Monday, September 19, 2005

The following is the Original Submitted text for an article that appeared in the August 2005 issue of Kiwi Rider Magazine, titled "American Express", which was a very editted version of the following. Authored by Don Mardle of Palmerston North, NZ

The BART dropped me off at Dublin Station where my host for the week
collected me. We had arranged to do a week riding together that for me would
take in some desert and a couple of must see places. This is the story of
that trip. The route covered was Stockton to Tonopah, NV to Kanab, UT to
Williams, AZ to Las Vegas, NV to Stockton - Aug/Sep 2004. The route included
three National Parks, Yosemite, Zion and the Grand Canyon. My host who is
colloquially known as VSP on account he is a very short person, rode his
1999 Triumph Legend and I was on a 1988 BMW K75C. Before the trip proper
we did a little tiki touring around the area taking in Arlen Ness Customs
retail store, which, since it was Saturday, was crowded, and the system of
levee roads. The levees are embankments that contain waterways that are
actually some 10-foot higher than the surrounding dry land and the road
simply runs wherever these stopbanks go. The lands between the levees are
referred to as islands and are intensively cropped in tomatoes and
asparagus. Much of the waterways are infected by water hyacinth and it would
seem gophers. In one place the gopher holes had so weakened the levee that
it broke and flooded a huge area.

On the Sunday we shot up to Sacramento to meet with some of the Northern
California Triumph group but the ride they had planned did not suit us so we
decided to explore some of the River Roads of the San Joaquin Delta. This
was rural America as it once was and while a lot of it had clearly fallen on
hard times enough remained to make it very enjoyable. Historically the
waterways had the effect of isolating many of the towns and as a result each
had developed their own character but booze, gambling and whoring seems to
be common elements. Locke is an abandoned town that had been colonised by
the Chinese and though now deserted (except for a single working hotel)
still retains most of the original wooden buildings and its Chinese

We stopped for lunch at Ernie's Saloon in Isleton. Isleton's one
claim to fame seems to be that it hosts the annual Crawdad Festival, but
today was full of motorcyclists. It is a popular weekend destination for
bikers who crowd out the two eateries. By far the most common bike was the
Harley with each rider adopting a slight variation on what must be the
universal HD look. Not too much individuality mind, no full face helmets, no
bright colours, no sneakers but you could show your true patriotic spirit by
flying the Stars and Stripes off of a pole jammed into the rear fender.
After a silent signal that only bikers can understand small groups of them
would roar off in unison with Old Glory fluttering for all it's worth. This
patriotic spirit I was to see many times on our ride. VSP and I shared 2 lb
of Crawdads, a kind of mud scrimp, for lunch. I guess if you keep trying you
might get to like them.

The levee system and the river delta require unique
solutions for crossing from one side to the other and cable ferries were not
uncommon. In fact they form part of the highway system and therefore are
free. The other are bridges that swivelled 90 degrees to run parallel with
the river to let river traffic through. Tomorrow we head out.

We left Stockton for Tonopah around 0800 and headed to Riverbank and
Nifty's Café for breakfast. Nifty's is an old style Coffee Shop and used to have a
drive-in across the parking lot. Many of the out-of-city diners looked so
uninviting I would under normal circumstances have passed them by but they
were crowded and without exception the food was excellent and portions
generous. I got to love the breakfast experience. US hotcakes are unlike
anything you get in NZ, they are the size of dinner plates, are made with
buttermilk and are not sweet, often eaten with eggs but maple syrup is just
fine. A short stack of three is a big breakfast. Coffee is served in the US
standard coffee mug, something akin to an unbreakable Railways china cup
with high sides. Actually their filter coffee is universally good.

After breakfast we headed towards Yosemite National Park riding through
rolling farmland until we hit the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. We paid
the Park Ranger man $10 each and entered Yosemite National Park. This place
is truly beautiful.

The Tioga Pass would take us over the highest of the
Northern California passes at 10,000 feet. We stop at Mono Lake for gas and
a quick lunch.

