Las Vegas, Nevada, USA - April 24, 2003

Chapter 5 - The magnificent desolation

In Liberal, Kansas, there isn't really a lot to see. I had circled it on the map, but wasn't sure exactly why anymore. The main attraction here is Dorothy's House and a theme park dedicated to the Wizard of Oz. The house is a replica of the original used on the set of the famous movie. I never read the books, as I grew up in Europe and we had other popular children's books, but I saw the movie a gazillion times and still think it's the best fairy tale movie ever made. So, obviously I wasn't going to leave Liberal without visiting this dedication to my favourite movie.

The house is interesting and has probably a lot more than the original. They tried to recreate a 1930's era house complete with utensils of that time.
A recreation of Dorothy's room from the movie The Wizard of Oz. This room was inside Dorothy's house in Liberal, Kansas.
To see the house, you have to arrange a tour, which was easy, as I was the first and only visitor at the time. There is also a theme park dedicated specifically to the movie and this is really neatly done. You walk down different recreations of the movie sets and the best of all is without any doubt the start of the yellow brick road set. It looks just like in the movie. I thought that this theme park did in fact have the magic I had hoped for. Thus it was worth it to come to this little town in Kansas.

On my way out of Kansas, I again had to battle strong winds from the southwest and I ran into a hailstorm just outside of Boise City, Oklahoma, which I then passed on my right side as I was heading back north. At that time, I thought I wouldn't encounter another storm. The sky looked clear to me. I took highway 325 out of Oklahoma on my way to New Mexico. This road passes some beautiful countryside and the highest mountain in Oklahoma, Black Mesa. I originally wanted to go through Colorado, but the weather forced me further south. If I had known what still lay ahead, maybe I would have gone through southern Texas.

Just before the border with New Mexico, I saw a black cloud racing in from the southwest. I thought I could outrun it and cross into New Mexico, where I saw some clear weather ahead to the west, but as I was going down the road I ran into the fiercest wind combined with cold hail. I could only see a thick white curtain in front of me as the hail was coming down. I stopped immediately
The thunderstorm that I barely escaped from at the border between Oklahoma and New Mexico. The dark part of the road is where it's raining heavily.
and turned around to seek shelter. I had seen a B&B that I had passed just minutes before. But a few kilometres later, before I could reach any shelter, the previous dark cloud had caught up with me and now cut my escape route. I had no other choice but to stop and let the storm roll over me. I could see where the heavy rain was coming down, just 100m ahead of me. The wind was blowing like crazy. Luckily the bike was leaning in its direction or the wind would just topple it over. Bits of grass were being blown into the spokes and chain.

Then came the lightning. Because of the strong wind and the lightning, I lay down on the ground beside the bike and waited. Inside the suit and helmet I felt like in a space suit. Protected, but the lightning was scary. I'm used to thunderstorms in Ontario and I have a lot of respect for them. Once, a bolt of lightning came down about 50m from me. It was impressive. Since then, when I'm in the middle of a thunderstorm, I seek shelter, and here the only one is the ground. Laying flat and waiting. During all this time, not a single vehicle passed. I think the storm lasted for maybe 45 minutes. Once the thunder was far away I left and the weather began to clear. I was allowed into New Mexico.

The road on the map shows as an asphalt road but that is not true for about 17 miles. It's hard packed red gravel. I was a bit afraid because of my tires, that are 90% street oriented, but I think I wasn't yet prepared for dirt roads. The scenery was magnificent. Red hills dotted with turquoise green vegetation. Thus I stopped a few times to take pictures. It was also a change from the flatness of Kansas. This must be the west that I imagined.

The road also started to climb. I didn't notice, except it was getting colder by the minute. I had planned to camp again, but when I reached the Capulin Volcano in New Mexico it was freezing cold and all I wanted was a warm room, so I went for another motel by the interstate in Raton. From there I could already see the snow on the mountain ranges around. I began to question if I shouldn't go further south in order to cross the Rocky Mountains.

I thought of going to Santa Fe, after visiting the town of Taos in the north of New Mexico. To get there I took highway 64 west and the road once it gets to the Cimarron Canyon is amazing. I went up and down the mountain, through a narrow canyon and I began to see snow on the ground. Not very comforting, but at least on this day the sun was shining. So, as long as the snow is not on the road, it doesn't bother me.

