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The Misadventures of Ian Heller

Make No Little Plans.

Author

Ian Heller

The King of Cool Has Left the Planet

And he left some big paw prints to phil

One year, five months and two days ago, our cat Phil was diagnosed with stage 4 lymphoma. At 16 years old, chemotherapy was off the table – the cancer too advanced; the impact on Phil’s quality of life too devasting – so we opted for Prednisone treatment. 

“I think you can count on three months,” the vet told us, “but some cats live for six months and, in rare cases, a year.”

Ever defiant of the authorities, Phil lived a happy life for the next 17 months until finally succumbing to the relentless onslaught of cancer just today. 

Along the way, Phil took us on a couple of roller coaster rides. 

About a month after his first diagnosis, he started going downhill. He lost weight, didn’t eat much and hid in Penny’s closet for most of the day. We thought the King of Cool was going to take an early exit. 

And then I came downstairs one morning and was nearly run over by a furry missile that streaked across the floor so fast my eyes had to catch up with it where it stopped and only then could I tell it was Phil. 

Our eyes met.

“Whaddup, buttercup?” he communicated noiselessly, before zooming off again. 

For the next several months, he recovered most of his speed, agility and haughtiness and became (unbelievably) even more demanding. Dally a bit in feeding him? Move with insufficient urgency in opening a door? Forget to add water to any of his three bowls in the house? 

You earned the reminder (an accusation, really), delivered through the narrow slits of his eyes:  I’VE GOT CANCER!

For a while, we thought, “Damn, this cat has recovered.” I used to joke: “When the world ends, the only three things surviving will be cockroaches, Keith Richards and Phil.”

Alas, one of the truths of life is that no one gets out alive and even the King of Cool can’t escape that reality. Although no one who knew Phil doubts he is now the king of some other reality. 

A couple of memories:

-As one woman commented on my last obituary (Kings deserve two, obviously), Phil was a breast man. He loved to sit on a woman’s lap, accept her lavish affection and then put his head under one of her breasts and hoist it high. We tried to remember to warn visitors about this possibility, but on several occasions, we’d be in the middle of a nice dinner or card game only to hear a woman say something like, 

“WHOA! Your cat is molesting me!”

I want to apologize officially to women who suffered that indignity because – certainly – Phil would not. I guess he had a lot on his mind. 

-Phil loved socks, but only if they were clean. Specifically, he liked to pluck rolled up pairs of socks out of laundry baskets or incompetently closed drawers and pile them at the base of the stairs. The record was 15 pairs after we’d been out of the house for a few hours. It was as though a hosierygeist had moved in. 

-Despite his formidable hunting skills, Phil occasionally suffered from claw retraction dysfunction. We would thus find him leaning upright against a screen door, his rear legs spread inelegantly, his right paw reached above and behind him, stuck. He also tried to grasp items under the refrigerator from time to time only to find he couldn’t let go. He never whined in these circumstances, refusing to play the pity card. He’d act for all the world like this was intentional and slink off after you released him without so much as a thank you. 

-Phil was always up for a good road trip. Wherever you placed his litter box was home – consistent with an entire lifetime of not “marking” inside the house – ever. Say what you will, the big cat had his dignity. 

Phil steadily lost weight since his cancer diagnosis but was not in any pain or discomfort. We’d take him in for regular checkups and our veterinarian would look him over and comment on his remarkable tolerance for Prednisone (and vets).

And then last week, Phil began to struggle to breathe. Penny took him in again and the vet speculated that the cancer had moved into his sinuses. On the off chance that it was a simple sinus infection, we tried antibiotics for a few days. This seemed to help at first but, alas, it was a fleeting improvement. 

The last two nights were rough. Phil’s sinuses were mostly closed and since cats refuse to breathe through their mouths, that meant he wasn’t able to sleep. For the first time since his initial diagnosis – and likely two years since the cancer started – the King of Cool was uncomfortable. Indeed, he was suffering.

So, we called the vet today and she checked him out before confirming the worst: Phil’s long life – 17 ½ years – full of adventure, affection, absolute self-assurance and attacks on convention – was at its end. We held him as he finally relaxed after two days of anxiety – probably the only two of his entire existence – and then he was gone. We stayed with his body for a little while even though we knew he’d shaken the dust of this dirty little domain off of his big, pink paws and moved on to rule a better neighborhood somewhere. 

You see, I’m pretty sure Phil didn’t die. He got promoted. 

To the subjects of his new realm: I wish you peace, happiness and affection under the rule of your new leader. Feed him, love him and let him roam and everything will be all right. We’re all going to miss the King of Cool and I hope you appreciate his wonderful, quirky and funny ways. 

And sorry about the breast thing. That was his idea. 

Thanks for everything, Phil. We have a million photos, hours of video, countless memories and an alarming amount of cat hair to remind us of you. You were the best cat ever and this world is a little less fun and a lot less cool without you in it. 

Birds, Boating, Bighorn Sheep and a Bear: Boondocking at Bighorn Lake, MT

The Most Beautiful Place You’ve Never Heard of

You’re forgiven if you’ve never heard of Bighorn Lake, but here’s the truth: you’re missing out on one of the most spectacular, scenic and sparsely populated locations in the lower 48 states.

Bighorn Lake is 72 miles long, covering 120,000 acres with almost no houses visible anywhere from the surface and only a handful of other structures in sight, such as boat docks and floating outhouses (truly). It’s only 40 miles from Billings, MT but it could be on another planet considering the nearly total lack of humans we saw over two days of perfect weather – 72 degrees, blue skies and calm waters. We may have seen 45 people and 20 boats in our 48 hours there.

GL - 1 Image adapted from Google Maps

Spanning the Montana/Wyoming border, Bighorn Lake was created by the US Bureau of Reclamation, which built Yellowtail Dam in 1965. The dam is a 525 foot tall and 1,480 long concrete structure that forever backed up the Yellowtail River, no doubt flooding thousands of years of Native American archeological artifacts but creating one incredible water feature.

Along its length, Bighorn Lake is bordered on one side or the other by the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area — a national park unit established in 1966 – or the Crow Indian Reservation. This was highly controversial among the Crows at the time and the opposition was led by Robert Yellowtail, once a chairman of the tribe. Naturally, the Bureau of Reclamation named the dam after him.

Devil’s Canyon Overlook

Very few roadways approach the rim above Bighorn Lake, but Devil’s Canyon Overlook offers a heavenly view:

GL - 40 Panorama shot with my iPhone

GL - 41 Boat on the water for perspective

GL - 39 Naturally, Penny and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to spruce up the view, so we took a selfie in front of the canyon.

GL - 38 This was the largest group of people we saw all three days at Bighorn Lake – the small crowd taking in the view at Devil’s Canyon Overlook.

The “Bighorn” in “Bighorn Canyon”

GL - 42 In the parking lot of Devil’s Canyon Overlook is an informative sign talking about Bighorn Lake’s namesake inhabitants…

GL - 43 …and atop the canyon wall beyond the sign, a group of Bighorn sheep grazed, as though assigned to the role of representing their advertised species in person.

Looking Up at the Overlook

Devil’s Canyon Overlook is equally impressive when it’s overlooking you as you float by:

GL - 10 This was the view of the Overlook from the boat.

Bighorn pdf Paparazzi couldn’t get to us from the overlook. They look like ants from down here!

GL - 12 Have you ever been looking through a camera, concentrating on taking a picture of a distant object…when suddenly someone surprised you by jumping into the frame and yelling, “HAH!” and you almost fell backwards out of a boat?

Rhetorical question, of course.

GL - 14 Here, Devil’s Canyon Overlook looks over Penny Lee. No hard feelings; I do the same.

Scenery, Part 1

I shot hundreds upon hundreds of photos in the Bighorn Lake area – which is so easy when you’re in the moment but such a hassle when you’re editing pictures. So, I hardly edited these photos – only a handful have any color correction; I mostly cleaned up the lighting or simply left the photo as-is. The scenery is so spectacular that it really doesn’t need any help from me.

GL - 60 Bighorn Lake offers a variety of deep colors and topography.

GL - 64 Some inlets held still, reflecting waters.

GL - 13 In this particular case, the beauty of this quiet inlet lost its luster when I learned that the little floating structure in the middle is actually a waterborne (but thankfully self-contained)  outhouse.

GL - 59 The canyon walls feature a wide variety of colors, heights, shapes and textures.

GL - 58 Spectacular forms like this appear everywhere along the walls of the canyon as you cruise down the river. These wind-carved flying buttresses surpass anything I’ve seen in Gothic architecture.

GL - 23 Look carefully: those are swallows’ nests under the overhang.

GL - 67 Natural caves of countless sizes and depths appear at all heights along the ways of Bighorn Lake.

GL - 3 Bighorn Lake abounds with waterfowl and raptors.

Boating and Fishing

GL - 2 Penny Lee and I tried to do as little as possible on the lake. We succeeded.

GL - 28 Penny’s brother, John Serfazo and his fiancée, Debbie McGregor, acted as guides – they fished while we relaxed. John brought his boat and wouldn’t even let me contribute to the gas fund. Great hosts.

GL - 21 Nice catch by John!

GL - 54 Most of the time, John and Debbie fished while Penny and I relaxed. And I tried to resist the urge to shoot 700+ or so photos, failing spectacularly.  

