Up, Down and All Around New Mexico

© 2006 by Kathleen Kemsley, awarded first place in American Motorcyclist Association story contest and published on their website in January 2006.

Some people will use any excuse to go for a motorcycle ride.  Or at least, that’s what the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) must think.  Why else would they propose a Grand Tour called “Up, Down and All Around,” taking you to all four corners of a state, along with hitting its highest and lowest points?  Talk about a waste of gas.  Talk about a pointless quest.  Talk about a lame pretext for a trip.

Well it may have been lame, but the idea of touching all four corners of our home up_down_allaround_0007state appealed to us.  For me, it would be a good opportunity to try out the new sidecar rig I had attached to my Honda Nighthawk.  For Dina the Dog, it would be new smells and new terrain to explore.  For my husband Brian, well, he doesn’t need any excuse to go riding.  He’s already on the rig and down the driveway before he asks where we are going.

We headed northwest first, taking a “shortcut” on a dirt road which bumped over 50 miles of washboard.  My windshield shook loose, the lock broke on one of my saddlebags, and Brian had to be pushed out of some deep sand.  Finally emerging onto the highway near the Very Large Array, we camped nearby and fortified ourselves with breakfast burritos and Pietown pie the next morning.

Then it was a hundred miles north on a road devoid of even one shade tree.  By the time we reached Shiprock, the state’s northwest corner, the temperature was 102 and I would have traded my front tire for a glass of ice water.

After a sweaty stop to snap a picture in front of the Shiprock Chapter House, we pointed the rigs east and headed for the mountains.  I followed Brian up the curves on the High Road to Taos, dividing my attention between breathtakingup_down_allaround_0001 vistas and drop-offs to the right, and the art of shifting my butt to the left as I negotiated the sidecar rig around yet another decreasing-radius turn.  Slowly but steadily I gained confidence in my ability to handle the rig.  Brian shot ahead of me, but he and Dina waited for me at an overlook with a couple of folks riding two-up on a Harley.  The aspen leaves shimmered green in the July sun, and the view went on forever.

up_down_allaround_0003We rode up to Taos Ski Valley, a picturesque hamlet nestled on the slopes of the state’s highest point, Wheeler Peak.  Unfortunately, the road itself did not run very high up the mountain.  Shrugging, we took pictures of the ski runs and hoped that would be good enough for the AMA.  A brief afternoon rain shower cooled us on the way down the mountain, and Mexican food that night with my brother-in-law completed a satisfying stay in Taos.

Touching the next corner of the state entailed riding part of the Enchanted Loop east of Taos, then heading out along a portion of the Santa Fe Trail into some empty country.  I think I saw more snakes on the road than I saw vehicles.  Moses, the northeastern most point in the state, was nothing more than anup_down_allaround_0004 abandoned farm – the road didn’t even widen on the approach.  We gathered photographic proof of our visit to Moses, then followed the Santa Fe Trail back toward home.

Due to some inconveniences such as work, chores, and cash flow, we did not resume the Up, Down and All Around Tour until October.  Fortunately, temperatures along the southern border of the state had become downright pleasant by the time we set out to touch the southern two corners. Here’s some advice for anyone curious about checking out the remote Mexican border crossing at Antelope Wells: bring extra gas.  We traveled as far as up_down_allaround_0008Hachita and found two gas pumps, both out of order.  A check with the Border Patrol, more plentiful than yucca in that part of the state, confirmed my suspicion that there was no gas to be had at the border, either.  The sidecar rigs being the gas hogs that they are, we chose the better part of valor and turned around.  As close as we lived to this corner, we decided to skip it.  A week later, we returned with a couple of extra gas cans to finish the ride.

The last corner was the most difficult to find.  Reaching Jal was easy enough, just 60 miles or so past the state’s low point at Red Bluff Lake.  But Bennettup_down_allaround_0005 appeared to be a ghost town, not marked on any map.  A local man gave Brian directions to go three miles south and “you can’t miss it,” which turned out to be local-speak for “you’ll never find it, stranger.” After wandering around for awhile, we finally followed a dirt road into a small settlement consisting of a half dozen houses.  Yards overflowed with goats, donkeys, and chickens, but not one human being was in evidence.  I thought I heard the theme from “Twilight Zone” playing in the background. No signs announced Bennett, so we photographed a sign indicating Bennett up_down_allaround_0006Street, again hoping this would please the AMA.