On my way to Taos, I passed a strange place called Eagle Nest. It's a small town inside a huge basin high up in the mountains. I was at 3000m elevation and there were higher peaks around, the highest being Wheeler Peak with 4011m. This is just before Taos, which is at a lower altitude and thus was much warmer. Taos is a completely different town from what I have seen so far. The houses are built of brick or mud (I don't really know) and are painted in warm colours. The buildings are also relatively flat. I didn't see any really tall buildings. The place is also a maze of streets, but you can stick to the main two roads. There was too much traffic, that's why I went for a shortcut through narrow side streets.

The city is populated by artists. There are galleries everywhere. The pace is totally laid back. It doesn't look like any normal american city. Except that it does have a Wal-Mart. I first thought I could stay a day, but changed my mind. I found the place to be too crowded by tourists and the traffic to be a nightmare, so I left to try to pass the Rocky Mountains, now that the sun was still shining.

Basically, highway 64 west of Taos passes the Rocky Mountains and the continental divide. It is a great road, specially between Tres Piedras and Tierra Amarilla. It climbs up to about 3200m. There was still deep snow all around me, but the weather was fabulous. Once I passed the Rocky Mountains I chose a campsite in Chama, New Mexico. There I saw how badly worn my rear tire had become. It only had 8000km on it and shouldn't look like that. I
At the top of the Rocky Mountain pass in New Mexico at a height of 3200m.
think I made a mistake while crossing the mountains. The constant up and down changes the tire pressure and it is possible that the tires were overinflated, leading to excessive tire wear. Maybe I'm wrong and there is a different explanation, but from then on I'm checking my tire pressure constantly. I also changed my plans and will try to decrease the mileage necessary to get to San Francisco. I hope the tires will last until then.

The night I camped at Chama was also the coldest so far. I was quite surprised, but maybe shouldn't as I was at 2000m elevation after all. From New Mexico I went north to Colorado as I planned to visit Mesa Verde national park. The park is amazing. It sits high on a plateau and the road up the mountain is a motocyclist's dream. Very twisty.

Mesa Verde contains some of the most well known Anasazi ruins. The Anasazi were ancient Puebloan native americans and they lived on the Colorado plateau in the various canyons and on top of the mesas. They are known for their style of dwellings, built into the rock and in some cases high high up in the walls. Their buildings were built of stone, mud and wood, and some of those early villages are preserved as ruins, like at Mesa Verde. The most spectacular place there is called the Cliff Palace, due to the many buildings built into the wall of a cliff. This site is accessible and there is a tour, which is well worth taking. One of the most representative of the dwellings is the kiva, which had religious purpose. It is a round building with a fire pit in the middle, one stone at the side of the pit and an opening to a chimney on the side. The chimney was for ventilation. The air came down that chimney and was diverted to the side of the building's interior by the stone. Rather ingenious. This way, the fire could burn unimpeded. The building was topped by a flat roof and the door was at the top, above the fire pit. There was then a ladder leading in.

Apart from Mesa Verde I also visited Hovenweep National Monument, which is another significant Anasazi site. It is very well preserved and the red buildings look amazing. The other Anasazi site I visited was Navajo National
Hovenweep National Monument. This is an ancient Puebloan or Anasazi ruin in Utah.
Monument. This place is not crowded and the ruins look almost intact. That's also why tourists are not allowed very near them. Entrance to the site is also free and they have a good campsite which is also free. It is also fairly isolated on top of a mountain. So the next morning I awoke to a layer of frost on my tent and bike. It was the coldest night, but this time I was prepared with two pairs of wool socks, thermal underwear and gloves.

