Watermelon Ginger Keifer. Served up fresh from a fellow biker in Prescott, Arizona, it told me this trip was definitely not the Old West. This trip was formally and exclusively a 21st century creation. In this Fuck-No-It’s-Not-a-Depression Recession, people are getting simpler. There are pleasures to be had on the road. So just say, “Screw it,” and make it happen.
The trip started out on flat and boring Interstate 10, by design. It was August, I live in Los Angeles, and there’s a desert between New Mexico and me. Highs were about 110 degrees, so a quick trip through the desert was key to actually enjoying the trip. While a possible alternative might have been traveling at night, that didn’t work for me for two reasons. A) It’s not that much better. I’ve crossed the Mojave at night traveling to Sturgis and it was still 100 past midnight. The danger of night riding (I have crappy night vision) didn’t justify a 10-degree difference. B) I was couch surfing in Prescott the first night and didn’t want to inconvenience my host too badly with a 2 a.m. arrival.
I did a series here in Baggers a couple of years ago about couch surfing the West Coast. Well, back then I chose the tour and the destinations based on where I had friends, family, and acquaintances that would put me up, for the most part, and improvised when that wasn’t possible. I pointed readers to a site I’d just discovered called couchsurfing.org, in which people willingly give up their couch space to fellow travelers in the hopes of getting someone to do the same for them at some future date. This trip to New Mexico was actually made possible by Couchsurfing.
Near Sedona, Arizona.
Of the 46 states I’ve been to, New Mexico is one of the ones I’ve explored least. An invitation to a spare bedroom in Albuquerque was all it took for me to start planning a trip. Looking at a map, and recent experience on my way to Bike Week, showed me Prescott is a relatively easy ride from either LA or Albuquerque. Being in the mountains, surrounded by fun roads and cool-ish temperatures, Prescott is where I stared my search. And it didn’t take long. My first message through Couchsurfing netted me a fellow rider’s couch, just outside downtown Prescott. And for free, I wasn’t about to inconvenience her by showing up in the middle of the night.
Though I rode through the afternoon heat, at least I didn’t prolong the misery by taking the sort of “interesting” road I’d usually take (two lane and beautiful, not a lot of that between LA and AZ anyway), opting for the expediency of the Interstate. Two-hundred fifty miles of hell passes pretty quickly when you’re going 80.
It’s here I need to drop a little knowledge on you. People, including my host in Arizona, trip out when I show up in a jacket (and a helmet and boots and long pants) on a very hot day. Though I’d never ride without these things, in extremely hot weather it’s an even better idea. The problem is that you’ll dehydrate and actually heat up more if you have too much ventilation. Riding in a T-shirt (or less), or a mesh or perforated jacket is only a good idea (ventilationally speaking) between about 75-95. If it’s higher than body temperature, how is your ventilation helping? Answer: it’s not. Drink plenty of water, and zip your vents up so that only a little breeze comes through to dry you off and actually keep you cooler. Hot wind on dry skin is just asking for heatstroke.
So I-10 was the endurance portion of the trip, not for distance or time, but just the price of getting to a ride I actually wanted to have. That ride started when I turned off of the 10, and onto US-60, just east of Quartzsite, Arizona. Though it was still about 105 degrees, and the two-lane is arrow-straight for most of its length, seeing the little ribbon of asphalt stretch to the desert horizon at least felt like an adventure more than a commute. And if that felt good, the day got even better when turning onto AZ-89 and heading out of the Valley of the Sun as the sun fell toward the horizon.
AZ-89a is a twisted slice of heaven.
The sun dipped low and an increase in elevation dropped the mercury swiftly; but that wasn’t the best part—it was the road itself, which winds its way up into the mountains with breathtaking views of the northwestern edge of the Phoenix Metro area. The road is fun and challenging, but far less fun at night than it would have been in the day. If I had it to do over again, I’d have left about half an hour earlier.
So … Prescott, Old West capital of the Arizona Territory, and where I gratefully scored a couple glasses of fresh Watermelon Ginger Kiefer from a wonderful hostess. Don’t knock it ’til you try it. I had a comfortable couch, a meal, and good conversation for not much more work than booking an overpriced hotel online. Seeing as I’m not one to strike up a conversation with strangers very often, this was not only cheaper, it was an improvement.