The temperatures, which were pleasant in Yosemite, have
become triple digits as we take off on Hwy 120 and head towards Benton. The
ride to Benton was in country similar to Central Otago but at 6000 feet and
30 degree C. Benton is an abandoned border town shortly after entering
Nevada, just an empty casino, gas station and a couple of other buildings.
There were other deserted settlements in later days but usually as a result
of the interstate roads bypassing them. But this place still had open signs
out as if the whole place left at lunchtime never to return. We do the last
60 miles to Tonopah in one hit. Tonopah is an ex silver mining town and
watering hole for USAF personnel in the 1940's. The military and the silver
are gone but some people stayed. Think of Twizel in the desert. When the old
building became too dilapidated they simply built new ones a 100 yards down
the road. So you are presented with a town where one end is derelict and the
other end is inhabited and to add to the surreal experience there are no
trees or green - zilch. Everything is bleached white in the sun. It is hot,
40 degrees. Dinner is at the Ramada Tonopah Station where I was keen to try
anything that looked American so for dessert I had the Pecan pie. I enquired
as to where it was made thinking it might be a local baker or that it be the
specialty of the chef - nope it apparently came in a truck.

Tuesday takes us from Tonopah to Kanab, a distance of approx 400 miles. We
start along Hwy 6 stopping on the highway to let a herd of wild mustangs
cross the road before getting to Warm Springs. Warm Springs is shown on the
AAA map as a town but turns out to be an abandoned motel resort with about
50 rooms and a few other abandoned buildings.

Here we turn on to the
Extraterrestrial Highway, Nevada Hwy 375. On this road it is easy to see how
people can hallucinate. Except for slowing down and stopping for Open Range
cattle and seeing a coyote or two there is nothing but sand and sagebrush.
and absolutely no traffic - VSP and I were it. The absence of other targets
proved to be to good an opportunity for a couple of jet jocks in F5 Freedom
Fighters who flew over us so low they just about took the paint off my
helmet. I also worried for a while that I was having my own ground hog day.
Three times we rode a perfectly straight endless road to eventually cross
some distant hill. And over the hill there was an exact replica of the road
and hill we had just travelled. The temperatures have already climbed into
the triple digits. We get to Rachel some 112 miles from Tonopah. I wondered
what I had stumbled upon despite the highway sign giving some indication. In
front of the café is an old 50's tow truck with a flying saucer attached to
the hook.

So this was Area 51 - and all the time I thought Moulder and
Scully just made it up. We go inside where we talk to the grandson (in his
40's and also named Don so now there are three of us called Don) of the
founder of Rachel (established 1968, population 103). The town is named
after his oldest aunt and first born of the founder. Don number 3 tells us
that his mother is manning the gas pump about a quarter mile up the frontage
road. I buy the obligatory souvenir T-shirt while VSP gets into the eating
mode with a half order of biscuits and gravy. I've never heard of such a
dish so sample his food and while VSP says it is excellent biscuit and gravy
to me it was something akin to a dry plain scone with a peppery white sauce.
Shit you put white sauce on cauliflower and poached fish. Not recommended
at all. The people at Rachel were nice and friendly given that they were
probably not humans at all. It is HOT. My little thermometer shows 112*. At
the Nevada ­ Arizona border on I-15 is the town of Mesquite, NV. It has a
bunch of new modern very big casino resorts. Although Mesquite is on the
Arizona border it is only 40 miles from the large town of St. George, Utah
so I get the idea that gambling is not what you do in Utah. We head to Zion
National Park. Zion just blew me away - I have never seen anything like it.
I had already seen pictures of it on a web site so had some idea what I was
in for and I was not disappointed. We stopped for photo ops a couple of
times and had we the time I would love to have gone back the other way just
to continue the experience.

The US National parks are a real jewel in the US
crown and appear to be hugely popular. Maybe it's because you can drive to
and trough them. Contrast that with NZ national parks - mostly locked up and
you have to leg it everywhere.