On the way out of the settlement we were halted by another creature on the road: a four-foot-long rattlesnake.  Brian jumped off his rig to snap a quick picture.  The flash of the camera stirred the snake; it shook its tail ominously while retreating into someone’s yard.  Dina wisely stayed in the sidecar.

There was to be one more “wildlife” encounter on the way home from Jal.  At a turnout near the Waste Isolation Pilot Plant site, Dina and I went to water the weeds while Brian shut his eyes for a few minutes.  Suddenly, an eerie humming sound approached.  “Duck!” I shouted to Brian, as several hundred Africanized bees headed toward us from the direction of the buried nuclear waste.  Dina dove under the sidecar.  Michael Crichton’s science fiction book, Prey, flashed through my mind.  Its plot involves a swarm of nanoparticles that develops intelligence and attacks human beings.  But in this case, the bees made, well, a beeline for something south of us and moved past harmlessly.

Once finished going Up, Down and all Around New Mexico, I studied the list theup_down_allaround_0002 AMA had sent us for the tour.  Apparently you can tour the corners of as many states as you want.  They listed exotic-sounding places like: Teec Nos Pos, Arizona; Yaak, Montana; and Shivwits, Utah.  Hey, who said this tour was a dumb idea and a waste of gas?  I suggested that maybe we could touch some of those corners next year. Dina the Dog wagged her tail agreeably.  And Brian was already on the rig and down the driveway.

Black and White and Red All Over

Copyright © 2007 By Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, August 2008

Question: What’s black and white and red all over?  Answer: A motorcycle route through the region surrounding Lincoln National Forest in southeast New Mexico.

Lincoln1_0005At the north end of the route, black folds of lava clothe the desert landscape in an eerie moonscape.  At the southern end, unbroken acres of dazzling white dunes roll out into infinity.  In between, mountains rise to a cool 9000 feet elevation, offering evergreen forests, twisty back roads, cute resort towns, museums, spectacular sunsets, and a refuge from the sizzling black and white desert below.

My ride began at the Valley of Fires Recreation Area, just west of Carrizozo.  The stark landscape of the park was created by a volcanic eruption 1000 years ago.  Ropey black flows, called Lincoln2pahoihoi in the Hawaiian language, reach over 100 feet thick in some places.  An ear-splitting buzz of cicadas in the cottonwood trees provided a sound track.  Though the July morning was still early, heat radiated from the black sea of lava.  I headed for the hills.

The Capitan Mountains are one of only two mountain ranges in the continental United States which is oriented east-to-west.  (The other is California’s Santa Ynez Range.)  A road skirting the southern margin of the Capitans brought me swiftly up to altitude.

I’m a wildland fire dispatcher by profession.  In the town of Capitan, I indulged in a “busman’s holiday,” stopping to visit a museum dedicated to our firefighting mascot, Smokey Bear.

Smokey’s life began on an advertisement agency canvas, created in 1944 as World War II propaganda.  The original two-dimensional Smokey encouraged Americans to “prevent careless fires” and conserve timber supplies which were needed for war.

Lincoln3Six years later, during the 17,000 acre Capitan Gap fire on the north side of Capitan Mountain, an orphan bear cub was rescued from a scorched tree by a forest ranger and brought to town.  Ceremoniously named Smokey, this bear toured the country for the next 20 years as the living symbol of fire prevention.

Besides displays about Smokey, the museum presented excellent interpretations about various aspects of my chosen career.  In the garden behind the building, I lingered for a reverent moment next to Smokey’s grave.

My next stop, a few sweeping curves up the road, was Lincoln, a frontier town which reached its zenith in the 1880s.  The Lincoln State Monument preserves old buildings and historical items from the Lincoln County War during the era of Billy the Kid.  I ate lunch there under a shade roof, watching thunder clouds build to the southwest.

