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Riding Walkabouts from the Atlas to the Rocky Mountains

Guest post by David Faria 

I met David and Peter many years ago in a San Francisco cafe, two bikers from Gibraltar with many miles of travel all around the world. A marine lawyer in Gibraltar, David has kept me up with their travels all these years. This time they went traveling around the United States on two BMW F650CS “Scarvers,” which he has generously allowed me to share with you.

June 2016

After our travels over the wild Atlas Mountains in Morocco and down to Merzugga at the start of the Sahara Desert, and last year’s exploration of both North and South Island in New Zealand, my friend Peter and I decided that we wanted to return to the US and travel the length of the Rockies from New Mexico to Canada. It was an ambitious plan with long distances to cover crossing many Mountain passes and high desert plateaus.

In the mountains and deserts of Morocco, we had met the Berbers and seen how they lived and learned some of their history and language. In New Zealand, we had met the Maori and learned of their seafaring and the Maori Wars with the white settlers. Now we wanted to explore this great divide that cuts North America in two from North to South. The rivers on the west side of the Rockies run to the Pacific, and on the east, they run to the Atlantic. We also wanted to learn about their original native inhabitants and how the white settlers displaced them in the 1850 and 1870s. By European and Middle East standards this displacement of the natives seems to be very resent history.

We were to learn of the Navajo tribes who lived in what is now New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah.  The Ute tribes who lived in Southern Colorado and Utah. The Arapahoe who roamed the plains of Colorado and Wyoming on the east side of the Rockies. The Nez Perce who lived to the west of the Rockies in what is now Idaho and the Pacific coast and their famous Chief Joseph. The Blackfeet whose area extended from northern Montana into Canada and the territories of Alberta and British Colombia.

Four Corners 

A pretty desolate place as hot as hell, only red rocks and tumbleweeds.

It’s where four states meet Colorado, New Mexico, Arizona, and Utah. We have been riding part of the New Mexico and Arizona Desert. Just when you think nothing can survive in this desolate landscape, you see wild mustangs, and then you realize how they survive as you cross the green oasis of the San Juan River. The San Juan River gives life to the desert and its people the Navajo. After Arizona, we headed north into Utah and stopped at the Navajo Indian village of Bluff to cool off. Bluff is on the San Juan river that runs along the dessert bring water from the snowmelt of the Rockies. It’s hot, but the scenery is fantastic. This is, as far south as we are going from here we will head north.

We have now been in the US for a couple of weeks. We flew to Denver and spent two days in our friend’s house in Denver getting the bikes ready. In Denver, we bought two secondhand BMW motorcycles, F650 Scarvers that proved excellent on our journey. They were light yet powerful enough to cruise all day at 120 kilometers per hour. We left Denver heading south through the Rockies to Pagosa Springs; it’s a hot water spa town. We had come through the infamous steep Wolf Creek Pass, the terror of many truckers who fear brake failure on the long downhill sections. Camping at over 2500 meters high it’s hot during the day but very cold at night.

We have been at Mesa Verde National Park, which is in Colorado but close to the New Mexico border. Mesa Verde at 2300 meters has the remains of ancient cave dwellers, known as the Pueblo people.  

All the names of towns around here are Spanish as it appears that the first inhabitants were Spanish Jews escaping the Inquisition.

Utah

In Utah, we made Moab our base for a few days to explore the spectacular Canyons National Park and Arches National Park. One of the days we had to spend some time on a little beach on the Colorado river cooling off in the water as it was too hot to do much in the midday sun, it’s about 102F in the shade and humidity is only 17%. From Moab we were able to take a route to the La Sal Mountains, which took us up to the snow line, this shows the contrast in temperature you find in these territories.

 We had a fantastic ride for 50 miles once we left Moab as the road runs in a narrow, deep gorge alongside the Colorado River, which is very fast flowing with many rapids that we could see from the road. From Utah traveling east for about 100 kilometers, we crossed back into Colorado at Grand Junction and then into Utah again to stay in a motel in a little town called Naples. We had been camping for eight days, and we needed a good break and washed. We rode for over a hundred miles on a series of high mountain plateau at over 2000 meters, nothing but rolling forest and mountains covered in snow in the distance and no buildings anywhere. We came through the town of Rangeley on what the map describes as one of US lost highways.

Wyoming

 Shortly after Naples, we are in Wyoming. Wyoming is amazing; the scenery is so big it takes your breath away. We stayed the night in Pinedale in a little family run motel. The road was a series of wide sweeping curbs that just went on forever with no other traffic but the occasional monster truck and us. Wyoming is the US State, which has the lowest population density.