GL - 22 The bright sun cast dark shadows along the walls of the canyon.

GL - 68 John caught some big fish…

GL - 65 …and some not-so-big ones. (Yes, he threw it back, whereupon the fish returned to its school and said, “You should see the one I got away from!”)

GL - 24GL - 57 It was cool enough in the mornings for jackets, but the temperature swings were impressive, depending on sun and wind.

GL - 20 At one point, Penny drove the boat. As she chatted away with Debbie, John kept a careful watch for floating debris, other boats and nearby canyon walls.

Scenery, Part 2

GL - 25 Seventy two miles of bliss: calm waters, mild weather, almost no wind and spectacular scenery in all directions.

GL - 47 Any era now, that big rock on the left is going to fall into the water. John told us that a large rock (but thankfully, not THIS large) once splashed into the water about 50 yards ahead of his boat as he fished with a friend. They trolled a little farther away from the walls after that.

GL - 56 I wonder if that raptor ever flew through that natural arch, just for fun…

GL - 52 “Crescent Moon over Bighorn Canyon.” 

GL - 18

GL - 51

GL - 5 Along the 72 miles of Bighorn Lake, there are only a few places with anything remotely like a beach.

A Little-Horned Bighorn on the Wall and a Bear Among the Berries

Bighorn Lake is named after its most notable residents – Bighorn Sheep. We saw many, but only one along the water – this small female. Penny noticed her well off in the distance. We shall call her, “Little Bighorn.”

GL - 69 Look at the top of the canyon wall, just right of center. At first, I thought this was one of those roadside sculptures – like the “jackalope” along I-25 in Wyoming, perched on a hill by the road.

GL - 70 Debbie and John even took a break from their fishing to watch the sheep.

GL - 71 I zoomed in and the Bighorn looked even more like a sculpture

GL - 72 And then she turns her head to look back at me.

GL - 73 Upon determining we were neither a threat nor interesting, Little Bighorn ignored us entirely. She walked along the rim of the canyon, effortless and fearlessly moving along to find a snack.

We floated around awhile as the sheep disappeared behind some rocks. After a couple of minutes, she appeared again, checking to see if we were still watching.

GL - 74 “Are you still here?”

I was suddenly transported back to 1986, the last time I had waited for more when, in fact, the show was done:Its_over_go_home

We got the message.

I should not have been surprised that Penny spotted the sheep. When we were driving to Montana, she kept noticing deer by the side of the road while I was oblivious. Eventually, I started calling her my “Deer Eye for the Straight Guy.” I guess her eye works on sheep, too.

GL - 53 John spied this bear, a couple of hundred feet above the water, munching on berries. The bear spied us, too. After a brief glance to ensure we were neither a threat nor food, he ignored us entirely. There’s a theme among the wildlife in this canyon…

Happy People in the Sun

Over the course of two days, I had a lot of fun taking pictures of happy people relaxing.

GL - 6 John and Penny share some rays and smiles.

GL - 7 Debbie and John, in a rare moment where neither was fishing.

GL - 11 Debbie netted the fish John caught. It was delicious!

GL - 30

GL - 19 John, sightseeing between driving the boat or fishing from it.  

GL - 8 Me and my much better half.

GL - 26 Much improved version of the previous pic.

GL - 16 I asked Penny to hold my camera for a moment and she betrayed me by taking my picture.

Scenery, Part 3

GL - 1 (2) John pointed out that this mountain must have experienced a massive earthquake at some point – check out the tilted lines!

GL - 50 I liked this mountain so much, I took a shot with “sketch mode” on my camera.

GL - 66 The canyon walls of the inlets reflected nicely on the calm waters.

GL - 4 In case you’re lost…

GL - 55 Note that these trees are very large but look small against the canyon walls. The red/green color contrast is beautiful.

GL - 61 If I were making a sci-fi movie and I needed a canyon to represent a different planet, I’d choose Bighorn Lake.

Ewing-Snell Ranch

GL - 45 On one of our “shore excursions,” we explored the Ewing-Snell Ranch, which had operated for 100 plus years but is now a heritage site.

GL - 44 Lovebirds among the branches at Ewing-Snell Ranch.

Evening Approaches

Your photographs automatically improve at the beginning and end of the day because the sun’s light is coming at you at an angle. In other words, since the sun is not directly overhead, it must pass through more atmosphere and it picks up colors as it travels to you. This had a very nice effect on the photos I shot at Bighorn Lake.

GL - 62 Sometimes, the colors – particularly as sunset approached – were just breathtaking.

GL - 27 If you look carefully, you can see our RVs perched upon the cliffs to the left, below that little, flat-topped mountain.

GL - 29 Those are our RVs on the bluff in the background, behind John’s hat. There were three campers on the last two nights we stayed at Barry’s Landing campground and we owned two of them. John is wearing his, “My RV is bigger than your RV!” smile.

GL - 77 When we approached the dock at the end of the day, it was interesting to get this perspective on how the NPS (or Bureau of Reclamation; not sure) drilled out the rock to allow for the boat ramp.

GL - 32 Penny and I disembarked and headed back to camp while John and Debbie prepared for a little evening fishing.

GL - 34 That’s our little trailer on the right. The evening light was beautiful and about to get much better.

GL - 33 View from our campsite as the sun began to go down. Unretouched image.

GL - 78 I walked back to the harbor to get a few shots of the sunset and of John and Debbie fishing.

GL - 80 This is a completely unretouched photo from my iPhone — and no filter. Sunset with John and Debbie fishing in the foreground.

GL - 79 Also completely unretouched.

GL - 35 Long exposure of us at the campfire with the Milky Way behind us.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for sharing in the memories of our adventure at Bighorn. And if you’re curious, in camping jargon, “boondocking” means setting up your RV without any hookups for electricity, water or sewer. Of course, to John and Debbie, that’s just called, “camping.”

Thanks to both of them for teaching us a lot about camping/boondocking and taking us with them as they fished their way up and down the river for two days. And, especially, thanks for sharing the fantastic, pristine and gorgeous place called Bighorn Lake. There’s no place like it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Six Hours of Motorcycle Therapy and a Kerplunk!

After an extraordinarily stressful week of work, I abandoned my plan to get paperwork done at home and hit the road instead. I drew out a route that covered 200 miles through twisty canyon roads, with more than 3,000′ of elevation gain and 10 miles of dirt roads — the first time I’ve taken my Yamaha off the pavement.

For those of you who know a thing or two (because you’ve seen a thing or two) about motorcycles, my Yamaha is a sport touring mount that is set up like an “adventure bike.” But it really isn’t designed for off-road use. However, it’s got decent suspension and I added a skid plate, so I thought I’d give it a try on “fire roads” — those wide, relatively smooth dirt routes you can find throughout the mountains.

But I had a lot of pavement to cover first — and I saw many animals as I rode. I’ve noticed that wild game that are frequently targeted by hunters tend to spend much of their time in national, state and local parks.

IMG_1678These elk were within 50 yards of the Larimer County Natural Resources building. The fence in the foreground is the boundary for Carter Lake Park — run by Larimer County.

I saw lots of deer, but only managed to snap a fleeting picture of fleeing whitetails.

IMG_1684When you’re on a motorcycle, this is where you want to see deer: on the hill beside you, not on the road in front of you. I took this picture from the bike; I pulled over, grabbed my phone, twisted around and aimed without seeing the screen. As you can see, I should probably not take up deer hunting, as I missed this shot badly. 

I stopped here and there to take pictures of interesting sights and offers for amazing products.

IMG_1681I woke up feeling pretty good this morning, but I couldn’t pass up the opportunity for a product that “cures all!” I assume this oil is pressed from rattlesnakes since venoms are often used in various medicines. They also make outstanding poisons.

IMG_1683Long before hitting the dirt, my bike was clean. You can see the new skid plate, which came in handy later in the ride. 

I hustled up and down some fantastic roads; for the most part, there was little traffic. However, there was a lot of sand on the road, left behind from the county trucks that treated them after a recent snowstorm. This led to a few exciting moments when the bike’s rear end attempted to slide around and catch up with the front end until I straightened it up and touched my spurs to its flanks.

At last, I reached the turnoff for the 10-mile dirt road connecting two of the canyons I wanted to ride. This was pretty exciting for me — my other bike is a big touring cruiser and really uncomfortable and dangerous on dirt roads. Assuming the Yamaha would handle these reasonably well, it would open up many routes previously inaccessible to me on a motorcycle.

IMG_1686Fantastic views in all directions. No fences, no power lines and nearly no traffic. These are some of the advantages of unpaved roads in the Colorado mountains. 

The bike performed well in the dirt. It’s much, much worse than a dirt bike but vastly better than a dedicated road machine. This model of bike has a vulnerable oil plug as its lowest point (a design flaw rectified in subsequent years), which is why I added the skid plate. That decision paid off today when I slammed the plate into an unseen obstacle while pulling over at one point to take a picture. Without the plate, I’m pretty sure I would have broken open the oil pan and then walked a couple of miles to find either cell phone coverage or a sympathetic driver.

IMG_1691At 9,000 feet, there’s still quite a bit of snow but fortunately, none on the road, which has been scraped clean and then sun-baked. 

