With four days to spare before his flight home from Los Angeles, Bryn Davies picks up a bike in Denver and attempts to see as much of Western USA as he can
“I wanna know,” sang Creedance Clearwater Revival frontman John Foggerty through the speakers of the Harley. “Have you ever seen the rain?” ‘Well, John. It’s bloody hard to miss it!’ I thought to myself as I rode west over the Colorado/ Utah border.
By my judgement, I was riding into the end of days. A fierce-looking storm had built up to my right over the past 15-or-so miles, Noah was busy building an arc a few miles in front of me, and while I’d been admiring the magnificent cloud formations to my right, I’d failed to spot the third storm gaining momentum to my left.
For the 250 miles I’d ridden from Denver to Fruita (a small town near the Utah border), I’d had great fun watching the weather do some crazy things around me, but like Moses parted the Red Sea with his staff, I parted a clear route with my Ultra Ltd, and until this point had remained stone dry and avoided the wrath of the weather gods. But those trouble-free miles appeared to be coming to an end.
The first raindrop splashed off the windscreen, prompting me to gaze skyward just in time for a million more to come crashing down on my face. By the time my brain computed that it was in fact raining, I was already too wet to bother throwing my waterproofs over my leather jacket and jeans. It was still pretty warm anyway.
The wind began to pick up, lightning lit up the sky, and after a few miles of slow riding in low visibility, I looked at the dash to see that I was running out of fuel.
The Harley is thirstier than a British teenager in Ayia Nappa during happy hour. By my reckoning I was averaging 200 miles per tank, and so sourcing fuel was priority number one. Fortunately, the SatNav reckoned that I’d find what I was looking for in five miles after turning off the highway.
Sure enough, there was a fuel station, but when I put the nozzle in the tank and pulled the trigger, there was nothing. I soon realised that I wasn’t getting a single drop from this place. The power was out, courtesy of the storms that were raging above me.
Despite being drenched, I was feeling pretty good, so I pressed on to the next petrol station about 10 miles away, and fortunately still en route. Surprise surprise, they too were out of the good stuff. I was running out of options and the fuel gauge was pointing to empty. The next opportunity for fuel would be in Moab, some 30 miles away.
A look at the SatNav reminded me that I still had four hours of riding to do before I reached my first night’s stop in Mexican Hat, a lone lodge almost within touching distance of Monument Valley, and if I wanted to be there in time for dinner (apparently, they do the best steaks around) I couldn’t afford to hang around and wait for power to be restored here.
So, I threw my helmet on, grit my teeth and left the forecourt, trying to look badass while revving the bike as little as possible to preserve fuel.
“More people die from lightning strikes here than anywhere else in the world,” I remembered being told. Whether it’s true or not, it’s a nice thought to hold on to when you’re riding through the heart of a fierce storm and there’s nothing but flat, deserted ground around you with nowhere to take shelter.
Spotify had seen the humour in my situation though, and Riders of the Storm blared out of my speakers, followed shortly by Highway to Hell, and Don’t Fear the Reaper. I kid you not, it was the strongest playlist-to-situation ratio I’ve ever experienced.
Wind was almost blowing me off the road and the rain was hitting harder than before. Oncoming trucks created wild vortexes that threatened to throw me off balance and I’d never felt so vulnerable on a bike before.
Then, all of a sudden, it was calm and I was rolling into Moab, running on fumes. Moab is a really cool looking place, and I wish I could have spent more time here as it looked lively and everyone was having fun. But I had a steak to eat, so I filled up and went on my way.
I had about three hours before I’d reach Mexican Hat, and for the first time I was seeing the incredible red rock formations of southern Utah. Unfortunately, and unknowingly, I’d ridden right past Arches National Park, a remarkable landscape that’s home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, so I’d have to make do with the views to the south of Moab… Poor me.
After my earlier experiences, I was feeling a bit traumatised by thunder and lightning, but I could see two storms raging miles away in the distance. It was fascinating that this lightning had taken on a reddish hue, rather than the electric blue I’d become so accustomed to seeing. It wasn’t long before I realised that they were also in my path, and by the time I reached them it was pitch black.
I hadn’t seen another vehicle for an hour and a half, and riding straight through the lightning storm was, in all honesty, terrifying. A bolt struck literally metres away from me, and I watched as one hit a huge rock formation a few miles to my right, igniting a huge fireball that burnt for a few seconds. Spotify obviously sensed my uneasiness and started to play some happy tunes to cheer me up.
