Sunday, May 16, 2021

Tampa to San Diego...with a lot of Texas in the middle

I showed up at Dave’s place In Escondido with the chicken strips still on my tires.  The hot pavement from the ride out of Phoenix hadn’t worn them off yet.  

But this really isn’t about new tires. It’s about turning a 2,500 mile cross-country ride into a 7,500-mile ride.  

I had to be out in San Diego for a very sad and very necessary family affair in May.  Everyone else was flying out but I wanted to ride.  

A friend from California, said he’d meet me in Texas if I could find some interesting riding there so I got to work on that.  I spent a lot of time in Texas in the 80’s and 90’s but had never been to Big Bend National Park so I added that to the list. And I wanted to ride Arizona’s Devil’s Highway from top to bottom, so I tacked on a stop in Albuquerque to see my brother on the way to Mexican Water, AZ, where Highway 191–formerly Route 666– begins. 

The plan was for my buddy to meet me in Van Horn, Texas and we’d start the ride from there.  It was 800 miles for him and 1,600 miles for me.  

I left Tampa before dawn on April 15th and did an old fashioned Iron Butt ride to Houston.  It was fairly easy: I-75 north , then a left turn on the I-10 west: And in under 15 hours I’d ridden 1,040 miles, boom.  

It started raining in Tallahassee and didn’t stop until I reached the Alabama-Mississippi border.  My Aerostich jacket didn’t keep me as dry as I would’ve liked but it was still fine.  A nice, easy ride. 

I thought a lot about my old man as I rode.  He’d joined me as I drove across country from San Diego to Tampa back in 2004 and what a great time that was.  I still treasure the 10 days we spent together and it made this ride out to see him that much tougher.

I’d checked and re-checked weather forecasts...but my distrust of the charlatans who call themselves meteorologists was again proven well-founded when an “unexpected cold front” took over the Southwest.  The highs of 85 turned into highs of 62...with 46 to 53 being the daily norms.  I didn’t pack much cool-weather clothing, so I shivered through most of the ride.  Better than riding in high heat, I suppose.

I stopped to see a friend outside of San Antonio and we had a fine time at some local bars and eateries.  It’s funny how old friends can just pick up where we last left off.  Spending time with him did my soul good.  

I met up with my buddy in Van Horn the next day and we headed for Terlingua.  Well, we “headed” that way but a small screw in my rear tire plagued me for the next 130 miles.  The tire repair kit I had with me worked well...for 20 miles at a time.  I just kept putting in another mushroom plug and riding until the red screen on my BMW’s display warned me to “STOP IMMEDIATELY!”

Yeah, we stopped at the Prada store in Marfa. I had to explain to my wife that it was art...and that’s why I didn’t pick up a gift.  

At a small gas station that didn’t sell gas on the Mexico border, Abraham deftly inserted a bacon strip/tar snake tire plug that held for the next 1k miles.  I shared a beer with Abraham—a commodity that he did sell at that gas station—then headed east toward Terlingua.  

There’s a pretty little road that runs along the Rio Grande for about 60 miles.  Passing through Lajitas, Route 170 twists and turns and rises and falls like a roller coaster, just a lot of fun.  

We found a place to put up our tents outside of the park then rode up the get some famous chili in Terlingua.  The chili disappointed, but the characters there did not.  We found ourselves in the midst of a colorful group of misfits to be sure.  

We rode into the National Park on a chilly and clear day.  Big Bend is unlike any of the other national parks I’ve visited, and I found it welcoming and peaceful.  

We rode down to the Rio Grande overlook where three Mexican kids—one on a horse—delivered a bunch of knick knacks to a parking lot where tourists congregated.  They left an old Chlorox bottle with prices scribbled on it and went back across the river.  It was a pretty sight to witness.  

We stopped at the Boquillas immigration port of entry but it was closed.  Doesn’t look like it would be a very busy border crossing, anyhow.  

There are quite a few off-pavement roads in Big Bend—some easy, nicely graded roads and some tougher Jeep trails—but two loaded-down motorcycles with street tires just didn’t have the guts this time.  We headed for Marathon on paved roads under gray, misty skies.

We were cold and wet when we reached Del Rio and decided to stay there.  Some fellow riders provided info on a more interesting route to San Antonio than Highway 90, so we headed for the Texas Hill Country the next day.  

