Active travel can take many forms, from exploring small South Pacific islands to hiking our great national parks. However, there are those who tend to take it one step further, like Jim and Diane White. The active independent travelers hit the open road recently to explore the beautiful Four Corners on a rented Harley while dodging “deteriorating weather conditions” along the way.
JIM, ME, AND HARLEY MAKES THREE: Biking the Four Corners
At ages 73 and 64, my husband Jim and I try to do what we like best whenever opportunity arises and while we are still able. That’s why we love active independent travel. Three words sum up our style: Freedom, flexibility, and fundability. We’re opportunistic and favor affordable last-minute options.
Planning the Trip
An unexpected speaking engagement for Diane in Albuquerque, NM sparked the idea of an 8-day motorcycle ride through the Four Corners. We had just one week’s advance time to put it together. Jim raised the bar by requiring two nights at the Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim Lodge. We both snickered at such a crazy idea. Everyone knows you’ve got to reserve a year ahead there!
Jim picked up the phone anyway and moments later reported that the notoriously 100%-booked Lodge had only two unreserved nights left all year. Then he grinned. “Guess when?” Incredibly, those two remaining dates were exactly what we needed.
Since we didn’t want to ride our Harley from South Carolina to New Mexico, the next potential deal-breaker was a rental. Jim raised a skeptical eyebrow. “It’s summer. Everybody wants to ride now. Don’t count on finding anything, much less what we want.” But he got on the phone anyway. Soon I heard, “All your bikes are rented except ONE? Oh well…what is it…”
Jim’s frown flipped to a bemused smile. Hanging up, he exclaimed, “You won’t believe this!” Miraculously, the only bike left was a brand new Ultra Glide, perfect for cruising 1,500 miles of mountains, canyons and plains. Yes!! Let the boomer biker adventure begin!
Not so fast. Jim’s smile vanished when he discovered our motorcycle insurance policy didn’t cover rentals. Oops. Add-on coverage from the Harley rental dealer cost a budget-busting $600. Double oops!
Undeterred, we began shopping insurance companies. Within thirty minutes Jim secured a new policy with automatic rental coverage for $500 a year less than we’d been paying. We were back on track – and those premium savings would fund a nice chunk of trip expense, too.
We had scored our mandatory North Rim Lodge stay, a bike, rental bike insurance, and an unexpected cash windfall. Next task was deciding the rest of a Four Corners itinerary. Jim mapped a route with daily ride distances under 300 miles, made a few more hotel reservations online, and we were good to go.
Well, except for one thing.
Packing the Bags
Packing presented more of a challenge than you might suppose. For one thing, we don’t like checking bike bags because they aren’t designed with airline baggage handling mayhem in mind. For another thing, August is monsoon season in the Four Corners.
Our bike luggage had to house eight days’ clothing, shoes, meds, digital necessities and toiletries plus two bulky helmets and two sets of rain gear. We needed clothes for activities ranging from riding and hiking to fine dining. However, we’ve had our share of boomer body aches and pains from dragging overstuffed motorcycle bags through airports. Our tour pack and saddlebag inserts would be packed with the minimum possible versatile, light-weight, and easily cleaned items.
If checking instead of carrying on, choose good heavy-duty quality. Consider taping pocket flaps and zipper guides securely. Those clever space-saving expandable pockets and zipped-on extensions are vulnerable to damage when handled roughly.
Renting the Bike
Rental bikes cost more than even luxury rental cars, so expect a little sticker shock. Some dealers may offer compensatory perks like courtesy van service to and from the airport. Ours saved us at least $50 on cabs, for instance. This dealer also provided free storage for excess or unneeded belongings during the rental period. That could be a wise alternative to dangerously overweight saddlebags.
Picking up our 2015 Ultra Glide at Albuquerque’s Thunderbird Harley-Davidson proved easy. Everything was in order and ready for our arrival. Jerry, the rental manager, still takes care to determine proper vehicle “fit” before handing over the keys. After Jim aced a basic riding test and we both signed a document stating Thunderbird’s equipment was acceptable, off we went.
Starting the Ride
Our first ride day was intentionally short. We were a bit tired from travel already, beginning a route we didn’t know, and with new-to-us riding equipment. This trip also reminded us how important it is to allow adjustment time for weather and unforeseen factors.
We had prepared for an afternoon in sunny 100+ degree heat by applying good sunscreen lotion, wearing polarized sunglasses, and completely covering our limbs. We were surprised by 25-knot winds that shoved and punched us like schoolyard bullies, though. One especially fierce gust nearly knocked Jim’s helmet off. Thankfully, his chinstrap held. Take note – riders in this area should add gusty conditions to their mental list of potential road hazards.
Our first afternoon ride is also memorable for the flower-strewn roadside memorials we passed every mile or so. Such reminders of potential highway perils are not uncommon along American highways these days, and boomer bikers like us know what risks we accept in exchange for the joy of riding free. However I soon found myself so distracted that I couldn’t admire the dramatic New Mexico scenery! Eventually I pinned my gaze to the back of Jim’s jacket until we left densely populated areas behind.