Navajo National Monument, which is west of Monument Valley is situated in Navajo lands. This is the largest Native American reservation in the US and it feels a bit like a different country. Mostly, the people here converse in Navajo and that adds to the feeling of being in a different country. In Kayenta, a small town east of Navajo National Monument, I went to the local Burger King, because they had an exhibit about the Navajo code talkers from WWII and I wanted some french fries. Until then I had avoided any fast food, as I thought they wouldn't have anything vegan. Well, it turns out Burger King has the same Veggie burger they have in Canada and if you order it without Mayo, it is vegan (if you can live with it being cooked probably in the same place as meat burgers). So, now I am relying on Burger King and in Las Vegas, that's all I had so far. I also became addicted to Dr. Pepper. Anyhow, the Navajo Code Talkers exhibit is small but really good. A good explanation, old photographs and memorabilia from WWII. Including complete uniforms and weapons of both american and japanese soldiers.

After leaving Navajo lands, I arrived in the town of Page on Easter Sunday. Definitely the wrong day of the year. Almost everything was closed (including Burger King :), so I left and went for a brief visit to the Glen Canyon Dam. This dam was built in the late 50's and blocks the Colorado river just before the Grand Canyon. In the process it created Lake Powell, which with its blue waters is a contrast to the otherwise bleak landscape. This was the place they filmed the original Planet of the Apes. If you remember the movie, this is the lake the spaceship splashed into.

At the dam I got a map of the area and it showed a dirt road through Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument, just to the north. I thought (without checking) that this road was the same showing on the Michelin map that would be a shortcut to Bryce Canyon. I decided to take this road that very afternoon and thought it would take me maybe 2 hours to do. It looked like maybe 50 miles long (again on the Michelin map).

I followed the entrance to that road just like it was showing on the map I got at the dam. After just a few kilometres I began to feel a bit apprehensive, because the condition of the road was worse than a simple gravel road. After all, I had worn out Bridgestones on and they are not off-road tires. I was about to prove otherwise, however.

The first section of the road leads through some of the most bleak landscape I had ever seen. Not a single plant or animal to be seen. Everything was grey or beige. It looked like something on Mars or the Moon. Where there
The beginning of the dirt road I took by mistake in Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument in Utah.
were mountains, giant boulders the size of small houses had crumbled all the way to the road. It was weird. About 10 or 20km ahead I found an intersection and a marker with some information. There were also some maps. These are provided by the Bureau of Land Management which oversees this area. When I looked at the map, I thought I must be dreaming. The map showed with extreme detail the twists and turns of the road. Something that didn't show up on the other two maps I had. This wasn't too good. Or maybe it was. At this point I also finally saw the mistake I had made. I was on the wrong road. The one on the Michelin map was further west and was adequate for normal vehicles. This one had a note that said only good for 4-wheel drive vehicles. Well, my bike only has two wheels, so that leaves me out. Or maybe they didn't even think a motorcycle could do this road.

I had done already 20km, so I decided to continue. It was only half past two in the afternoon after all. I may get to Civilization by four o'Clock. Hahaha! The first difficult section went all the way up a mountain. Turn after turn of a narrow road, large enough for one car at most, with a fearsome abyss on my left side. But that didn't really scare me. The road was sort of ok, as the dirt was hard packed, but rarely did I get out of first or second gear. Once at the top, the view was magnificent. I could see Lake Powell to the southeast and all around magnificent desolation.

Here the road improved a bit and there was a good stretch of straight road of red sand. The sand wasn't too deep, or otherwise I wouldn't have made it with these tires. As long as I kept the momentum and stood up, the road was fine.
A section of the dirt road with packed red sand. This was a very easy section. The worst was about to start.
Then, hell set in. The road began to descend again, but not over gravel or sand, but rocks and deep gullies. I didn't have tires (or courage) for this, so tackled the worst sections braking the bike in walking motion through them, several times coming close to wiping out. But that never happened and I still don't know exactly how that happened. It was getting late and late and my GPS, which was tracking my route through apparently empty landscape, was showing me that I would never make it to the next town before nightfall. Ok, this was not good. Not that I had a problem camping in BLM land, but I wasn't really prepared for this. I had food allright, but not enough water. I had maybe 2.5L of water and half a litre of soymilk. It wouldn't be enough if the road continued like this and I was forced to camp in the middle of nowhere. Of course there was no other traffic and no one knew I was even there. After all I thought the road was easier than it really was.

