Volcanoes, cacti, snakes & Wyatt Earp
Scottsdale, Ariz., Apr. 27—You’re probably sitting there with a hot cuppa joe or a cold frosty libation and all set to do some exciting armchair Arizona highway traveling. You’ve seen the pictures of the blissed-out riders barreling through the red rock and cactus-choked landscape. Looks like motorcycle heaven, you might be thinking. That’s the life; wish I were there.
So you’re excused if you’re also thinking that moto-journalism is all about jamming on a free tank of gas down smooth roads on a loaned-out Harley-Davidson, heading toward sunny horizons where, at the end of the day, admiring strangers buy the cocktails.
No junk in junket
When I got Mr. Big’s call from the office, I shooed away my much-too-chatty personal pool boy. My ears had perked up hearing, “press junket.” The gig was an all-expenses-paid Grand Canyon State tour on a Harley-Davidson. I responded with a loud but dignified, “Hot diggity dog! Julio, pack Mama’s bags,” or words to that effect.
Turns out that some folks operating Bike the Best in Europe are opening the Flagstaff EagleRider Rentals outfit (800 W. Route 66 Flagstaff AZ 86001). They were flying in fellow journalists from Germany. For a week we’d ride, eat, imbibe and soak up Arizona sun. It was a “hands across the water” or at least “over the handlebars” kind of thing. I’d be the token Yank.
The tour business folk would buy me a plane ticket. All I had to do was get there. And, as it turned out, therein lay the rub (and not the kind Julio is so good at, either). In the end, it worked out fine, with some memorable riding from the 12,000-foot peaks of Flagstaff, over Route 66 and through old mining towns, and sliding all the way down Arizona’s backbone to historic Tombstone. But I couldn’t have foreseen that the journey would also involve volcanic eruptions, snow, snake encounters and travel by what seemed like every other conveyance except a donkey cart.
Move your ash
It wasn’t long after Mr. Big called that I’d packed my riding leathers and camera. I was airport bound when another call came. Things had changed, and not in a good way. I’m sure most of you well-informed and acutely aware readers remember hearing something about that pesky volcano eruption in, of all places, Iceland. Smoke and ash plumes brought air travel in Europe to a stop. That meant the freebie trip to Arizona was off, too. Bummer.
But being the kind of gal who lives life by the seat of her pants, I decided to join the Thunder Press crew already in Nevada covering the Laughlin River Run. I decided to fly there. I could hitch a bike ride around town and take pictures. At least I’d be doing something.
I didn’t, however, realize right away that there is no Laughlin airport. One flies first to Las Vegas and then it’s a three-hour shuttle ride south. That’s a long time in a small space with the overly friendly senior citizens who were my fellow travelers. I arrived at the Thunder Press digs in Laughlin and declared it Camp Iwannadrink. Cocktail in hand, it wasn’t long after that I got another call. The wind had changed, planes were flying and a shortened Arizona trip was back on. How soon can you get there? asked Mr. Big. Good question. Long story short, I needed to catch a Greyhound bus at 8:00 the next morning in Bullhead City, Arizona.
Let it snow, let it snow, let it…
It was only midday when the big bus rolled safely into Flag (as the locals call it). I was scheduled to meet my hosts that evening. I arrived at the hotel just as snow began to coat the pretty little spring flowers by the entrance. I was not amused. But the next morning the others had arrived in time for a tasty breakfast, provided gratis by the Embassy Suites. Our hosts and guides, Micky and Peter Fischer, made introductions and the nine-member group headed out for the adventure of a lifetime. Our ride would take us from the northern evergreen mountains to the driest, lowest part of the Sonoran Desert in the south.
Stops were planned in 11 of the state’s most interesting cities. Our Flagstaff starting point was at the foot of the 12,000-foot San Francisco Peaks, most of which are snow-capped year-round. We had proof that it snows at lower levels, too. This day, however, a bright mountain sun had dried the roads. A beautiful ride lay ahead.
Head ’em up, move ’em out
My Harley for this five-day sojourn would be a newish pearl-white Heritage Softail that would serve me well (until the rear brakes went out 400 miles into the trip, but more on that later). We were anxious to be in the wind; we had itchy throttle-hand syndrome. To remedy that, we hit Historic Route 66 and headed west. As it turns out, Germans in general are Old West buffs. That set the tone for the trip: Ride ’em cowboy, head ’em up, move ’em out, and away we went.
It was an easy ride along State Highway 40 to the turn off to the old Historic Route 66. The stretch through Arizona to California is the longest remaining continuous section of the old Mother Road. Many communities have capitalized on reviving the highway’s popularity. It was great fun to poke around towns like Seligman and Hackberry as we worked towards Kingman, our lunch and fuel stop.
Getting to Oatman, our next destination, would include some serious riding as well as amazing scenery. An Old West community perched precariously on the side of a mountain, Oatman has clung to its historic mining roots. Two prospectors found a $10 million gold strike there in 1915. Today, the down-at-the-heels town is a tourist draw. Wild burros roam the streets, interrupting traffic and mooching carrots, all the while fertilizing the roadway and making an art of riding a motorcycle through the slick stuff.
Weekends there are packed with thrill-seeking bikers who find navigating the surrounding Sitgreaves Pass an Old West “rite of passage.” This narrow, twisty pass rises to an elevation of 3,550 feet along floorboard-scraping hairpin turns. This is not a ride advised for the nervous or novice rider.
