A grand few days
Overtaking a boat in the middle of a desert is a bit surreal… but the riding over the past two days has been so extraordinary that my senses were sufficiently overloaded already that I didn’t bat an eyelid. It’s been like riding in another world – and it’s fantastic.
Leaving Cortez, I realised that south-west Colorado is very different to the mountainous heart of the state I’d been riding through. This is Indian country <read that again in a John Wayne voice for the full effect> and the landscape is unreal. I headed west on Highway 160 – long, straight roads across a dry landscape ringed with distant bluffs and dotted with dramatic rocky spires. If you watched the Star Wars movie Attack of the Clones with your kids (or on your own – I’m not judging) it’s like Geonosis, the site of the final battle, only the things that look like spaceships are buttes – natural rock formations.
There’s no getting away from the fact that the roads are long and straight, though. But I don’t mind. There is literally not a cloud in the sky, the land beside the road is cut with arroyos and gulches and the occasional deeper canyon – it’s all straight out of a western, as should be no surprise. I cross the land of the Ute first and then go into the Navajo Nation, bound for the Four Corners monument.
I have to say, Four Corners was slightly disappointing. I don’t know what I actually expected, but it wasn’t quite this. It’s five dollars to get in, the parking area is sufficiently bumpy and gravelly to give me flashbacks to crashing in South Africa and then the monument itself is basically a square of craft stalls surrounding central the bronze plaque marking where the states of Colorado, Arizona, Utah and New Mexico meet. All the stalls sell variations on the same traditional Navajo goods – dreamcatchers, silver and/or turquoise jewellery, pottery… I’m deliberately not loading up with souvenirs – on the basis that if I start, I’ll never stop and I’ll run out of space in no time – so it’s all a bit wasted on me. I get a picture (not bothering to put a limb in each state – whoops) and a lemonade, then head off.
Getting back on the bike is a much better call. I ride on into a landscape of ever stranger, more magnificent rock formations. The roads are long and straight, with the occasional swooping turns just where the landscape gets most dramatic – so when the urge to admire the scenery is greatest is precisely when it’s most important to actually look at the road… At one point I ride past huge walls of red stone, like a frozen wave – I’m wracking my brain trying to remember enough basic physical geography to decide if this is igneous or sedimentary. After five minutes, I decide it’s too geeky even for me to worry about.
Approaching Mexican Hat, I spot the signs for the easily missed turn recommended by Roddy at Moto Freight: the Valley of the Gods. I don’t peel off into it, because he also warned me that it’s a gravel road. I stop and get off the bike: it’s a really steep descent to a cattle grid, followed by a fairly tight turn on gravel. I walk down. Nope: far too steep for the SX on road tyres… which is gutting because I’d already Googled the hell out of it, and it looked amazing…
Still, other amazing things still lie ahead. I fill up in Mexican Hat and grab a forecourt picnic (potato salad, Snickers, water) before pressing on to Monument Valley. I break out laughing when I come over a crest to see the arrow-straight road pointing straight at the iconic collection of buttes. I’ve seen this view on a thousand adverts, posters, television programmes… but it’s only now I’m here that I realise how they failed to do justice to it.
I wait until I’m a bit closer before taking a picture of my own. In fact, I stop several times to try to find the best view. I don’t think there is one: they’re all equally gob-smacking. This is what makes it worth coming here: yes, the roads are 90% dead straight, but you’d have to be dead inside not to be moved by the landscape that surrounds them when you’re actually here, in the heat and the glare, staring up at these frankly preposterous, beautiful lumps of rock. I’d expected to be impressed, but I wasn’t ready to be moved by them.
After messing about with cameras for a bit, I move on to my overnight stop in Page. Even by American standards, it’s a new town – incorporated in 1957. It’s younger than my dad… though, unlike him, it has its own power station (called the “Navajo Generating Station” – which I’d have thought should have been the name of the local maternity ward). The town was created for workers building the Glen Canyon Dam but has survived as a tourist magnet – because Lake Powell, created by the dam, and Antelope Canyon draw people here from all over the world. It's as I'm approaching Page that I overtake a giant speedboat being towed by one of the ubiquitous Ford F150 pickups.
I’d really wanted to do a boat trip on Lake Powell – as amazing as the narrow, smooth rocks of Antelope Canyon look, I’m not sure I’d be up for the walking tour in bike kit. But I couldn’t find out if there were lockers where I could leave my helmet and tankbag (I did find out I couldn’t take them on the boat). I thought I’d ask on site… but of course all the tours are filled in advance. Naturally, by the time I get there, it’s a big, fat “not happening”!
