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C2C Day 21 to 24: Devil’s Highway to Brazil July 25, 2009

Posted by dakotabiker in Rides.
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I woke very early in Mexican Hat and packed the bike at around 4:30.  The night sky was spectacular.  I realized it was really the first totally cloudless, lightless night that I had seen on the trip.  Venus was again shining brightly, but the moon had since revolved around to align itself with the sun causing the solar eclipse that was in the news.  The ebon night was was lit only by the light of billions of stars.  The milky way was showing clearly as a streak of luminescence in the sky.  It was beautiful.

With the bike packed, I silently rolled the Harley down the hill away from the rooms to the front of the motel so as not to wake the other guests at this early hour.  Starting up, I rode the short stretch through Mexican Hat and out of town on US-163 heading north.  The predawn glow was in the east creating an incredible silhouette of mesas and rock formations.  To my right I could just see the outline of the town’s namesake, Mexican Hat Rock as the glow emanated from between two ridges.  I rode on, my eyes beginning to make out features in the dim predawn light, the landscape taking on an eerie character.  Though amazed at my environs, I couldn’t help but be distracted by a niggling thought that I was forgetting something…  My mind was going thought my inventory as I passed the Valley of the Gods, an area that may lack the scale of Monument Valley but made up for it with character and proximity.  I continued to ride until 12 miles out of town I realized that my room key was still in my pocket, and it was not one of those cheap plastic cards, but a real key on an imprinted brass fob. Turning around, I rode back to town, dropped off the key, and headed back out again, affording two more viewings of Mexican Hat Rock and the Valley as the glow of the emergent sun increased. 

mexhat-rock

Soon after, the sun began to emerge and I was picking up US-191 south heading back into Arizona.  I headed east on US-160, stopping at the Red Mesa trading post west of Teec Nos Pos on the Navajo Reservation for coffee and breakfast.  It was quite active for the early morning.  An older couple sat drinking coffee speaking (presumably) Navajo, I language I’d not heard before.  I contemplated the evolution of language and how the language itself mirrors the culture from which it came, and wondered if and how their language has adapted to contemporary times. 

fourcornersI gassed up and continued east on US-160 as it nipped the corner of New Mexico and entered the corner of Colorado.  Getting my ABCs pic for CO, I backtracked to go to Four Corners: the point where Utah, Arizona, New Mexico, and Colorado all converge to a single point memorialized by a small monumental platform.  I suppose it was worth the price of admission, but seemed a bit sparse.  Then again, just how much can one do for a point on the ground?  While there I met up with two bikers from Wisconsin (the only other patrons of the monument) who where heading to the Grand Canyon.  We talked about our rides, sights in Wisconsin, and our experiences of the ferries between Wisconsin and Michigan. 

Backtracking on US-160 took me to US-64 which I rode into Shiprock, New Mexico.  The movie Natural Born Killers mentions Shiprock, when Robert Downy junior’s character, pulp news sensationalist, Wayne Gale, lists off the towns on the infamous Highway 666.  When I was at my cousin’s place in Oregon, she pointed it out to me on her atlas and said that I had to get a picture of the bike with a US-666 sign.  Well, it turns out that her atlas predates the renaming of US-666 to US-491.  Despite an innocent enough origin of naming (it is apparently the 6th spur off of the former Route 66 according to Wikipedia), It turns out that the reputation of the Devil’s Highway drew a lot of sign thieves and risk takers resulting in a lot of thefts and traffic fatalities, so Arizona petitioned to have the name changed, which happened in 2003.

Regardless of the potential cool-factor of the road, my DeLorme mapping software chose US-491 to I-44 in Gallop, NM as my “quickest” route home, so I set off down another piece of Americana.  This turned out to be a significant error.  My mistake was not so much the road as not looking at my hardcopy atlas.  US-491 is one of the most boringly straight roads I could have chosen.  Passing uneventfully from Shiprock to Gallop, I was amazed that any “risk taker” could find a way to hurt himself on this road, shy of rear-ending someone at 150 mph.  What’s worse, there were no US-666 signs… not “Old 666″… not “Historic 666″‘  So pretty much a let down on all fronts. 

