Author: mrohloff

Happy Birthday, El Salvador! I SAID… HAPPY BIRTHDAY, EL SALVADOR!!!

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I have mixed feelings about border crossings. On one hand, they represent progress, milestones to be passed and checked off the list. On the other hand, they are hurdles, bureaucratic mazes of forms, road taxes, and officials. I’m convinced that in this region the only business more profitable than narcotics trafficking is owning the company that makes rubber stamps and inkpads for government officials.

At each crossing I’m required to get my passport stamped out from the country of departure and into the country of arrival. This is generally easy and takes only a few minutes. Travelling with a vehicle, however, complicates things immensely. At each crossing I’m forced to hire an agent to help navigate the sea of paperwork. I must first close out my permit from the previous country, which generally requires visits to three or four different windows and officials, as well as a bank to pay the inevitable fee. This is interspersed with multiple trips to the photocopy store and occasionally a guy in a gas mask and a bug sprayer will appear and spray my tires. Then the process is repeated for opening a permit in the next country. Crossing the border into El Salvador took three and a half hours and without Angela, the paperwork agent, I would probably still be standing there with a fist full of documents and a blank look on my face.

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Luckily, the ride down the El Salvador coast was worth the hassle. A majority of the road runs directly along the mountainous coast, much of it within sight of the Pacific Ocean, through a mixture of Salvadoran towns and funky surf enclaves. I stopped the first night in Playa Mizata, just such one of those enclaves. There I met up with Bob, an expat and writer who also volunteers to teach English to the locals. Bob is friend of Eric in Guatemala, who had told him I’d be passing through. Bob graciously offered to put me up on his property directly across from the beach, among the coconut palms and fruit trees in one of his cozy, circular cabana-like structures. I was looking forward to a peaceful night’s rest when Bob made a curious comment.

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“I hope you have earplugs or some kind of earphones,” he said. “You’re going to hear some of the loudest and most awful music you’ve ever heard.”

He explained that it was Independence Day in El Salvador and, as is tradition, this is celebrated by blasting music from banks of enormous speakers the size of refrigerators, making roofs vibrate and rattling the windows out of their frames in the surrounding homes.

The manager of the hotel across the street, whose terrace we were sitting on, chimed in. He explaining that his daughter was in town and he had moved her into a house farther out from town.

I retired early, as I was exhausted from my border crossing, and wondered if it could possibly be as bad as I’d been warned. I could hear some music up the hillside, but it wasn’t too offensive, certainly not bad enough to require the evacuation of family members. I was just drifting off to sleep at about nine o’clock, thinking that the description was overblown. That’s when the first drum beat hit, rattling the corrugated metal roof and shaking the mattress.

“My God! What the…” I sat upright on the edge of the bed.

The assault of bass and drums pounded on at a throbbing 120 beats per minute. Occasionally, there would be this long sliding bass note, arriving at some sort of harmonic and sending the metal roof into a sustained buzzing. Within the round building with the vibrating roof, it was like living in a giant timpani. I buried my head under the pillow, which muffled the sound somewhat, but could still hear and feel the music coming through the walls and floor, through the bed frame and into the mattress. I slept in fits and starts until 1:30 am when the music went off like a light switch and it was silent except for the soothing sound of surf across the street.

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The following morning I rose early and followed the coast to another beautiful spot on the beach called Tuco. It’s in the extreme southeast corner of El Salvador so I can get an early start on riding across Honduras tomorrow. That’s two border crossings in one day, so I’m going to need my rest.

Guatemala, Getting Lost and Loving It

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After barreling through Mexico at a record pace in an attempt to minimize my time there, I have decided to ease the throttle back a bit and spend a few days enjoying Guatemala. In some ways, I have no choice in the matter as I have given up on trying to get anywhere fast here. Although every route looks pretty manageable on the map in this country, the reality is that I have had to create a highly scientific system whereby I take my estimate of how long it should take, multiply by 2.5 and figure on it taking somewhat longer that that.