My Dad came out to see me in Texas years back. He liked the people and the food and I guess I did, too.  Thinking about the places I’ve been in the US, my Dad has come to see me everywhere I’ve lived, even the Carolinas that one time.  We sure had a great time then.  Pops was always amazed when he ran into Spanish-speaking people in the towns where I lived...even in Washington, DC.   I told him that Mexicans were everywhere.  He thought about that and agreed.  

Anyhow, my buddy and I took a much better route to San Antonio via towns like Medina, Leakey, Bandera and Helotes.  We accidentally rode through a curvy section called the Three Twisted Sisters and that one put a smile on our faces.  

We checked into a campground then Ubered over to a Mexican restaurant I remembered just outside of the downtown area, and it was still glorious.  After some good chow and a few Shiners, we rented some of those ubiquitous street scooters and rode a couple miles up to the Alamo for the requisite photo.  Like most tourists in the area, we also hopped on a little boat —margaritas in hand—for a tour of the River Walk.  We then walked along the San Antonio River sampling the bars as we made our way back to the campground.

We left San Antone for Albuquerque the next day. Though we intended to stay in Lubbock, we ended up riding a bit further and stayed the night in Clovis, New Mexico. The scenery was right out of old western movies...and in fact, we rode through a lot of Billy the Kid’s old stomping grounds.  

After a quick stay with my brother and sis-in-law outside of Albuquerque, we headed northwest to the Arizona-Utah border and the start of Highway 191.  There sure isn’t a lot out there except sparsely-populated reservations.  

The ride south on Highway 191 was everything I’d been promised: Miles and miles of stunning, picturesque landscapes.  It was a religious experience and I didn’t want it to end.   

Sadly, my riding partner had had enough of the long miles and he called it quits when we stopped at the I-40 for fuel.  We stayed the night at a rundown roadside motel in Chambers, Arizona.  My Highway 191 ride would have to be postponed as he went home and I went to San Diego via Phoenix and Yuma.  

My old man used to buy farm machinery out in El Centro, California and Yuma, Arizona and I accompanied him on one such trip when I was 8 or 9 years old.  I still remember the hot, dry climate and smells of the Southwest.  My dad would point out and name all the plants that we’d see along the way: PiƱon, sagebrush, yucca, agave, ocotillo, barrel cactus (biznaga in Spanish).  I saw a lot of that along my route this ride and it brought back good memories.  

While getting some new tires in Phoenix, a friend met me for some tasty local BBQ,  then we went over to his place where I met his wife and mom.  I’d met and ridden in Mexico with two of his sons, so it was a pleasure to meet the rest of his family.  

I then rode out to Yuma to see an old friend and his wife.  We talked about the past, the present and the future and it turned out to be one of the most relaxing parts of my ride.  Then I geared up and pointed my bike toward America’s Finest City.  While in San Diego, I mostly stayed in Escondido with a friend who knows a lot about bikes...but I didn’t have to work on my bike this time.  To try out his new lathe, we spent 2 1/2 hours making a shot glass out of some spare aluminum.  Good times.  

While in San Diego, I was able to hang out with many of my friends.  We’d meet for coffee, for beers, for breakfast, lunch, dinner, more beers.  That kind of thing is something I’ve really come to appreciate in retirement.   

My wife and I stayed at our friends house in San Diego.  It’s a big, old place—something between a B&B and a hostel—situated in Banker’s Hill right above downtown and next to Balboa Park.  It was an excellent base of operations for our time there.  

My family all congregated in San Diego and handling the matter at hand as a team made it a little easier, though it was still a tough, tough task.  But that’s why we all came.  

When everyone flew back home, I packed up and prepped myself for the long slog back East. A few friends escorted me from Escondido out to the I-10 by Joshua Tree National Park via Borrego Springs and the Salton Sea...and that was a really good way to start the ride back home.  

Though I hadn’t planned my route back, I did want to stop and see friends along the way.  My first stop was Paulden, Arizona to see a good friend.  A fellow buddy and rider also stopped by and we enjoyed cold beers and hot tacos off the grill as we talked motorcycles. 

My buddy provided solid info on a route through Arizona where I could pick up the rest of Highway 191...and it didn’t disappoint.  I gotta say, that part of the US is severely underestimated by riders.  

