Blanding, UT to Raton, NM
Where the Hell
Is My Rain Gear?
Taos is just precious.
Blue meanies chase me down the mountain.
I started fairly early out of Blanding, even though the Loud Guys left before I did. I kept an eye out for deer. Even though it’s wide open country they have a way of appearing out of nowhere.
I backtracked down US 162, aiming for the four corners area, where I would turn east. East, the direction back home. I said this earlier, but even this far out, seeing those East markers is a little sad, knowing that every turn of the wheels takes me closer to home, closer to the end of the journey. I have a bad tendency to screw up my own vacations this way. Once again I resolved to shake it off and enjoy the trip.
I took State Road 262 off of 191, which connects to SR 162 after winding through some mountains and running a fair-sized flat, straight stretch. I had it to myself the whole time, but didn’t burn it up because I kept finding gravel in the corners and after the second or third time I felt that sickening slide-then-catch of the back tire, I slowed down. I didn’t see another car until I rejoined 162, which turns into 41 at the Colorado line. The sun was well up at this point. Ranch trucks and 18 wheelers dotted US 160, which I took south toward the Four Corners.
Four Corners of So What
In fifth grade social studies, we heard the story of our teacher’s trip to the Four Corners at least twice. It sounded cool – wow, you can stand at the juncture of four – four! – states, and big ones too. Forty years later, stung by my underwhelming visit to Carlsbad Caverns, I weighed whether to go. Once again my second-half-vacation pessimism reared its head. Why go? Who cares? I passed the Four Corners turnoff. But about 50 yards down the road I thought, come on, don’t be a dick. I flipped a U-turn and went back.
I turned down the Four Corners road. Up ahead I saw some kind of gate. You had to pay admission. Of course you did. I understand poverty and limited opportunity, but sorry, I’m not going to pay to see where four imaginary lines converge. This isn’t exactly the 38th parallel. Yeah, I had entered full-on Grouch Mode. Besides, how many people come this close and don’t bother? I had to be one of very few. I blew off The Corners and rode south across the corner of Arizona.
The tiny Navajo town of Teec Nos Pos, Arizona hosts the western terminus of US 64 and its intersection with US 160. Teec Nos Pos means “cottonwoods in a circle,” but the town left the trees behind years ago, moving a few miles north to wring whatever commerce they could from this lonely desert crossroads. I looked in vain for a “Begin” or “End” sign for US 64. A sad little scrum of government houses, a post office, and that was Teec Nos Pos.
The desert between Teec Nos Pos and Shiprock undulates mildly, but it’s mainly another road where the mind can wander, within reason. Greenery and hills appear near Shiprock, as the San Juan River snakes its way through the desert, roughly parallel to the road. The river-fed strip of greenery continues through Farmington and beyond. The desert is big, folks. I covered a lot of unremarkable space that looked just like the 50 miles behind me and the 50 miles ahead of me.
Then I noticed. The greenery looked thicker. And taller. Pretty soon I rode through the edge of – could it be? – a forest of tall evergreens. Carson National Forest’s western section is a green island in the desert, separated from the main forest. After passing through it I endured one more desert session before climbing into the cool, green mountains. The temperature dropped and a few sprinkles hit my face shield, but it didn’t look much like rain. The road was a little wet though and I slipped briefly in a corner, afterwards imagining how long it would take to find me if I went off the edge.
The Rain Gear is Stupid, Not Me
Feeling cold, I stopped to put on another shirt and hook up the heated gloves. I had forgotten to keep an extra shirt in my top bag, so I had to undo everything and rummage through my duffel. Stoopid. Then I figured I'd get my rain jacket on. But I couldn't find it. Shit! I had left it somewhere along the way. It was kind of small anyway. I hadn't worn it earlier for that reason, figuring the rain would cut out as soon as I put it on. Well, nothing to do about it now. The temperature tumbled as I weaved up the mountain. Snow crowded the sides of the road, but thankfully no ice.
Obnoxious blue clouds greeted me at the summit and chased me down the other side, occasionally slapping me with ice-cold rain to teach me a lesson. Once again the heated gloves excelled. Amazing how heartening it is to have warm fingers that you can actually feel and bend. Works wonders for maintaining control.