Shortly after I shot this picture, I came upon an even better spot from which to take a similar photo. At last, mixing my hobbies of photography and motorcycling caught up with me. Here’s what happened:

If you look closely at the photo above, you’ll see there’s quite a bit of mud at the edge of the road. When I pulled over a quarter mile further than where I shot this pic, the mud was accompanied by a slight downslope. I stopped at the edge of the road to take a quick snapshot while sitting on the bike — I didn’t even turn off the engine.

I pulled out my phone, began to frame the shot…and felt my right foot sinking into the muck. I reached a little further out to find firm ground…and the bike started leaning over. My right foot was on mud that extended a couple of feet. The boot started sliding down, straight towards the woods. I had plenty of time to ponder with horror the inevitability of the coming embarrassment and approaching ground as the bike and I gradually and gracelessly kerplunked onto our sides like a tree felled by a skilled lumberjack.

However, I did get a fascinating photograph:

IMG_1692This is an action shot — as I lowered the camera to grab the left handgrip, the shutter went off. This is the inside edge of the handgrip as gravity calls the bike home. 

The bike was totally unharmed, but not so my motorcyclist’s ego. I was red with embarrassment — I’m pretty sure a cougar somewhere was looking at me with the contempt only a cat can summon and there were probably some turkey vultures gazing down hopefully. The bike scored some mud on the right saddle bag and handgrip, which it’s still wearing as badges of honor. Oddly, I didn’t have a spot of mud on me from the fall.

We rode on (my bike and me) and made it back to pavement without further incidents.

IMG_1696It wasn’t until I looked my pictures after the ride that I learned the phone’s forward-facing lens had gotten a bit smeared in my fall. I had tossed it lightly onto the ground right before I landed and images like this serve as a reminder of my misadventure.

IMG_1702I was really excited to visit Walden, but after riding 92 miles to get there, I learned it wasn’t the same place featured in the classic book. I guess I should do more Thoreau research before choosing destinations.

IMG_1705I rode quickly by this scene and then doubled-back to photograph it. I love how someone turned this bus into a double-decker vista cruiser. This is an idea I’d like to bring to Shark Tank!

Fortunately, most of the ride home was curvy, even though I was in the foothills. I decided to stop for one more glamour shot of my bike, the scenery and the curvy road beyond.

IMG_1710I took the paved road on the left. But it was good to know I could have taken the unpaved road on the right. 

As I reached the end of the day, it occurred to me that this ride was, in some ways, a poetic continuation of the RV trip Penny and I experienced last weekend.

If you read the entry about our visit to Carlsbad Caverns, you’ll recall that Penny asked me if cave explorers were called, “kerplunkers” (they’re “spelunkers”). So, when I walked in the door tonight, I said, “Hey, Penny Lee, today I became a kerplunker!” We both laughed as I described, in detail, my muddy, harmless, silly tip-over.

I guess the motorcycling therapy worked like a charm. I arrived home exhilarated, relaxed, and happy. I was so focused on the riding and the beautiful scenery that not only did I skip listening to music the entire time but I forgot my stress and just had fun and a little adventure.

Goodnight from Colorado. I need to kerplunk into bed.

 

 

Penny and Ian’s First RV Misadventure, Day 3: Seventy Nine Floors Beneath the Desert with Half a Million Troglodytes Also: Unplanned, Spectacular Nature Pics

Per our plan, we drove three hours to visit Carlsbad Caverns National Park, a wondrous place that is not only indescribable but also the most difficult environment in which to shoot photographs I’ve ever experienced. I shot 320 pictures today and then spent hours editing just the ones you see here. Less than 100 are really interesting and perhaps half of that are actually compelling. I don’t claim to be a great photographer but, given the amazing beauty all around us, that’s way below my typical batting average.

IMG_1543.jpgThe visitor’s center is atop a mesa in the deep southeast part of New Mexico with spectacular vistas in front.

DSC_6575.jpgWe flanked the sign after ambushing a passerby carrying professional gear. He took a great photo but sniffed that he wasn’t sure it would turn out since I shoot with a Nikon camera (he carried a Canon). If I wasn’t so grateful for his effort, I would have told him to grow up. He does, however, possess mature picture-taking skills.

DSC_6577.jpgMuch of the infrastructure, as well as the original path into the cave, was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Great Depression. The buildings still stand, as you can see, but the path has been upgraded over the years; I’m sure the CCC crew’s work in cutting the first path through the rock made successive projects much easier. Some people call FDR a socialist, but we have marveled at the work of the CCC in many places over the years, from National Parks to Red Rocks Amphitheater in Denver and they truly enriched this nation.

Every night during the summer, between 200,000 and 500,000 bats fly out of the cave at sunset to hunt for slow tourists insects. During migration, this number can reach 1,000,000. “Troglodytes”are cave dwelling creatures and bats qualify; hence the title of this blog.

The mass of animals can raise the temperature in the part of the cave they inhabit from its natural temperature of 56 degrees Fahrenheit to more than 90 degrees. Today, though, it was warmer inside the cave than outdoors.

DSC_6582.jpgThis amphitheater fills up each night so that people can watch the bat flight out of the cave, which is visible in the background. It’s apparently an amazing experience. However, you’re no longer allowed to photograph or videotape it which pretty much eliminates my interest in the event.

IMG_1524.jpgPenny spent nearly the entire day ahead of me, partially because I kept stopping to take pictures, but mostly because she’s in better shape than I am. This trend started early; in fact, she took the lead as we walked towards the mouth of the cave and only looked back when I called out so I could take her picture.

DSC_6622.jpgThe path descends the equivalent of 79 floors beneath the desert floor. You could put the tallest skyscraper in Denver in Carlsbad Caverns and the top wouldn’t reach above the ground, although I don’t know why anyone would want to do that.

DSC_6593.jpgThe light fades quickly as you descend into the cavern.

IMG_8062.jpgPenny snapped this photo of the last sunlight we saw reaching into the cave as she waited for me to catch up with her.

As we started off into the cave again,” she said, “Let’s hike back up this path when we’re done instead of taking the elevator.”

I paused.

“I don’t think I can do that, honey,” I admitted.

“Yes, you can,” she said, and then turned and raced ahead of me once more, giving me something to think about for the rest of the descent. Which went on, seemingly straight down, for an hour.

DSC_6656.jpgAbout 15 minutes in, Penny waited for me and I took this picture. As you can see from this picture, the railings are about 3’ 6” high. That will be helpful information to understand the scale of the cave in later photos. In all of them, by the way, Penny is well ahead of me.

The hike down is about 1 ¼ miles. Carlsbad Caverns actually go on for 35 miles of which we hiked less than three. However, in 1986, the National Park Service approved a scientific exploration of another small, dry 400-foot-long underground space called Lechuguilla Cave. First identified in 1914, there had been little interest in exploring Lechuguilla except that cavers had heard wind coming through the floor inside in the 1950s.

Amazingly, Lechuguilla Cave has now been mapped at more than 136 miles and 1,600 feet deep, making it about four times the length of Carlsbad Caverns and twice as deep. It’s closed to the public; access is limited to scientific exploration by expert spelunkers (or “kerplunkers” as Penny called them on the drive in).

One of the mammals that lives in the park is the “kit fox,” which is indigenous to the area and is notable for never needing to drink water – it can get all the hydration it needs from the blood of its prey (ick). Although this animal doesn’t inhabit the cave, we had just entered the real darkness of the cavern when I saw what looked like two beady eyes to my right.

I slowly raised my camera, flicked up the flash hoping to photograph a never-before-seen natural phenomenon and my razor-sharp instincts allowed me to capture this:

DSC_6602.jpgFortunately (and as always), Penny was ahead of me when I made this particular goof.

DSC_6646.jpgWhen Penny stopped here to wait for me, this stalagmite was only four feet tall.

Among the hundreds of photos I took today are many fascinating shots of the breathtaking geologic formations of Carlsbad Caverns. The frustrating aspect of the photos is that it’s simply impossible to understand the scale of the formations without a human being or at least a railing in the photo. Someday, I’ll post some of those pictures because the beauty and variety are simply stunning. But massive features that tower 30 or 40 feet above you are indistinguishable in pictures from one-foot tall formations.

As a result, I selected a few photos that allow you to see both the variety and scale of the wonders of Carlsbad Caverns. But the main takeaway here is that you absolutely must find a way to visit this amazing place. It’s indescribable and nearly un-photographable. The caverns are massive, often pitch black in many directions and I struggled mightily to convey some of this via pictures.

DSC_6730.jpgI chose this photo because it shows a fascinating, gorgeous passageway through the caverns with a person standing in the middle of the frame (look for the dark form). For you photographers out there, this photo was shot at an 8000 ISO, f 3.5, handheld at 1/13th of a second. I alternated lenses, here sacrificing a faster lens for a zoom that goes to a wide angle of 28mm. I rarely used a flash because it could not fill the room.

DSC_6694.jpgAs we continued the descent, I paused again and again to try to capture the scale and assortment of features in the caverns. Here you can see people to the left and on the right. This was by no means a large space in the cavern but it was well-lit. [50mm f1.4, ISO 12800, 1/60th sec].

We recruited another “volunteer” to take a picture of both of us, using a special “night portrait” mode on my camera that uses the flash to illuminate the foreground followed by a slow shutter speed to fill in the background. It’s probably just some advanced technology, but it works like magic:

DSC_6705.jpg

DSC_6712.jpgIf you look closely, you can see a Park Ranger (you can spot them by their hats) standing just to the left of the pair of large stalagmites on the far right. To his left, farther down the path, is a group of people. [50mm f 1.4, ISO 5600, 1/60th sec].