Not falling down
From Oatman, it was down dusty back roads to Highway 95 and south to Lake Havasu City where weekending boaters, bikers and scantily clad sun-worshipping babes come for wild and rowdy fun. Nightlife is big in Havasu and we rolled up in time to watch the sunset. As cooler temps settled over the city, the hot party vibe hit a screaming decibel.
Water sports are a huge part of the outdoor activities that include live bands and dancing on the beach. At the Turtle Beach Bar you can park your boat in the sand and walk right up to the bar. Not having a boat, we settled for dinner, then stumbled back to the hotel. Early the next day, we were off to Cave Creek.
Headed southeast, we took a short lunch break in the historic old gold mining town of Wickenburg and then jammed another 50 miles to Cave Creek and the Hideaway Grill, a biker bar where, as owner Mark Bradshaw puts it, “There are no strangers here, just friends you haven’t met yet.” That good vibe is apparent as one drops a kickstand in the packed-with-bikes parking lot.
Our digs here were in the foothills of the high Sonoran Desert. The Carefree Resort & Villas hosted our evening in a style this scooter tramp is unaccustomed to. At an elevation of 2,400 feet, the climate is conducive to all-season activities and boasts a facility of 465 rooms, banquet rooms, a full media center and an entire laundry list of posh services. My personal favorite amenity is the Arizona Cultural Historian who comes to the property to share an evening around the campfire, teaching visitors about the history of the area. Unfortunately, we visited on the Historian’s night off.
But after several hundred miles of riding, it was hereabouts that my trusty Heritage developed a nasty noise. Hostess Micky hastily made some calls to get the bike looked at the next day. One of the many benefits of riding a rental from EagleRider is the great customer service in the event that a bike develops problems. We had a date with a snake near Tucson in early afternoon, so it was great to be taken right in at Scottsdale’s Hacienda Harley-Davidson dealership. Within an hour we were back on the road and headed south.
We took a ride through the beautiful and awe-inspiring Saguaro National Park. Many species of cacti here are found nowhere else on earth. The park surrounds the Arizona-Sonoran Desert Museum. We took our lunch break and toured the property, with its hundreds of species of flora and fauna in a natural setting.
Arizona has the largest population of snakes in America. Some 30 of them are rattlers, such as the diamond-backed, sidewinder, western and ridge-nosed, just to name a few. Some call the park home. For this trip, Micky had thoughtfully arranged a surprise up-close-and-personal meeting with one of these rattlers. As handlers brought the already agitated reptile out in the sunlight, we could hear its warning rattle. I grew up in the high desert and have a healthy respect for rattlers (which is a polite way of saying I am scared shitless of the damned things).
The snake charmers had some handy tips, such as don’t go out at night here without your flashlight because snakes like to slither then. They also taught us about many other lovelies that call the Arizona desert home. Included are many spiders (like tarantulas that can jump three feet high), lizards and other reptiles, and scorpions that can cling to the ceiling and then fall on unsuspecting children (just ask me how I know about that last tidbit).
Hangin’ with Wyatt ’n’ Doc
Tombstone is well-known for the Old West shootout at the O.K. Corral. Wyatt Earp reigned supreme and Doc Holliday hung out with Big Nose Kate. Today, the old buildings are blocked off from all but the horse-drawn traffic. Staged gunfights erupt at designated times. But we were allowed to ride our bikes down the middle of the dust-covered streets and were invited to ride across the old wooden sidewalks and straight through the swinging doors of Big Nose Kate’s Saloon. Patrons stepped aside as we sat on the bar, played with the old prop guns and had ourselves a whoop-it-up.
The Mayor greeted our group and invited us out to an outlying community called the Apache Spirit Ranch. Under construction, this resort will have guests interested in soaking up the history and spirit vibe that permeates the acreage where Geronimo once roamed. The dusty washboard road made for an interesting ride at dusk. We arrived to a hot dinner and a bathtub full of cold drinks. We toasted the day’s ride and the beautiful weather as the sun sank into the mountains.
The evening entertainment was provided by cowboy musicians. Guitars were strummed by the campfire light. A full moon hung overhead and visions of rattlesnakes danced in my head as I chose to use my motorcycle as seating (ya just never know when one of those 30-odd species might take a shine to one’s bootleg in the cool of the dark desert night). I was counting on any tarantulas to be too lazy to leap that high.
As we prepared for our last day of riding, our first stop on the way out of Tombstone was to tour the famous Boot Hill Cemetery. Unfortunately, Mother Nature again impressed us with her great sense of humor and sent a swarm of bees over to visit the cemetery before we did.
We chose instead to mosey down to quaint and charming Bisbee. One can poke through the shops in this Victorian-flavored city to find anything a tourist’s heart might desire. Founded in 1880 as a copper, gold and silver mining town, Bisbee was named after Judge DeWitt Bisbee, who financed the adjacent Copper Queen Mine. A high-quality turquoise known as the Bisbee Blue is a by-product of copper-based minerals, and exquisite specimens have been taken from the mines. The effects of the mining can still be seen today, with open pits and scars left on the surrounding countryside.
From Bisbee it was some more great back-road riding north to Scottsdale. After our last overnight there, a town car—this was certainly not a donkey cart—took us to the airport and our individual flights home. For my part, back in Northern California, I was happy to see Julio had fluffed up a few towels for me. Wrapping myself in one, I was reminded that next time Mr. Big calls with another chance at a free road trip, I’d check first for volcanic activity. Call 928.637.6575 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for complete information on these tours and bike rentals.