We camped in the Teton National Park. This is serious bear country, so we have to store all our food and toiletries in steel bear-proof boxes. We saw a woman been fined 200 dollars by Park Rangers for leaving food unattended on a camp table. We hope to get to Yellowstone tomorrow and from there into Montana and Idaho to Glaciers National Park and Canada.

We have already done about 3000 kilometers since we left Denver.

After Yellowstone, we crossed into the State of Montana. It is a huge State full of wide-open spaces surrounded by snowy mountains. It’s real cowboy country complete with bisons and Indian reservations. We crossed Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming to get here, and we had to stop on the road a couple of times to let herds of wild bison cross the road, we made sure to keep our distance. Montana is also the last State before the Canadian border with Alberta and British Colombia, which is probably as far north as we are going.

While in Yellowstone we stayed for three days in a pioneer’s cabin made partly of wood and canvas with a cast iron stove to keep you warm as the nights were really cold because of the altitude. I washed some clothes and dried them by the stove. It was not a good idea as my clothes smelled of smoked kippers. I wonder what the bears will think of the smell. We have to keep all our food and toiletries in steel boxes so as not to attract bears; maybe I will need to sleep in the steel boxes, they are big enough!

We have now done over 4,200 kilometers since leaving New Mexico.

On a trip like this there are moments that are magic like seeing a deer at dusk moving like a shadow between the trees and the tents in a camp ground deep in the forest or doing 120 k on a deserted Montana highway travelling north trying to outrun a dark thunderstorm coming up from the south, keeping your eye on that bit of blue sky in front.  The tune of “Riders on the Storm” of the Doors sounding in my ears. It’s these things that made all the hard times worthwhile.

Great Falls, Montana

13/6/16

We stayed in a KOA campsite with great facilities. The tent sites had a covered kitchen area with electricity and picnic table. On this day we had a great run on 89 from Livingstone to Great Falls, which runs through some beautiful country especially the Lewis National Forest.

14/6/16

In the morning after Great Falls, the weather does not look very good after a night with plenty of rain. The weather forecast is for thunderstorm and strong wind. Unfortunately, the weather forecast was right.

We are riding in the Montana plains, and after fifty miles the rain starts coming with a strong wind from the mountains to the west. We stop in the town of Choteau on 89  to do some grocery shopping and put on our rain gear. We are riding sideways with the strength of the wind and rain; it’s hard going. We ride through the native reservation of the Blackfeet Nation. Their reservation is in the plains at the foot of the Glacier National Park. We go through the town of Browning on the reservation, but we don’t see much as we are too busy riding in the difficult conditions with so much wind.

The wind is also very cold as it’s coming straight from the high mountains to the west. We are heading for Saint Mary, which is a small hamlet at the entrance to Glaciers National Park. When we finally get to Saint Mary, we find a warm wooden lodge with a fire place serving food and coffee, and we spent a long while there slowly defrosting.

15/6/16

Yesterday we had a rough ride coming up from Great Falls to Glacier National Park even though it was not a particularly long distance, only 170 miles. At first, we had rain and then a very strong lateral wind coming down from the mountains to the plains. Highway 89 on which we came up runs along the foot of the mountains and parallel to them. We even had a little snow before we arrived. Luckily we managed to get a cozy wooden cabin in a KOA campsite at St. Mary at the entrance to the park. 

Today the weather was good and sunny, and we managed to visit Glacier National Park. The park is impressive but a lot more relaxed than Yellowstone with less traffic and visitors. Both Peter and I thought we preferred Glacier National Park to Yellowstone. Peter also achieved his ambition of crossing the Canadian border into Alberta.

We had been camping in bear country for most of our trip and my friend Peter did not take the threat of bears that seriously but all that changed when we heard that two days after we were in Glaciers National Park, a bear had attacked and killed a cyclist on a mountain bike only two miles from a campsite.

We have done about 4,500 Kilometres since we left Denver. Tomorrow we start heading south via Kalispell and Helena. We will aim to be in Denver between the 27th and 28th June.

