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Motorcycle road trip 2013: Sturgis, New Mexico, Grand Canyon, Vegas, and aliens

Back in August of 2013 I set out on what would be my longest motorcycle road trip up to that point in time.  Apparently it was so big that it has taken me nearly two years to even start documenting it 😉

That’s a little bit of an exaggeration- I did post a few things for friends and family on Facebook.  And I managed to edit one of what expect to eventually be at least three and probably four videos down to a reasonable size to post.  But along with a lot of other neglect of my blog, I seriously procrastinated in creating a post here.  Time to rectify that oversight!

Planning and preparation

Early stages…

My friend, Chris, send me an email in September of 2012 detailing his plans for a family vacation in the fall of 2013.  Yes, Chris plans vacations a year in advance: one of his many charming qualities.  His plans included Santa Fe, Mesa Verde, and the Grand Canyon.  This was interesting to me right from the start: I had previously played around with the idea of a future trip to include Sturgis, the Grand Canyon, and the Extraterrestrial Highway, and overlaying possible routes it seemed feasible that I could combine this with Chris’ plans to make a sort of uber-vacation.  

At first it seemed a bit of a stretch to plan such a trip.  It would mean the better part of three weeks on the road, and something on the order of 9,000 km of travel.  But as the fall turned to winter, our plans came together.  I started making accommodation reservations in February of 2013: I was committed!

Shopping therapy…

I had a few things done to my Road Glide before the trip, and a few things for myself:

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  • mostly a safety upgrade, for daytime visibility and those rare times when I am riding at night
  • these LED lamps are significantly brighter than stock, and produce a much sharper white colour
  • Fairing mount oil temp gauge (HD Part #70900283)
  • 103 ci air cooled Harleys run fairly hot, and I was growing a bit concerned about exactly how hot things were getting.  Unfortunately, the stock gauges don’t put engine temperature in the dash.  Time to solve that problem!
  • this gauge was installed in the Road Glide’s fairing in place of the stock air temperature gauge
  • Handlebar mount thermometer (HD part # 75108-06)
  • having lost the air temperature gauge from the dash, I decided to put one on the handle bars
  • Road Zeppelin air seat (HD Part #51072-09)
  • I had ended my previous season of riding with a switch to a Corbin seat, but it hadn’t solved my bruised pelvic bone pain
  • the Zeppelin was a huge improvement… a good investment
  • Sidi Goretex lined motorcycle boots

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  • this was actually a mid-year decision, after spending several days in the rain with my brothers Ron and Colin.  I had ended up with wet socks on more than one occasion
  • these boots were imported and pricey, but have lasted well (I am still using them today)
  • GoPro Hero 3 camera
  • my second “action” camera, the first being documented in an earlier post.  That earlier camera was a bit of a hassle to carry along on a trip, with multiple parts.  And the GoPro technology, particularly image quality, had improved in the interim.

 

The Trip

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Home to Sturgis

The first couple of days involved getting from home to Sturgis, nearly 2,000 kilometres of travel.   I passed through the center of the universe in Wallace, Idaho, and spent my first night in Coeur d’Alene.  My second night was in Bozeman, Montana, and I arrived in Sturgis on the third day.  My bike developed a couple of problems during this first stage of my trip.  The oil pressure gauge suddenly dropped to zero, and the ABS idiot light lit up.  The two problems didn’t seem in any way connected, the oil levels and bike performance seemed normal, and a call to a Harley dealer re-assured me that I was okay to continue on my way.  But it was worrisome, and I was happy to arrive in Sturgis where I had three nights booked in the Best Western.  Time enough to resolve my bike issues, I hoped. 

‘The first of several videos’ (others to come years from now based on my current rate of editing…)

 

Sturgis to New Mexico

As things worked out, I arrived a week or two after the famous Sturgis motorcycle rally had ended, which was perfect for me.  Although I suppose the rally might be interesting, the idea of half a million people drinking and carousing in a town that normally houses 6,000 just doesn’t appeal much to me: I was more than happy to miss it.  I made arrangements with the nearest Harley Davidson service center in Rapid City to service my bike, and was able to rent a bike from them for the day.  I took good advantage of that rental, heading up to Devils Tower for the day.  

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I got my bike back later that afternoon with all problems resolved.  They had found a failed sending unit for the oil pressure gauge, a crimped (and shorting) wire for the ABS, and a broken and badly bodged service job for the horn (which I hadn’t even noticed was broken).  Both the ABS wire and the horn were the fault of my regular service shop, which meant I wasn’t very happy with them- but the folks in Rapid City got me back on the road with no further issues for the remainder of the trip.

