Riding America’s west coast: What happens in Vegas…

Sam Rollason

Sam Rollason’s nearing the end of his RTW; next stop America’s west coast, Death Valley, and the bright lights of Las Vegas, baby!

The bike was still on its way across the Pacific Ocean en route to Los Angeles from Melbourne when I arrived in the USA – and I was not to be reunited with it for quite a while. Kicking my heels in a very nice ‘campground’ overlooking the shore at Malibu, I couldn’t help but notice how stark the contrast between my humble canvass accommodation and the stylish penthouse abodes of the rich and famous that cluster along the Pacific coast. Tent 3, Malibu – not the most distinguished address – but I was happy; the weather was lovely and I’d already forgotten the dreadful wet and windy climes that I’d left behind me in Melbourne.

Owing to my lack of motorcycle, I spent the first few days indulging in some of Los Angeles’ more touristy sights – Hollywood, Sunset Boulevard and Santa Monica. Hollywood, I have to say, is rather tacky and especially the area around Hollywood Boulevard, which is understandable I guess. But as a true lover of the Silver Screen, I threw myself into the throngs and actually had a lot of fun strolling along the Walk of Fame, hunting out the names of my favourite actors and actresses. The great Ronald Colman was top of my list of must-see stars (“who on earth is Ronald Colman?” I hear you say) and, of course, Francis Albert Sinatra.

At last my shipping agent informed me that the vessel had arrived and I went through the old routine of plodding around the various customs and agent’s offices, completing the necessary paperwork to authorise release of the bike. Eventually, armed with a stamped Customs release note, I was able to present myself to the offices of the vast warehouse. I hoped my little machine was in safe keeping, waiting for me among the thousands of crates, boxes and packages that filled the enormous building.


As the familiar crate emerged from the depths on a forklift truck and was deposited in the car park, I felt the first lurch of trepidation I always get when it comes down to unpacking the bike. ‘Did I secure it properly? Has it fallen over?’ With these nagging thoughts running through my mind I peeked in on my beloved BMW… Ahh! All was well. The bike was still securely fastened – not too surprising as the crate was a pukka BMW one that I’d cheekily scrounged from the very helpful chaps at the dealership in Melbourne, thanks guys! After re-assembling all the parts I’d taken off in Australia I pressed the start button and the engine sprang magically into life. ‘Good Bike,’ I thought. ‘I’ll treat you to a cruise along Hollywood Boulevard!’ It has to be said that my trusty machine was by now looking somewhat battered, after all, it had covered a lot of ground over some tough terrain on my way around the circumference of the globe. I had also parted company with it rather unceremoniously two or three times – on ice in the far north of Georgia (Caucasus not USA), on a track in Tajikistan and on sand along the Gibb River Road in the Kimberley, Australia.


Consequently my bike and I didn’t quite cut the mustard as I rode along Hollywood Boulevard, our shabbiness reflected back at us in the windows of all the designer shops. All the bikes we passed were enormous, glitzy, fully dressed Harleys with their enormous, glitzy, fully dressed riders. I also lacked the pre-requisite blonde pillion, I noted. The Harley riders cruised by, casting disparaging glances from behind expensive sun glasses at my poor diminutive bike. In Hollywoodesque parlance, my bike and I were more ‘Wallace and Gromit’ than ‘Crockett and Tubbs!’

I was itching to get back on the road and the plan was now to ride across America from West coast to East coast – from the Pacific to the Atlantic, so completing my circuit of the planet. My route was open and I intended to follow my nose and make it up as I went along – land of the free indeed! The final destination, though, was cast in stone. The place where I intended to first see the Atlantic would be Kitty Hawk in North Carolina – the site of the Wright Brother’s epic first powered flight in 1903.

I decided to ride across the southern states. Winter was fast approaching and I wanted to keep clear of rain and snow if at all possible – I’d had enough drenchings in the worst Australian winter for twenty years, so sunshine and a bit of warm southern hospitality sounded jus’ fine an’ dandy to me.

My first planned stop was Death Valley National Park in the Mojave Desert – not much chance of snow there! It was, in fact, baking hot. As with all the National Parks in America, Death Valley is a very well run operation. It has several campgrounds and a more salubrious Resort and Lodge catering for the less adventurous (and considerably more affluent!) visitor. Approaching the park’s entrance, I paid the entrance fee of $10 (£6) for a seven-day pass, and was soon riding along the excellent road that runs across the floor of the valley, the lowest point being at 282ft below sea level.


The landscape of Death Valley is very surreal. Clear azure skies meet sweeping desert plains which are pitched with craggy mountains; the place is vast and very humbling. It could almost be another planet or perhaps a scene from Salvador Dali painting – in fact one viewing area is called the ‘Artist’s Palette’ owing to the kaleidoscope of different colours that swirl and eddy through the rock stratum.