I rolled into Mexican Hat Lodge to the funky riff of Superstition, with a feeling of anxiousness that only a huge American steak would ease. But there would be no steak that night. I had arrived just as the chef hung up his apron, so I had to make do with a bag of crisps I bought earlier while drinking beer and having a deep chat with JD, the incredibly interesting owner of Mexican Hat Lodge.
The next day I arose early, and rode the short journey along the US-163 to Monument Valley, where I stood in awe staring at a scene that I recognised from numerous movies and books. The huge sandstone buttes are magnificent, and you can’t help but marvel at their remarkable formations and wonder how on earth they were created. America is full of such natural wonders.
I hadn’t really planned what to do after visiting Monument Valley, so I decided to head towards the city of St. George and see if anything took my fancy along the way. Despite passing the Grand Canyon by less than 100 miles, it was Zion National Park that attracted me. Not because of any prior research, but because I spoke to a group of IT engineers by the side of the road, and if you’re going to trust anyone, it’s IT engineers from Silicon Valley, right?
Am I sad that I chose Zion over the Grand Canyon? Absolutely not. Zion National Park is a mind-blowing place. I’m of the opinion that the national park is best approached from the east, as you get to see some of the most interesting and unique cliff and rock formations around, before passing through a tunnel and entering the western side of the national park.
At this point, it’s like you’ve been teleported to another world and the tarmac transports you through a deep, wide gorge that’s surrounded by towering and belittling rock faces. If there’s ever a time that the world’s natural beauty is going to stop you dead in your tracks and demand that you stare, it’s here.
As I rolled into St George., I was ready to call it a day. I had already covered 300 miles, and it was starting to get dark, so I decided I’d grab some food and mull over my options. I also wanted to find a bar where I could have a few drinks and get to meet the locals, but my preliminary scout around the town, as I looked for an all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet, lead me to believe that St George might just be the most boring city in Utah. There’s a lot of restaurants and shops, but it seemed like there were no people around!
I opened up Late Rooms and began searching, but not feeling particularly inspired by the options available to me, I started to consider what a random guy on the forecourt of a petrol station in Page, who had now (in my eyes) become the most respected authority on what to see in the western USA, had told me. He had said, “Dude, you want to go to Vegas! It’s a Saturday night, it’ll be rocking! The drinks will be flowing and the women are cheap!”
I punched Las Vegas into the Late Rooms website, and the first result, which also happened to be one of the cheapest, was for a room in the Hooters Casino and Hotel. If I needed more convincing, it came in the form of a memory from when I visited the Hooters bar in Interlaken, Switzerland… The chicken wings were incredible.
By the time I was back in the saddle it was almost dark and the SatNav reckoned it would take me about two hours to reach my destination. I put some Lynyrd Skynyrd on and switched my mind off, hoping to make the journey as quickly as possible. As I travelled down Interstate 15 and crossed the border into Arizona and then Nevada, I soon began to sweat.
The altitude was dropping and I figured I must have been entering the Mojave Desert, the driest desert in North America. Now, I don’t deal particularly well with hot temperatures. Given the choice, I’d rather be chilling out in a ski resort than melting by the side of a pool in Spain, so when I pulled over for fuel and noticed that the temperatures were sitting at 39.5C, I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into.
If it was this hot at 11 pm, what would it be like tomorrow when the sun’s beating down? I had no choice, however, but to traverse the desert to get to LA for my flight, so I had a little sulk to myself and carried on.
While my time in Vegas was, on the whole, underwhelming, I have no doubt that it’d be a fun place to visit with mates, but when you’re alone and you don’t have the desire to throw a few grand away in the casinos, you find yourself wondering what on earth you’re doing there.
The one redeeming factor was the magnificent sight of the illuminated skyline as the 15 begins to drop into the city, you can see the glow from what seems like 100 miles away.
My brief stint in Vegas comprised of me throwing $100 into the slots, being told by the staff at Hooters that I booked my room for the wrong day, finding one of the only remaining rooms in Vegas (which happened to be in a delightful Chinese casino), eating my weight in Korean food, and talking to homeless people about why they still choose to live in Vegas when they have no money.
Needless to say, I got out of there as soon as I could the following day, which happened to be at 2 pm by the time I’d retrieved my bike from the Hooters parking lot and prised myself away from the air conditioning.
