• 2014 New Mexico Trip: Dust Storms in Texas and Route 191 from Clifton to Eager, AZ

    Thursday May 1st 2014

    I woke unusually early, 6:30 AM which might as well be no-man's time, and spent the extra hours writing while listening to yet another wind storm making a ruckus outside. Even after a few hours, the ruckus didn't die down. Venturing out into the light, I noticed the sky was an unusual orange brown color. "Smog?" I wondered but thought that I was too far from any major cities for that to be the case. Sand and silt could be seen blowing along the pavement in the 20mph or so winds. Looking at my bike, I noticed it was covered in dust. "Is this what a dust storm looks like?" I wondered.

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    I live in an abstract world. Most physical details around me escape my attention. Most things I see I perceive as "someone else's problem", with the appropriate hat tip to Douglas Adams. For instance, the night before I had noticed this neatly sloped pile of sand and silt on the leeward side of a curb. Did I ask myself the question of how it got there? Of course not, that's somebody else's problem. I had more important things to do such as find something to eat and contemplate the intricacies of my navel which provides me endless hours of entertainment.

    Now had I actually pondered how the sand and silt came to be so neatly arranged I might have known how often dust storms plague this area.

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    I have never been in a dust storm before. I couldn't ride with the visor up without silt getting into my eyes. I pondered whether or not I should be wearing some filter as I was breathing this stuff in. Coughing fits later may have been some indication. I tried to snap a number of photos but had the inkling that they really wouldn't capture what it looked like.

    "Look, this is what Yermo calls a dust storm. Wuss."

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    This wasn't bad at all, just a new experience, but one that gave me the sense it could, at a moments notice, become much worse. There were a number of automated signs along the way warning of dust storms and low visibility. Some fixed signs confirmed that it could become much much worse.

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    Fortunately for me, the level of dust in the air and the visibility stayed pretty much constant. I was feeling pretty good so decided to try to make some time. Typically I take a break every 90 miles regardless of whether I feel I need it or not. The times that I have broken this rule I end up being much more tired at the end of the day, but it was only 200 miles to Clifton, AZ where route 191 starts and then only 140 so miles up to Eager, AZ. So I rode 130 or so miles until I needed to get gas and then rode onto Clifton. Instead of taking an extended break in Clifton, I decided to continue on. Clifton seems like an odd little town hidden in a canyon.

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    As I approached Clifton from the South I could see some odd formations in the distance. "A mining operation?" I wondered. I was unprepared for what I was about to encounter. Route 191 goes straight through the operation, fences bordering both sides of the road. The scale of the devastation is not to be believed. It's not just that they took the top of a mountain off, it looks like they dug one up and destroyed it.

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    It goes on for miles. Humanity needs resources and they have to come from somewhere but there's something deep inside the psyche, possibly from the same place that experiences awe in Carlsbad Caverns, that can't help but feel that maybe Agent Smith was right after all, we are a plague on this beautiful planet and it is suffering. How many places in the world look like this? Could it be done another way or if not, could it maybe be healed somehow afterwards? I've been told that in Germany if you cut down a tree you have to plant and manage the growth of several to replace it. Can't we do something similar?

    Then I think I am not blameless. Humanity needs to take resources from the planet so that I can ride my motorcycle over it. I am keenly aware of my own culpability in this horrible ugliness before me and all the other ugliness there is in the world. The tarmac that I rely on is itself a scar on the surface of the world. I try to limit my footprint. I try to be consicous. I try not to waste recklessly. But it's all relative. To my friend Ted who lives on Dancing Rabbit my footprint in this world is many factors greater than his and is unconscionable. Others I know have footprints many factors larger than my own.

    But my beloved Blue Oil Burner itself, despite getting 58mpg on the last tank, does no good for the planet that I can think of. As I ride across this vast country, I spew hydrocarbons out, leave rubber on the road, kill countless insects and the occasional kamikazee rodent, consume parts and in the end do a net amount of harm to the world, all so that I can think clearly because for whatever reason the motorcycle is the only place I feel at home. I can try to justify to myself that I am doing less than others. There are those driving around bus sized RVs towing huge pickup trucks behind them doing more miles than I am. There are those burning hundreds if not thousands of gallons of fuel per hour to propel megayachts and huge jets. I can console myself by thinking I am doing less harm than they are. There are those riding electric motorcycles thinking the same thing looking at me but are also deluding themselves. Even an electric motorcycle is a net negative for the world unless some positive action is taken to mitigate the effects. The same is true of my own oil burner.

    Maybe I will frame a picture of this on my wall as a reminder to do better.

    The power of humanity is both awesome and horrifying. We can do so much worse than just bring a mountain down.