The same features that make Guatemala such a beautiful place also make for some difficult navigation. I spend about half my time lost and the other half not knowing where I am. For example, I tried to visit some friends of a friend in a town called San Pedro, on the shore of Lake Atitlan. On the way to the shores of the lake I ran into another protest roadblock. This one was in a farming community where the farmers were angry about the results of the recent elections. They had blocked the road with rocks, boards with nails in them, and rope. While this was an inconvenience, they struck me as genuinely disenfranchised indigenous folks from an agricultural community for whom this was the only means of protest so it was hard to be too annoyed with the delay. I turned around and attempted another route to the lakeshore.

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The GPS indicated a road running along the shoreline to San Pedro. Unfortunately, my GPS did not get the message that rising lake levels had swallowed this road up. I headed back to the highway to try another route, an insane series of switchbacks that drop 4000’ in elevation from the chilly highlands to the edge of Lake Atitlan. I considered giving up. In hindsight, I’m very glad I didn’t.

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Eric and Angie are a great couple who recently relocated to San Pedro from the states. While volcanoes and grizzly bears and Dennis Hopper’s grave are all well and good, the real pleasure is in meeting new people and making friends along the way. I spent a couple of days in San Pedro with my new friends, eating and drinking, being merry, and swapping stories.  As an added bonus, Angie, a massage therapist, was able to work thousands of miles worth of knots out of my arms, shoulders and back. It would have been an easy place to spend a week or a month, but I have a lot of miles left to cover so I said hasta luego to San Pedro and got back on the road.

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Guatemalan Independence day is September 15th and the festivities in Antigua have already begun. I’m sharing a hotel with the Buffalo Motorcycle Club from Puerto Barrios, Guatemala. They are a rowdy, but fun and friendly bunch that likes to stay up late and get up early, fire up their motorcycles, ride to the town square and whoop and holler. Their club leader has an old cruiser-style motorcycle that is upholstered with cow fur, has a skull for a front fairing, an actual cow tail hanging from the rear fender and a saddle for a seat. It is also equipped with a high decibel horn that sounds like he may have gotten it off of a lighthouse and is designed to sound like the world’s loudest cow. Neither getting to sleep early nor sleeping in are options for me at this point.

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Tomorrow morning I plan to wake up early to the sound of Harleys and foghorn mooing and head to the border of El Salvador. I figure it should take about four hours, times 2.5 plus an hour or so.

Here Today… Guatemala

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I saw the mysterious flying insect about half a second before it hit me in the Adams apple at 100 kilometers per hour. First there was a smack, then a sting, then a burning sensation that spread across my neck and along my jaw line. As the burning intensified, I felt something on my nose. When I slowed down to wipe it and looked at my riding glove, it was spotted with blood.

While wondering what kind of hell-spawned insect causes spontaneous nosebleeds, in a sense I was glad to get it out of the way. After all, at least one colossally weird thing seems to happen every day on this trip and I was glad to get this one out of the way early in the day. Little did I realize at that point that the day had just begun.

About 50 miles from the Mexico/Guatemala border at Tapachula I ran into traffic.

You know you may be in for a long wait when the truck divers have their engines off and are standing around on the highway. You know you may be in for a very long wait when the bus drivers have strung up hammocks under their buses in the cargo areas and are fast asleep. Luckily, I was able to circumvent the stoppage by riding the shoulder on the motorcycle. I checked the GPS maps and found a series of dirt roads that took me 30 miles out of my way and deposited me back on the highway ten miles further on. When I arrived at the highway, the scene was the same.

I sat there looking befuddled. A man in a red shirt and white baseball cap must have sensed my bewilderment because he walked over and said, “Ingles?”

I answered, “Si,” and he motioned for me to follow.

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He led me to a battered blue pickup truck under which a thick set, heavily tattooed 30-ish man was lying in the shade, his shaved head resting on a spare tire. The red shirted guy spoke to him in Spanish.

Juan Carlos, the guy under the truck, looked over and said, “Hey man, where you going?” in an accent that sounded like he may have grown up in East L.A.

I told him that I was trying to get to the border at Tapachula. He said that he was as well and I asked him what the problem was.

“The problem is all these people can’t go nowhere, man.”

As I had already ascertained this, I pried for more details.