By this point it was 43C and I thought that there’s no way I can physically continue in this heat, so I set out to try and find some cooler temperatures. Logic would dictate that the further north you go, the colder it gets, and as I could see a mountain range to the north (and a homeless fella had told me that it was a more agreeable temperature that way), I decided to head towards the small town of Pahrump.
Finally, after sitting in traffic for a few hours in 45C, I was out of Vegas and on the mountain roads. I can’t describe how good it felt to be out of the city, I felt free again and I could get my trip back on track. My original plan was to avoid the heat, it was really starting to get me down, but after a drink stop in a Denny’s in Pahrump, I decided to cross Death Valley, a place that’s renowned for being one of the hottest places on Earth.
Contrary to popular opinion, I’m not an idiot, and I didn’t want to face the possibility of riding through Death Valley without water, and cold water at that (by now, any water that was strapped to the bike was hot enough to make a cup of tea with), and so I bought a trendy, baby blue cooler bag to strap to my pillion seat, and filled it with ice and as much water as I could possibly carry.
A woman in the supermarket car park was intrigued by what I was doing and came over to speak to me.
“You couldn’t have picked a hotter day to do it,” she said after I told her that I was planning to head into Death Valley. “People have dropped off their bikes and died there. I wouldn’t be surprised if we break a record in heat there this year, you should definitely spend the night in Pahrump and attempt it first thing in the morning.”
I decided to completely ignore her ominous advice and went for it anyway. Anticipation built as I got closer and closer to the national park, and by the time I reached the boundaries, the Harley was showing that it had half a tank left.
The last thing you want here is to run out of fuel, especially as most people were leaving the park for the day, and I hadn’t researched if there were any fuel stations en-route. Nevertheless, after contemplating turning around, I decided to push on, passing the “Welcome to Death Valley” sign and beginning my descent.
As I descended, I was treated to one of the most perfect sunsets I’ve ever witnessed, which was a welcome distraction from the temperature that was rising almost with every metre of elevation I lost. Burning for You, sung by the Blue Oyster Cult started to play from my Spotify, and once again I was amazed at how relevant this playlist was to every situation I found myself in! It was, however, mockingly followed by Cold as Ice.
Death Valley is a truly surreal place. It’s like another world with its bizarre landscape and eerie (at least at sundown) feeling, and as you penetrate the park further, the heat becomes suffocating. Before long, my eyes were drying out and my hands were burning on the handlebars.
I pressed on and reached a ranch, where I was hoping I could find a room. It was, as I expected, fully booked, but the owner reassured me that I’d be able to get fuel in Stovepipe Wells (he also sold fuel, but it was cheaper a few miles up the road, according to him).
The temperature peaked at 47.5C, despite it now being pitch black, and I decided to stop for a cold drink and fuel at Stovepipe Wells. Feeling partly refreshed (it’s impossible to feel fully refreshed at that temperature), I set off, aiming to get to Panamint Springs before the waiting receptionist gave up and disappeared to wherever people who work in the desolate Death Valley disappear to.
By my reckoning, I had about 40 minutes to cover 30 miles, and so I set off at a steady pace, the Harley and I lighting up the road ahead like a badass celestial being. The road was dead quiet, apart from the hum of the Milwaukee Eight engine, and I decided to turn the music off to try and immerse myself in the surroundings as best as I could.
While the headlights flooded the road ahead and about 5m of dirt on each side, outside of this cone of white light was a darkness that’s hard to experience in other places. In fact, I can recollect one other time when I’ve seen it so dark, and that was when I went down the Big Pit in Pontypridd, an old mine that’s been kept intact to show people what it used to be like to work in them.
There’s a section where they turn the lights off and you’re enshrouded by blackness so thick that you no longer know which way is up or down, you wave your hand in front of your face and you see nothing.
Feeling slightly disorientated, I made it to Panamint Springs on time only to find that reception had effectively given me the finger and gone home for the day. With every option of sleeping in Death Valley exhausted, I decided to head to Lone Pine, just off the national park, in hope of finding a motel.
About five minutes after leaving civilisation behind, the atmosphere around me changed. And I know that’s an odd thing to say, but you know when you just feel uneasy? That’s how I was feeling. Every so often I felt as though there was something chasing my bike, and when I looked in the mirrors there was nothing but darkness to be seen.
You could assume that I was starting to go a bit bonkers, and I wouldn’t blame you for that assessment of the situation, but what happened next chilled me to the bone despite it being 43C. As my headlights swept the road and land in front of me, I became aware of a shape on the side of the road, about 7ft tall.