My alternative (had I looked at my map sooner) was to take US-64 on what appeared to be a delightfully twisty route Taos, NM.  Instead, I had monotony leading to more monotony in the form of I-40.

In Gallop, I gassed up and met another group of bikers coming home from riding in Alaska: a very diverse group of quite talkative personalities from Louisiana.  We left at the same time; I ended up riding in their group for a few tens of miles until they pulled off (presumably for a more interesting ride).  I continued on I-40 with my objective being Albuquerque, NM for my day’s stop. 

I had left Mexican Hat early with the idea of beating the heat.  The “problem” today was that the heat never materialized.  So rather than stop, I pressed on riding 660 miles that day to Amarillo, Texas (all interstate from Gallop on). 

I pulled into Amarillo in the early evening and stopped at the Harley dealership on the west end of town to buy a shirt and find out where the best/nearest biker bars were.  I got a strong recommendation for a little roadside restaurant called Smokey Joe’s on Historic Route 66 – so I headed there.  Pulling into the motorcycle parking right out front, I found a table on the patio right behind my bike and ordered a beer.  A biker at a nearby table, Sheldon, asked me about my trip which started us talking…

sheldon-and-randyWe talked about rides and collecting states.  (Sheldon claimed to have all 48 except Virginia.  I had to remind him that that would be “47”…)  His friend Randy showed up and I got the scoop on the various famous, infamous, and eccentric personalities of Amarillo. I got the in’s and out’s of all the oil money families in the area.  I was having a great time, but having done so many miles for so long that day… I had to retire early.

I got the the hotel exhausted.  It was the first time on the trip that my backside actually got sore  (the most common question when telling non-riders about my trip) and my back was aching. 

The next morning I was up not too early, packed the bike and hit the I-40 interstate again, to Oklahoma City picking up I-44 toward Tulsa.  It was another boring “ride for miles”, without the advantage of an early start, and today there was heat.  By late afternoon going through Tulsa, I was fortunate enough to perceive that I would soon be headed for another bout of heat exhaustion.  To avoid it, I pulled over at a truck stop with wifi northeast of town and hung out for an hour in the AC drinking lots of water and Gatorade and planning my route.

I figured to press due east on US 421 toward Arkansas, and would stop for the night at the first interesting motel I would find.  Getting back on the road I immediately made a wrong turn losing 421.  Even though I wasn’t much further than the truck stop, that little error broke my momentum and I stopped at a convenience store near the Hard Rock Casino for lodging and entertainment advice.  An amicable local whose name escapes me recommended a couple of local bars near “a local motel”, and he went to far as to lead me there on his way home.  Unfortunately the “local motel ” was an over-priced Holiday Inn Express.  I almost headed back on 421 but  had lost a lot of time and instead checked in. I debated whether to go the the Redneck Bar next door (not a slur… that’s the name of the place) or to go over to the casino to parlay my meager Vegas winnings into something worth writing home about.  In the end I did neither…  I was again very “tired” and called it an early night.

The next morning was the same…  Pack the bike and head out.  This time not on the interstate right away, but on a mission nonetheless.  I headed east on US-421 to pick up Arkansas, then I cut back into Oklahoma heading north to pick up Kansas. I was then back on the interstate plowing across Missouri with an objective of making St. Louis.  Making it only to Sullivan before I had to crash, I was quickly realizing I was no longer having any fun.

I was plowing through miles, not seeing the country, not having adventures… totally defeating the reasons for the trip.  Like a losing gambler reaching for his ATM card, I foolishly went “looking for adventure” in Sullivan — which of course never works out.  I retired to my room tired and disappointed and wondering what happened to the ride.

The next morning, with another late start… and a lot of soul searching… and a conscious decision to GET OFF THE INTERSTATE and STOP RIDING FOR MILES, I set out.  I rode up I-44 but got off on US-40 a short while later.  It was an immediate relief,  until I looked over and saw that I was paralleling I-44, seeing the same scenery along the same route… just making worse time.  I was half-thinking about chucking the whole thing and hitting the interstate again to at least get the miles… until I hit Vandalia finding…

vandalia-dragon

Now THIS you don’t see on the interstate.  The big silver dragon in the middle of rural Illinois was exactly what I needed to see.  I was immediately taken back to the campsite in southeast Minnesota, hearing a young flautist slowly piping Puff the Magic Dragon.  I vowed to stay off the interstate until I was within my “normal” weekend riding range of home.

