Hell’s Nerds, a Week in Arizona by Motorcycle
Posted on November 13, 2017
It has become commonplace for people taking motorcycle trips to make two observations: that riding a motorcycle is like meditation and that meeting “locals” across the country is a reminder that people are mostly good and kind, even when they seem so different than the rider. Four friends and I just completed a 1400 mile, six day ride around Arizona and I’m about to expand a bit on those two aforementioned themes as I experienced them, so feel free to stop right here as I’ll add little new insight. But if you’re interested, or just want to see the pictures…
I’ve ridden motorcycles on and off since I was a teenager, part of a general love of all things motorized. My current bike is a Ducati Multistrada 1200S, a sport touring bike that is beautiful and crazy powerful. It has a sport bike monster of an engine with 160hp and 95.5 Ib-ft of torque, a throw-you-off-the-back-of-the-bike amount of power that isn’t even happy until it is over 4000rpm. In other words, way too much bike for my more tepid riding style.
Two in the group were also riding Multistradas and, as experienced track riders, they put the bikes’ capabilities to good use. Aside from the three Multistradas, we had a new Triumph T120 and a BMW R1200 GSA, the most refined and technically perfect bike in the group. The Ducatis are the partner you want for a crazy weekend in Vegas, the BMW is the stable, capable person you want to marry.
This was a week’s vacation on some of the best motorcycle roads in America, culminating in the famous old Route 666, the Devil’s Highway, on the final day. Arizona is a biker’s dream. Once out of the cities, we enjoyed mile after mile of twisty and looping roads with few cars, across an array of stunning landscapes and elevations. We tore across open plains and high desert in the heat, and then ascended to as much as 9000’, pulling over to add layers and turn on our heated grips. We descended in and out of canyons, with 90 degree after 90 degree turn.
We drove along the south rim of the Grand Canyon, stunning vistas wherever the trees opened up and the road closed in on the edge. But the highlight was the Devil’s Highway (now route 190), maybe the most famous motorcycling road in America: 100 miles and 1100 turns. Some of those turns were so tight, we had to drop into first gear and practically walk the bikes around them, others were wide sweeping arcs along vertigo-inducing drops offs, without a guard rail in sight.
There were no cars, no cops, and no help if you got it wrong. So it required unwavering concentration and that is where the meditative aspects of motorcycles come in.
I’ve tried meditation and I’m just awful at it. Within seconds of “emptying my mind,” I’m making grocery lists, worrying about work matters, and wondering if the Patriots will trade for a new offensive lineman before the trading deadline. But when riding my bike, especially on the roads we experienced last week, there was not a single other thought than what was right in front of us. More feel than thinking, the experience is simply speed, and line, and the apex of the turn, and lining up the next turn – over and over again. It was exhilarating and tiring and completely restorative. Even as the slowest rider in the group, the “flow” when one is finding the right line and speed, trusting the bike and (I know this is sounding really corny now) and feeling one with it, is like skiing when carving perfect arcing turns – it is smooth and feels effortless and takes on a rhythm that is almost soothing, even though the consequences of being lulled or inattentive are severe. Having done a recent track day and receiving some technical instruction, it was also an exercise in trying to be disciplined about technique, sometimes trusting it over one’s gut, and other times letting instinct and a desire for survival decide what the next move should be. All the bikes are so exquisitely engineered that they can do almost anything we have the courage to ask of them. There were moments when I could almost hear my bike saying, “Oh dear Lord, open up the throttle and let’s go.”
Ironic then, that my only mishap was going zero mph, when a combination of a hard front brake, a slight turn of the wheel, and a bit of gravel under the front tire sent my Ducati and me to the ground. Basic law of physics here: make sure that your foot is firmly planted on the ground just before coming to a full stop or bad things happen. My only injury was a bruised ego, whole some super glue and rubber bands took care of the bike.
Christian, our friend from the UK, was riding the Triumph on the Devil’s Highway and while the rest of us managed all 1100 turns, he did 1099, resulting in a slightly banged up bike and a slightly banged up rider, though modern protective gear does an amazing job.
In both cases, locals commented that the damages gave the bikes a “bad ass” look. They didn’t say that about us, mind you. Though what can one expect when we dubbed ourselves the Hell’s Nerds biker gang?
Speaking of locals, let me turn to theme #2. There is something about moving through country on a motorcycle that feels more “in” the place, where you get the smells and the air and the feel of a place better than in the iron and glass cocoon of a car. We certainly saw lovely Flagstaff and new age Sedona, and the rediscovered and artsy Jerome, but we also went through gritty mining towns like Globe and rural ranching and hunting/fishing towns like Alpine, and heartbreakingly bleak reservation lands for both the Navajo and Apache. Along the way we chatted with people (the bikes often drew people to us) and found them to be warm and hospitable and helpful.
We had a great breakfast in chilly Alpine, waiting for the temps to rise a bit before heading out on Route 666. A whole corner of the Café is dedicated to framed photos and newspaper clippings of locals who fought in our wars, going back to WWII, Vietnam, and many for Iraq and Afghanistan. More than one for someone who had been killed or wounded. Our waitress was someone who wished for a blizzard so she could be snowed in for a few days, who shoots an elk each winter, and was quick with a story. Her counterpart at the Tal Wi Wi Saloon, a terrific bar, was also helpful and friendly and gave me advice about navigating the road ahead, including, “If you get hurt there, it’ll be a long time before help finds you.”
I settled in there to do some work (there are few better places to do work, I find), a hunting show on the television behind me. Cowboys came in later, with mustaches out of central casting, and a hunter came in with full camo, his rifle in the back window of his pickup, parked outside. Every one of them looked like they could take care of themselves, no matter what the predicament.
It reminded me of how different is much of the West. There is an independence and individuality that seems in the DNA.
I had breakfast with a truck driver early one morning, we finding ourselves the only two people in the Best Western breakfast room. He is former Special Forces, living on a sprawling old farm outside of Houston. He now owns 16 trucks and when I asked him about finding good employees, he says he only hires former Special Forces guys: “Guys who call you with the solution they came up with before they tell you the problem.” He was flooded during the hurricane, but got his cattle to high ground and his trucks out of town, so has survived it reasonably well. Not sure how it came up, but we talked about losing our mothers fairly recently and how much we both missed them and how lucky we were to have them so long (his had also passed in her 90s). There was enough in the conversation to tell me we probably see a lot of political issues in very different ways, but we were instead talking about family and managing people and businesses and, of course, motorcycles (he was inspired to now buy one again), and while our worlds couldn’t be more different in some ways, I thought I’d be lucky to call someone like him my friend.
I guess in the end I am simply evoking that oft-repeated second theme: that if you spend time with people – even people whose world and political views are at odds with your own – you find that they are mostly pretty nice, that generalizations don’t hold up very well, and if you listen for a while, you learn some things. Amanda Ripley had a wonderful piece in the WSJ earlier this year about the need for a domestic cultural exchange program. I was reminded of it last week. More than ever, we could all spend some time with people different than ourselves and we might find out some things about them we never guessed and some surprising things about ourselves in the process.