This article was written by Bon Voyage customers – Geoff and Ali Cadman – who travelled on an “EagleRider” organised Harley tour of western America in 2004, and is reproduced on TheBonVoyageBlog with their kind permission. The stunning photographs are their own, and all rights are reserved.
I think Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” was much better than their more popular song “Born to be Wild”, which was rather hi-jacked by the media to become something of a cliché when dealing with any story that revolved around the motorcycle `lifestyle`. I suppose it’s just that I am a dedicated biker and have been one since just before the release of the iconic film `Easy Rider`. I’m also English, I ride a Harley Davidson, but I also own a BMW motorcycle so I’m not the sort that would ordinarily get all misty-eyed when a travel programme does a motorcycle feature and uses the obligatory, `Born to be Wild` as an intro! I reiterate, not ordinarily.
My first experience of riding in the USA happened to be on the legendary Harley Davidson Electra Glide and it did manage to get me misty-eyed, especially when I found myself following in the wake of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda, the original `Easy Riders`. Now, where did all this start? In Los Angeles on an “EagleRider” 2,800 mile guided motorcycle ride around the cowboy trails of the American Wild West.
Starting and finishing at Eaglerider’s main base in LA, you’ll go through, temperatures from -2 to +45C and elevations of 282 below, to an incredible 10,000 feet above sea level, the latter in one day. As well as entering 4 States, 2 cities and 2 deserts (The Nevada and Mojave) you’ll cross a time-zone, enter Death Valley alive, and come out again even more so. The Joshua Tree National Park will touch your heart, Arizona’s Route 66 will take you back to a forgotten era, The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Yosemite will…sorry, still can’t describe them adequately. You’ll follow the tyre tracks of the aforementioned Messrs. Hopper and Fonda into Monument Valley, cruise the Las Vegas strip, cross The San Francisco Golden Gate Bridge and end your travels breezing down The Pacific Coast Highway, with a quick coffee in Clint Eastwood’s hometown of Carmel. (He was out, so we couldn’t make his day). Some of the world’s finest and most dramatic scenery is thrown in for free and all this on a motorcycle that was made to ride this amazing country.
You can ride the first or second half or go the whole hog, and a Hog (the nickname for a Harley) is what you’ll get. The latest Harley-Davidson range is on offer and they’re all pretty damn smooth. An Eaglerider guided ride means you don’t need a map as your biker guide knows the way including diners, bars and tourist spots as well as some you wouldn’t otherwise find. The air-conned support vehicle takes your luggage (yes, real suitcases) and tows a spare bike! Accommodation is American 3 Star + hotels, all the way and after a blat across The Nevada Desert, this cowboy and his wife really appreciated a bit of comfort. This was a real motorcycle ride where on some days we were covering 300 miles through some pretty amazing territory. To quote an old Harley Davidson truism, “It’s about the journey, not the destination”.
The journey started with an early buffet breakfast after a night in an excellent LA hotel. Meeting and greeting fellow travellers over a cooked breakfast on the patio is such a nice way to start the day. Another bonus of this type of trip is meeting one’s fellow travellers and swapping life’s experiences.
A welcome speech from the guides and staff was followed by a ride briefing and a 10-minute van ride to complete the admin and do what we’d come to do, ride. We got our motors running and headed out on the highway (Note: Try not to mention `Born to be Wild` again).
90% of this trip is on roads that are, by UK standards, deserted. Full leathers cook you very quickly out here, but I don’t do T-shirts so we bought ourselves Joe Rocket and Belstaff airmesh jackets. Both proved to be superb garments for the conditions, had decent armour and actually kept us cooler and less burnt than the `T` shirted. Utah is for the bareheaded brigade so there are plenty of chances to get out the bandana, but American bugs are big and don’t half hurt! Goggles are essential either way, as the helmets provided are half-dome, which I actually quite liked. As the terrain and roads get more rugged, so will the newcomers to Hog-riding. Harley’s, despite their size, are easy rides and with that low down weight handle really well, especially the big tourers.
The full itinerary can be found on Eaglerider’s excellent website, so in the space I have left, here are a few of our special moments as they tumble out of my memory: Cruising through the magnificence of Joshua Tree National Park on dirt roads and seeing… Joshua trees! The edge of the Mojave in the town of Twenty Nine Palms, feeling `the heat of its desert heart` (thank you Robert Plant, now I understand). Crossing The Mojave. Indian shacks with yards full of trucks and old V8 engines, spiralling dust devils. Rugged, wild, sweeping vistas, moonscapes and mountains on the horizon with the occasional tumbleweed bowling across the road. Vast dried up salt lakes. Rumbling dehydrated, into the hamlet of Amboy, an oasis on Route 66, the big V-twin like a furnace between our legs. In the land of the parched and fuel-less, the convenience store owner is King. We cooled off under the canopy, sipped on a cold cola and then saw the town’s sign that made us realise our arrival had just doubled Amboy’s population: There were 23 of us.