I continued on up US-40, “National Highway” riding through non-extraordinary countryside, fields, pastures, rolling hills, and trees.  Though one may consider it drab compared to the hills of western Wyoming, the mountains of Yellowstone, the coast of the Pacific, the mesas the Southwest…  this was real heartland Americana and so wonderful to just cruise.  The small towns, each with their own character and pride passed slowly by.  Adhering to the speed limits was somehow not problematic.  I didn’t make great distances that day… but that was completely ok, and I found the peace I had lost in the three days prior. 

I decided to finish the day relatively early as I passed into Brazil, Indiana.  Stopping at the Casey’s convenience store I was given lodging and entertainment advice by the clerk who quite obviously hated living in the town.  (Lesson learned:  Don’t blindly follow such advice.  Talk to someone who at least likes living there.)  She had steered me to the Howard Johnson’s, which was much farther on the outskirts of town than I hoped.  Checking in, I thought this motel which could not possibly have been much worse than the Brazil Motel I had been dissuaded from.  But it all worked out well…

On my way to the Ho-Jo’s, I passed the fairgrounds and saw that there was a demolition derby starting in about an hour.  After checked in, unpacked, and stopping my a convenience store, I arrived right in time for the National Anthem.  There is something about a small town’s solemn respect for the Anthem that you generally don’t see a lot of more populated areas.  The stands of people were completely giving it their full attention.  Latecomers were stopped in attention right where they were upon hearing the music being sung passionately by a local woman.  Her unpolished performance was met with a sincere roar of applause, and the festivities began.

The stands were packed.  I’d estimate 700 to 1000 people were there, across all generations from infants to infirmed.  The drivers had come from about half the state.  The arena was a small patch of mud surrounded by concrete blocks with the spectators a mere 16-20 feet away.  While I do have a very vague recollection of having seen a demolition derby once as a child in South Dakota, for all intensive purposes, this was my first one. 

The field of 28 main competitors was broken into three heats (8, 10, and 10 cars).  They pulled into the pit, parked on the ends facing outward, half on each end.  Upon the waving of the green flag, engines roared and mud flew and the two lines of cars raced backwards at each other.  The the revs of engines and the crashes of twisting metal filled the air as the competitors smashed into each other until, one by one, each vehicle was either disabled or so wedged into the wreckage of someone else that they couldn’t move.  As each car was debilitated,  its driver waited patiently amidst the chaos waiting for the heat to end, as the other cars performed an amazingly coarse ballet of destruction about them, carefully avoiding the eliminated competitor.  There were no roll bars, harnesses, or nomex suits – just a helmet, eye protection, and seat belt (shoulder optional).  The heat would end when two drivers remained to go onto the main event.

demo-consol-pan

At the end of each heat, tractors and backhoes would extricate the wreckage, and the audience made a dash for the concessions stand for warm aluminum-foiled pre-made burgers, nachos with that viscous, orange cheese-like sauce with the skin-forming, or that great super-oily/salty popcorn you only find at a fair.

They ran three heats of cars, one of trucks, two consolation heats for the losers who could get their cars running again to have a shot at the main,  one for compact cars, and then finally the main event.  I had a great time.  There is a reason accident rubber-necking slows a morning commute, because the amount of damage two vehicles can do to one another can be quite fascinating. 

demoderby

 As the evening progressed, it cooled off under clear black skies.  I large lightening storm was presenting a great show over the flat open land safely south of town.  I rode back to the motel eerily vacant with only about a half dozen cars in the lot.  My room was in the most desolate location on the far side of the outer building looking south across a field.  Not a single car was back there, but there was one sole light in the room above me that went out as I pulled up, leaving a Bates Motel aura as I went to turn in.

I went to bed feeling a “good tired”.  Three days ago I took a turn onto the Devil’s Highway and lost the ride, but today I found it again, and in doing so adventure once again found me.

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