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    The scope of this operation is unbelievable. They even have "scenic view pullouts" so you can marvel at the horror of the devastation.

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    After some miles the mountains left standing provide a reminder for what it used to look like. The road narrows and then becomes impressively twisty.

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    There are sections, long sections, of this road that rival the twistiness of Deal's Gap. Rania from Revzilla along with a Super Tenere rider I met a couple of days ago said this road needed to be seen. They did not exaggerate. There are 30+ mile sections where the speed limit is 25mph and most corners are rated at 10 to 15mph. There are switchbacks everywhere.

    The road carves its way along the canyon twisting and turning in every conceivable fashion. There is nothing preventing you from falling off the edge of forever if you happen to lose a moments concentration or, more likely, hit some of the hidden gravel that plagues this route.

    "Be careful." the pickup driver said, "run off the road and you're likely not to hit solid ground until around breakfast time." He was not kidding.

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    Did I mention this road is something like 140 miles long?

    At one point, after 20, maybe 40 miles, I came across a little picnic area at the crest of a mountain. I regretted not having had lunch before doing this route. I did have some emergency snacks and water with me. I would strongly recommend bring some food and water along. This road is quite tiring. I set up my snacks and water on another Ragnarock picnic table when I noticed a trail leading off to the sky. I followed it and came upon a simply incredible view.

    "Yermo on Top of the Mountain"

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    Some kind soul had deposited a picnic table right there at this incredible view. This is such a German thing to do. I went back, gathered my snacks and water and proceeded to sit in this place for a while. The panorama shot I took of this spot did not turn out, but you could see a view like the one below from 3 sides.

    There was a cool breeze but it was warm and sunny. It was quiet and I felt very alone. But this place was beautiful.

    There are some moments in a lifetime that should not be spent alone. This was one of them.

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    Next to the picnic table I noticed a cactus. On my 2010 trip, I had asked a friend of mine, Claudia, what I should bring back for her. She asked for a silly photo of me with a cactus. Unfortunately, I found no cacti on that trip. I always try to keep my promises but I'm not necessarily very punctual about it. So here it is, 4 years later and I finally got the photo.

    Clearly, posing with a cactus is serious business.

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    I rode on continuing along this twisty route climbing up the side of one impressive mountain and down the other for what seemed like hours. Over the entire day, I don't think I saw more than half a dozen cars. For one two hour stretch I didn't see a single person.

    Eventually, the road opens up for a short while across this meadowland.

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    There are signs warning of cattle in the road. They were not lying. The bull on the left eyed me menacingly as I passed.

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    After some relatively short sections of straight it gets twisty again. I regret not taking a photo of the "25mph curves next 30 miles" sign.

    This road is aggressivly twisty with incredible views and menacing dropoffs around every corner. Over all the pavement quality is quite good but there are sections covered in tar snakes and others where the pavement is irregular and cracked. Gravel is a constant threat. I'd say only about 10% of the corners had any significant gravel in them. One advantage of the dark pavement is that it makes gravel, dust and dirt effortless to see.

    It wasn't until much later in the day, after texting Bruce about the road, that I realized how much my off in Virginia has affected me. I thought back over my day on this road riding alone. If I had an off here and fell down into the unknown, I doubt anyone would find me for days if not weeks. The gravel made me uncharacteristically nervous. Typically, what I like to do when coming around a blind corner is go to the far side, so for instance in a tight left corner I'll go to the farthest point to the right so that I have the longest view down the road to see if anything is coming or there are any hazards in the road. I call it my "street line". This is in contrast to those who want to go around a corner as fast as possible where you typically go outside inside outside, called a race line. A race line, in my humble opinion, is not appropriate for the street because it prevents you from seeing down the road around the corner.

    I was coming around on left hand corner where I saw gravel on the outside of the white line well outside of my path but regardless I stayed towards the center of the lane restricting my view around the corner which caused me to see the truck barreling down towards me later than normal.

    It surprised me and that's not a good thing.

    My fear of gravel now irrationally overrides my fear of trucks. We have events that hurt us and we then overcompensate for those events even if they are rare. One off in 29 years and suddenly gravel is all I worry about. It's stupid and can be dangerous. I'm reminded of the Carlsbag Ranger telling me I couldn't store my bags because of 9/11. We fear sharks despites ticks and mosquitoes being far more deadly.

    Most corners on this road have precipitous dropoffs. Sliding out from one of these corners would likely be fatal. Fortunately, outside corners rarely have any gravel on them and there tends to be enough clean pavement around those inside corners that if you happened to hit gravel the tires would likely grab again before making it into the oncoming lane, as long as you don't highside. A highside is where the tires grab again so violently that the bike flips launching the rider to the outside. That would be Bad(tm). You always want to low-side.