Our initial plan was to ride a bit together the following day, but her work hours got in the way, so I was off on my own.
Caduceus Cellars makes me feel like a Tool.
The predictable direct route to ABQ would have been out to I-17, then east on 40 … but now that I was in the mountains (and the mercury was only expected to hit 90 along my route), I didn’t think like that. Instead I went looking for the smallest through-roads that go in the general direction of travel, so as not to add too many extra miles. Here, in the Mountain West, this strategy can backfire with a sudden dose of gravel road (as it has for me more than a few times before). But all the roads I found to avoid the Interstate were state highways or better with little chance of unplanned off-road excursions.
The road from Prescott to Jerome is a wicked little two-lane called 89a. I got a late start again, but this time I had a reason. Caduceus Cellars in Jerome is a storefront for a local Arizona winery, one of a pioneering few that are attempting to make the Verde Valley another wine growing reason … and they don’t open until noon. I’m not normally so into viticulture, but the owner of this one is Maynard James Keenan, lead singer of Tool, and one of my favorite bands of all time. Ever.
I’ve been trying to get a taste of his wine for years, every time I pass through Jerome. I couldn’t find it the first time, a girlfriend wanted to eat elsewhere the second time, then I was in a hurry to miss an approaching storm. This trip, I wasn’t on anybody’s time but my own. I’m pretty sure I’m not being biased when I say that Maynard makes some very interesting and creative wines. They’re not all to my taste, but some were remarkable. Also, the locally-grown olives that come with the cheese plate are spectacular.
A little slice of my hometown in Jerome.
I took AZ-260 east along an extended ridge called the Mogollon Rim past old Mormon frontier towns like Payson, Show Low, and Heber Overgaard. Though there was a bit of slow truck traffic, the route made for scenic views, and relatively cool temperatures. On the north side of the Verde Valley, it’s all spectacular sandstone cliffs or heavy pine forest covering up sandstone cliffs, either way, it’s good riding. And, since it’s not terribly twisty, I think I made pretty good time through the rest of the state.
I crossed into New Mexico on AZ-61/NM-53, and my first impression was far from magical. While the landscape was green, hilly plateau, I swiftly passed into the confines of Zuni Pueblo. It was a hardscrabble old-school Indian Reservation with wrecked houses and trash everywhere. While some reservations make a point of being tourist friendly, this one was actively hostile. There were “no pictures” signs up everywhere … not that I wanted to take pictures of the depressing place. To be clear, I’m not blaming the residents for my experience, it just was not the fun way to go, with low speed limits, unkempt roads, and a quiet desperation that sucked the wind out of my sails at the end of a long day of riding. Toward the end of NM-53 I hit the western fringes of El Malpais National Monument, but barely scratched the surface of what that was about, with just a hint of exposed lava where the road meets the I-40.
If I weren’t running late at this point, I’d have stopped at El Morro National Monument, which is the ancient equivalent of a graffiti wall/message board. Everyone from the Anasazi to Conquistadores to American settlers made their marks in the soft sandstone cliff. A shaded pool and massive outcrop made this a must-see trailside attraction for people as far back as there were people here.
The never-ending mesas of Western New Mexico.
From there it was just a straight bomb down I-40 to Albuquerque proper. Dropping in from the western plateau as the sun’s going down on the city is pretty special. It lights up all reddish-orange, framed by the vertical wall of the Sandia Mountains on the far side of town. Once in Albuquerque, I laid out a ride plan like a clover, with loops going out from the city in every direction—plan to get to know this beautiful state a little better.
Thanks to a strong program at University of New Mexico, my gracious host informed me that Albuquerque has the highest ratio of architects anywhere in the US, so the buildings tend to be beautiful. Also, as capital of the area as far back as Spanish Colonial times, the place has a sense of history as well. Sante Fe, just up the road, has a reputation as an artist colony, adding to the beauty of the place. Art scenes, architecture, wine and cheese plates, pretty birds, and bunnies? Watermelon Ginger Keifer?! What the hell is this crap? One word: Awesome. Welcome to the 21st century Southwest.
There’s a lot of nuke facilities in the Southwest.
In case you somehow made it to the middle of Route 66 before deciding to rent a motorcycle
Happiness is a spare bedroom and a parking spot. Albuquerque, New Mexico.
I was attacked on sight in Albuquerque.