“See, the politician guy in this town area here,” he continued, “they sent him money to fix this bridge. But dude took the money and he’s gone and so now they’re all pissed off and they blocked the bridge. Some dude tried to drive through and they beat him up and broke his windows, smashed up his car, man. But we ain’t got nothing to do with this (expletive) bridge.”

I asked if he had any idea when this would clear, as I didn’t expect the mayor to return with the money any time soon.

“They say, maybe like noon, they might let people through. Or they might start charging money to go across. I don’t know, man. There’s a lot of rumors.”

Noon was two hours away so I told Juan Carlos that I was going to try some more farm roads on the bike to try to get around.

“Cool, man. If you come back, bring me a beer.”

I could see the river on my GPS and there were some one-lane dirt roads that led across it. Across the river, past the bridge, problem solved, I thought. I crossed the river and came to a town where half the road was blocked by rocks, the other half by a red Ford pickup truck. A group of people was standing around, some with machetes and others with baseball bats. I doubted that they were there for Little League practice.

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There were only a couple of cars in front of me and an older grey-haired gentleman, whose expression said to me that he was simply over the whole thing, motioned to the driver of the pickup truck to back up, creating a lane past the rocks. He motioned us through. I soon rejoined the highway and sped toward the border at Tapachula.

I finally arrived at the border and, due to some paperwork issues (which is another story), had to leave the bike at the border crossing and take a taxi 25 minutes into Guatemala to find an ATM. We ran into more traffic.

“The people are mad about the elections. They block the road,” Manuel, the taxi driver, told me.

“This could be a long trip,” I thought.

Mas Tranquilo

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I will stick to descriptions of the positive aspects of this beautiful and unique country in this post, since in my last post I made my feelings for the Mexican authorities sufficiently clear. I also did some digging and found the name of a Mr. Gerardo Llanes Álvarez, the Executive Director for Marketing of the Mexican Board of Tourism. I printed, addressed and mailed a respectfully worded letter wherein I expressed my displeasure. I also suggested that the behavior of his country’s police force may be diminishing the return on his department’s outlay of tourism advertising dollars. Now I feel I’ve gotten it out of my system and so away we go.

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There are two routes to Acapulco, “couta” and “libre,” or “toll” and “free.” I can’t speak to the condition of the free road, but the toll road, the Autopista del Sol, is a brand new, highly maintained very high-speed highway through the mountains between Mexico City and Acapulco. While zipping and winding over the terrain, one crosses a number of impressive cable-stayed bridges, the crowning achievement of which is the Puente Mezcala which spans the Mezcala River a dizzying 600 feet below.

I made excellent time, left the toll road near the city of Acapulco and was greeted at a checkpoint by no less than 25 soldiers and police officers carrying automatic weapons of varying calibers. Others armed with .50 calibers were ensconced behind sandbags. I immediately and sensibly pulled over when they flagged me down. This crew was very professional and I dealt with a middle-aged, no-nonsense gentleman in a polo shirt, baseball cap and chinos who spoke excellent English and struck me as the type that may have picked up some of those language skills in classes at Langley. He examined my driver’s license and asked if I was travelling alone. When I said that I was, he returned my license and, after giving me directions, suggested that it would be in my best interest to proceed directly to the hotel zone and enjoy the beaches there.

I followed the directions and made it easily to the hotel zone with the exception of turning up an unmarked one-way street which caught the attention of a traffic cop. I was informed that this was a $100 ticket, but $25 now would make it go away. This was an ordinary traffic cop without even a gun, therefore his rates were much more reasonable.

At this point, a tropical squall kicked up, reminding me that I’d passed the Tropic of Cancer many miles ago. I have now ridden from well above the Arctic Circle to well into the tropics and I couldn’t help feeling some accomplishment in that.

When I arrived I found the Grand Hotel nearly empty. I was definitely the only anglophone guest there and the fact that the halls were big enough to drive a car through made it feel even more empty. I decided to check out the neighboring karaoke bar, but it was even less populated. The owner, bartender, DJ and I were the only ones in the place and since the prospect of singing karaoke under such circumstances seemed preposterous, I sat with the owner for an hour, drinking tequila and watching 80s videos on the big screens. We decided that Phil Collins is pretty great, Toto is pretty ridiculous and that we would both like to have a canary yellow suit like Rod Stewart. I decided i’d had enough tequila at that point and headed back to the hotel.