    Needless to say, this is a slow road and I was going pretty slowly.

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    Despite it's beauty and twistiness, I was keenly aware of the risk. I have long wondered about motorcycle racers who suffer incredible injuries only to get back on the bike and go faster. How do they do that? How do they get past the trauma, the fear, and the doubt to go do it again?

    I've seen others suffer trauma's of various kinds only to get up, brush themselves off, and try again seemingly unaffected. Granted, I fell. I got up, brushed myself off, and continued on, but I fear the event has changed me a bit. I could feel a tentativeness in my riding that was not there before. I was not fluid. I would come across gravel and I could feel myself tighten up. It took several hundred turns before I could begin to approach riding fluidly.

    On one turn coming around moderate left hander, the pavement suddenly changed and looked like deep loose gravel to me. I immediately felt my arms lock on the handlebars and as I have said to so many, "When you feel the bike not turning it's you, not the bike."

    It was not gravel. It was a section of patched pavement and the traction was fine, but I still went wider than I wanted to because of a exaggerated fear response.

    Fear. Fear of a past event manifested itself to make a present event that should have been entirely drama free into something truly frightening. I now fully understand the famous adage "the only thing we have to fear is fear itself." Fear on a motorcycle is far more dangerous than the hazards in the road. The hazards will be there. It's how we react to those hazards that will dictate our outcomes. If we let the fear of a past event paralyze us so that we exaggerate our reactions to the present event, not thinking, our outcomes will not be the ones that we desire.

    For whatever reason, traumas I have experienced whether the off in Virginia or things that happened 40 years ago, become inextricably woven into the fabric of my being. How many relationships, how many opportunties, how many situations have I ruined because present events invoke past traumas causing my internal reaction to be exaggerated?

    As I rode past the pavement patch, I paused to think about what I had just felt. Something unexpected happens and you get that lightning strike "oh shit!" feeling and it seems like your mind is overridden. You know what you should do, but are unable to, initially at least, do it. Grabbing the bars tightly on a bike is NEVER a good idea. I know to express my tension through my legs but sometimes, when your senses are overridden, it's like your mind turns off, at least for a second. Pause. Look up and where you want to go. Grab the tank with your knees as hard as you can. Feel yourself loosen on the bars. Feel the bike go where you need it to.

    It's been a very long time since I was so cognizant of this feeling, but now that I'm reminded of what it feels like maybe I can remember it and when I find myself in that situation again, I may yet learn to react differently in motorcycling and in other aspects of my life.

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    There were many signs warning of wildlife in the road. They were not kidding.

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    There were also many signs like this There was one that marked off a 30 mile section.

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    I did see two elk gazing quite a ways off the road but was unable to get a photo of them.

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    And what is it about turkeys wanting to stand around in blind cornes?

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    I don't remember how many hours it took me to ride the entire length of this road. It was beautiful, twisty, challenging, and in places treacherous. It's definitely a must see route but it is one that must be ridden cautiously.

    Temperatures dropped markedly. It was in the 40's by the time I rolled out onto the flatter sections. I thought it might snow but all the clouds did was interrupt the sunset.

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    I was good and chilled so decided to stop in Spingerville, AZ where i'm staying at a motel. I was going to meet John up in Moab or Mesa Verde but I was saddened to hear that his clutch has failed and his bike is being towed back to Albuqurque for repairs. Poor guy. I feel really bad for him. This leaves me with another redirection in my trip. Initially, I was going to go up to Denver but the weather and wind has conspired to make that unpleasant.

    I'm always nervous about using unproven systems when I travel. That's why I've been so nervous about my own bike which I managed to re-assemble only a few days before leaving on this trip. Lately, my bike has been vibrating differently and getting surprising gas mileage. It's jumped from averaging around 48mpg to getting upwards of 58mpg. I thought it might be an exhaust leak so I've carefully inspected the exhaust system and everything else I can think of. I posted to the BMW MOA group and the consensus seems to be it's "summer fuel" combined with the higher altitudes. I'm keeping an eye on it.

    Given that I can't meet John and Lucy now, I wasn't sure what I was going to do today. That, it turns out, was decided for me. I ate something last night or this morning that has caused me the kind of problems I talk about. So as always sees to happen at least once on these trips, I'm one hurtin' puppy and am down for the count. I'll spend the day holed up in this motel. Bruce is going to ride out and meet me here tomorrow and we're going to go and ride 191 together on Saturday. It's a road he's wanted to ride. Spending some more time with my friend is going to be good. I'm looking forward to it.

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