Intrigued, I continued to look at it, and soon made out the shape of a head and shoulders. I knew I was staring at something with a humanoid form but thought it might be a sign or something until I passed within a few metres of it and the figure turned as if to follow the trajectory of my bike.
All of a sudden, the most incredible sense of fear washed over me and I felt helpless and constantly chanted “shiiiiiit” to myself. When I regained a bit of composure I twisted the throttle all the way back and decided that I was getting out of Death Valley as fast as I could without stopping.
Despite being left wondering whether I needed new underwear, or if I was now being hunted by a strange being, I still had the wherewithal to realise that I was riding through a place called Swansea. As a Cardiff City fan, I did the honourable thing and gave the darkness around me the fingers.
They say that you’re never more than a metre away from a rat if you’re walking the streets of London, and I’ve decided that you’re never more than a metre away from a breakfast burrito when you’re riding through the USA. And so, the next morning I found myself sitting in a café delicately planning my assault on the humongous sausage, bacon, egg and cheese-filled wrap in front of me, while also debating whether or not I had time to see the majestic cliff faces of Yosemite National Park.
I decided to ask the waitress, who was typically friendly and very helpful, if there was anything worth seeing to the south of Lone Pine. On the map, it looks like there might be, as the 395, which runs from a few miles west of LA all the way north to the middle of Oregon, is sandwiched between two mountain ranges.
“Oh, there’s nothing much to see down there,” she informed me.
“OK, and how long do you think it would take to get to Yosemite from here? I’ve got to be in LA tomorrow for a flight, reckon I’ve got time?”
“I wouldn’t risk it,” she said, and went about her duties. So, I was presented with two opportunities. Head north and see the one US national park that has been top of my hit list ever since I was a little lad, or head south and put up with more ridiculous temperatures and risk seeing nothing.
I looked at my burrito, once again thinking how best to tackle it, and decided that life is like a big ‘ole breakfast wrap. Sometimes you’ve just gotta go for it. North it was.
The jaunt up the 395 was pleasant enough, the temperatures lowered with each passing mile, and I found myself in the ludicrous situation where 29C felt almost too cold. Death Valley sat ominously to my right, reminding me of the adventures of last night, and a great mountain range, the Sierra Nevadas, began to rise to my left.
Sporadically, in the distance, I could make out storms spewing rain over the dry land, and dramatic lightning shows kept me entertained as I inched closer to Lee Vining, which is where I’d get fuel and turn west towards Yosemite.
A few hours later and I began the journey up Tioga Road, which eventually takes you to Yosemite Valley. Excitement began to build as I pictured myself and the Harley sitting beneath El Cap, looking at its mighty face.
My journey so far, with the exception of Zion National Park and, of course, Vegas, had seen me travelling on roads where I was almost the only user. Today, however, I was one of four million annual visitors to be riding this road, and boy could I tell.
Consider that there’s only one road into Yosemite from the east, and even if we divide that annual visitor number by the number of days in a year (forgetting for a second that the road is closed in the winter), that’s potentially around 10,000 people using this stretch of tarmac per day. But that aside, you just need to look at the images of Yosemite Valley to realise why.
Anyway, after following a convoy of caravans up the twisty mountain road, I soon joined the queue to enter the national park. Where I had been in sweltering heat just a few hours prior, a patch of snow sat on the verge beside me, and a few kids decided to have a snowball fight while their parents waited in the cars for the queue to dwindle.
An hour later and I had passed through the entrance and was motoring through the forests at the modest posted speed limits. Don’t be tempted to exceed these, for two reasons. One, because it’s obviously illegal and speed limits are there for a reason.
And two, because the car in front of you will also be doing the speed limit, and if you maintain it, the delay at the entrance booth will mean that you won’t see another car in front of you for a long while, and that gives you a great feeling of being in the American wilderness by yourself.
I had read a lot about Yosemite Valley before, but had completely skipped over any information about the rest of the national park, and so the ride through it was an absolute delight, which is fortunate considering I ended up stuck behind a queue of vehicles because some idiot was doing 15mph the whole way, and there’s nowhere to overtake.
I finally made it into the valley proper, almost without realising where I was. There’s an odd one-way system to get into it, and as the canopy is so thick I didn’t quite see El Cap towering above me until I emerged into a clearing, and bam! Words cannot describe the raw beauty of Yosemite Valley, and you just have to pull over and sit for a few minutes, or an hour in my case, at Glacier Point (a popular view point).