The following day (and back on my own bike) I spent seeing Mount Rushmore, the Crazy Horse Memorial, and riding some of the fantastic motorcycle routes in the Black Hills.  I absolutely enjoyed the park highways: Iron Mountain Road in particular was intentionally built for sight seeing, with some amazing pigtail curves, over-under bridges, and one car at a time stretches.  I also rode the Needles Highway and bought a t-shirt at the Hills City Harley motor clothes dealer.

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After Sturgis my next stop was in Denver, where I overnighted in the Best Western Denver South West, also known as the Dinosaur Hotel (as mentioned by The Oatmeal).  Unfortunately, when I was there they hadn’t finished the renovations to add the dinosaur theme, but it was a nice enough place to lay my head before moving on to Santa Fe, New Mexico.

Santa Fe

The first stop in New Mexico was in Santa Fe, where I met up with Chris and his family.  We did some wandering around Santa Fe itself on one day, including the New Mexico Museum of Art where I took these two photos in the courtyard areas:

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My friend Chris, his brother in law Mark, and his girl friend Billie

 

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The Museum courtyard

We went to the Acoma ‘Sky City’ pueblo on the second full day we were in Santa Fe.  We were guided amongst the ancient (and less ancient- some folks are still living up there) homes, learned a ton of history, with pauses for the many, many craft vendors selling their various wares.  

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The visitor center, waiting for the tour bus to take us to the top of the mesa

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One of the streets through the pueblo

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 Another view that gives a sense of this how high up and how isolated this community is

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 A lizard who wandered by as I was taking pictures near the mesa

  

Chris and I also went up to Los Alamos and the Bradbury museum to visit the birthplace of the bomb, and the era of mutually assured destruction that followed.  It was interesting to be able to see the lengths they went to in order to keep the project secret.  Little things like the work order for Oppenheimer to have a shelf built for his office and a nail for his hat were oddly juxtaposed with actual bomb parts as well as mock ups.  I must admit to being a little awestruck to be able to rest my hand on the shell of of a multi-kiloton MIRV, and realize just how small and incredibly scary it is.

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A nail for his hat, not a coat rack…

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 The Mark 12A re-entry vehicle for a multi-kiloton (estimated: 350 kiloton) W78 warhead launched as one of three in a Minuteman III ICBM;
AKA the end of the world as we know it 

 

Mesa Verde

We relocated to Mesa Verde after our time in Santa Fe, an easy day trip of less than 500 km (300 miles).  Mesa Verde is one of the key centres of the ancient pueblo cultures, and is home to thousands of archeological sites- most notably the homes of the Cliff Dwellers and the Cliff Palace itself.  The place we stayed at in Mesa Verde, the Far View Lodge, was great: and I had some excellent visits over beer on the ‘deck’ there with Mark and Carol (Chris’ brother in law and sister).

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Sunset view from Far View Lodge

 

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Getting to and from some of the cliff dwellings takes a little bit of effort…

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 … but it is more than worth it- Cliff Palace

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And apropos of nothing, another lizard 

 

 

Grand Canyon

We moved on to the Grand Canyon after our days in Mesa Verde.  We stopped at the Four Corners monument on the way, and I enjoyed another fairly leisurely ride following Chris and his family for about 550 km (350 miles).  

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The Four Corners monument

 Like a lot of the monuments and historical sites on native lands, you have to pay in order to see Four Corners.  And other than the marker on the ground mostly what you find there is a number of market booths selling native crafts.  It is interesting, though, to be able to straddle four states.

We also drove through Monument Valley- once again, there are fees to pay to see the sights, but this was definitely worth it.  This is the kind of geography I think of when I imagine the American South West… I kept expecting to see Wile E. Coyote and the RoadRunner.

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Meep! Meep!

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 Gratuitous motorcycle photo…

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Egads!  Someone has taken a photo of me!

 We settled in our rooms at the Grand Canyon in the Yavapai Lodge, and on my walk between rooms to visit Chris and his kin, I encountered these guys.

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 The deer were always nearby at dawn and dusk

A couple of things about the Grand Canyon south rim.  First of all, it is very nearly the most commercialized natural wonder I have ever visited, second only in my opinion to the Niagara Falls.  There is a continuous stream of humanity, shuttle busses to ferry them from spot to spot, and the lodge… well, lets just say there are well over a dozen buildings housing thousands.  However, despite all of the pressing humanity, it is absolutely a must-see.  