The Road to Oatman – Actually this is a stretch of Route 66 – good innit? These roads allow you to sit back and feel the force of the big V-twin motor that powers these motorcycles that I’ve loved since I was a teenager and which were made to cross this land. There’s precious little in that big, under-stressed engine that’s thinner than your wrist and with the distances between civilisations out here, there just ain’t no substitute for cubic capacity and big twin Harley’s are very predictable and very easy rides.
There are no roads in the UK to compare with Route 66, “The Mother Road”. The vast space and naked beauty of this part of Uncle Sam’s back garden has a mystical, rugged quality that beggar’s description – well from this writer at least. Mile-long trains shadowing us, calling out with their klaxons. Clanging bells at rail crossings. 50’s roadside diners, selling their heritage and milkshakes.
The Grand Canyon is over 200 miles long and a mile deep, with weather systems all of its own. Put another way, when standing at one of the viewpoints, you are over 1,000 feet higher than the highest point in the UK. Huge thunderclouds and lightning flashes in the distance greeted us as we rode into Grand Canyon resort. So this is where Americans get the word `awesome`. Actually, `awesome` isn’t a big enough word for this place.
Utah, beautiful Utah and for us, the most outstanding place in the whole journey, Monument Valley, homeland of the wonderful Navajo Indians and John Ford epic Western movies. We were the only `cavalry` there that day but the Indians were friendly and drove us round in 4x4’s, playing their flutes for us. Yes, they make their living from us tourists but they were the most warm and friendly Native Americans you could wish to meet.
This place has 360 degrees of awesome vistas that just cannot be properly captured on camera. We did our best. The place was a truly moving and spiritual experience and I don’t usually do `moving and spiritual`.
The 340 mile, day’s ride across Utah to Bryce Canyon rates as the best day I have ever spent on a motorcycle and, frustratingly for Ali, the day when her cold was so bad she had to take to the support vehicle which wasn’t quite the same, but does mean she will have to do it again, on a bike, sometime! Empty mountain roads, massive rocky canyons. Vast blue skies with those fluffy white clouds from `The Simpson’s`. Sweeping high-speed curves that led us across the Colorado River at Lake Powell. The deep joy of a rumbling Harley formation swinging through those big fast bends. Blimey, was it really this good? Yes.
The group chose to split up for a while, with the blessing of the guide. This was the only road leading to lunch in Hanksville, so no one was getting lost. I left a five-minute gap and set off, riding alone at 60mph for 25 miles without seeing another human being. Eagles soared, tumbleweed tumbled, mountains graced the horizon all around me and with that engine rumbling as only a Harley V-twin can, I sang my heart out for a while and then settled back, taking in the realisation that I was alone on an arrow-straight road stretching to vanishing point. Just me. A remarkable, solitary and personal motorcycling experience that I simply have to live through again, because nothing else has come close. Oh, and Bryce Canyon? Jaw dropping.
Two days `rest` in Las Vegas, with a large night out along `The Strip` with the bikes. Handsome!
Big eats at The Harley-Davidson Café and then a cruise through the neon, past the `Little Chapels of Lurv` (`Roll up, roll up, Minister performs service dressed as Elvis for an extra $30`) to the original Downtown Vegas, you know, where the big neon cowboy is?
He’s now under cover and part of a massive light and rock music show every night. `The Who` never sounded so good. Las Vegas is outrageous, ostentatious, magnificent and it does all of the aforementioned so very well. We loved it, but then I am from Essex!
Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, California. The lowest, hottest place on the planet. What a place for your starter motor to pack up. Thanks for the push, guys. 2 days later and Eaglerider at San Francisco sorted us out with a brand new Road King. Everything taken care of without a minutes fuss.
First port of call on leaving the `Valley`, was a roadside diner for food and fuel and herein lies another travellers tale. An Aussie couple on their way back (to Australia, of course) saw the line of bikes and stopped their Electra Glide to join us for a chat. They’d come diagonally across the entire Country. These tales often happen out on the road, you should try it.
Riding up Tioga Pass into the Sierra Nevada’s, home of Yosemite National Park, saw us cruising at just under 10,000 feet above sea level. The bike wasn’t the only one gasping for breath in the thin air. The granite magnificence of Glacier Point and the views, like Grand Canyon, have to be seen to be fully absorbed. A road that had the bikes scraping their boards led to The Point through thousands of huge scented pines, with the occasional silver fox appearing at the roadside before retreating in the wake of a dozen thumping Hogs.
The road home was out of San Francisco, our second 2-night stopover. Through those streets where Steve McQueen, as Bullitt, chased that Dodge Charger. Too cool for the word ‘cool’.
Onto The Pacific Coast Highway and South into California’s beach and surf territory. For us, this was a real contrast from the natural magnificence we had ridden through, but an equally outstanding experience all the same. A final ride through LA and our guide gave us a bonus tour of the Hollywood Hills, Sunset Strip and Rodeo Drive before we handed back the bikes and got together at the last hotel, for the last supper.
Would we go again? Yes, no hesitation, in fact we must. Was it worth every hard earned penny? Oh yes.
Copyright: Geoff & Ali Cadman 2004
Bon Voyage arranges Harley Tours of the United States with EagleRider.