Traveling through these mountains, lakes, forests and high plains makes you think of the proud native people who lived at peace in this wild scenery hunting the buffalo and living of the land until the white settlers who respected none of the treaties that were made to guarantee the natives their land and birthrights displaced them. As minerals, especially gold, silver, and copper were discovered in the mountains, the natives were driven from their lands. When they resisted, their way of life was destroyed by starving them by destroying on an industrial scale the buffalo herds. It was estimated that in Montana alone there were nearly 17 million buffaloes in 1850 and by 1880 there were barely 400 Buffaloes in the whole of the USA. General Philip Sheridan wrote of the native people ” we took away their country and their means of support, broke up their mode of living, their habits of life, introduced disease and decay among them and it was this and against this they made war. Could anybody expect less?”

16/6/16

After staying two nights in a log cabin in St Mary in KOA campsite, we are ready to start heading south. The day promised rain, so we dressed in our rain gear. We headed south and east surrounding Glacier National Park on its south side. The road took us up into the mountains through forests and twisting curves until we arrived at the summit of about 7000 feet. We were lucky as we had no rain and a dry road through the curves, but the sky ahead was very dark as we left the summit.  The road to Kalispell is downhill for nearly two hours until we reach the town of Bigfork one hundred miles from our departure. We had rain all the way down, and we had stopped at the west entrance to Glacier NP for a coffee and to warm up.

We turned south at Bigfork before we reached Kalispell on to a forest road that takes us past the beautiful Swan Lake. The west side of the mountains is so different from the east side. On the east side it’s huge plains of agricultural land with small hard working communities on the west side, it’s all forests and lakes, and you can see the small communities that live from forestry.

We do a hundred and sixty kilometers through the vast national forests of Lewis and Lolo. By the time we get to the lake and little hamlet of Seeley we are ready to stop in a motel, having ridden most of the day in the rain. It felt good to get out of the rain and thunder.

Nowadays people tend to live very busy lives with no time for contemplation and reflection, internet, mobile phones, television and social media take up whatever time is left after work and family life. Traveling long distances by motorcycle and camping helps redress this process. On a motorcycle for long periods, you are left alone with your thoughts nothing but you and the scenery to contemplate, no phones no internet or even conversation to cause interruption. The quiet of a tent deep in the forest with the sound of nature around you seem to heal the soul if the ground is not too hard.

Back in Wyoming

We left Big Timber in Montana and headed to Red Lodge to then cross into Wyoming via the famous Bear Tooth Pass and Dead Indian Pass aiming for Cody. Dead Indian Pass is the pass that Chief Joseph used to escape with his tribes from the US Cavalry and try and retreat into Canada in 1877. Chief Joseph was the chief of the Nez Perce tribe originally from Oregon. He refused to take his people into a reservation as the white settlers invaded the territory that had been agreed to them. With 700 followers he inflicted several defeats on the pursuing US army consisting of about 2000 men. Eventually, his followers were starved into agreeing to go to a reservation when they were only 40 miles from the Canadian border.

While traveling through Red Lodge, we were surprised to see many persons bearing arms quite visibly on their belts, and we could not quite understand the need to publicly show that they were armed. The law in the US in many States gives them the right to carry arms concealed or on show.

In Cody Wyoming we are staying two nights as today, we did a loop of around 320 kilometers through Bighorn Pass and then Medicine Wheel back to Cody. It was a great ride especially climbing through the canyon that traces the Bighorn River. The town of Cody is named after Buffalo Bill Cody and lives up to its name by having a huge Winchester gun museum.

Since we started heading north from New Mexico, we have crossed some important rivers.

In Arizona, we crossed the San Juan River. In Utah, we crossed the Green River and the Colorado River.   The Green River carries more water than the Colorado River when they merge. In Montana, we crossed the Yellowstone and Missouri rivers, and in Wyoming, we crossed the Bighorn and Shoshone rivers. These rivers are the backbone of these territories providing the irrigation that they need and life to the high desert plains.  The Rocky Mountains act as the great divide, the rivers either run west to the Pacific or east to the Atlantic. We have crossed this great divide some times on our travels.

Cody 20/6/16

We leave Cody heading for Thermopolis a short ride of only 150 kilometers. At the spa town, we manage to stay at a campsite called the Fountain of Youth. It has three large spa pools each at a different temperature.

Unfortunately, although the pools are great and the camping has great potential, the restroom facilities are terrible. Thermopolis is also very hot, and the temperature reaches 103 F. At Thermopolis we meet Dick Richard St Claire he comes from Philadelphia and is traveling west on his Harley Road King. He is a painter and a writer and his themes are freedom and traveling across the vast USA. He shows us pictures of some of his work, and to me, it looks as if there is a strong influence of Dennis Hopper in the way he captures the soul of the people of the US.