Riding The First Corner
Riding in high heat and strong winds nearly wore these two boomers out by the time we reached Farmington, NM near dusk. But where the GPS pinpointed our destination B&B, the Silver River Adobe Inn, we saw nothing but a fire station. Uh-oh. Now what? When in doubt, ask! The husky black-haired young fireman we approached pointed towards what looked like the edge of a cliff. “Down there,” he advised, casting a doubtful eye at our shiny-new Ultra Glide laden with baggage.
One glance sent Jim’s eyebrows skyward. Here’s the thing about spontaneous last-minute trip planning: in the rush to make reservations on a hotel website, it’s easy to skip helpful details like special directions and road conditions. All we knew was that whatever awaited at the end of this steeply descending and twisty gravel road had better justify the effort of delivering 1,300 pounds of Harley and riders to its door unscathed.
Jim gingerly eased us down to a clearing that contained a small Airstream travel trailer nestled within a gaudy thicket of six-foot-tall sunflowers. Even in rural New Mexico, this was probably not our B&B! A peek beyond the sunflower patch revealed the handsome cedar plank house that actually was our lodging for the night. Our comfortably furnished room offered lovely views of the gleaming San Juan River. We also loved its cozy porch, where the friendly house cat visited as we enjoyed a restorative cocktail.
Early next morning, innkeepers Diana and David served delicate, tasty plate-sized pancakes smothered in fresh strawberries, blueberries and Diana’s homemade syrup. At 8:30 we emptied our coffee cups for the last time and left, sorry we could not stay for more of David’s stories of his family’s long history in this beautiful secluded Four Corners region.
Reaching The Second Corner
We rode 302 miles to our next overnight stop, which is among the Four Corner’s most popular: Arizona’s historic Jacob Lake, often called the “gateway to the Grand Canyon”. One could easily break this ride into two or even three days because the route passes many tempting natural wonders. We disciplined ourselves in order to complete a Four Corners loop in eight days — and a stop isn’t really needed to ooh and ahhh at dramatic Shiprock or register the majesty of the Monument Valley Loop Drive. We did pause to take in the gorgeous views at Navajo Bridge, and our cruise through Arizona’s jaw-droppingly beautiful Vermillion Cliffs was as slow as we could safely manage.
At Jacob Lake Inn, we enjoyed the simple comforts of a 90-year-old log cabin. After eight hours in the saddle, tossing back a cold beer with feet propped on the rough wood railing of our miniscule porch was a welcome respite.
Our eyes had feasted all day and now it was our stomachs’ turn. Jacob Lake Inn’s rustic exterior belies an excellent restaurant and bakery operation within. Dinner options are sophisticated and well prepared. Try the bison! And under no circumstances should you pass up the bakery’s famous warm-from-the-oven cookies. We bagged a dozen on our way out the next morning after downing a scrumptious hot breakfast.
From Jacob Lake we dawdled along a short 45-mile route to the much-anticipated Grand Canyon North Rim Lodge. Don’t let anyone tell you National Parks offer little by way of comfortable affordable lodging and fine dining – this facility delivers both. Our lucky last-minute Frontier Cabin supplied good quality bedding plus fluffy thick towels and brand-name toiletries in a sparkling-clean compact bathroom.
As for food, the North Rim Lodge offers everything from hot dogs to five-course dinners and good wine. The Inn’s full bar mixes excellent drinks for Happy Hour sipping pleasure. We discretely enjoyed ours seated on the Lodge’s enormous stone porches overlooking those incomparable Grand Canyon vistas.
Others can write more authentically than I about the full range of adventures available to Grand Canyon National Park visitors. I can attest that two days merely whet an appetite to sample them all. We’ll certainly be back.
Rounding The Third Corner
From the North Rim we cruised 100+ miles into Utah’s Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks. Pleasantly uncrowded and well-kept two lane roads climb through wooded mountains and high valley scenery for several hours. Have a good meal before leaving the Grand Canyon and take enough water and snacks to sustain the moderately long day’s ride through pristine forest and lush farmland valleys. You won’t be seeing any fast food stops along this route!
Both Zion and Bryce are spectacular must-see natural wonders. They’re so close together it’s possible to briefly explore both in one rather long day. We chose instead to spend our whole time budget wandering among the elaborately carved hoodoos of Bryce Canyon this trip.
After the Grand Canyon North Rim’s verdant peaks and cliffs, ascending the Grand Staircase to Bryce Canyon’s Mars-like starkness seems a little unreal. Would your time and fitness permit descending steep winding footpaths to a canyon floor so deep it appears cloaked in darkness from the top? Give it a try! You’ll be rewarded by a surreal ant-like journey that twists and turns between the red-and-orange feet of a gargantuan silent sentinel army.