So, after struggling for the nth time with another difficult section I came across a very faint creek. There was water after all. I decided to stop and filter some, just in case. The water was less than an inch deep in places and in the scorching sun it was a lot of effort to pump just about a litre of water. But it gave me a bit of reassurance. If worse came to worse, I could camp out. When I restarted the bike, it wouldn't start. Oh, oh, not now. Well, the golden rule of any problem situation is to stop, relax and think all over again. This way there is no chance for panic and I rapidly realized that the sidestand was still on the ground and the bike was in first gear! It doesn't start in this situation. No matter what. Well, that was a relief and I continued to slosh along the difficult road. At this point I stopped taking pictures, even if the landscape looked amazing. For about two hours, all I did was riding the most difficult road I had done so far (probably there'll be worse ahead). Close to sunset, finally the road improved and I was able to go faster. I did arrive to the nearest town, Escalante, before nightfall, after 5 hours. The road was almost 80 miles long. Over 90% of the time, I had to ride standing up. I guess, tires don't matter that much. Standing up and keeping momentum is more crucial for off-roading. As long as it's no mud or deep sand. Would I do this road again? Not without better tires and more water. In the end it was worth it, because I saw some spectacular scenery and most of the road was actually fun. The BLM map did say that it would take 5 hours to do that road.

On my way to Vegas, I went and visited two of the most spectacular national parks. Bryce Canyon and Zion. Bryce Canyon is a weird place. It is amazingly beautiful but also overwhelming. It is a maze of columns of crumbling rock, called hoodoos. Some are several hundred metres tall and assume weird shapes. As in all things, we tend to see familiar shapes in them, so there is Thor's hammer and Queen Victoria, among others. I hiked one of the many trails they have. It is even possible to camp there, but after the hike I left, because they were predicting snow for the next day. I went towards Zion instead, thinking it is at lower elevation, so shouldn't get snow now. Or could it?
A view of Zion Canyon from the approach to Angel's Landing in Zion National Park.

Zion is one of the most beautiful places I've seen. It is awe inspiring. There are huge peaks of sandstone. Dark orange and white in colour. The road in the park leads through the mountains and even literally through one tunnel, which is more than a mile long and curves inside the mountain. I wasn't very lucky with the weather as it was raining on and off. In any case I decided to stay at least a night at the campsite.

The park was quite full with tourists. More than any other so far. To get to the trails of Zion Canyon, there is an excellent bus shuttle between the visitor centre and the canyon. This way is faster and more convenient and the road isn't clogged up with cars. The first trail I took was an easy one that leads to the esmerald pools. Even though the area is normally dry, the sandstone acts as a sponge and absorbs water over thousands of years, releasing it in trickles or waterfalls. This effect created these pools. Later in the afternoon, the weather cleared a bit and I went for a longer hike to Angel's Landing. This is an amazing trail. It goes all the way up a mountain and the last bit goes along the edge of the mountain over the rocks. The trail has a heavy steel chain in the most challenging places. Otherwise this trail would be extremely dangerous. In any case, I didn't go all the way to the top, because when I arrived at the last bit I saw thick dark clouds rolling in and it would take them 10 minutes to arrive where I was, and I didn't want to get stranded at the top of that hill. I have to return to Zion one day to complete this trail and do some of the other trails.

I also met a couple, Bryan and Janet from Idaho. They were really nice people and over their shared campfire we had some good conversation. They were going to Bryce Canyon the next day. I wanted to stay another day at Zion, but it started to snow. My tent was all wet and it was quite miserable, so I left for some well needed sunshine. Las Vegas is suppose to have always a lot of sunshine.
The beautiful red sandstone and the green desert floor close to Lake Mead, Nevada.

I really don't like to travel on interstates and so far I haven't seen anything of interest on them, so I left as soon as possible and took highway 169 south toward Lake Mead. This is really worth a trip. Specially when the wildflowers are blooming. They were just starting. There are yellow, orange, purple, blue and white flowers and the desert has this pale green turquoise colour from all the vegetation. It looks so amazing. More beautiful still is the very dark orange, almost red, sandstone rocks and mountains. They make an incredible contrast with the green desert. There are also black basalt rocks everywhere. I guess they came from volcanoes that spewed them out eons ago. It all looks breathtaking. And this just half an hour from the big city of Las Vegas.

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