IMG_8077.jpgPenny told me I needed to include more pictures of me in my blog entries, so here’s one in my natural state – holding a camera.

DSC_6744.jpgAt the end of the 1 ¼ mile descent to the bottom, Penny awaited yet again – you can see her in a blue shirt just to the right of the lighted sign. This is the turn off for the subsequent 1 ¼ mile trail through the “Big Room.” [Same shooting specs as the last shot, but 1/25th sec shutter speed, thanks to more artificial lighting.]

DSC_6746.jpgPenny looks well-rested here, of course, and is giving me what I would call a “tolerant smile.”

DSC_6791.jpgThe “Big Room” is 4,000 feet long, 625 feet wide and 255 tall at its highest point. This small portion of the “Big Room” was the best shot I could get of this part of the cavern. Other areas are much larger but also much less well-lit and impossible (for me) to photograph. [28mm, f 3.5, ISO 8000, 1/8th sec, hand-held – yes, it’s a miracle it’s reasonably in focus. I’m guessing my heart stopped for two beats].

Since it was getting late (and for absolutely no other reason such as my lack of cardio fitness, for example), we decided not to follow the few alarmingly fit people we’d seen actually walking up the 800+ feet to the “natural entrance” and instead took an elevator. We crammed in with about 10 other people and slowly rose to the top, which took about a minute and a half.

When the elevator reached the top, it stopped, the doors remained closed and we descended all the way to bottom again. The doors opened, we briefly explained to the people waiting there what happened and they wisely and prudently decided to wait for an elevator that functioned as designed.

DSC_6837.jpgThe elevators in the caverns count feet, not floors. Here you can see we are still 725′ below the surface (look at Penny’s phone screen as my camera didn’t catch the entire number ‘5.’

Not so, us. The doors closed and up we went again. This time, the doors opened at the top and we stepped out, relieved.

A Surprisingly Delightful and Beautiful Drive Home

As we drove away from the visitor’s center, Penny spotted what we thought were Rocky Mountain Big Horn sheep. I stepped out and took these pictures:

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As I was writing this, it occurred to me that these animals are the wrong color and don’t have white rear ends and so I looked them up. They’re actually called Barbary Sheep and are native to North Africa. They were introduced into New Mexico and Texas and, despite the name, are actually goats.

As we drove towards Alamogordo, we saw dozens of elk and deer in fields and on hills but fortunately, none on the road, despite lots of signs showing them where they should cross.

Then as we approached our destination, we were treated to one last spectacular sunset. I didn’t change or enhance the colors in any of these photos.

IMG_8168.jpgPenny took this gorgeous shot this from the car with her iPhone.

DSC_6875.jpgWe actually turned around and pull over to a scenic viewing area to catch this sunset as we drove along the mountain pass towards Alamogordo.

DSC_6891.jpgJust a few miles from the KOA, we stopped for one last sunset shot of the valley.

Once again, it’s very late and I’m going to bed. Tomorrow (hopefully), I’ll provide one more blog with some interesting buildings, statues and other sights in and around Alamogordo. But that’s all for tonight.

One more thing: visiting Carlsbad Caverns should be on your bucket list. It’s a limestone cave, so even if you’ve visited other caves, this one will stand out due to the amazing formations inside. And I learned a lot today about how to photograph inside this magnificent place. I will do it very differently next time and I’d be happy to provide you some tips.

Goodnight one last time from Alamogordo, New Mexico.

Penny and Ian’s First RV Misadventure, Day 2: White Sands, Space Heroes and a Mysterious Solar Observatory

After a (relatively) successful first night ever in our camper, we awoke in Alamogordo to a beautiful day, excited to visit White Sands National Monument. The Jeep, relieved of the trailer and not facing a hurricane headwind, handled like a sports car and delivered 15MPG today – a 250% improvement over yesterday – as we drove to White Sands.

But as it turned out, visiting this National Monument, as impressive and fun as it was, turned out to be just a third of our day’s fun destinations. So, given that it’s midnight as I write this and I’ve been viewing, editing and selecting photos for the last several hours, this post will be mostly pictures with captions, as I need to get some sleep for our long drive to Carlsbad Caverns tomorrow. For those of you who prefer pictures to my narrative (and that’s likely a majority of readers), you’re welcome. For the few who prefer my writing, well, I’m verbose by nature, so you’ll have plenty to read in future posts.

White Sands National Monument

DSC_6331.jpgI can’t recall where this photo was taken, but it was somewhere near the entrance to the monument, if I remember correctly. Bonus: we finally found a tourist who could take a great photo!

IMG_7992.jpgPenny shot this photo of bats near the entrance of the women’s restroom. It was quite breezy when we arrived today, so looking at the stains on the wall leads me to title this picture, “Guano With the Wind.”

IMG_1414.jpgThe visitor center was built by the Civilian Conservation Corps during the recession. I assume the signs are original or re-creations. In any case, the font is interesting, as is the word, “curios.” In my experience, we call these items “trinkets and trash,” but then I’m not really the “buy curios” type.

IMG_8006.jpgThis snowy-looking road has no snow. The sand was slick, though, and Penny shot this as I drove slowly into the Monument. What looks like snow on the hood of the car is just a reflection off of the Jeep’s paint.

DSC_6339.jpgAs you can see, most of the cars in this parking lot are white. Not sure if that’s paint or sticky sand.

DSC_6344.jpgThe National Park Service (which operates Monuments as well) carefully preserved the natural state of these dunes by building an enormous metal structure with Trex decking through them for hundreds of yards.

DSC_6348.jpgA passerby kindly offered to take our picture and thoughtfully yelled sternly at his three sons to “Stay out of the picture; you’ll ruin it!” They looked forlorn since they were nowhere near getting in the photo. He did a good job and we smiled despite his yelling at his kids, since how they turn out when they grow up is not our problem.

DSC_6357.jpgI give you the Queen of the Desert, Snow White Sands

DSC_6363.jpgPenny poses in front of dunes and some mountains in the background. The beauty was spectacular. The landscape wasn’t bad, either.

IMG_7999.jpgIt’s always good to get the first selfie of the day done early. Also, we were cold and the snuggling helped.

DSC_6375.jpgWe recruited yet another innocent victim to take a photo of us and, amazingly, he could take a good photo, too. Finding two strangers in a row who could compose a photo well is unprecedented in my experience. However, he was pretty old and only knew how to take black and white photos, which I didn’t discover until I developed the film.

DSC_6386.jpgHere, a child sits forlornly at the top of the dune as his mother uses his snow disc to slide down the hill. As you can see, the other kids have no idea how to use a snow disc; perhaps it’s because their parents monopolize them. The boy in the orange shorts is trying to stand on a disc that is upside down. Off to the right, their father uses a much better tool – an actual toboggan. More kids whose upbringing is not our responsibility, so we just laughed.

DSC_6394.jpgThe view from the top of the dunes is quite beautiful. The dark lines at the top of the mountains and dunes were in the photo and are not due to editing. Since White Sands is near a missile range, I’m assuming this is caused by radiation.

IMG_8024.jpgAfter I walked up the dune to take some pictures, I gracefully and expertly made my way back down as Penny watched safely from below and took a photo.

DSC_6388.jpgOne of the advantages of falling down a dune is the new perspective you get from ground level.

DSC_6423.jpgHere, a young boy uses a fishing pole to try to catch kites. Looks like he’s got one!

DSC_6446.jpgMoments after I shot this picture of a small boy flying an enormous kite, he shot into the air as the kite flew away. His father told me that they brought extra kids along just in case something like this happened.

IMG_8021.jpgWalking without shoes on the sand felt really good on my feet. Rolling up the cuffs of my pants seemed like a great idea until I got back in the car, rolled them down and dumped fine, white sand all over the floor.

International Space Hall of Fame

Our next stop of the day was the International Space Hall of Fame, which, as you would expect, is located in Alamogordo, NM (population, 31,248) and not a small burg like Houston or perhaps near Cape Canaveral. It’s actually very impressive, with four floors of displays and, of course, a curio gift shop.

IMG_1442.jpgI shot this panorama of the International Space Hall of Fame, which is perched on a mountain outside of town, as Penny waited patiently by the grave of the world’s first Astrochimp, HAM.

DSC_6469.jpgYou thought I was kidding, huh? By the way, if you read Tom Wolfe’s, “The Right Stuff,” you’ll learn that the chimpanzees in the Astrochimp program absolutely hated the experience, especially the electric shocks that were delivered to their feet when they did something wrong in training. They constantly attempted to escape.

HAM performed admirably during his test flight – probably because the experience of being trapped in a tiny rocket and suffering high G’s was an improvement over his experience at Holloman.

DSC_6471.jpgScientists used to shoot a sled down this track to measure how humans tolerated G forces. On the right are the last photographs ever taken of several test subjects.

DSC_6463.jpgI cleverly titled this photo, “Jet Nose in Front of Mountain.”

DSC_6472.jpgThis is the trail head for Indian Wells Trail, which is near the Int’l Space Hall of Fame. There’s no connection at all but it’s a cool gate. Important information about the trail used to be on the two signs flanking the gate but the weather wore them down until they became blank slates. Hike at your own risk.