 Thermopolis 21/6/16

We depart early in the morning after we take our leave from Dick who is heading further west and we are heading south through the spectacular Windy River Canyon up to a higher desert plateau towards Riverton. As we ride the high desert plateau for hours in my head, I have this constant noise of the Britexit vote which is getting closer and the uncertainties it will bring which seem so far from our present setting. We have met quite a few people who are aware of Gibraltar, and the Britexit dilemma as even the Wall Street Journal has run a story on it.

We are now riding some of Wyoming’s lost highways, no traffic, hot and windy with distant snow clad mountains. It’s difficult to portray the sense of space and emptiness that these dessert plateaus give, not a house not a tree for hundreds of miles and yet there is a great beauty as you see how wild life survives. We see signs of oil exploration and the very few pickups we meet seem to be driven by oil workers. It must be hard working in this heat and desolation. It’s hot for three months, and the rest of the year the area is covered in snow.

At Clear Water Junction we join and start following the pioneer’s roads that lead them west to Oregon, known as the Oregon Trail. We are now traveling the trail but heading east to Saratoga Wyoming close to the Colorado State line.  The early pioneers crossed these dessert lands and high mountains on their horses and wagons for nearly 2000 miles, and this gives you an insight on the toughness of these people and the mentality of their successors who now live in this hard land.

At Saratoga, we stay in a motel and get a good night’s rest after the heat and wind of the day.

From Saratoga, we take Highway 130 to Laramie, and in a distance of only twenty miles we leave the high desert, and we are in Medicine Bowl at nearly 11,000 ft. Surrounded by snow and frozen lakes. Laramie used to be a pioneers outpost at the foot of the Rockies close to the Nebraska state line. It was an experience to see the huge ranches as we approach from the mountains with all the cattle and horses ranging free. On the way down the mountain to Laramie, we stopped at the small hamlet of Centennial where we can still see the old buildings of the pioneers.

Colorado

From Laramie, we take Highway 230 through the Arapaho Mountains to Granby in Colorado. As we come down the mountain to Granby, we can see a thunderstorm coming our way, and we manage to get into a motel in Granby before the storm breaks.

Next day the weather still threatens rain and thunderstorms, especially in the afternoon. We are aiming for the town of Estes Park but getting there we have to go through Rockies National Park, and the road goes to over 12,000. We get going at 10 am, as we want to avoid the possibility of getting ice on the road. The road is dry but busy as we climb through the hairpin bends. The views are spectacular as we climb past lakes and forests. We see herds of elks bathing in the sun as we get to the tundra above the tree line. At the very top, the road feels icy after last night’s rain, but it only lasts for a mile or so. From the top, we start a steep descent to Estes Park and the temperature increases until we get to Estes Park. We have only covered a distance of 160 kilometers, but it was a slow twisting road. The town of Estes Park is very green and picturesque with a river running through with a leafy path running next to. We decided to stay two nights in the town especially as when we were in Moab in Utah we met a girl called Bronson who is a light aircraft pilot who flies tourists to the Utah National Parks of Brize, Canyons, and Monuments. She came from Estes Park and recommended the town to us and especially Edd’s Cantina which she used to manage. We managed to get a great Mexican dinner at Edd’s and finally get to try the famous bison burgers.

After Estes Park, we have a short run through mountains and forests to the town of Nederland.

This appears to be the town that the aging hippies come to retire to with plenty of places selling pot, which is now legal in Colorado. It’s Saturday, and we are now near Denver on a gorgeous day, so there are plenty of bikers on the roads on their Harley’s. We find a good National Forest campsite at Kelly Dahl. As we get near Denver, our rides are getting shorter as we wind down after our long month on the road. On Sunday our friend Jim from Denver joins us for a ride up to Mount Evans where the road goes to 14,130 feet.

By the time we get back to Denver where we had started our journey thirty-three days ago we had done 8,000 kilometers.

The Aborigines from Australia have the concept of Walkabouts. Walkabouts is about the needs that a man has to wander the land looking for enlightenment. Once a trail is done it becomes a part of your person, you own that experience, and it becomes part of your dream. Our travels on a motorbike from the Atlas Mountains of Morocco to the fiords of New Zealand and the peaks of the Rocky Mountains are now ours to savor and part of our dreams and psychic. The people we have met and the stories we have heard from them, their history, their aspirations, their hospitality and the sights we have seen are now part of our enlightenment.

 



This post first appeared on Carla King – A Travel Writers Writings, Readings, please read the originial post: here

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Riding Walkabouts from the Atlas to the Rocky Mountains

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