But I couldn’t stay too much longer, I had to be in LA by the following afternoon, and I still had a 350-mile ride to do. I decided to head as far south as Fresno and then see how I was doing for time. Upon arriving in Fresno, I did the only thing I know to do when I get to a new town, and that’s seek out a good restaurant in which to refuel.
The riding was pleasant, it wasn’t too warm, and I’d rather be riding on the freeway in the evening when it wasn’t too busy (can someone in the US tell drivers that the outside lanes on a motorway are the ‘slow’ lanes, and the others are for passing!). I hunkered down in a Chinese restaurant and went about dismantling the buffet, at which point a chap overheard me talking to the waitress and came over to speak to me.
“Oh, you’re from England?” He asked me.
“I am indeed! Where are you from?” I replied.
“Well I’m from around here, but my friend over there is from the UK and he’s just come over here to work. Rob!” He called his friend over. “This guy’s from England too!”
Rob walked over, a plate full of fried rice in his hands, and said “Ello there fella, how you doin’?”
It was the first time I’d spoken to anyone with an English accent in over two weeks, and I guessed it was the same for him, there was an instant mutual respect and we had a quick chat by the spare ribs.
Noticing that I was eating alone, the guys invited me over to their table, to which I obliged, and Rob and I set about discussing our experiences in America, and how interesting the people are in the fact that they’re like us Brits, but different at the same time. Rob, bizarrely, was an elephant trainer who had been granted a work visa to train elephants at Fresno Zoo… A hell of a chat-up line if I ever heard one!
After we finished eating, they invited me back to stay at their house to have a few beers. Who was I to refuse such an offer? They let me park my bike in their secure back garden, use their shower, chill out on their sofa and watch the new series of Game of Thrones while drinking ice cold beer and shooting the shit. It was a fantastic and timely reminder of the joys of travelling, and how not everyone in the world is out to get you.
Despite being on his day off, Rob awoke in the morning to send me off with a coffee, and I made it to Eagle Rider’s LA depot to drop the bike off with plenty of time to spare. I may not have been riding an adventure bike, but that didn’t get in the way of me from having an incredible experience and experiencing my own type of adventure through Western USA.
I had four and a half days to complete my ride, so I planned my journey by picking a few main sights that I just had to see. You could spend months trying to see all of the amazing scenery and places in the western USA, so you’ve got to be smart with your choices.
For me, the four places I wanted to see more than any other were Monument Valley, either Grand Canyon or Zion National Park, Death Valley and Yosemite. I covered roughly 2,000 miles doing so.
National Park Fees
Many national parks in the US have entrance fees of up to $25 (about £19), and if you plan on seeing your fair share of these wonderful places the costs can really creep up.
Fortunately, if you are considering visiting more than three parks, you can purchase an annual park pass for $80 (about £60) which grants you access to all national parks and other Federal natural, historical and recreational sites.
I decided not to purchase one as I was only visiting three parks, but you can get them on entry into any park, so it’s worth keeping in mind.
Want to ride from Denver to Los Angeles? Here’s how you can…
At the time when I flew over to Denver, the cheapest way to get there was via Los Angeles, flying with Norwegian. Since that time, Norwegian has started operating a service from London Gatwick to Denver, with prices around a very affordable £259 depending on how early you book. Once you’re in LA, the cheapest way back is, again, with Norwegian, with prices as low as £170 if you book early.
Getting your own bike to the US for a few weeks of riding is usually cost prohibitive, so the best thing to do is to rent a machine while you’re over there. I used Eagle Rider’s bike rental service, where I picked my Harley up in Denver and dropped it off in Los Angeles, only a few minute’s taxi ride away from the airport.
If you’re not that bad to the bone, Eagle Rider also has a fleet of adventure bikes on which you can make the journey. The service is excellent, and it was simply a case of turning up and riding away.
If you’d rather ride your own bike around the States, Motofreight offers airfreight from London to Denver from £1,645 for a Harley Davidson Ultra Ltd-size motorcycle or similar. Seafreight from Los Angeles to London costs £875.
Once you’ve landed in Denver you’ll be best off taking a day or two to acclimatise (Denver sits at an altitude of 1,609m, and you really do feel it) and get over your jet lag. It’s a cool city to explore, and I spent my time staying in Hotel Monaco, a fine hotel where you can get a room from around $170 per night.