We get to Kanab where we spend the night.
Dinner is at Houston's Trails End where I try another American icon - BBQ
ribs. Only these ribs have no bone but tasted great all the same and you
have to just love American BBQ sauce. The standout feature of the restaurant
was that the waitresses wore side arms. They looked real and heavy.

Day 3 was to take us from Kanab to Williams via the Grand Canyon. We walk
to Houston's for breakfast where the waitresses were now sans their firearms.
Hotcakes with eggs and bacon - getting to be predictable. VSP steers us off
to Hwy 89 in order to maximise my exposure to and feed my fascination of
cactus and red rocks and sand and straight roads. The red rocks at Vermilion
Cliffs are quite an experience. At Big Water, UT we stop at a Bureau of Land
Management Information building and it turns out that it has a very nice
dinosaur exhibit. The curator complains to us that his bosses will not allow
anything about the dinosaur exhibit on their road signage. Strange until you
remember that this state is likely to favour an alternative theory on
evolution. From there we head to the Glen Canyon Dam at Lake Powell, which
turns out to be only 40% full due to a 6-year drought. This is Navajo
country and they know the area as Wahweap. I decide to take a tour of the
dam but first must undergo the full electronic search. We stop just before
Hwy 89 meets back up with Hwy 89A at an overlook where you can see for
miles. At the overlook there are Navajo Indian vendors selling trinkets and
one of vendors picks ups on my accent and asks me where I come from in NZ.
Seems the headmaster of their school is a Maori. We rest from the heat in
Cameron at the local Navajo marketplace and café.

Now it's off to the Grand
Canyon with stops at Desert View, the Tusayan Indian village, Mather Point
and the Bright Angel Lodge. Drink water. It's hot.

We enter the Grand Canyon at the South (sic) entrance and pick our way along the
many viewing points towards the park HQ. The pictures you take never capture
the majesty and sheer vastness of this gulf. The Colorado River at the
bottom looks like a stream. Unfortunately smoke from a forest fire obscured
some of the view. We race the Grand Canyon Railroad train down to Williams.
Actually we both think there is a forest fire starting up to the south as we
catch and pass the old steam engine spewing smoke. The Marriot where we are
staying offers a much appreciated swimming pool. After a dip and a short
stay in the spa, we head into Williams and Rod's Steak House. This is a must
eat place if you are anywhere near Williams. We both have the New York strip
sirloin and they are great, in fact more than great, definitely the best
steak I have ever had. Fifty bucks for the both of us. Later we were to see
this exact same meal in Las Vegas at $49 per person.

Thursday and day 4. From Williams we head west on I-40 and soon pick up a
section of the old Route 66. We travel a surprisingly ordinary 2-lane road,
very much as you would expect in provincial NZ. A few towns are left but
there are also a few abandoned places along the road. We stop at Seligman,
AZ and the Road kill Café with its intriguing motto of 'you kill it we grill
it'. The Road kill Café has a great T-shirt with the Road Kill menu on the
back so another T gets stuffed into the luggage. The railroad was our
constant companion with hugely long trains, one I measured at over a mile
long, often hauled by three locomotives. They travel quite slowly but there
seems to be one every 5 minutes hauling everything from semi trailers to
double stacked 40-foot containers. A short stop at Kingman, AZ and then it
is off to Las Vegas on Hwy 93, what a straight, hot, boring road that was.

Finally came up to a curve in the road after about 70 miles. As we approach
Hoover Dam everyone is pulled off the highway for an inspection. Since the
highway still goes right on top of the dam, it is a security checkpoint. We
get to the dam and pull into the parking lot. It costs us each $6.00 to
park, the same price as an SUV or auto but at least it gets us our of the 45
degree sun. I decide to take the $10 tour along with a couple of hundred
others. The story of building the Hoover Dam makes for good Boys' Own
reading and is considered one of the 7 wonders of the industrial world. I am
glad I came. However I had to feel sorry for VSP who stuck it out in the
heat. {I was in the air conditioned souvenir store, Don I.}

We still have a little bit to ride to Harrah's, our stop for the night
in Las Vegas where we have a $45 room on the 17th floor. The same room the
next night (the start of the Labour Day weekend) cost $139.