The road out of Acapulco follows the Pacific coast on an inland track with occasional glimpses of the ocean through the trees and over the hills to the right.The route is lined with palms, thatched palapas, tiny restaurants and roadside roadside fruit stands. This slower pace gives it a distinctively more laid back Central American or Caribbean vibe. Both are places where I’ve spent a good portion of my time over the past decade and I immediately began to feel more at ease.

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The roadside fruit stands selling bananas, melons and coconuts are a treat. North of the border(s), when I was feeling tired and dehydrated, I would pull into a gas station for a Cliff Bar and Smartwater, an engineered pre-packaged energy food and a synthesized electrolyte drink in a plastic bottle. This seems like a very American thing to do. Now when I feel tired or dehydrated, I can pull over for a banana and coconut milk, a naturally prepackaged energy food and an electrolyte drink that comes served inside the nut where it was born. I also got to ride my motorcycle through both a river and a hotel lobby in the same day, therefore it was pretty good overall.

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So, Señor Álvarez, if you did receive my letter and are reading this right now,”Esos días en su país eran muy tranquilo. Muchas Gracias.” I’m still serious about you needing to rein in those crooked cops, though.

Mexico! Come for the Smog, Stay for the Extortion!

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If you are considering a vacation in Mexico, I will offer the following. Take a list of all the countries in North America and the Caribbean and plop your finger down. If it lands on Mexico, try again until it lands somewhere else. Anywhere else.

It’s not that the people are unfriendly. It’s quite the opposite. Everyone I’ve met, not only on this trip but also on several previous, has been helpful, friendly and understanding even through the language barrier. I’ve gotten a lot of fist bumps and thumbs-up since I crossed the border on the motorcycle. Also the food is great and there is some beautiful scenery. I’m just saying that if it were me, I’d put aside the money you’ll inevitably have stolen by corrupt cops and customs officials and put it towards a plane ticket to someplace else.

The crew of Silverheels II deliberately avoided the country earlier this year when we sailed past here directly to Belize and Guatemala for just such reasons. And if it weren’t such a conspicuously large landmass directly in my path to Central America, I’d have avoided it on this trip as well.

The first two days were uneventful. I stopped in Monterrey where I had a nice lunch on their downtown plaza. I spent the second night in San Luis Potosi, and woke early to ride to Cuernavaca, a town just south of Mexico City that I had heard was nice.

Despite my best efforts to avoid Mexico City altogether, somehow through a series of missed off ramps, I was drawn as though by a whirlpool into the traffic-choked, smog-smothered desperation of downtown. The entire place is a blisteringly hot, honking mare’s nest of streets filled with people desperate to get absolutely nowhere as fast as they can. The streets may have been adequate as Aztec walking trails or donkey cart paths, but they are woefully incapable of serving a city of over 19 million people. At one point the gridlock was so bad that I seriously considered putting the kickstand down in the middle of the street getting a taco. Eventually, I extricated myself from the mess and got on a highway, any highway, heading away from downtown. While it was hot and irritating, I figured it was par for the course and was just happy to escape.

Soon I was off the major roads and in a beautiful and mountainous forest of pines. The cool, misty silence was a world removed from the chaotic miasma on the other side of the mountain range. I was actually beginning to warm up to the country. Maybe I had been too hasty to judge in my previous negative experiences. I rounded a corner as fireworks exploded overhead and found myself in the midst of procession through town led by a priest in white robes, a group directly behind carrying a gilded statue of a bald saint, with costumed dancers and a mariachi band bringing up the rear.

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“Now this is the real Mexico,” I thought to myself as I neared the edge of town. That’s when I saw the police roadblock and soon realized that the real Mexico is what I had already known, a country fouled  with corruption.