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This is the Grand Canyon I loved seeing…

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 … not so much this

The Grand Canyon south rim contains most of the vistas we are all familiar with when we think of the canyon.  And I found my greatest joys there when I was able to separate myself from ‘the herd’.  I’m in terrible shape, but I stopped riding the shuttle bus as much as I could, and walked between vistas instead. All the voices, the nattering, the pushing… it all drifted away, and I could just enjoy the beauty.  

I definitely want to go back, and see the canyon again.  But I’ll do my best to find ways to see it without the constant buzz and hustle.  

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Chris, posing as the great explorer

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The ridiculous and fascinating architecture of nature

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The El Tovar, the more ‘historic’ (and probably vastly more expensive) lodge at the Grand Canyon 

 

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A cheeky squirrel

 

 

Las Vegas then home, with a short side trip into the X-Files

The next stop after the Grand Canyon was Las Vegas.  Along the way I stopped to take a couple of pictures at the Hoover Dam.

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Lake Mead

 

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 This monument at the dam always reminds me of BioShock…

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 The new bridge, which means you can skip the dam if you want to

 

It was in this strange city, at the giant pyramid known as the Luxor, that I bid farewell to Chris and his family and started on my return trip.

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Inside the Luxor… it’s Vegas, baby!

 

 And then I was on my way home.  The highlight of my return trip: riding the ‘loneliest highway in America’, Nevada 375, the Extraterrestrial Highway.

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Apparently putting a sticker on this poor sign is a ‘thing’…

The Extraterrestrial Highway got its name and reputation from a couple of key facts.  First, it leads past an American military base and test range that was long so secret that the government only admitted it exists after over 50 years of operation: the Groom Lake facility, or Area 51.  Second, this whole area of Nevada is close to the Nevada National Security Site (aka Nevada Test Site, aka Nevada Proving Grounds).  This is where over 900 nuclear device tests were performed prior to the 1980s.  

Unidentified flying objects (experimental aircraft) flying at all hours of the day and night… super-secret military facilities… nuclear bombs… this is the cradle of conspiracy theorists, both sane and otherwise, of all kinds.  I have wanted to see this area since I was a kid: and now was my chance,

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My bike, adorned with my beloved Veterans UN NATO supporter vest… about to enter the land of X-Files

 

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The so-called “black mail box”, which hasn’t been black for years.  Not far from the entrance to the Groom Lake facility (Area 51) 

Some poor rancher with land adjacent to Groom Lake got tired of his old mailbox getting damaged, so he built this massive edifice and painted it black.  Conspiracy nuts noted this odd looking mailbox next to the super-secret base, and suddenly it became an object of analysis, rumours, and theory.  So much so that it became a tourist attraction in its own right… even after the rancher re-painted it white.  

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The Little Ale’Inn… that’s a radiation measurement station on the right

I stopped at the Little Ale’Inn, a road side diner that has its own following of sorts.  It isn’t exactly attractive, and I’ve heard that the food and service are pretty bad, so I was satisfied with a couple of photos.  One thing I found interesting is the rather sophisticated bank of instruments outside the restaurant.  I read the placard there and did a bit of research: apparently it is one of a number of such stations scattered in the vicinity of the nuclear test facility, intended to measure the long term effects of all those nuclear detonations.

After this point is where I made a small miscalculation.  Highway 375 aka the Extraterrestrial Highway is well known to be devoid of civilization, including gas stations.  I had heeded the warnings and started down the highway with a full tank.  The websites I’d read indicated that you needed enough fuel for about 250 km (160 miles): a full tank on my bike will handle that with no problem.   Just north of Rachel (where the Little A’le’Inn is found) is a sign saying ‘next gas: 110 miles’- note that there is no gas in Rachel, but again this is no problem as I have plenty for 110 miles.  Unfortunately, that distance assumes you turn left towards Tonopah at the intersection with Hwy 6.  I turned right, towards Ely.  The distance between gas refills now became well over 400 km (250 miles)… right at the extreme limit of my bike’s range.  It was touch and go rolling in to Ely… the range indicator on my bike dropped from “10 km” to just “Low”.  

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5.44 gallons in a 5.5 gallon tank… that was close

I made it, but I don’t recommend this to anyone else.  If you are heading up the 375 and turning north towards Ely, carry a jerry can of fuel with an extra gallon or so.  If you have a bike with one of this comically small 2 gallon fuel tanks, don’t even consider this route unless you are carrying a couple of such fuel cans.  

The rest of my ride home was largely uneventful.  I probably rode the better part of 9,000 km if I include the distance I rode while my bike was in the shop near Sturgis.  It was a road trip I will never forget, and hope to repeat in some form or fashion one day.

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