The Almost Grand Canyon Trip
The theme of our first Harley road trip was storms. Contrary to our expectations for May, we experienced every possible weather condition, short of a tornado. In spite of extreme weather, it was an adventure that built friendships and trust.
At 6:00 a.m., Frank and I rolled our Ultra Limited touring bike out of the back porch. We felt prepared for anything, layered up with thermals, sweaters, leather chaps and jackets, and rain gear over it all. We had never ridden with rain gear before, which became immediately apparent when I tried to get on the bike behind Frank. My leg wouldn’t raise up high enough to go over the seat. My husband, who has terminal anxiety about being late, turned around and helped lift the stubborn limb over the bike. I worried about how I was going to get down at our first meet up.
A few minutes later we arrived at Blue’s Donuts, where we met up with the few brave riders from the Inland Empire H.O.G. who ignored the weather reports. After Frank helped me off the bike, I peeled off the bulky rain gear. The other riders assured us that we wouldn’t have to worry about rain until after the Mojave Desert portion of our ride. The ride captain had checked the weather reports for the towns we were passing through, and he was mostly confident that we could stay dry throughout the day.
After picking up additional riders at a gas station in Cabazon, we set off on our three day adventure. The first leg of our journey was a blur, not due to excessive speed but the blasting wind as we fought through to Yucca. The spinning windmills on both sides of the highway gave form to the invisible currents. Our group pushed through like we were fighting the ocean. But my head did not fall off, and we finally reached Twenty-Nine Palms and the desert.
The real kind with sand and no vegetation. Nothing but sand and asphalt.
The ghost of old Route 66 laid its two asphalt lanes here, and I tried to imagine cars with no air conditioning crossing the massive emptiness. Then I thought about horses and wagons coming out to California for the gold rush. Were we that crazy?
After no sign of civilization except power lines for miles, we stopped at an antique gas station. Two pumps and some restrooms. The sign said the town was Amboy, but I didn’t see any town. A motel from the 60s era with a huge sign that said Roy’s welcomed us, but it didn’t look like anyone stayed there. We took a break in the bright sunshine, peeling off our top layers of leather jackets and chaps.
Time that day was measured by gas station stops, the next one in Needles. The clouds that were threatening all day stretched above us like water balloons. The road captain consulted his phone for weather updates. We traveled a little while longer until we finally stopped underneath a freeway overpass. Leather and rain gear came back out, for now we were headed up in altitude, towards Williams, Arizona.
Instead of taking the freeway, we continued to follow old Route 66 through wind-swept Native American reservations. Miles of scraggly bushes and cows stretched out in all directions. The mountains ahead were obscured by clouds. Bitter cold cross winds came up under our helmets and made our eyes water. Then the rain arrived as mist on our windshield.
As the line of bikes snaked its way across the rolling hills, rain caressed us gently, often mistaken as wind. Cold air pressed down on us as we rode directly through a low pressure cell. In the distance, I could see slivers of blue sky, but I couldn’t tell if our capricious road would loop away or toward the hanging clouds.
Onward we traveled down an endless road littered with the ruins of motels, gas stations, restaurants, and car repair shops that had closed up after the freeway had been built. Route 66 was a road through ghost towns, everything frozen in time.
Finally our road connected with the freeway which had killed it, and we stretched out on the wide, separated interstate that would lead us to our hotel in Williams. The mist continued to fall, but our rain gear did its job, and we stayed dry. The road captain threw up his arm to signal the turn off, and we headed towards the hotel. Thankfully the rain had stopped when we arrived, and we went inside to check in.
Again Frank and I proved to be newbees as we tried to check in, and discovered that our credit card had been cancelled. A phone call revealed that our frequent small purchases at gas stations along the way had created a fraud alert, which blocked our card.
After we got that straightened out, we went outside to unload our luggage when it began to hail. Huge gumball size ice balls pelted us as we grabbed our bags and headed for our room. However, by the time we were ready to walk down the street for dinner, the storm had stopped.
Our range of weather continued the next day as we rode to Flagstaff for breakfast. Instead of the relentless pelting of rain, we could barely feel the gentle caress of flakes. Our warm breath clouded the visors of our helmets and our fingers felt stiff. When we reached the restaurant, I realized I’d been holding my breath the whole time, praying that no one would skid out on the slippery road. But we made it to Cracker Barrel safely, and our troubles were forgotten with the help of coffee and pancakes.
During breakfast, the ride captain studied maps and conferred with his phone, weather again a concern. The Grand Canyon was at a higher elevation that included snow in the forecast.
After much deliberation and a vote from the group, we decided to take a scenic loop outside of Flagstaff that would head back toward Williams instead of proceeding to the Grand Canyon. Weather reports predicted that the grand vista of the canyon would be masked by fog and snow for most of the day. As much as it was a disappointment, I was relieved that we were going to stay lower where we would face only rain.
Our group rode into Flagstaff past the university and back out to the wilderness. The narrow two-lane road led us through woods and meadows, past ranches and houses that seemed like freckles on the huge expanse of land. Rarely did a vehicle pass us, and when it did, it was a Jeep or a four-wheel drive truck.
But the clouds had not forgotten us. A massive black one loomed to our right, a grey curtain of rain extended from its bottom. Would we make back to Williams before getting hit by a deluge?
On we rode and the road took us where it wanted us to go. The sky became more dramatic as sunshine hit us on our left. and the cold storm front pushed us from the other side. I felt like we were storm chasers, only without the protection of a van. Even if we stopped, there was nowhere to find shelter in the barren rolling land.
Suddenly, a bucket of water dumped over my head. The storm had caught us! The ride captain slowed down as we were lost in a wall of rain. Only the yellow center line assured us that we still followed the road. I shut my eyes for there was nothing to see. Surely we would stop somewhere and wait for the storm to pass.
But the road saved us as it turned to the left, away from the storm’s fury. We kept following it until it led us back to the freeway. Two short exits and we were back at the hotel, taking hot showers, and getting ready for dinner.
We all shared our stories that night. Some of us knew each other before the trip, but others, including us, were new. Some of the conversation was more personal than the lunch talk of a day trip. But riding through wind, heat, rain, sleet, and snow had changed our group. After surviving the storms together on our Harleys, we were ready to share the other storms of our lives as well.