When the cops flagged me to the side of the road and asked for my documentation, I knew what was coming. There were three of them around a pickup truck. One, the oldest, was in an official looking uniform with a fancy hat, mirrored glasses and a moustache. He was to play bad cop. His partner was chubby with a more jovial nature, wore a regular policeman’s uniform and did most of the talking. He was to play good cop. The third, a weightlifter type with a band-aid on the bridge of his nose, fatigues, and a bulletproof vest with handcuffs strapped to his chest said very little. His job was to stand there and look scary. I’d swear there’s a playbook for these guys if I thought they could read. I’d seen it before and it’s one of the reasons I generally try to avoid this country whenever possible.

After producing my papers, they determined that I did not have a proper “smog check” and the bike would be confiscated if I didn’t pay the fine of $200 on the spot. I was exhausted from the ordeal in Mexico City so didn’t put up much resistance and besides, they held my registration, there were three of them and they had guns. Eventually, I got the fine lowered to $180. Since I didn’t have that much in my wallet, I reached into my jacket envelope pocket. When they saw more money, suddenly the fine doubled. Eventually chubby happy cop took $220 and promptly gave me back $40 for some reason.

I wish I could say it was a few bad apples, but something like this has happened every single time I’ve come to this place. Every time. It’s systemic and it has become an industry. The cops had a good day, though. They got to play their power trip game and wound up with plenty of Saturday night beer and brothel money. The ride into Cuernavaca might have been beautiful, had I not been fuming from the extortion.

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I will continue to make every effort to avoid this country in the future and unless this country changes in a big way, I will recommend others do the same. I will also pass this story on down the pike as I run into fellow travelers. I wouldn’t expect change soon though. Mexico has a proud history of bureaucratic corruption stretching  at least back to the days of Balboa.

This is sad because the only people that will suffer from this are the hotel workers, waiters, bartenders, and other tourist related trades who have always been great (I don’t care what happens to the Mexican airport cab drivers, however, but that’s another story). These cops don’t care that they’re stealing, hurting me directly and other Mexicans indirectly. That $200 would have ended up in somebody’s pocket that earned it. The thing is, there are so many other countries where I’ve never had problems like this. There are plenty of places where I’d rather spend my time and money without getting a knot in my stomach every time I see a police check point, wondering how much it could cost me this time.

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I’m willing to put in extra hours in the saddle to get out of this country as soon as possible and down to the Guatemala border (been there twice for a number of weeks at a stretch and never had a problem). In the meantime, if anyone asks me my thoughts on a vacation in Mexico, I’ll tell them that St. Croix is nice this time of year.

The Lone Star State of Confusion

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If General Santa Anna had been forced to navigate the maze of San Antonio’s one-way streets he undoubtedly would never have found the Alamo and Davy Crocket might have gone on to open a successful raccoon-fur hat shop. Additionally, if Lee Harvey Oswald had gotten as lost as me on his way to Dealy Plaza and ended up circling the Dallas Zoo through the barrio for an hour and a half, JFK would have made it to his luncheon.

It took me 7 days to get from well above the Arctic Circle to the U.S./Canadian border. It’s taken seven times that long to get across the United States to the Mexican border and it feels like half of that time was spent driving lost through Texas.

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The slow progress during this portion of the journey has been due to time spent in Canmore, repacking and having some work done on the motorcycle. Another two weeks were spent in Colorado, visiting friends and touring the state. I flew back to Florida for a week to take care of some last minute business before leaving the country, and that trip was bookended by several days in Denton, Texas visiting with my sister and brother-in-law. I had great visits with everyone and am grateful for the opportunity. The only problem with these pleasant diversions is that they really tend to take me out of my rhythm.

I find that it takes three or four days of riding consistently to really get into the swing of things, especially tasks like packing and unpacking every night and staying organized in constantly changing environments. Since the only consistent thing in my life at this moment is that routine, the routine itself becomes very important. That is why I was so eager to get back into the rhythm of the road and that’s what made my directional misadventures all the more frustrating.

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It’s very difficult, not to mention dangerous, to check maps in hectic city traffic. This reality led to an extensive unplanned tour of Dallas. A wrong turn somewhere near Killeen took me through the middle of Austin on I-35 at rush hour in crushing heat and bumper-to-bumper traffic, and I was forced to navigate out of San Antonio by keeping the morning sun on my left.