Back on the red BMW, I pointed my front tire toward the clouds, but was distracted a few miles Lincoln4further along by Fort Stanton.  This frontier outpost, established in 1855, served stints as a tuberculosis hospital at the turn of the century, and as a German internment camp during World War II.  A small museum displayed souvenirs from each of Fort Stanton’s incarnations.

The road ran through the mountains southwest of Fort Stanton, following graceful curves past lush alpine meadows.  Just before I reached Ruidoso, the heavens opened and I was pummeled by stinging rain and hail.  July and the fire season seemed a distant memory.

Ruidoso is well known to thousands of motorcyclists who attend the Golden Aspen Rally in September.  I coasted past art galleries and gift shops on Ruidoso’s main street before detouring down a side road to reach Mescalero.

The heavily forested Mescalero Apache Reservation is richer in resources than most Indian reservations.  The tribe has successfully capitalized on the region’s natural beauty by creating the Apache Summit ski resort and the Inn of the Mountain Gods casino, to attract visitors and their money.

From Mescalero, my route wound south into Otero County, eventually leading to the hamlet of Cloudcroft.  A few motorcycles cruised Main Street slowly; I waved and sipped a coffee and considered my options.  A detour out Highway 130 would take me through Mayhill and Weed, tiny towns tucked into the Sacramento Mountains.  Another possible side trip was a ride up to the observatory at Sunsites, elevation 9,200 feet.  But the storm drifted off, the sun re-emerged, and I suddenly craved the heat of the desert.

Lincoln5Downhill I rode, then, sweeping through generous curves and dropping an astonishing 5,000 feet in less than 15 miles.  My gas stop was Alamogordo, a typical military town full of payday loan places, used car dealers, and Chinese buffets.  With unlimited time, I could have visited the Museum of Space History and Imax Theater for some indoor entertainment.  But instead, I opted for the natural world, white counterpoint to the black lava of Valley of Fire, at White Sands National Monument.

After paying a $ 3.00 entrance fee, I rode past gypsum dunes impossibly white against a blue sky that showed no traces of the storm just past.  Frequently along the eight mile scenic drive, I stopped to photograph shadows and the graceful contours of the dunes.

Lincoln7My 200 mile ride ended in a blaze of red sky at Dog Canyon Campground near Alamogordo.  Images of the day ran through my head: red motorcycle gliding past black lava and white dunes; a coat of hail on asphalt; a sunset sky the color of flames.  Black and white and red all over.  A warm breeze rose off the desert, sweeping me into a dreamless sleep.

Top Ten Reasons to Ride and Sing in Idaho

© 2009 by Kathleen Kemsley, first published in Rider Magazine, Feb. 2010

Idaho is a beautiful state, its attractions numerous.  However, the Gem State’s image needs some polishing.  In many people’s minds, the name “Idaho” still conjures up visions of overall-clad country boys hauling trucks full of potatoes. 01_Welcome to Idaho

Having once resided in Idaho, I know better.  My husband and I headed north on our motorcycles in August 2008, to explore some of the state’s asphalt gems.  We followed several of Idaho’s 27 scenic byways, taking in some spectacular country along the way.

I’ve always been an enthusiastic, if not pitch-perfect, singer inside my helmet.  Since I purchased an i-pod the year before and loaded it with 800 of my favorite songs, this ride along Idaho’s most scenic routes represented an opportunity for me to enjoy a sound track during each day’s ride.

So, in an effort to promote Idaho as a gem of a motorcycling destination, I offer a David Letterman-style list: “Top Ten Reasons to Ride and Sing in Idaho.”

    10. USFS campgrounds

Late afternoon of the first day in Idaho, we stopped at the Riverside RV Park and Campground in Bellevue, near the twin upscale ski hamlets of Hailey and Ketchum.  The owner wanted $18 for the privilege of pitching a tent in the dirt.  No picnic table was offered, no shade, no grass.  But, he was quick to point out, wi-fi was available.  When I expressed dismay, he scolded me, “Lady, don’t you realize that you’re in the high rent district!”  03_North Fork Campground

Deciding to move on, then, was fairly easy.  Tom Petty and I sang “Don’t Come Around Here No More” as we proceeded north eight miles past Ketchum to the U. S. Forest Service’s North Fork campground.  There, $10 bought us a pretty, tree-shaded campsite alongside the Big Wood River.  Despite the fact that it was a mid-summer Saturday, the campground was only half full.  No wi-fi, but the sound of breeze fluttering aspen leaves more than compensated.