I rode through Camp Verde, Payson, Show Low and Greer to get to Highway 191 at Springerville.  I tent camped at over 8k feet in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest that night.  Just a beautiful, brisk evening in the middle of some prime Arizona forest.  An eerie howl woke me at midnight and I recorded a few minutes of it.  A friend later told me it was just a coyote, but it sounded very different from coyotes I’ve previously heard.  

The next morning I got an early start on Highway 191.  I was excited to finally finish it and wondered if I’d overestimated the ride I’d been thinking about for so long.  Nope, it was even more spectacular than I’d imagined.  Just an incredible ride.  

And if the pretty road wasn’t enough, I came into a tight corner near the Robinson Mesa Trail and found myself face to face with a full grown mountain lion.  Never having seen a live cougar, I intended to treat the encounter like a dog attacking my motorcycle—I would slowly approach him...then speed up quickly and ride past.  But that wasn’t necessary as the big cat moved across the road slowly—never taking his eyes off me—and walked up into the tree line.  Wow, just wow.  I couldn’t believe how incredible that was!

I made my way down the rest of the highway to Morenci where I rode through some massive mining operations.  There’s copper in them thar hills! Or so it would seem from all of the activity.  

Shortly after passing through Duncan, the road met the I-10 at Lordsburg, New Mexico.  From there it was a quick ride to Deming where I’d hoped to meet up with local friends.  Since they weren’t around, I fueled up and headed east on the I-10, arriving to Van Horn by mid day.  

Now I’ve had a testy relationship with Van Horn ever since my motorcycle broke down there in 2011 and I had to spend 3 days in that God-forsaken place.  But the two times I’ve stayed there this past month might’ve changed all that.  The folks I ran into were nicer, friendlier...nothing like the people I encountered a decade ago.  And after interacting with some locals, I saw the town in a different way.  I guess that town and I came to somewhat of an agreement and the hard feelings were left behind.  

I left Van Horn after an excellent breakfast of hot coffee and chilaquiles verdes at Chela’s.  That was a great meal to ride 450 miles on.

It was an uneventful ride to San Antonio and I stayed the night there. Now, the next day I planned to ride about 600 miles to Biloxi, Mississippi.  When I left San Antonio, it was sprinkling...and it continued all the way to Houston.  The traffic was moving well and when the weather cleared up, I thought I may as well ride a bit further...maybe to Pensacola.  

Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama went quickly.  There’d been thunderstorms predicted by those shameless weather forecasters so I wanted to ride while the riding was good.  Spoiler alert: They were wrong again as it never rained a drop.  So when I got to Pensacola, I fueled up and kept on going.  

I texted my wife and told her I was toying with the idea of just riding all the way home. That would be 1,200+ miles and would entail some night riding, something I’m not too fond of.  You see, I’ve seen so much debris on the road during the day that I really didn’t want to run into it at night when visibility is much reduced.  

Stuff I saw on the road while riding (in no particular order):

  • Two very large, very dead elk
  • About a dozen deer of various sizes 
  • Many rocks, also of various sizes 
  • A mattress box spring, queen size 
  • Pieces of a blue, plastic lawn chair that was strewn over 1/2 mile of the highway
  • A mangled truck dolly 
  • Two ladders 
  • Many, many tires and pieces of tires.  
  • A large unidentified piece of metal resembling a transmission 
  • A large piece of black plastic that shattered when it hit my motorcycle at 82 MPH
  • A big, beautiful mountain lion 
  • Etc...

But the ride was fine.  I slowed down a bit and used my auxiliary lights once it got dark and just let the bike take me home.

There were rumors of gas shortages due to a pipeline issue, but I didn’t see too much craziness at the pumps.  There were lines at some stations, and limitations on premium fuel, but I was able to fuel up quickly wherever I stopped.  

I rolled into my driveway at exactly 1 AM...1,225 miles and 17 hours after I’d left San Antonio.  I was a bit sore and tired but happy to be home. Total mileage for the ride was right at 7,500 miles...a bit more than I’d predicted, but it was all good.  

My Dad would’ve liked to hear about my ride...the things I saw and the people I’d met along the way.  He always liked to stop and talk with fellow travelers he’d meet on the road and maybe that’s where I got that.  

Yeah, I’ve been thinking a lot about my Dad these days.