However, when I wasn’t busy negotiating the sprawl of Texas’ major metropolitan areas by dumb luck and solar reckoning, I did find some blissful stretches of nearly empty two-lane byways. Rolling through the countryside at 80 miles-per-hour with nobody for company but the occasional hawk or lizard was a great feeling of freedom, especially after my admittedly self-inflicted urban misadventures. Eventually, I pulled into the border town of Laredo and as I write this I can look out of my hotel window across the Rio Grande into Mexico.

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I plan on crossing the border in the morning. Since the crossing is only a few hundreds yards from my window, I’m fairly confident I won’t get lost between here and there. Then we’ll see what happens.

The Truth Is Out There (but it’s hard to get to)

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There are some long and boring roads in the world and I’ve driven many. Most of the names and locations are lost somewhere in the fog of memory because, quite frankly, they were boring. It takes a special level of tedium to actually be so boring as to be memorable. Route 285 leading into Roswell, New Mexico accomplishes this. Just when one thinks that it can’t possibly be any more monotonous, the last views of the distant mountains disappear into the haze. When I rode it, it was also 102° (39° C).

It is so long, so treeless, straight and seemingly endless that I stopped briefly on the shoulder to watch a bulldozer pushing rocks around an empty cow pasture for the sheer excitement of it. Since I didn’t see any cows, I presume they all perished from a combination of boredom and heat.

Somewhere along this road, about 30 miles north of Roswell, is the site of the famous “Roswell Incident,” an alleged alien spacecraft crash that occurred in 1947. There is no sign indicating where this might be. Around this point, I found myself wishing that the aliens would abduct me. It would it have provided a change of scenery. I also imagined that sentient beings from beyond the stars would have a climate controlled spaceship and that the climate on their home planet could not possibly be any worse than the sweltering desert heat of southern New Mexico.

When I stopped at a Chili’s on the way into town for a much-needed ice-cold margarita I met Stacey, a current Roswell resident, transplant from Alaska and avid motorcyclist himself (thanks again for the margarita, man). He told me that the sign directing visitors to the reported alien crash site has been removed, saying they’d removed the last exciting thing in town.

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I decided to check into the nearby Days Inn and immediately after taking a cool shower, went to check out the International UFO Museum and Research Center, or UFOMRC. The museum is located smack-dab in the middle of Main Street (which also happens to be Route 380). The museum is housed in an old theater flanked by UFO and alien themed gift shops selling tee shirts, books, and every manner of extraterrestrial merchandise imaginable. The museum displays themselves consist primarily of enlargements of newspaper clippings, rubber alien models, pieces of tinfoil representing saucer parts, and reproductions of eyewitness drawings of spacecraft. I left not entirely convinced of the existence of aliens but decided that, since I am riding a perfectly off-road capable motorcycle, I’d set out to find the original crash site, sign or no sign.

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A quick Google search changed my mind. The original route to the crash site has been closed and now the only way to reach the site is by a labyrinth of rocky Bureau of Land Management roads through the desert, well outside of any cell phone reception. I decided that attempting such a trek alone while risking getting lost or a flat tire in triple digit temperatures in a rattlesnake infested desert was not worth the potential payoff of seeing what is now an alien-free goat pasture.

I headed east the following morning in blessedly cool temperatures toward the Texas border. After crossing into Texas, the desert gave way to farmland and tracts of ranchland and mesquite trees. Along the way, I passed countless oilrigs, some still pumping and others idle, and towns of boarded up motels and service stations, eerily nostalgic remnants of a time before the Interstate Highway system.

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I came upon a flagman holding a stop sign before a stretch of road construction.

“Might as well shut her off,” he said as he strode over. “It’s gonna be about five, ten minutes.”

We chatted while we waited; about my trip and my motorcycle and he showed me photos of his own ride, a silver Yamaha V-Star cruiser, on his phone. He asked if I’d like a Coke or some water. I gladly accepted a top-up on my water bottle from the cooler on his truck. As he returned with my water bottle he said, ”I can’t believe you come all that way on this machine.”

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I thanked him and pulled away, following the pilot car through the construction zone and deeper into the heart of Texas.

“I’ve still got a long way to go,” I thought.

