Friday, September 12, 2008

Adventure Touring, 1981-style

In 1980, the very year that (according to Wikipedia, anyway) BMW introduced its first R80G/S model, we (significant other, her daughter, and I) rode out to Utah and spent a week kicking around the Canyonlands in a rented Jeep--well, actually an International Scout with a balky carburetor. It was fun, and over the winter I got the idea that it would be even more fun to ride around these canyons on a dirt bike. A sensible person, of course, would have bought a proper dirt bike, thrown it on a trailer behind the car, and been properly prepared for off-roading.

Not being a sensible person, I decided I wanted to ride there, ride the canyons, and ride back. So I procured a "non-current" 1979 Yamaha XT500. This was a pretty decent 500cc single with about six inches of suspension at both ends--hardly a great dirt bike, but not too bad for the day. I then outfitted it for touring by adding a five-gallon, translucent plastic gas tank (a friend of mine always threatened to slip some plastic goldfish into the tank), luggage rack and saddlebags made from stuff I scrounged at Ace Hardware and K-Mart, and the piece-de-resistance: a big, soft touring bucket seat built on the stock dirt bike pan. With that, and the experience that I acquired houring out of a couple spring enduros (on a real dirt bike), I headed west...

To get more practice riding this bigger, heavier bike off pavement, I took as many dirt and gravel roads as I could across Colorado: for instance, down the front range on a road that eventually became Phantom Canyon road into Canon City, and across the Continental Divide via Cottonwood Pass (picture at right).

Even now, I think those K-mart suitcase saddlebags are just too trailer-park-cool for words. Notice also the sophisticated 1981-style off-road riding gear: Levi jacket, jeans, sneakers without socks. The philosophy behind the last of these was that if it rained, my feet would get wet... but they'd dry out pretty quickly if I didn't have socks on. As for protection in the event of a crash... well, let's just steal a phrase from Gene Kranz and say "crashing is not an option."

I was feeling pretty good when I came down from Cottonwood Pass. I was feeling even better when I stopped for gas in Montrose and overheard people complaining about the high cost and low availability of lodging. I, of course, planned to head up the fire roads to a campsite about halfway to Naturita. Which I did, just in time to pitch my tent and watch a series of heavy rainstorms go through. No worries, I was safe inside a tent, and tomorrow would be a sunny and pleasant day...

Which it was, except... the night's rain had turned a section of the next road into a sea of clay mud, that sticky stuff that wraps around your tires and jams between the wheel and swingarm: I cleaned the stuff out, rode ten more feet and found the bike stopped again. Yuck. Since this was open range country, in short order I had an audience of cattle, all chewing their cuds and watching with what I assume is bovine interest as I scraped the mud out.

The only way to get going, it turned out, was to dump the clutch, spin the rear wheel like mad to fling the mud off, and slither/slip/fishtail down this twisty mountain dirt road until, after a few miles that seemed like a lot more, I got to the end of the mud stretch.

Had I been sensible, I would have stopped in Naturita and cleaned the mud off the bike at the coin-op car wash. But we've already established that I'm not sensible, so it should come as no surprise that I kept going, into Utah, past one of the stranger road signs I've seen: "THIS IS NOT US 163", and onto the four-wheel-drive roads. There, on a steep downhill, I put my foot onto the rear brake and found... nothing. The mud had dried into a hard lump of ceramic that jammed the brake rod.

So much for "crashing is not an option." Luckily, I injured nothing but my pride, and soon was on my way. After a few more adventures, most notably getting lost when the trail passed across a long stretch of featureless, unmarked bare rock, I made it into Moab and found a motel room.

At this point I should describe the navigation technologies of the day: I was traveling on BLM land, which means no officiall-marked roads. No GPS, of course. What I had was a map, published by a local company, listing trails and roads and giving approximate distances between landmarks. When I say "approximate," I mean "inaccurate," because the guy had measured distances using the odometer in his Jeep, and apparently he spun the wheels a lot because I always found myself going fewer miles between landmarks than he did (even though the Yamaha's odometer usually went up by 10.3 miles for every 10 miles I traveled on the Interstate). Complicating things further, this was active mineral exploration territory, so mining companies were often bulldozing new roads that didn't appear on the maps. Fun, fun, fun.

Once I reached Moab, I did a little side trip to the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, and took a quick spin around Arches National Park. Pictures to come, when I scan those 27-year-old prints.

From there, I headed down to the Needles section of Canyonlands, on a combination of dirt tracks. I quickly found my navigational aid: there was a weekly tour that followed this route in a Toyota Land Cruiser, which had very distinctive (Japanese?) tires. As long as I could find the Land Cruiser tracks in the occasional patch of sand, I knew I was on the right path. When I get the scanner working, I'll add some pictures of places like Chicken Corners and the natural bridge a thousand feet above the Colorado River canyon...

So here we have the guy well-equipped for desert touring. Yeah, right. It did occur to me that this was a somewhat risky proposition, going out into the desert by myself, with limited off-road skills, poor maps and only a day or so worth of water. But I was only 27, and as we all know, people under 30 are indestructible, right?

And, in all fairness, I did survive to write this, 27 years later. Had some problems in Canyonlands National Park, but got home... almost, anyway... the XT's much abused chain broke about 40 miles from home. But that's another story.

1 comment:

magi said...

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