  1. Steep rugged terrain

Departing the North Fork campground, the Sawtooth Scenic Byway followed the Big Wood River north to Galena Summit.  There a conveniently located pullout provided the opportunity to admire a stunning view of the Sawtooth Range.

04_Brian and SawtoothsIn my work as a wildfire dispatcher, we use the phrase, “steep, rugged terrain” to describe this kind of country.  Fire crews dread assignments on the 60% slopes.  But for a motorcyclist, the twisty roads that weave through these mountains are divine.

We turned from the Sawtooths west onto the Ponderosa Pine Scenic Byway.  An appropriate mood was established by “The Mountains Win Again,” a sweet, sad song by the late Bobby Sheehan of Blues Traveler.  The road glided over Banner Summit.  Mountains nearly vertical rose on both sides of a highway shrouded in shadow.  Pensive, lost in thought, I leaned into a road that twisted like knotted rope through the heart of Idaho.

  1. Coffee

During the winter months, Stanley takes the honors as the coldest place in the lower 48 almost as often as does International Falls, MN.  But in the summer, the tiny town at a crossroads in the middle of nowhere turns into a beehive of activity, as whitewater rafters, trail riders, campers, and day-trippers from Boise all stop to replenish supplies.  I joined the procession into the general store, in pursuit of coffee.

Apparently the grocery supply truck was late, or perhaps a group from Seattle had recently passed through.  Whatever the reason, the coffee shelf was bare.  Dejected, I started west on Highway 21 wracking my brain for the next place where good coffee might be available… McCall? Lewiston?

As Bob Dylan warbled “One More Cup of Coffee for the Road,” I spied a microscopic café out of the corner of my eye.  Pulling a quick U turn, I coasted down a steep driveway and sauntered in to the business with my helmet still on.  Score!  The Trillium Coffee House sold me a pound of beans, roasted in Hailey, for less than ten bucks.  They also offered a wi-fi connection for free.  Take that, Riverside RV Park!

  1. Hot springs

Idaho_Ride 039Idaho is situated over a lot of hot water.  During the years I lived in Idaho, I used to head out nearly every weekend to one or another of the hot springs tucked into remote corners of Idaho.  I have my favorites; every Idahoan does.  The location of a couple of them (one in particular) I will not under any circumstances divulge.  But there are others more public that I don’t mind recommending to everybody.

A standout on the list of public hot springs, Kirkham is both visually attractive and easily accessible by motorcycle.  Located along Highway 21, just a few miles east of Lowman, Kirkham’s springs emerge in several separate flows from a steep hillside above the Payette River.  At the USFS parking lot, I paid my $3 fee, changed into a bathing suit and was down a flight of wooden steps to the springs in five minutes.

Sinking into hot water up to my neck in one of several bathtub-sized hot pools felt like heaven.  Annie Lennox’s song of gratitude came to mind: “I thank You for the air to breathe, the heart to beat, the eyes to see again.  A thousand beautiful things.”  Presently I roused myself and progressed to a cooler pool below, separated from the river by a hand-built rock wall.  Lastly, I stood beneath a hot waterfall, where sparkling 106 degree water cascaded onto my shoulders and administered a deep massage.  Aaaahhhhhh.

  1. Wild Rivers

It’s no wonder people pay good money to come trout fishing and river running on Idaho’s wild rivers.  The water looks so inviting, sweet and clean and clear.

I paced some rafters floating downstream while Eric Clapton and J. J. Cale sang “Ride the 13_Salmon River CanyonRiver.”  Presently I pulled off the Banks-Lowman Road above an eddy on the South Fork Payette River, drawn by the seductive lure of the sparkling crystal splash of river.  Every detail of the riverbed was visible to the rock-strewn bottom, 30 or more feet down.

But even in August, the water temperature ranges from “bracing” to “bone-chilling.”  I plunged in to wash away some road grime; when I hit the cold water, an involuntary scream escaped me and echoed off house-sized boulders that lined the river.   In retrospect, the dip was refreshing.  At the time, though, it nearly stopped my heart.

