike. At that point, the rushing of concrete 24 inches beneath me was so terrifying, I could not understand in what universe they existed, where falling asleep at the handlebars was a real danger….
…until today. I was shocked to discover just how drowsy I could actually be on a motorcycle. I drank as many gallons of Red Bull as my bike did gasoline during my return ride northbound on old Highway 89.
I stopped in Fairview fuel: 43 mpg (gasoline), nearly the same consumption in Red Bull energy drinks. I was starving, not having had a meal all day long. My route would take me through Spanish Fork, where my oldest daughter Makinley and her husband Taft live. I called her and told her I’d buy dinner. After placing a takeout order for our favorite dishes from our favorite Indian restaurant, I set out for the last major canyon on my ride:
An hour later, I arrived at their home, the tikka masala waiting for us. We had a great time catching up food and newlywed stories.
Fuel in Spanish Fork: 46 mpg
I saddled back up and set out for the scenic route home, going around the south end of the Oquirh Mountains toward home in Stansbury Park.
This was my first long road trip via motorcycle. I’ve long had aspirations to do a cross country trip on my bike. Doing 1000 miles was a good taste of what that would actually be like. By the time I got home, I was very happy to not be in the saddle any more. The idea of riding 3,000 miles started to sound aweful. I wondered if I’d ever actually do any serious cross-country riding.
After a day of relaxing, my wanderlust returned in full force. I was ready to ride another several hundred, and was sad that it would need to wait.
A few takeaways:
Riding cross country makes more sense now. Not only can I ride thousands of miles, but I’d love to – as long as I give myself a day off every 3 or 4 days. If I add a windshield to my bike I could probably increase my daily miles to 500.
Bring extra: It’s great to have all that you need. It’s brilliant to have extra to share.
No causes are perfect, but that’s not the point. It’s how we show up for the causes, the way we do our work, that really matters – that’s whole point of these life experiences. I keep wanting to use the word “integrity”, but one must keep it in a container, almost a daily container, limited in scope to doing today’s work to the very best of one’s ability. Trying to stretch “integrity” out to an eternal scope just becomes spiritual virtue signaling. The way you do today’s work is the way you’ll do eternity.
Competence and excellence will arrive for anyone who gives a damn and puts in the work consistently. Thanks, Maynard for always just doing you, and letting us witness it.
Wow… you are still here. Thanks for coming along on the ride! Until next time…