It was day 6 of my trip west. Lenny and I had just parted in Durango, Colorado. I was heading west and he back east to his home in Pueblo. He and I had ridden 3 days together for more than 700 miles in a tour of Colorado. It is such a beautiful state; I only wish that I could have stayed longer and seen more.There is a sense of freedom that comes with being alone. For the first time in my life I was on my own. Never before had I been so far away from home with no where to stay. I had no reservations, no one waiting for me, no plans other than to head west. There were things that I wanted to see, but every destination was just a part of the journey.
I was 1200 miles from home, and even if I wanted to go back there was no one there to greet me. My things, even my truck and clothes, were in storage. I truly had no home other than on my motorcycle. My home was the road. Some may think that silly: to be so far away with nothing but a direction, but I found it liberating. Nothing could have been better except maybe someone to ride with. It was a lonely ride that day, and I had no one to share it with. For the next couple weeks and many more times later that would be my story.
That day I had a couple goals. I wanted to stand on the 4-Corners monument where Colorado meets Arizona and Utah meets New Mexico. There is only one place in the U.S. where you can stand in 4 states at the same time. I wanted to go there. Between me and there was Mesa Verde National park. That seemed like a great place to start.
It was early, but after 8AM when I got on the road. I’d never been there before, but I have a good memory for maps, and from Durango there are signs that lead you to the park. It didn’t take long to find the entrance, and after waiting for my turn I proudly showed the park attendant my National Parks Pass that would allow me to enter any National Park without paying. It had cost me $50, but it saved me much more than that over the next 6 weeks. I would visit many parks. There were 2 more to visit that very day.
From the welcome sign one can see the large Mesa in the background. It is of course green. The roads up it were very windy and slow going until I could pass the cars in front of me. They must have thought me silly for riding up there so fast, but I had a big day planned, and I wanted to do as much as possible.
Mesa Verde is a beautiful park in the middle of the desert. What make the park famous are the many cave paintings and Indian shelters from long ago. Those combined with great views and scenery make it something to see.I spent a great deal of time at the visitor center and at the gift shop across the way. There were lots of people, and I wanted to ask questions. In the end I didn’t see much of the park beyond the roads and the views they offer. There was just not enough time for me to see it all and still make it to Arizona by night. I did stop at the fire overlook to catch a great view where I could see for many miles in every direction.
The day was moving quickly so I had to also. From there it was on to 4-Corners. I stopped for gasoline and a snack in Cortez, Colorado. A few people riding motorcycles were at the station also and we talked a little. They were interested that I was riding so far all by myself. I told them, ”that’s what I do.”The road was quite a neat road and it went around the Mesa I had just visited. It turned out to be a very large Mesa and I was near it for quite some time. Finally I turned my back towards it and rode the last few miles I would be in Colorado. On that short stretch another biker passed me traveling very quickly. I kept up with him for a while, but he was going faster than I wanted to. At one point we both stopped to take a picture and I asked him why he was riding so fast. He wanted to make the Grand Canyon by nightfall. I wished him luck; that was my goal for the next day.
By now it was very hot. It was still early July, but the sun is intense in that part of the country and I had to drink lots of water to stay hydrated. Finally I arrived at Four Corners. It was not like I had hoped. The land there is on an Indian Reservation. You wouldn’t know it though because there is nothing anywhere to see besides rocks and dirt. When your road finally nears the monument however you begin to see the tourist trap. That is exactly what it was. There is a $3 charge to get in the area, and it is surrounded by vendors selling everything from snow-cones to vest pins and silver jewelry. After seeing the monument and swapping pictures with another person by himself I walked around to see what they were selling and bought a couple pins.
The monument itself is not much to see. It is on a raised platform and is only big enough for a couple people at a time to stand on. Of course there are plenty of people around, but I suspect like myself, those people will not return. I would like to have that time back, and the $3.