DSC_6475.jpgI can’t remember what this rocket did, but it must have been pretty important for it to wind up in the International Space Hall of Fame. It was built decades ago, when they only had black and white materials available.

DSC_6483.jpgAstrogirl Penny did not like the Mercury Capsule as much as Astrochimp HAM liked his rocket. You can see how upset she is at experiencing zero G’s. Seriously, though, it’s pretty astonishing that men flew in space in these tiny capsules.

DSC_6487.jpgThere were many fascinating exhibits inside the International Space Hall of Fame, but Penny and I were most impressed by the rocket-shaped garbage cans. Frankly they weren’t much smaller than the Mercury Capsule.

DSC_6477.jpgFrom the parking lot of the Hall of Fame, you can see all of Alamogordo, although hardly anyone really wants to. On the other hand, the mountains in the background and the strip of white sand dunes in the middle are pretty cool.

Sunspot Solar Observatory

After leaving the International Space Hall of Fame, we decided to head to Sunspot Solar Observatory, which is located high in the mountains above Alamogordo. Our good friend Steve Tomczyk is a solar physicist and he works at the facility occasionally, so we really wanted to see it.

Since I have no sense of direction, Penny mapped the route on Google so we could get there in a reasonable amount of time.

DSC_6498.jpgWe were very surprised to learn that the route to Sunspot included about 12 miles of dirt road, some of it rough enough to qualify as a four wheel drive path. Fallen trees like this – barely cleared enough to allow us to pass by – were everywhere. It wasn’t until the trip back down that we learned there was a paved road that we had driven right by on our way to this route. We had a lot more fun taking the long way, though, and I got to rib Penny a little about her navigating for once. So it was very much worth the time and effort.

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I took this picture of the visitor center not knowing that the lens flare created sun spots leading to the word, “Sunspot.” Sometimes taking a great photograph comes from true talent. In my case, it’s usually a matter of luck like this.

Side note: in September of last year, FBI agents supported by a Blackhawk helicopter descended onto Sunspot and evacuated all of the employees and residents (it’s also a small town, complete with a Post Office). For 11 days, the facility was closed and guarded. The “authorities” finally announced that the cause of the closure was that they had caught an employee using the facility’s wireless network to traffic in child porn.

That is not a credible explanation for such a massive law enforcement response and long shutdown. I don’t know what the real cause was and I’m not saying it was aliens. But it was aliens.

DSC_6505.jpgInside the Sunspot visitor center, Penny showed off by only reading the exhibits that were in Spanish. I tried to get even but there were no exhibits in Pig Latin.

DSC_6506.jpgThis is a mirror from a refractor telescope (I think; we didn’t cover this in my history degree program). They probably removed this example and put it on display because it’s obviously broken – it showed everything upside-down.

IMG_8038.jpgPenny took this spectacular photo of the Richard B. Dunn Solar Telescope. It was formerly called the vacuum tower telescope but that made it sound like it was built during the Hoover Administration, which sucked since it wasn’t.

Anyway, I wish I could go into more detail about our spectacular day, but it’s really, really late and I have to get a little sleep since we’re making the three-hour trip to Carlsbad Caverns in the morning. From White Sands to a Space Hall of Fame to a solar observatory, we’ve spent the day going from the ground to the solar system. Tomorrow, we’ll head the other direction – way, way underground.

So far on this trip, we’ve nearly run out of gas and we’ve gotten so lost we wound up actually using the four wheel drive mode of the Jeep. More exciting adventures await us and I hope you’ll join for the next episode of Penny & Ian’s First RV Misadventure.

See you then.

Penny and Ian’s First RV Misadventure, Day 1

Penny and I bought a travel trailer last year and were not able to use it because an unseasonably cold snap forced me to “winterize” it early in the fall. Sure, we parked it in our driveway a couple of times, but we hadn’t slept in it, eaten a meal in it or — important to its intended purpose — traveled with it.

All that changed yesterday; we’ve watched dozens of YouTube videos, we packed up lots of supplies and we hit the road.

The Queen of the realm now has a moveable palace.

Full of hope and optimism, we are ready to hit the road.

A month ago, we selected our first camping destination and our choice was strongly influenced by the cold spell we were experiencing at the time. So, we chose southern New Mexico — Alamogordo, to be exact. We’re staying at a KOA, which is where you go when you want full hookups and an easy camping experience; perfect for our inaugural adventure.

On Saturday, we will visit White Sands National Monument and perhaps make the long drive (sans trailer, which will remain in the KOA for the weekend) to Carlsbad Caverns. All of this was predicated on making it to Alamogordo first.

Gas Anxiety Isn’t Limited to Motorcycling

My brother, Clive, was a little alarmed that we chose a destination so far from home. However, as I type this, it’s 33 degrees and snowing at home, so I guess we made the right choice, since the weather was forecasted to be in the 70’s when we arrived.

On the other hand, we wound up driving right into the teeth of a persistent, driving wind that drove the normally dismal gas mileage of my Jeep Grand Cherokee (a vehicle I love despite its almost comically-poor reliability) to new lows.

We gassed up south of Trinidad, CO, at a Shell station that must be in the running for having the most scenic backdrop in the chain:

Topped up and feeling like, “I got this,” we forged confidently southward and the country opened up, traffic rapidly dissipated and Penny took a nap.

If you look at a map of this area, you’ll see that it’s only 84 miles from the Shell station in Trinidad to Wagon Mount, NM. We (meaning me; Penny, who has vastly better judgment than I do, was still asleep) breezed through Wagon Mount with a half tank of gas, confident we would have plenty of fuel to reach Las Vegas, NM — a much-preferred Las Vegas than the better-known version, in my estimation.

It was then that Eurus, the unlucky Greek God of Wind, sought to extract his price for my devil-may-care nonchalance by whipping up the air to what seemed hurricane speed. I drove on, head-on into the gale, dragging 5,000 pounds of northern Indiana’s finest fabricated recreational camping handiwork — which features an enormous, perfectly flat front wall that served as a terrific air brake — behind me.

Uh oh.

With only 39 miles left to the next gas station and vacation salvation (gas) ahead of us, I wasn’t too worried. The total distance between gas stations for this leg of the trip was only 125 miles.

And then the gas gauge began to drop precipitously; I swear you could see it moving.

I regularly checked the “instant gas mileage” indicator and I was horrified to see mile after mile of horrifyingly terrible numbers: 4MPG, 3-something MPG and, at one point, 2.8 MPG.

Penny awoke from her nap, looked over at me, smiled and asked, “Can I get you anything?”

“Yeah,” I replied. “Gas.”

Alarmed, no doubt unsurprised that I’d gotten us into a new predicament while she slept (but too nice to show it), Penny jumped in to help.

First, she searched online for nearby gas stations I might have missed (good idea, but for once, I was right and there were none). Then she googled to find out the size of the Jeep’s gas tank so we could more closely estimate remaining range, since the “Distance to Empty” display on the dashboard had switched to a “Low Fuel” warning message. The tank holds 24.6 gallons. Ordinary range: 300+ miles. Today’s range: hopefully 125 miles.

So, when when the needle dropped to the 1/8 tank line, we slowed to 40 MPH, four-way flashers on, in an effort to save gas. Other motorists, semi drivers and even a state trooper in a hurry flew right by us, flaunting their plentiful fuel stocks. I could feel their haughty derision as they passed us.

The next place to fill up in any direction was 10 miles away in Las Vegas. We didn’t know exactly what mileage we were getting but the instant mileage indicator refused to move higher than 3-something MPG, so the calculations were not encouraging.

We debated pulling over and uncoupling the trailer to improve our odds of making it to the gas station, but instead, pressed on, tense, mostly-silent and dreading to feel the first signs of a sputtering, fuel/starved engine.

Since this was our first outing in the camper, we wanted to set it up in daylight. Either running out of gas or leaving our precious RV by the side of the road would disrupt that plan, so we played against the odds and kept going.

We made it. But just barely and not without one final moment of tension:

We were obviously not the only travelers struggling with fuel challenges because when we pulled into the first gas station we came to, there were lines at every pump. I pulled behind a pickup truck that was gassing up, turned off the Jeep to conserve fuel and Penny went inside.

The gauges were on when I took this photo. The tank is very clearly nearly empty.

Finally, it was my turn to gas up. I stepped on the brake pedal, hit the starter button and the dashboard lights protested: “Key has left vehicle.”

Actually, both keys had left the vehicle because Penny had the spare in her purse and I had handed her the other one earlier for some reason. Frantic texts and a phone call later, Penny came sprinting out of the station to hand me the key.

I filled the tank. It took 24.1 gallons, meaning we had half a gallon, or about 1 3/4 miles left, adjusting for wind and based on the “instant MPG” display’s most recent readings.

Over the 125 miles, we’d averaged 5.08 miles per gallon, a record low in my experience, even counting a “drive into a heavy wind” episode I’d had in a U-Haul truck towing a trailer two summers ago.

The last part of the trip was thankfully uneventful. We drove through some beautiful country; open, unpopulated, but, as you can see, still plagued by roadside trash tossed from moving vehicles. What kind of horrible people litter into any landscape but especially one as pristine as this?

