Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Crossing Oklahoma off my list

Last summer, I made the mistake of riding north from Savannah, Ga. without taking the time to go to Florida. It's only 139 miles from Savannah to Jacksonville, but because I didn't go south I won't be able to say I've motorcycled in every state without quite an extra effort.

This trip, I planned to cross the southeastern corner of Oklahoma on my way from Hot Springs, Ark. to Austin, Texas. The route the GPS selected turned out to be different from the one I Googled on my laptop, however, and I missed Oklahoma. I also missed Santa Fe -- a city I fell in love with a few years ago when Mary's family met there to spend Christmas.

From Salida to Canon City, US 50 follows the Arkansas River.

So, with nearly two weeks left before I needed to be in Nebraska for another family reunion, I decided to ride down to Santa Fe and then loop east to Oklahoma before circling back to visit Mary's sister Jane's family in Lafayette, Colo., near Boulder.

Sunday, May 16, dawned clear and crisp and I followed US 50 east along the Arkansas River to Canon City and Pueblo. No mountain passes this time, just a winding road following a beautiful river boiling with snowmelt. I stopped at the Royal Gorge along the way, but decided to pass up crossing the nation's highest suspension bridge or riding the incline railway to the bottom of the gorge. The commercial, theme-park atmosphere turned me off after visiting so many national parks.

After Canon City, the road flattened out through Pueblo, where I turned south through Colorado City and Walsenburg before jogging southwest toward Taos along the straight valley highway with the Sangre de Cristo mountains to the east. As the day warmed, the KLR hummed and the straight, flat road disappeared into the shimmering distance, I needed something to keep me awake and stopped for an energy drink in Fort Garland, which Kit Carson had commanded back in its days as a frontier military post. A can of Full Throttle and a bag of jelly beans did the trick.

We were back in New Mexico, this time arriving from the north.

Arriving in Taos in the mid afternoon, I could appreciate the cities style and attractions, but they just made me want to keep going to Santa Fe. I stopped for gas and to pick up a New Mexico road map -- the one I used on my trip west through the southern part of the state had blown out of the tank bag near Silver City -- but then got rolling again down NM 68, which took me to the Rio Grande gorge and then followed the banks of the river -- much larger here in northern New Mexico than down on the Texas-Mexico border -- down to Espanola.

The Rio Grande in northern New Mexico is a favorite spot for rafters, kayakers and fishermen.

In Espanola, there must have been a convention of three-wheeled motorcycles with V8 engines. I saw three of these exotic machines in different palace, not in a group, and one of them turned up later at the Plaza in Santa Fe.

I spotted three of these trikes with Chevy V8s in Espanola on my way from Taos to Santa Fe.

That Sunday evening was a perfect time to arrive in Santa Fe. I spotted a campground just outside the city in the Santa Fe National Forest and, after pitching my tent there, I headed back into town for dinner. The setting sun washed the town with warm color and street musicians played in the Plaza.

I limped around the downtown area -- the ankle I twisted on Monarch Pass was better, but not 100 percent -- checking out menus outside high-end restaurants and ended up back at the Plaza Cafe, which claims to be the city's oldest restaurant, founded in 1918. I chose pollo adobada, wanting to compare it to the chicken adobo served in Hawaii. Both dishes include chicken and a spicy sauce -- that's about all they have in common, but both are delicious.

Santa Fe's distinctive architecture is a delight.

The cathedral in Santa Fe at sunset.

If you squint, Santa Fe almost disappears into the desert.

The night camping in the Santa Fe National Forest was relatively warm and very dry -- a happy change from the frigid temperatures of Bryce Canyon or dewy nights that left everything soggy. In the morning, I packed up and rode back to Santa Fe for huevos rancheros at the Plaza Cafe and then wandered around taking a few pictures and enjoying the morning's perfect weather.

Local artisans sell jewelry at El Palacio Real, the oldest public building in the U.S.

Santa Fe's quiet downtown plaza is a great place to relax.

Santa Fe locals stop for a chat outside the Contemporary Museum.

But I was a man with a mission: to ride a motorcycle in Oklahoma. So, I mounted up and rode southeast on US 84, paralleling the old US 66 highway, looping around the mountains to Las Vegas, N. Mex., and then heading east to Tucumcari -- a town which, for me, wasn't as interesting as its name.