From there it is 236 miles, the quick way, to The Petrified Forest. I can remember many times from my childhood thinking about the Petrified Forest. One teacher had brought rocks from there to show our class. It always seemed like a far away place, almost fantasy like. Here I was less than 4 hours away from something I though I never would see.This wasn’t the first time I felt that way. Twice before in my life have I felt like that. Both times before were on a motorcycle trip I had taken the previous summer that had taken me to 33 states all over the East Coast and South Eastern Canada. Those two places were Maine first, and Minnesota. Growing up in Texas everything seemed far away. Texas is after all a big state and far south. So as a little kid looking at maps of Minneapolis – St. Paul I was amazed that anyone could ever get there much less live so far away. I would never get there myself; it was too far.
Of course those were kid’s thoughts. I am an adult now, but sometimes I still get that feeling. Someplace is just too far away to ever get there. Maybe that is why I like to travel so much: to go impossible places that were too far for my childhood imagination. It is like lifting a million pounds; I’m doing something that could not be done.
Well, here I was: less than days ride to the Petrified Forest and as I learned that day also the Painted Desert National Park. I headed south to Gallup, New Mexico and over the state line to Arizona. Having never been in either place I stopped at the welcome centers to add maps to my collection. And as you suspect, my collection of state maps is nearly complete. I’d like to finish the set this summer.
The temperature that day was over 100 degrees, and it was very dry. Even the water I carried with me was hot, like bath water, so I looked forward to stopping for gas and a Gatorade. At the Arizona welcome center I found out it was only an hour or so to the parks and that I had better hurry as they closed the gates at 7PM. It was 5 then and I wanted to see some of the park before it locked up.
It is funny how much the desert there is different from where I was in New Mexico only a few hours ago. New Mexico and the Four Corners area was completely dry and brown. There was little to no green to see at all. Arizona is dry too, but where I was there were green plants, very small, that covered the desert. Somewhere nearby had to be a source of water.
Finally I arrived at the gate after stopping for some ice and dinner. The ice was for a couple beers that I had saved from the night before. I wanted to celebrate my newfound independence and cherish the day I had just experienced. Don’t tell the park rangers at the Petrified Forest however; I think it is illegal to carry glass on park property. I didn’t drink them until later though.
Petrified Forest National and Painted Desert are different from most National Parks. From the highway there is only one way to go through, and you cannot camp. First the road takes you north to the best part of the Painted Desert and then south to the Petrified wood. But there is no exit over the interstate at that pass. I stopped for pictures many times so I could remember how beautiful they were. In my mind I would go back through the next day and see it all again, but that did not happen. Thankfully my pictures all turned out great.
Several times I was told how magnificent the sunsets are in those parks, especially in Painted Desert. I longed to see that, but it was summer and the sun doesn’t set until nearly nine, long after the parks are closed. If you ever go to see the Petrified Forest make sure to go later in the year or in early spring when the sun sets before 7PM. And if you do, please tell me how the sunset is and maybe snap a photo or two.
The southernmost part of Petrified Forest has the best rocks to see. Some are full trees lying on their side. You can walk through them, touch them, and sit on them. You just cannot take any. It is truly amazing to see such sites. Everyone should go there in their lifetime.
I rode out of the park just before closing time. The sun was still up and I found easily the free camping place I was told about. The place was a private store that sold petrified wood for lots of money. Camping was free there, but there were no facilities after the store closed. This was my first time motorcycle camping. Always before I had big coolers, chairs, tents, a propane stove, and company. I was alone that night and doing something new. I had never even used that tent; it was brand new and replaced the one that I had lost just a few days earlier in Colorado.
It was windy and I made camp beside a muraled wall. I made sure to be out of line of sight from the one light at the store. That way I could enjoy the desert at night. First however I had to finish camp and eat. Using my Sterno stove and fuel I made some Ramen Soup and sipped a beer. That night I really enjoyed the sky. No clouds and no light pollution make for a great view. The stars were shining brightly and I snapped a few photos of the sky.
After dinner I home-made an electrical connector so I could charge my cell phone on the bike. It worked great, and I also made it work with the GPS Merlin had given me via Eddie D. I learned some things that day: there are two parks there instead of one; the forest really isn’t a forest but rather rocks lying on their side; and I can go anywhere I want, all I have to do is try.
There was something special about being there that I cannot describe to you. Things were going well; I felt like I was really doing something. Life was good and even though it was dark out the sun shone on me.