So I got up on Sunday morning to press on to the north instead, heading to Utah. Again, the landscape delivers fireworks to make up for the fact that the roads are mostly straight. They’re rarely flat, though, undulating across the plains and then suddenly dropping down steep escarpments. I stop to admire the historic Navajo Bridge that stands beside the modern road bridge carrying Highway 89A. A lovely chap from Phoenix points out that there are condors flapping about on the rocks below the bridges… but they flap out of frame every time I try to get a picture.
From there the road carries on across the scorching scrubby desert landscape at the foot of the Vermillion Cliffs – including a stretch that’s basically an 11-mile straight with three 10-degree kinks. Then suddenly the road is climbing, twisting back on itself in broad and enjoyable hairpins as it scales another escarpment. At the top, I’m in another world – one of pine trees and grassy verges. In less than a dozen miles I’ve gone from the set of a classic Western to the set of Hansel and Gretel.
At Jacob Lake I turn south on (another) scenic route 67. The pine forest is magnificent, giving way in places to meadows that could have come from the French Jura or the German Tyrol – all that’s missing are the little wooden cowsheds standing on the pine-fringed fields. And of course, I’m not seeing cows: I’m seeing buffalos. Or are they bison? I can’t imagine Noddy Holder washing his hands in one, so they must be buffalo…
There’s large matrix board announcing: “controlled fire in progress”. At one point, smoke blows across the road but I never see any flames. I do pass through an area where a previous fire has consumed hundreds of acres of the forest – new trees are growing, dwarfed by the gaunt skeletons of the ones that burnt. It’s atmospheric… but at this point the road is a fantastic swooping, twisting thing that wriggles like an angry snake and I’m mostly concentrating on stringing entry, apex and exit together for mile after mile.
All of this fun eventually leads me to a tollboth: $30 to enter. “Or would you like an annual pass that’ll get you into all the National Parks, for $80?” asks the helpful chap at the gate. Really? I thought I couldn’t get one because I don’t have a US address. Oh no: I can. This is great, because I plan to visit several more parks and this will save me a packet. I pay up and head into the park. Which one? The North Lip of the Grand Canyon.
It’s still a ride from the toll booth to the canyon edge. In the final mile or so, there are glimpses through the trees. They’re no kind of preparation. I park the bike and walk follow the trail. Now I’m getting views. I have to remember to close my mouth, as the jaw keeps dropping. Then I hit the trail to Bright Angel Point. Every ten yards I get a new “best view ever”. Though every 20 yards, I get another fluttery twitch of vertigo on the narrow path.
I’ve ridden bikes along a lot of gorges and canyons, especially in France. I love the Tarn Gorges and the gorges of Provence – the Loup, Daluis, Cian and, of course, the Verdon. I think you could pack them all into this one small stretch of the Grand Canyon, sideways, and still have space to spare. The French gorges do have the advantage, from a biking perspective, of having roads along the edges… but in terms of drama, scale, sheer oh-my-god-will-you-look-at-that-ness, none of them comes close to the Grand Canyon. And in the two hours I stomp along the edge of it, I’ve seen just a fraction of it.
I get lunch in the visitor centre – in a dining room like a cross between a Viking feasting hall and The Overlook Hotel from The Shining, but with million-dollar picture windows out over the canyon. It’s not only a fantastic setting with fantastic service but also good value. I’m reluctant to leave, but I know I have a long way to go still. If I can somehow make my way back to another stretch of the Grand Canyon before leaving America, I will… it has truly blown me away and I’m desperate to see more of it.
But now I need to head north. I stop on the 67 because there’s a sign saying “Espresso” and I’m so desperate for a decent coffee I’ll even ride across a gravel parking area. Thankfully, it’s a spectacular coffee… a macchiato (espresso with milk) rather than a morning-spec double espresso. It gives me the energy to keep going.
I press on to my overnight stop in Hatch – selected because the name amused me and because it’s easy on the budget. On Monday morning I’ll head deeper into Utah… probably. But first I’ll see if I can find somewhere close to fit fresh tyres. They’re not dead yet, but I’m piling on the miles and it won’t be long. I’d rather change them 1000 miles early than find myself with a problem by pushing too far…