One highlight was “Penny’s Diner,” in Vaughn, NM, more of a wayside along a two-land highway than an actual town:

Finally, we made it to Alamogordo and the friendly confines of the KOA. Setup went great; everything works but the TV, which is the thing we care about the least.

We spent the evening dining, relaxing and reading and then enjoyed a great, first night’s sleep in our little travel trailer.

This morning, we’re enjoying coffee in the 54 degree, sunny weather of Alamogordo and will head out to White Sands National Monument soon, but that and other news from today will be the subject of tomorrow’s post.

Thanks to Penny for putting up with my inexperience. I managed to refrain from using the line, “It’s not an adventure until something goes wrong,” during our gas shortage scare (likely a good decision). Thanks to you for reading and we’ll touch base tomorrow.

The Fools’ Ride, Day 4. Tom Looks Cool and Ed Strikes Back

Ed Gerber may be the finest salesman in the world. I say this because I kicked off the last morning of our ride like this:

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That’s right – that’s me, back on the Harley. Ed convinced me one last time that he REALLY needed to check out one of the BMWs. He just could NOT decide which one he preferred.

I think Tom colluded with him because he decided that he wanted to try out the OTHER BMW since he hadn’t spent much time on it. Or maybe he was just opportunistic. Or, come to think of it, just smarter and less gullible than me.

Anyway, it was cold, I was on a Harley with no windshield (to speak of), no heated grips or seat and it was a long, boring interstate. Heller on the highway to Hell.

We pulled over at a rest area and when we got off the bikes, Ed said, “Hey Tom, you look like a real motorcyclist – tall, lean, dressed like a pro. You look great!”

I said, “Hey, what about me? Tom and I practically look like twins!” You can judge for yourself:

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Hey, if Danny DeVito and Arnold Schwarzenegger can be twins, then I think Tom and I can pull it off. On the other hand, I’m the Danny DeVito in that comparison, so never mind.

We only made one other stop; I took this picture of Ed about to take a picture because he apparently loves desserts – he talked about some “All-Reese’s” store he’d been to that had candy like “EddiesWorld” does (although he had the sundae).

IMG_1229EddiesWorld is a desert dessert oasis.

The rest of the trip was uneventful. I finally stopped by the side of the road to claim a BMW back from Ed and we rode on into Las Vegas. We gassed up, said our goodbyes and headed to the airport.

So now, it’s been a couple of days since we ended the ride. I didn’t have many pictures of that last morning and I wanted to offer something interesting to the readers who have followed this brief adventure.

And, I have two things. I absolutely guarantee that one of these is either true or false while the other may or may not be authentic. I look forward to your speculation as to the veracity of these claims.

First:

I went to write a review of EddiesWorld on Yelp — which I had mentioned to Ed and Tom. It’s a very unusual place and I’m sure this didn’t surprise them because I used Yelp to choose most of our restaurants on the trip. As you have probably guessed by now, Ed is quite the prankster and he found his promised revenge – not in the form of a retaliatory blog — but instead by writing and posting this review of Eddies on Yelp:

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Second:

Ed declared on the trip that he loved the BMWs so much that he was likely to buy one – perhaps even this very week. He could probably tell I seemed a little skeptical because he continued: “You don’t understand – when I make a decision like that, I move fast!”

Remember that Ed arrived home yesterday. And today, Tom and I got this email from him:

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Ed RT email

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To which Tom cleverly replied:

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Now, ignoring for a moment the complete lack of accountability in blaming Tom and me for his irresponsible, impulsive purchase of a very expensive motorcycle, consider this:

Until five days ago, Ed had never ridden any brand of motorcycle in his LIFE except Harley Davidsons. Then he spends a few part-time days on a couple of BMWs and he’s suddenly a convert.

There are many, many fine motorcycles out there. Great brands from Japan and Europe, not to mention at least one other US brand – Indian – that many former Harley riders choose. Ed chose not to test-ride any of these brands. He just bought one of the two models of BMW he happened to ride last weekend.

For the record, this is the model (although he no doubt has added many accessories; Harley guys do that):

r1250rt        BMW R1250RT — in black.

Ed’s current bike – ironically, a Harley Davidson Street Glide – is the “CVO” (Custom Vehicle Operations) edition. That means, among other things, it’s a “high performance” model. This bike was “dyno’d” (tested for horsepower and torque) by a motorcycle magazine. The engine produces about 96HP and 111 ft/bs of torque (higher is better for both). Harley claims it weighs 877 pounds, ready to ride (with gas, etc.)

The BMW’s engine was dyno’d at 128hp and 101 ft/lbs of torque. That means it has 30% more horsepower and almost as much torque. But the bike only weighs 615lbs – that’s 262 lbs lighter than the Harley!

Think of it this way: the Harley has to move more than 9 pounds with every horsepower while the BMW has to move 4.8. In other words, it has almost twice the “power to weight ratio” compared to the Hog.

Herr Gerber (his new nickname) has another new nickname: “Fast Eddie.”

The End of the Road

I want to thank Tom and Ed for their patience and understanding as I kept asking us to stop, line up the bikes and take pictures. We discussed how much more fun motorcycle riding is when you’re with low-maintenance travelers and they definitely fit the bill.

But there is one last thing…

Tomorrow, Tom is flying to Germany. He’ll be there for more than a week. He claims it’s for business, but his BMW blue-and-white eyes had a twinkle in them that may indicate he’s going to do a little shopping while he’s over there. I’m thinking a factory tour, direct-from-factory purchase and an RT1250RT in his garage in a few weeks. If that happens, you’ll read about it here first.

Thanks for riding with us. Maybe we’ll see you on the road somewhere. Ed will be the one wearing the Harley jacket but sitting on a black BMW. Tom will be the one who looks like a real motorcyclist. I’ll be puffy bumble bee guy taking pictures. Smile!

 

The Fools’ Ride, Day 3: Bad Tips, Foolish Compliments, Fresh Skid Marks and Cheap Hotels

We arose this morning a mere 10 miles from the border of Mexico, but the best motorcycle routes in the area were closed due to snow. We wanted to reach Barstow, CA without doubling back along the route we’d already ridden, so we huddled at the IHOP across the parking lot for breakfast, planning and commiseration.IMG_1188The scene of the crime. Ed’s bike is on the right, ready for a fast getaway to avoid embarrassment and accountability. 

Fortunately, Tom borrowed my Butler Maps last night and while I worked on the blog, he worked on some options. At breakfast, he laid out his plan. Our final route, below, was very close to what Tom had planned.

Screen Shot 2019-02-24 at 10.54.50 PM

Ed generously offered to pay for breakfast but then stiffed the poor waitress with a 14.33% tip ($6 on a $41.87 tab) when we left. Leaving 20% would have cost Ed another $2.37 but saved him the embarrassment of me outing him here.

Speaking of outing Ed, his conversion to a BMW addict is now complete, so from here on, I shall occasionally refer to him as “Herr Gerber.” Since his shenanigans yesterday enabled him to make almost the entire ride on one of the warmer, more comfortable bikes, Tom and I decided to hang onto our mounts today. Herr Gerber rode entire 330 miles of today’s tour on his Harley.

I should be nicer to Ed in this blog, I suppose. After all, at our first stop, he said, “Ian, you’re doing a really good job leading this ride.” But that was a very serious mistake.

If you’ve ever listened to Kenny Rogers sing, “The Gambler,” you may recall the line, “You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.” That’s because you should never, ever tempt fate.

The second Herr Gerber complimented me, I felt my heart fill with dread. I wind up leading most of the rides I’m on – not because I want to, by the way – and every time another rider compliments me, I do something dumb later that day. In this case, Ed paid the price, but it happened this evening and I’ll get to it.

Our trip westward out of El Centro along I-8 was chilly but fun; the traffic was fast and relatively light and it’s a fun road for an interstate.

The plan called for us to exit the highway before we reached San Diego and head north over some passes. So, we left the interstate, had lunch and then proceeded into the mountains, only to see warnings of ice ahead – as well as several cars approaching from that direction with alarming amounts of snow on their roofs.

We looked into this development and found out that one leg of our intended route was still closed due to snow. The way we learned this was that I stopped to check road conditions, the other riders pulled up behind me and then Tom announced, “I’m going to call the Sheriff’s Department.”

This caused a brief moment of panic for Ed and me, as we thought perhaps Tom was going to turn us in for various traffic violations and we could not IMAGINE for a MOMENT when we may have, for example, ridden above the speed limit. But Tom was actually calling the authorities to get their insider information on road conditions, which is something that would never have occurred to me but worked great.

IMG_2492In a day in which we shot few photos, Ed contributed this picture of Tom and I looking up road conditions. As you can see, touring by motorcycle is nothing but constant fun!

Speaking of Tom, he remarked at dinner last night that he was glad Ed joined us for the ride to serve as blog fodder, thus taking the spotlight off of Tom. But the real reason I don’t make fun of Tom is that he hardly ever does anything worthy of mockery, other than his surprising and shameful gambling addiction:

IMG_1190The sign on the left advertises the “Golden Acorn Casino.” As usual, this caused Tom to pull over by the side of the road and shake off his jacket so he could find loose change. After losing $1.75 in less than a minute, he forlornly got back on the bike and we took off again. 