Pilgrims on the Road to Taos

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I didn’t plan on visiting Dennis Hopper’s grave, but like many things in life, it was just sort of something I stumbled across. I would have driven past oblivious had it not been for a casual conversation the night before at the hotel bar.

Throughout this trip so far, I’ve had a lot of alone time to think and sometimes those thoughts drift towards, “Why the hell am I doing this?”

Don’t get me wrong, the amazing things I’ve seen and people I’ve met so far have been great, but often the ride is too hot or too cold or too windy or too rainy. It’s difficult to find the sweet spot between abject boredom and downright dangerous. It also gets lonely sometimes and sleeping in a different town every night can be mentally exhausting.

While I stood at the edge of the grave of the man who played Billy in “Easy Rider,” I realized that he might have had something to do with planting the seed for this crazy journey long ago. I watched the movie that Hopper co-wrote and directed over and over in high school and college. I bought my first motorcycle during university in Colorado, a Honda Nighthawk 250, and 20 years later found myself in a cemetery near Taos, New Mexico, dressed in riding gear, holding a motorcycle helmet and standing beside Dennis Hopper’s grave. Seeing the number of weathered biker bandanas tied to the wooden cross memorial, I could sense that others had felt the same as I. Later, as I fired up the Triumph and pulled out of the dirt road through the unmarked cemetery, I felt as though my journey had somehow been in some small way sanctified by the moment.

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I continued down the road from Taos to Santa Fe. The “High Road to Taos,” as it’s called, is a designated scenic byway and with good reason. The road twists through tiny towns, through the Carson National Forest and the desert and pines of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Blood of Christ Mountains. It runs past a shrine called the Santuario de Chimayo, possibly the most important Catholic pilgrimage site in the country and one that attracts hundreds of thousands of pilgrims per year. These faithful flock here every year for the miraculous power of the earth surrounding the shrine, which is said to have divine powers of healing. There is a prayer room, the walls of which are covered in testimonials attesting to this fact.

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On its surface, the concept of magical dirt may seem silly to most people, but I suppose it’s just a matter of faith and, frankly, it’s no more silly than the feeling I had when I rode out of that dusty cemetery only an hour before.

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Colorful Colorado

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Having solid, lifelong friends is good. Having solid, lifelong friends in Colorado with spare bedrooms is even better.

I haven’t posted on the blog for a week, as I lost track of time while spending time under just such circumstances. I spent a few days visiting with friends in Vail, sailing on Lake Dillon at 9,000 feet of elevation and riding Rocky Mountain National Park’s spectacular Trail Ridge Road, which crests at 12,183 feet and provides an unmatched vista of the Rocky Mountains.

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The following weekend I took a whirlwind trip of the Rockies with my friends, Don Weaver, Luke and Leia Wolstenholme and their six year-old son, Max. Luke and Don rented BMW 1200GS adventure bikes while Leia and Max rode in the support vehicle carrying coolers full of wine and shish kebabs, and other camping essentials. After battling traffic on Interstate 70 (Colorado has a lot more cars in it than when I lived there), we crossed Independence Pass, another one of Colorado’s dizzying mountain roads, and descended into Aspen. We camped near a weird hamlet called Marble where many of the summer residents live in tents near a construction site and work at the only restaurant in town, a barbecue joint that is only open in the summer.

Getting to our campsite, located up a perilous jeep trail, required comparable logistics to landing the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force. The task required transferring the gear from the motorcycle into the Range Rover, making two trips up the aforementioned trail, removing the gear (including tents, sleeping bags, fishing poles, grill grates, coolers and other assorted items), carrying these items up a short but muddy trail and finally setting up camp. The payoff was sitting next to a campfire by a secluded lake, grilling shish kebabs and drinking wine with friends. We passed the evening by a secluded lake up a canyon while watching bats swoop through the campsite and later that night I fell asleep looking at the stars through the roof of my tent, listening to the river on the other side of the hill.