Santa Fe architecture incorporates the colors of the desert.

I saw a lot of desert that afternoon. The blue verbana wildflowers, tan soil, evergreen bushes and golden grasses echoed the colors of Santa Fe, one of my favorite American cities.

The road to Tucumcari, which includes sections of the historic US 66, took me through some wide 0pen spaces.

Meanwhile, the straight, flat roads of northeastern New Mexico again eroded my ability to stay alert and I stopped at a decrepit gas station slowly disintegrating along a section of the old US 66 and bought a sandwich and a Monster energy drink. I met two other riders, from Minnesota, at the station. They were headed to Moab and Bryce Canyon and said they planned to camp. I wished them good luck but told them to expect cold temperatures. Moab shouldn't be too bad, but Bryce, at over 8,000 feet, would still be frigid.

Getting to Oklahoma took me back to Texas.

I-40 took me to Tucumcari, where I turned northeast on US 54 to Logan and past Ute Lake, an area working hard to become a recreational mecca, despite a harsh, uninviting environment. Beyond Ute Lake near the Texas border there is a town on the map, Nara Visa, that appears to be a modern ghost town, although it claimed 112 inhabitants in the 2000 census.

Back in 1919, according to Wikipedia, "Nara Visa had eight saloons, at least three dance halls, drugs stores, general merchandise stores, a barber shop, butcher shops, millinery shops, auto suppliers, hotels, garages and a bank." These days, it has a row of junk cars spray painted with the legend: "Go Away!"

A hawk keeps an eye out for a meal from his perch overlooking the Texas prairie.

Crossing the state line into Texas lifted my spirits. I was in cattle country -- wide-open prairie with more grassland than desert and lots of windmills pumping water in the pastures. I stopped to take a photo and spotted a big hawk perched in a tree. Miles away, there was a homestead on the horizon. Other than that ... grass.

Dalhart, Texas, is a bustling cow town where the bank stays happy.

Crossing into Texas, I lost an hour, switching from Mountain to Central Time, and it was time to find a place to stay for the night. Neither the road map nor the GPS detected any campgrounds within 60 miles. I worked my way north to the city of Dalhart, passing two enormous cattle feed lots -- each with thousands of head of cattle.

Dalhart keeps alive the legacy of the XIT Ranch, a three million acre spread that was acquired in exchange for building the state capitol in Austin. The ranch was broken up in 1912, but the name "XIT" is still common in the area.

Dawn in cattle country.

I got up early with 365 miles to ride to Lafayette, Colo. The forecast was for rain and strong thunderstorms in the afternoon along my route.

I made it to Oklahoma.

As the sun rose, I found myself at the state line and stopped to document my passage into Oklahoma and the Rita Blanca National Grassland. A few miles up the road in Boise City, Okla., I stopped to fill the KLR's tank and then continued north into Colorado and the Comanche National Grassland.

I stopped at the Campo (Colo.) Cafe for breakfast. The special was sausage, eggs and hashbrowns. A sign on the wall said: "Trust your neighbor, but brand your cattle." There were three calendars on the walls.

Around a long table in the middle of the dining room a half dozen local guys in denim and cowboy hats sat discussing technology.

Turns out, every one of the six had at least one light on the dashboards of their pickup trucks that wouldn't go out and had been that way since the trucks were new -- either the "check engine" or air bag warning light or something. What's more, one fellow had installed a GPS in his truck that was draining the battery -- it just wouldn't shut off when he turned the key. "Must be some kind of relay in there," he said.

"That old pickup of mine runs through gas faster than I can pay for it," said his friend.

They grow a lot of wheat in this part of the country.

My road ran north from Lamar to Kit Carson, then northwest to Hugo, Limon and Denver. A strong tailwind pushed me along, easing the pressure on the bike. Nearing the Denver airport on I-70, I saw a huge black cloud ahead spitting lightning and stopped to button up and put a ziplock bag over the GPS.

Luckily, the storm was headed northeast and had passed me by before I reached I-270, the northern loop around the city. The highway was still wet, though, and I arrived in Lafayette splashed with grime. Still, 365 miles in seven hours was good time on a big ol' dirt bike.

My route from Salida to Lafayette took me through four states.

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