The Lodge at Bryce Canyon earns its reputation for rustic elegance. After four days of hard riding, walking, and muscling heavy bags on and off the Harley, we were thankful for a spacious modern hotel room. The cushy king bed boasted spa-style linens so fresh and fine that every ache floated away. We slept like babies all night – a lucky break, as it turned out.
Early the next day we loaded up the bike once more and roared towards Capitol Reef National Park. This lesser-known National Park introduced us to spectacular sights only found within a 100-mile geologic monocline (wrinkle of the Earth). It was the northernmost stop on our Four Corners itinerary, as well as its highest at 8,960 feet above sea level. After an interesting and educational stop at the Park’s museum we took a break to register at our hotel, the newly renovated Capitol Reef Resort, around 3:30 PM. I approached the young desk clerk with my helmet, gloves and jacket still on and proffered a credit card. Strangely, he hesitated.
“Riding a Harley, are you?”
“Yes, we’ve just come from Bryce Canyon.”
“Have you checked the weather?”
That is not a question one takes lightly when posed by a local. My active boomer travel antennae tingled.
“Um, not for a while now, why?”
Nodding towards the glass door beyond which Jim waited astride the bike, he continued, “My whole family rides. I know the roads out of here real well – and I wouldn’t care to try them in the big storm coming. Can you stay one more night?”
That is another question I didn’t want to hear on Day 6 of this particular 8-day ride. I thanked the clerk for his warning and went outside to consult with Boss Hog, who checked weather radar on his smartphone and promptly decided,
“Bag it. We’re riding on to Blanding. If we leave right away we should get there by 8 PM and figure a place to stay.”
Farewell, Capitol Reef National Park – we put safety first. Boomers with a taste for motorcycle adventures soon become humble followers of the Weather Gods. Today they were signaling us to move on! Plus, now we have a great reason to come back for the longer stay such a unique part of America’s park system deserves.
This was when the prior night’s long refreshing sleep proved a real blessing: Jim still felt rested and alert for the challenge of nearly 300 miles that included many dizzily swooping 15% grade downslope stretches. We quickly discovered why riding out of Torrey, UT towards Blanding is best attempted on dry roads with excellent visibility.
As the sun inched towards the mountainous horizon behind us, we marveled at the beauty of this route known as the Trail of the Ancients. The red rock formations changed colors as golden shafts of light from the setting sun moved up their faces before sinking into purple splendor. Much of the time, we were the only vehicle of any kind traveling through some of Utah’s most isolated and unpopulated country.
We had planned to take most of the following day to do this passage justice, but our need to outrace the oncoming storm reshuffled priorities. We had to reach Blanding by nightfall. On the other hand, we weren’t about to lose our chance to see Natural Bridges National Monument on the way. Dusk descended as we began a slow 15-MPH circuit of the park’s nine-mile narrow one-way road looping past incredible works of Nature. Even in the gloam these giant natural bridges impress and astound.
We could smell oncoming rain throughout our remaining 54 miles to Blanding. Enveloped in fine mist, we searched for a motel in easy walking distance of a local diner (our favorite alternative to chain eateries). Blanding’s Gateway Inn perfectly fit the bill – low key, clean, and with a nice diner just across the large parking lot. We ate and rested well, glad for clean, comfortable shelter.
Racing Through the Fourth Corner
We reluctantly accepted the inconvenient fact that deteriorating weather conditions suggested returning to Albuquerque a day earlier than planned. That meant we now only had one day available to visit the last of our Four Corners. Our strategy involved rain gear, moderate speed, and an early start at first light to elude the advancing storm’s most dangerous torrents and lightning. We gambled on the shortest route even though its first half included lightly traveled local roads ill-suited to cruising in torrential rain. If our weather forecast were correct, we’d get a little wet but not doused and no serious flood threats would develop until after we had left that area.
Despite early fog and occasional showers, this day’s ride was one of my favorites. Highway 191 quickly took us south to the Dine’ Bii’tah Scenic Byway (Highway 162) winding through Navajo country at the juncture of Utah and Colorado. We had the entire glorious drive to ourselves. I could barely decide which way to look: up to massive cumulus clouds slowly darkening to awesome thunderheads, or out at sweet-scented mesa lands that bordered our road. It was all too beautiful to miss. This is yet another part of the Four Corners we’ll want to revisit at far more leisure.
The older we get, the more Jim and I respect the virtues of building in extra time to meet travel deadlines and minimize stress. Boomer travelers tire faster, need more rest, and are a little less resilient than back in the day. Such realities don’t discourage us from taking active do-it-yourself trips, but they do change how we prioritize our activities. That’s why we returned to Albuquerque and dropped off the rental bike at midday instead of day’s end. We lounged by the hotel swimming pool, had a leisurely early dinner, and got a good night’s sleep. Thunderbird H-D’s courtesy shuttle delivered us to the airport the next morning relaxed, refreshed, and already eager to plan another bike trip through America’s frontier lands next summer.
Wyoming, here we come!