Ed is a lot like me (sorry, Ed): impulsive, talks a lot, a little crazy, etc. The primary difference is that I’m writing the trip blog and there’s no reason for me to admit to my foibles when I can describe Ed’s instead. Ed did say today that he should write a retaliatory blog, so perhaps you will be able to read the other side of the story someday. You may have guessed that I occasionally embellish certain events of the day or perhaps add a little color here and there. Rarely to I make up outright lies — probably not more than four or five times per blog entry, in fact.

Back to the ride: We found an alternate route and the roads were clear and the traffic was moderate. Additionally, we were entertained by one suicidal pickup truck driver who passed all three of us on a double yellow line, then passed the truck in front of us while there was oncoming traffic and then blew through a red light.

Personally, I’m speculating that he may have been angry that – allegedly – a few miles earlier, three motorcyclists passed him (safely – or so goes the rumor) on double yellow lines because he was driving significantly under the speed limit for about 20 minutes. There are many pullouts on the route, accompanied by various signs instructing slow drivers to use them and he ignored these until the motorcyclists (if this is a true story) became very frustrated. If any of this is true, I’m on the side of the bikers.

We experienced one highlight and one lowlight as we neared Palm Desert. The highlight is CA 74, which descends the from San Jacinto mountains into the Coachella Valley:

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We stopped at the scenic overlook at the top:

IMG_1196If you look carefully, you’ll see the road cuts back numerous times on the way in Palm Desert. It’s amazing, fun, exhilarating riding.

IMG_1204We could see the Salton Sea off to the south.

IMG_1208Just before I snapped this photo, Tom exclaimed, “Oh my God, what’s that smell? Ed – is that YOU?” (We had Mexican food for lunch). Ed claimed the odor was from the Salton Sea and pointed it out to Tom, who did not believe him.

IMG_1201Once again, we improve upon the spectacular scenery by standing in front of it.

Riding that crazy twisty road into Palm Desert was entertaining, but as we approached I-10, fate decided to punish Herr Gerber for complimenting my ride leadership. This situation was thus:

We were on Monterey Avenue approaching Doris Day Drive and, beyond that, I-10, when the light turned yellow. I was using Google Maps to navigate and this particular app waits until the last second to give you audio instructions regarding turns (I can’t mount my iPhone on the rental bike, so I’m relying on voice commands).

I checked my mirrors and saw that Ed was dangerously close behind me (as usual) and in the lane to my right while Tom was prudently about 50 yards back.

Here’s the scene, courtesy of Google Maps:

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I could see the exits on ramps onto I-10 ahead of me but I had no idea which one I needed to take. I could also see that there was no place to pull over and that meant if I chose one exit and Tom – after waiting for the light to turn – chose the other one, we’d be riding in opposite directions.

Now, I should point out that before we left on this trip, I went to the trouble of removing the Bluetooth headset from my wife Penny’s helmet, charging it and giving it to Tom – who never installed it in his rental helmet. Thus, all communications while riding have to be done visually.

I made a lightning-fast decision and it turned out to be the wrong one: I braked hard to stop for the light. That was no problem for Tom, since he was well behind us, but Herr Gerber was on the Harley, which among its many charms, has lousy brakes and no ABS. As a result, while my German-engineered performance touring motorcycle stopped quickly and without drama, Ed locked up the brakes on his Harley and squealed to a stop somewhat past the cross walk.

where ed stopped

Now, this wasn’t as dangerous as it sounds. He came to stop before the light turned red; he just happened to be in a less than ideal location when he did it. The drivers of the cars at the intersection politely waited (or perhaps they were shocked by the sound and fury of the Harley’s rumble and squeal) as Ed frog-walked the bike back out of their way.

I looked over at Ed and called, “Sorry about that!”

Ed looked over at me and said, “I thought about going through the intersection!”

“You probably should have done that,” I suggested helpfully.

Normally, I take full responsibility in these situations, but given the IHOP incident, I elected to assume only 14.33% of the customary amount of blame.

Tom, who had safely come to an unexciting stop (the best kind) behind us, apparently thought all of this was quite humorous because he surprised us at dinner by sharing this photo:

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That skid mark is from Herr Gerber’s Harley. As you can see, he has now safely backed up so that the cross traffic can proceed.

It’s obviously cruel to laugh at the misery of others, but Tom could not stop chuckling as he told us about this “great picture” he wanted to share with us. He was curious to see how I’d use it. I hope you’re satisfied, Tom.

That was not the last adventure of the evening. We exited I-10 north to cut across the desert to Barstow on two-lane roads. The sun set and it grew cold, very dark and the roads were sometimes extremely rough – which was a bummer on the BMWs but I’m surprised Herr Gerber has any teeth left.

My last ride leadership failure of the day nearly came back to bite me as we approached Barstow. The bike I’m riding is known for its phenomenal range, mostly because it comes with a seven-gallon gas tank (huge for a motorcycle). Thus, when Tom and Ed gassed up earlier in the day, I still had half a tank, so I decided to wait. What I failed to take into account was that the last 81 miles of road into Barstow lack even a single gas station. I watched in dread as the gauge moved towards empty and then lit up with an orange warning — truly an “idiot light.”

Fortunately, we made it Barstow, where I learned I still had a (theoretical – motorcycle gas gauges aren’t very accurate) 28 miles left.

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I filled up at the first gas station and we checked into the worst Best Western on our southwest ride. The rooms are not terrible, but they come with an unusual accessory:

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We discovered that the Barstow Best Western is located adjacent to some very active railroad tracks. While this is no doubt convenient for hobos seeking cheap accommodations, it’s inconvenient for the rest of the guests.

However, we headed out for a good dinner at the Idle Spurs Steakhouse, which serves tasty food in a…well, eclectic environment:

IMG_1220I asked this patron if he was afraid the Idle Spurs would run out of prime rib. “I’m petrified,” he answered.

IMG_1216Barstow is the home of the Western American Railroad Museum. They must keep their non-exhibited items at local restaurants. This vintage sign hangs over the entrance to a large terrarium-like room that eliminates table space for about 40 diners. Odd business decision.

IMG_1218A couple sharing a romantic dinner.

IMG_1215We toast the end of a long, fun, adventurous and tiring day.

As I review what I’ve written tonight, I fear I may have come off a bit negative or perhaps acidic. Actually, we had a great day of riding and I’m going to miss traveling with these two goons. I’ve never ridden with either of them and you just don’t know if a new group of riders will have chemistry but the three of us certainly do.

Tomorrow, we head back to Las Vegas to return the bikes by noon. Tom and I have flights out at 4:40 and Ed is staying one more night before flying back Tuesday morning. I can’t wait to go home and see Penny, Blaine, the dogs and cat and to get back to work. But it’s been a terrific trip so far and I hope these blog entries give you a feel for what it’s been like for us.

I’ll check in one more time tomorrow – thanks for reading.

 

The Fools’ Ride, Day 2: Following Joshua to the Salton Sea for a Brief Glimpse at Salvation

We awoke this morning in lovely Twentynine Palms, California, with the perfect motorcycling day planned – meaning we had no plan. We met for the free (yet tasty) breakfast at our Fairfield Inn and managed to grab a table for six just before a family with three young children reached it. Frankly, one of those kids had quite a bit of baby fat, so maybe skipping breakfast was a good idea for him. Then he again, he was an actual baby, so perhaps I’m too harsh.

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Anyway, for us, the table was a MUST HAVE, not a NICE-TO-HAVE: we needed the extra space to spread out Butler Motorcycle Maps for Southern California and Arizona. These maps highlight all of the best motorcycling roads and are essential for touring.

It was exciting to see all of the Butler-approved choices just west of us – the mountains of Southern California are world-renowned for their incredible, curvy roads and terrific scenery.

Then we checked the weather.

Despair: cold, snow and ice everywhere in those same mountains. Almost every route that looked entertaining at all was off limits to anyone exploring on two wheels.

We decided to keep our chinstraps up, though. Even a bad day on a motorcycle beats a day doing nearly anything else. Also, Joshua Tree National Park was close by and – although nippy – the weather was clear, as were the roads. After staring at maps and apps for a good 45 minutes, we decided that we would ride through the Park and make further plans at lunch.

This is how I like to tour – with as few plans as possible. Ed remarked this evening that he’s used to tours where you pick all of your hotels in advance and stick to a pre-determined route. Perhaps if I had the self-discipline and focus of a normal person, this would work. But I’m easily distracted and often head off in various directions just because something catches my interest.

That means I hardly ever make hotel reservations until it’s well into the afternoon of a motorcycling day. I’m aware that this will likely mean I will sleep on the ground some night in the future, but I believe the dozens or even hundreds of nights I’ve opened up to opportunistic wandering will be worth it. So far, so good.

We gassed up in a dusty little town with the same name – coincidentally – as the park: Joshua Tree, CA.

IMG_1082 (1)As we waited for Tom to go back into the gas station for the third time (not sure why – poor hold-up technique?), I strolled out to Joshua Tree’s main drag to snap this very unusual scene – snow on the desert mountains in the background and a drug deal going down in the foreground!

Ed began to exhibit some odd behavior this morning that became a pattern: he suddenly claimed he was very interested in trying out the BMW I was riding – he’d heard good things about them, but he’d never ridden one.