I was glad to have the wet, curvy and steep road to myself. Riding down that mountain with an 18-wheeler on my butt would have sucked. But other problems neared. Once I hit the desert floor, the blue clouds spread out to fill the sky and the wind strengthened. No shelter, natural or man made, presented itself. I didn’t want to be under the only tree for miles during a thunderstorm, but I didn’t want to be the only thing sticking up either. I had to keep going.
Then something hit my helmet. Tonk. What was that? Tonk. Hail. It bounced off my helmet and my bike. I stopped to grab some quick video, then lowered my face shield and rode on. In the video the hail is small but it grew to nickel size. Huge gusts fired the hail into me. I struggled to stay in a straight line. It reminded me of the Tennessee storm -- scary, but damned if I was going to stop. When would I have another chance like this? Despite the hail I had no traction problems. I gave the thumbs up to people coming the other way. After five or six miles it ended, and I was almost sorry. I rode into Taos on a perfectly dry road. Two highway patrol cars screamed past me toward the storm. Whatever happened, I had just missed it.
Soaking wet, low on gas and shivering, I motored down the main drag for a look. The shivering is one thing (among many) that sucks about aging: The body can’t quickly adjust its internal temperature. Mine was still dealing with the mountain temperatures and the rain, though it must have been 65 or 70 degrees in Taos. I gassed up and drank a hot chocolate, both of which made me feel better.
The hail got larger after I started moving. I tried not to think about the lightning.
Just outside Taos. I turned around to get this pic after I rode through the storm.
I immediately knew what I wanted: A chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas, fried okra, and a lot of iced tea. And a big slice of warm pecan pie, with vanilla ice cream.
And then my troubles began.
A patch of blue sky offers false hope in Carson National Forest.
Googling Taos brings forth a gusher of info, so I’m not going to say much about it. Lots of art galleries, “cute shops” for the tourists and adobe buildings. They’ve held the worst developmental excesses at bay – no big ugly hotels or strip malls. I rode slowly around town for the feel of it, then continued east on US 64.
Heaven, I'm in Heaven
US 64 from Taos to Angel Fire is some of the best road you will ever travel on a motorcycle. Twisty, hilly, beautiful, but not technically unforgiving. Something happened to me along this road. I rode totally in the zone – focused, alert, riding fast but always in control, making no mistakes. Everything came together, and it felt great. Reminded me of the song “Speedway at Nazareth” by Mark Knopfler, which chronicles a journeyman race car driver’s many failures and one perfect day.
Beyond Angel Fire is more wonderful road through fantastic, beautiful country. I did the whole stretch with a big goofy grin on my face.
I Couldn't Remember What I Forgot
I ended the day at Raton in near darkness. I dropped my luggage in my room and headed back out to find restaurant row. Just a little ways down the road a K-Bob’s sign appeared. Score!
K-Bob’s is a western steakhouse chain that you’ll find in smaller cities in Texas and New Mexico. I lived in Texas in the 80s, and I knew the menu before I walked in. Steaks, catfish, chicken-fried steaks, giant salad bar. And then I remembered:
It was my birthday!
Shit! It had slipped my mind the whole day. Well, now I had as good an excuse as any to go all out. I immediately knew what I wanted: A run through the salad bar, a chicken-fried steak with cream gravy, mashed potatoes and black-eyed peas, fried okra, and a lot of iced tea. That is the classic K-Bob’s meal, at least for me.
Oh, and a big slice of warm pecan pie, with vanilla ice cream.
I hadn’t eaten a chicken fried steak in years, and boy, this was a good one. Often all you can taste is the fried outside, but the beefy flavor came through on this fork-tender beauty. Everything else tasted great too, although I fry my okra different from how they do it. I talked with the manager a little about bikes.
Back at the hotel I took a long hot shower, popped an Aleve and sank into the bed. But I couldn’t sleep. I texted my cousin in Tulsa that I would see him tomorrow and flipped the TV back on. Perry Mason. Hey, I studied law, I thought. I could have done that. I fell asleep around halfway through.
Next: Day Twelve -- Oklahoma Panhandle to Tulsa