  1. Chocolate potatoes

Everyone knows that Idaho is famous for its potatoes: red potatoes, white potatoes, sweet potatoes, new potatoes, tater tots, shoestrings, and crinkle fries. 09_Idaho Spud

And then there is the “Idaho Spud,” a marshmallow-filled, chocolate covered, rolled-in-coconut candy bar made by the Owyhee Candy Company.  Idaho Spuds are ubiquitous in the Gem State, sold in every convenience store, gift shop, and restaurant.  Grocery stores sell them by the case.

I highly recommend consuming two, maybe three, Idaho Spuds at the evening campfire, while singing the chorus from Nirvana: “A mulatto, an albino, a mosquito, palomino.”  This will guarantee you’ll end with a smile a long day of carving corners on Idaho’s scenic roads.

  1. Tall pines

Moving north via the Payette and Little Salmon River canyons, we crossed into a different sort of terrain, not as steep as the central ranges, but every bit as beautiful.  Eventually we detoured off Highway 95 to follow the White Pine Scenic Byway.  This route snaked up over a heavily forested section of Idaho Panhandle National Forest to the confluence of the St. Joe and St. Maries rivers, traversing through the largest stand of white pine trees in the country.

In clearings along the byway, bucolic farms sat at intervals, river-watered pastures verdant, barns tall and sturdy.  I spied an array of farm animals: cows and horses and sheep and llamas.  The latter caused me to burst into a chorus of “Ride My Llama.”  The song always makes me laugh: who else but Neil Young could come up with lyrics bringing together the Alamo, a guitar-playing man from Mars, and a llama bound for Texarkana?

  1. Deep blue lakes

Wild rivers gave way, as we rode north, to more than 60 deep glacier-carved lakes that might15_Lake Coeur d'Alene give Minnesota a run for its money.  We followed one scenic byway for 35 miles along the east shore of Coeur d’Alene Lake, home to bald eagles and the largest population of nesting osprey in the west.

At the end of a long, hot day, Hayburn State Park provided us with a gem of a campground on the lake.  The $12 per night fee included a hot shower, a true bargain for the road-weary rider.   Heading out along the edge of the tree-lined lake the next morning, I sang along with Bruce Springsteen as he related a tryst with Crazy Janie on the shore of Greasy Lake.  The sun glinted off a still, mirrored lake surface broken by clumps of reeds in the shallows and the leap of a trout farther out.

  1. Lolo Pass road

Few routes are as celebrated as the trail Lewis and Clark followed overland from the east coast to the Pacific in 1804.  Designated the “Northwest Passage Scenic Byway,” the longest of Idaho’s scenic byways traces their route, from the Montana border to Clarkston 173 miles west.

The yawning curves of the byway followed the Clearwater and Lochsa rivers.  Soft and lazy, they 18_Winding Roadswooped back and forth in an almost hypnotic rhythm.  My curve-carving trance was broken by the occasional lumbering log truck or RV, easily passed, and once by a clump of deer lingering along the shoulder.  The choice of soundtrack for this section of the ride was obvious: Sheryl Crow’s “Every Day is a Winding Road.”

  1. Idaho’s scenic byways

Some of Idaho’s 27 scenic byways, such as the Northwest Passage and Sacajawea Scenic Byways, highlight history through interpretive signs along the way.  Others carry the rider past geological marvels like the Payette River Canyon and the City of Rocks.  But the majority of the routes are designated scenic byways purely for their aesthetic value.  Every one is a gem.

Ah, Idaho, I sighed with pleasure as I entered the top of another steep canyon.  A long, live version of the Allman Brothers’  “In Memory of Elizabeth Reed” (arguably the finest combination of blues, jazz, and Southern rock ever recorded) played in my earphones.  Another series of sweeping curves came into view on the downhill run alongside a wild clearwater river.  Spotless blue skies threw the green-black horizon of evergreen trees into delicious contrast.

There is no question about the number one attraction, for a motorcyclist, in the Gem State.  Superb, adrenalin-filled, beautiful: Idaho’s scenic byways describe sweet asphalt perfection.