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The following day took us on another scenic ride to Telluride, located up a magnificent box canyon and, incidentally, the site of Butch Cassidy’s first bank robbery in 1886. It is also the home of the Telluride Mushroom Festival, which just so happened to be underway when we arrived. This festival of fungus celebrates all things mushroom related. Tables full of mushrooms, harvested from the mountains surrounding Telluride, draw an interesting mix of foodies, presumably there for the edible varieties, and aging hippies with grey pony tails, and woodsy, elfin-looking people who are presumably there for the psychoactive varieties. This combination of prosperous-looking folks togged out in high-dollar outdoor gear, the elder statesmen of the hippie movement, and people who look like extras from the Lord of the Rings movies make for some world-class people watching.

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The next day brought another great ride (though I could have done without the hailstorm), to Pagosa Springs. There I spent the afternoon soaking in the mineral springs and spending one last night in a luxury suite with my good friends. After saying our goodbyes the following morning, it was back to the solo life of campsites and motel rooms and onward to New Mexico.

Yellowstone Park and Wyoming Winds

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I checked out of the aptly named Ho-Hum Motel early and got to the gates of Yellowstone National Park just before 8 o’clock in the morning. The early departure was based on the warnings I’d received the night before about the heavy traffic and the possibility of fistfights erupting over spaces in the Old Faithful parking lot. Not only was it still the summer tourist season, but it was also the middle of the two-week celebration of the 75th anniversary of the Sturgis Motorcycle rally in neighboring South Dakota. This means that practically every Harley Davidson in North America was either headed to or headed from the region. Which raises a point.

Every motorcyclist I have met on the trip has been great. So far, I’ve met people from all over the United States and Canada. They’re all out there on the highways, living the dream and exploring the continent. I‘ve shared many great stories with these folks after a long day of riding. That’s why I was surprised to see several “Motorcycle Friendly” signs in the windows of motels along the way.

“Why wouldn’t they be?” I thought, seeing as how most of the bikers I met were more “Brady Bunch” than “Wild Bunch.”

Like anything else, though, it only takes some bad behavior by a few to create negative impressions.

While in the parking lot of the aforementioned Ho-Hum, giving my bike a quick once-over before the next morning’s departure, a group of bearded and leather-clad riders spilled noisily out of the Slippery Otter across the street. They mounted their bikes and the one that I presume was the leader pointed his finger to the sky making a circling motion. The group began to whoop and yowl as he yelled, “Let’s Roll!” In unison, fifteen motors roared to life, unnecessarily rolling on and off the throttles and creating an acoustic barrage at the equivalent decibel level of a carpet bombing campaign. I’m sure they were nice guys just having some fun, but I can also see why certain business owners might not be so “motorcycle friendly.”

The following day as I walked through the parking lot by Old Faithful, I saw a group of five Honda Goldwings proudly flying Australian flags from behind their rear seats while pulling out in formation. The lead bike was blasting “All Night Long” by Lionel Richie. That’s how you do it. If you’re going to cause a spectacle, at least make it funny.

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I enjoyed the rest of the park, encountering little traffic and happy that I got an early start. As I left, I clocked the line waiting to get in at the South entrance at nine-tenths of a mile. I was soon out of the mountains and forests and on the high plains of Wyoming. That’s when the wind started.

The sign read, “HIGH WINDS NEXT 3 MILES.” Unfortunately, the party responsible for the sign had underestimated the distance by a factor of about 100. The wind whipped across the treeless landscape at a 90° angle to the road, creating a brutal crosswind that tried its best to shove the Triumph into oncoming traffic. Huge snowdrift fences and stunted vegetation suggested that the winds probably howl like this every day all year and have been doing it since before the great herds of buffalo roamed these parts (which may partially explain why buffalo always look grumpy). The high aspect of the Triumph and luggage made the wind situation even more irksome and I was forced to ride with a constant correction to the right, causing cramps in my wrists and hands. The crosswind combined with the forward motion of the motorcycle also created a unique vector that actually held my right nostril blown shut. The situation and sensation was so absurd that I found myself laughing in between curses as I battled to keep the bike in the lane. I checked into a motel where I liberally applied lotion and Carmex to my chapped face and lips.

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There are another three hours of high plains winds ahead until I reach Colorado. Once there, I’ll be meeting some dear old friends. Some of them will be joining me next week on BMW GS1200 motorcycles of their very own for a multi-day motorcycle camping tour of the Rocky Mountain State. It should be fun!