Las Vegas traffic proves to be an 80 mph nightmare even with the trusty AAA
map. We manage to get to I-15 that has become a long parking lot.
Remembering not to split lanes and with a little riding on the shoulder to
get to the first exit and over to Las Vegas Blvd. and the Strip. My
predisposition was that Vegas was a sleazy neon town but wrong, I was
astounded by the Strip. It is much grander than I could have imagined. We
check in at Harrah's and take a shower. It is 4:30 PM and 103* outside.

We stop to watch the outdoor Pirate show at Treasure Island, which was once
more suited to kids but no longer. We visit the Venetian and view the indoor
Gondola ride - on the second floor. We walk through the Caesar's Palace
shops where I goggle over $650 pens and $2950 watches, and head over to
watch the water show at the Bellagio. But after a long wait we find that it
has been cancelled because of high winds.

Day 5, Friday. Today we intend going only as far as Barstow. Early Friday
morning we head south on I-15, stop at Prim for gas, and stop again at
Baker, CA. Baker is the southern gateway to Death Valley and can get to 120*
in the summer - we are not going that way. We ride through Barstow on old
Hwy 58 and carry on, on account no one seems to live there any more. Then we
head toward the Mojave Desert, skip round the southern end of the Sierras
and finally enter the green pastures of Southern California. It is still
early by the time we get to Bakersfield and I sense a keenness on the part
of VSP to push on to home so we decide to ride all the way to Stockton
rather than over night some where along the way. Stockton is still a long
way off and to make it we hit Interstate 5. Shit, we had been on and off
Interstates before but this bugger had 4 lanes on my side and the slowest
lane, which was full of 18-wheelers nose to tail, was doing the posted speed
of 80 mph. We sort of stuck to the middle 2 lanes at around 95 mph while the
left lane was reserved for SUV's at God knows what speed. The poor BM was
really feeling the heat and speed and with a cross wind the heat off the
radiator burned the hell out of my right leg. For all that it was an
interesting experience and there were sights along the way such as the
burning campervan, cotton fields, orange groves, apricot orchids, Macadamia
farms and a feed lot which you could smell long before you got to it. It was
huge with 1000's of beef units milling around in grassless paddocks. I found
the Interstate required a surprising amount of concentration. Not only did I
have to wring the neck of the K75 but also every now and then you would get
stuck in packets of traffic all jostling for position. VSP being the
statistician that he is had a cunning plan to break the pattern by slowing a
little and the packet would move off. Worked surprisingly well and for the
most we rode unhindered by other traffic. As we got closer to San Francisco
the traffic really got heavy. By now it was around 5 pm and this was the
start of Labour Day weekend and everyone was on the road. We pulled into
Stockton at 8pm after 12 hours riding and 531 miles. We were home.


The time of the year of the trip coincided with the celebrated end of the
summer so you might expect endless sunny days that we got. They were very
welcome after the New Zealand winter but it was clear that it had not rained
for some considerable time and the place looked as if it could do with a
good wash. And just what 6 months of cloudless days with temperatures in the
mid 30's is like is any ones guess. You can get too much of a good thing.
The Yanks live by-and-large very well. Their food for example, even their
junk food, is very good. Unlike in some countries where they seems to slice
the top 10% of the flavour off the food, not so America. And it is
reasonably well priced, $6 will get you 2 eggs, ham and hash, toast and

The people are polite and very helpful but they can also be brash,
overconfident with no good cause and are masters of the overstatement. They
seem universally proud of their country and its achievements and universally
sceptical of government. Individually they are far from the evil empire
conspiracists postulate.

Purchasing things can be a harrowing experience. The posted price does not
include tax so as a result you end up with a pocket full of tin. Tipping for
service adds to the expense. However ticket prices when converted seem about
what you would expect to pay for the same item in NZ. However their
purchasing power parity is way higher than ours though they have social
expenses that we are spared in NZ.

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