So, while we were gassing up, I politely offered to switch bikes with him and he climbed aboard my rental – which has a power-adjustable windshield, heated grips, heated seat and a real suspension – and I hopped aboard Ed’s Harley Street Glide, which has no heat of any kind and just over 2” of suspension travel in the rear (real motorcycles have two or three times that). The effect of this bad design is that the shock bottoms frequently and violently, sending shocks up your spine. In Harley parlance, this is known as “character.”

I spent the next four hours riding that damn Street Glide over the rough roads of Joshua Tree National Park. It was often cold, always bumpy and not even for a moment comfortable. Ed “offered” to switch back, taking the same tone you’d hear from a kid suggesting he return his Christmas presents since the car broke down and mom and dad could use the money.

Nonetheless, Joshua Tree National Park turned out to be spectacular.

On all of my multiday motorcycle tours, I try to get a good group shot. These don’t always turn out so well, particularly if we ask a passerby to take the picture for us. I very much appreciate their willingness, enthusiasm and dedication – these strangers often take many shots, frame the photos very carefully and nonetheless produce completely unusable pictures.

DSC_5898This photo would have been adequate if not for the Joshua Tree sprouting from the top of my head.

At other times, these bad photos are self-inflicted.

DSC_5887Whoops! The self-timer started – places, everyone!

We eventually found a stranger to take an acceptable picture – this one would have worked if one of the riders (me) hadn’t thoughtlessly left a distracting pile of gear in the background.

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But that’s where the magic of editing can bail you out:

DSC_5894 (1)In this picture, Ed is closer to the Harley than he had been in the previous two hours.

Ed – wearing his Harley gear, no less – asked for a picture on my his BMW:

IMG_1086 2The BMW developed a strange metallic rash where Ed’s Harley jacket came into contact with it. We checked various online forums and learned we could buff it out with a soft sponge soaked in Heineken. This worked.

Our next stop was the scenic overlook at Keys View – a one-way road that ends up over at more than 5,000 feet of elevation. It was a chilly ride particularly, say, if you are stuck on a bike you didn’t rent that lacks heated grips, a heated seat and a usable windshield. But the view at the top was spectacular.

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Tom impressed us by knowing that the mountain in the distance is Mt. San Jacinto, which he explained was “the tallest mountain in Southern California.

He continued, “I was on top of that mountain once,” impressing us further.

“Was it a tough climb?” Ed asked.

Tom paused. “You take a trolley up and then there’s a trail to the top,” he admitted.

Gorgeous mountain, of course, but as I like to say, there’s no natural wonder so beautiful that we can’t improve upon it by standing in front of it – as you can see:

IMG_1095Mt. San Jacinto, vastly beautified by us.

We saw several brave tourists (mostly young girls) standing on a rock that allowed for a great photo op, considering the spectacular background scenery.

“Hey Ed,” I said, “Climb up on that rock and I’ll take your picture!”

“I can’t,” he said. “I’m afraid of heights.”

So he sat on it instead.

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I, however, stood – confident in my fuzzy green plumpness:

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It was quite cold at Keys View, so we climbed back on the bikes, allowing Ed and Tom to warm up from the luxurious grips, seats and tall windshields of the BMWs while I grew colder still as I mounted the freezing Harley and felt the wind rush by, a whiff hypothermia in the air.

Before we entered the park, Amateur Botanist Tom had predicted that the recent moisture would have enabled wildflowers to sprout in the desert. He pulled over at one point so we could all enjoy the flowers and marvel at his ability to identify them by genus and species.

IMG_2547When Tom Petty sang, “You belong among the wildflowers,” he was speaking of Tom Gale, who even sports a matching jacket. 

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IMG_2451Tom led through this portion of our Joshua Tree National Park Tour. As you can see, the speed limit was 35MPH – a speed at which we rode repeatedly, but usually while on the way to 70MPH. Side note: the road (which, as is apparent in the picture, is quite rough), really wears you out if you happen to be on a bike you did not choose to rent because among other limitations, it has a crappy suspension.

We emerged from the park many hours later and stopped at Burger King in Coachella, CA for lunch. We wanted something better but have you had a Whopper lately? Try one when you’re starving – they’re tasty!

At this point, Ed had been on my BMW for several hours. It was obvious to him (and to me) that it was well past time to return the bike to its rightful renter. So Ed finally did the courteous thing: He turned to Tom and asked, “Hey Tom, have you ever ridden a Harley?”

Pause.

“No,” Tom replied.

“Well,” Ed continued. “Feel free to try out the Street Glide. It would be a shame to rent three different bikes without having a chance to ride all of them. I’ve never ridden that model BMW.”

Tom had, in fact, rented a different model than mine. It was only natural, I suppose, for Ed to want to compare them. For scientific purposes, of course.

So, I retrieved my long-lost BMW K1600GTL, Ed climbed on the equally plush and warm R1200RT and Tom settled his long frame over the cold, rough, short Harley. We roared out of the parking lot and headed south to ride along the Salton Sea.

The history of the Salton Sea is too extensive to cover here, but it’s an interesting read. In brief, before the water became too nasty (“The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has developed a safe eating advisory for fish caught in the Salton Sea based on levels of mercury or PCBs found in local species,” says Wikipedia), several resorts popped up on its shores in the 1950s.

These are all gone. “The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea,” notes Wikipedia. “The US Geological Survey describes the smell as ‘objectionable,’ ‘noxious,’ ‘unique’ and ‘pervasive.’”

It is, however, quite beautiful – and enormous, albeit in a tragic setting due to the widespread poverty apparent in the area. It’s the largest lake in California and goes on for many miles.

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And some people camp there. The bearded gentleman in the center below is Andrew from Seattle, and he agreed to shoot a picture for us, even though he was peacefully relaxing in a t-shirt and boxers next to his RV when we roared up for yet another group photo.

IMG_1149Note: Trains run constantly. The entire Salton Sea area is either industrialized, impoverished or ecologically damaged. In this particular situation, the three seem to be interrelated. Somewhat paradoxically, there are also vast agricultural tracts. 

Andrew, it turned out, knew how to handle a camera – lack of pants notwithstanding.

IMG_1145This is the first group photo in which Ed is not standing by the Harley, thus giving up the any pretense that he likes it, wants to be associated with it or intends to ride it any further.

IMG_1153Ed, whom I should mention, spent much of his career in sales, told Tom that he should get a picture sitting on the Harley, with the train in the background. “It’s like Americana,” he stressed. Helpfully, he “loaned” Tom his Harley Davidson motorcycle jacket, which he obviously no longer needs.

IMG_1151 A train passes next to the Salton Sea – likely moving goods from Mexico northward.

We got back on the bikes and Tom (on the Harley) led us to Salvation Mountain. The late Leonard Knight, a local resident and devout Christian, decided to construct a “mountain” that could exhibit Bible verses, with a focus on the Lord’s Prayer. His first structure collapsed, which most would take as a sign that perhaps they should find a new hobby. Knight took it as a warning from God that his structure was unsafe (a safe assumption), so he rebuilt it with better construction techniques.

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Salvation Mountain has been featured in various music videos and movies and has attracted a large, eclectic but apparently universally-impoverished group of campers, some of whom live there permanently.

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We passed up the opportunity to get a “Spirit Reading” for $5, which could come back to haunt us. We did not pass up the chance to take a selfie in front of the sign.

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As we prepared to depart Salvation Mountain, I paused to take a picture of God’s actual handiwork as the sun set, creating a spectacular red sky, which I hope was not so colorful thanks to the ruined atmosphere of Los Angeles or the Salton Sea. In any case, it was mesmerizing to me, although not to Tom, who can be seen here checking text messages.

IMG_1183This photo is completely unretouched.

We checked into the Best Western in El Centro, 15 minutes from the border with Mexico and asked the clerk where we could get good Mexican food.

“Mexico,” she volunteered.

“Oh yeah,” Ed said. “I bet they have great Mexican food in Mexico.”

“Or ‘food’ as they call it there,” I replied.

Our rental contracts forbid us from riding the bikes into Mexico, so we went to the Los Cabos Seafood & Grill in scenic downtown El Centro for what turned out to be an outstanding meal. Ed actually rode the Harley there and back (it’s 1.7 miles from our hotel), so I suppose it will be his turn to ride one of the BMWs again in the morning.

While we were at dinner, Ed said, “If I were to rank all of my days on a motorcycle, this would be one of the top three.”

I thought, “It’s also the only day you’ve ever spent on a motorcycle that wasn’t a Harley Davidson.”

Tom said, “I haven’t ridden that many full days on a motorcycle, but me, too.”

Truthfully, it was a spectacular day of motorcycling. That’s surprising, given that we started the day thinking we had to settle for second and third choices of roads due to cold and snow along our preferred route. Instead, we rode through beautiful scenery, saw amazing, one-of-a-kind sights while we laughed, posed for pictures, made fun of each other and met a wide variety of nice people who were mostly not very good photographers.

I don’t think I can “rank” my best and worst days on a motorcycle. I’ve had so many wonderful experiences, but the company, the scenery, the riding and often even the bikes are so different that comparing them is not just difficult – it seems unfair to diminish some memories in favor of others.

But I can certainly grade my days on motorcycles. And today’s ride earned an A+. And that’s saying something, considering I spent much of it on a Harley Davidson Street Glide.

Vaya con Dios and adios from El Centro, California. Thanks for reading and I’ll post the third update from this trip tomorrow night.

 

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