From the peace and natural beauty of Death Valley, I rode on into the noisy man-made splendour of Las Vegas. It’s an astonishing, fantastical place. Approaching it from the nothingness of the dessert, it looks like a mirage rising up out of the barren earth.

The casinos are massive and the sprawling gambling floors inside them are filled with every possible kind of device conceived to take money off you and give you nothing back in return. Little old ladies sit at the machines, continually feeding cents, dimes and quarters into the insatiable money-eaters and pulling the handle like automatons in the hope that the machine will disgorge its million dollar jackpot over the floor. The gaming tables are ringed by punters playing roulette, craps, and poker. Suddenly a cheer rings out as someone plays a trump hand, the dice tumble into a winning combination or the roulette ball clicks into a winning slot. It’s a truly remarkable place.


The casinos are all themed with each building taking on the pseudo identity of a famous place or object. Hence New York, New York looks like a miniature New York City – complete with Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building, the Luxor is modelled on the great pyramids of Ghiza, itself a huge glass pyramid, with triangular rooms and sphinx, and Excalibur looks like a Disney castle with turrets and knights in armours wandering about. The Bellagio (the casino in the film <Ocean’s 11>) is famous for its choreographed fountain show. Every half an hour the enormous fountains in front of the hotel spring into life and shoot plumes of water high into the sky – choreographed precisely in time to a show-stopping Hollywood musical tune. A must-see spectacle.


The Venetian was my favourite casinos on the strip. It’s a most impressive building, designed to pay tribute to Venice’s glamourous waterways and plazas. A canal meanders through the interior of the casino, passing Venetian-style piazzas filled with fine dining restaurants and coffee shops. You can sit in a nice terrace cafe with a cup of coffee and a pastry and watch a Gondola punt by with its Gondolier serenading a giggling young couple in an accomplished tenor; all this happens inside the building – under a painted blue sky.


My accommodation was somewhat inferior to the opulent splendour of miles on the clock, and they ain’t laughing now, no sirree!


Australia has Ayers Rock as its geological piece de resistance, America has the Grand Canyon, and it was to there that I headed next, via the famous Hoover Dam. The brand-new bypass over the dam had just opened a few weeks before I arrived. I was still able to ride across the Hoover Dam, though, and park the bike up for some spectacular photo opportunities on foot. There’s a car park for visitors adjacent to the new bypass bridge and I was able to walk up the access ramps and stairs to the pedestrian walkway that crosses it. The new bridge is a superb piece of engineering – 2,000ft long with a 1,060ft twin-rib concrete arch rising 900ft over the Colorado River below. It took nearly five years to build – they certainly think big in the States! Anything and everything is possible there it seems. The view down to the dam is breath taking and definitely worth stopping for.

It’s difficult to describe such a massive rent in the earth’s crust – and I reckon ‘Grand Canyon’ just about sums it up. It’s simply enormous, measuring 18 miles across at the widest part, 277 miles long and a mile deep. The National Park on the south rim of the Canyon has good campground facilities and is located approximately a kilometre from the Canyon rim.

There are several  great roads for viewing the canyon by bike. Desert View Drive (Highway 64) follows the canyon rim for 26 miles east of Grand Canyon Village to Desert View – the east entrance to the park, which is open to private vehicles throughout the year. Hermit road follows the rim for eight miles west from Grand Canyon Village to Hermit’s Rest, which is closed to private vehicles for much of the year, but the park runs a free shuttle bus from this point to take visitors to the various overlooks. As with all the National Parks you don’t have to rough it in the canyon if your budget allows you a more salubrious standard of accommodation. There are some very nice lodges clustered along the rim – but at a price – and these were a tad over my budget.


America is well set up for camping. It’s very much like Australia in that respect – people enjoy the Great Outdoors and are well catered for, with masses of national, state and private camping grounds. Recreational Vehicles or ‘RVs’ range from European-size camper vans to enormous virtual bungalows on wheels. As is the case in Australia there are many, many people (often retired) migrating around in their RVs, following the sun and sights around the States. Consequently the private camping grounds are well appointed with clean facilities, and often with an outdoor hot tub!

The campsite I chose on the south rim of the canyon was perfect for my needs, with excellent showers and washrooms, a supermarket and even free WiFi, which meant that I could lie in my tent and surf the web! As I’d arrived at the very end of the season it was easy just to roll up, pay the $25 (£15) National Park entrance fee, ride into the Mather Campground and pay $12 (£7.50) for a pitch. If you’re visiting during the summer months, though, expect queues into the park. If you know what date you’re likely to arrive, it might be wise to book a pitch beforehand, too.



The following day I trekked down the Grand Canyon after taking one of the shuttle buses from the campsite to the rim. The weather was lovely as I meandered my way down, and the walk very pleasurable; not so the case on the way back up, though, and by the time I reached the top again I was sweating like a ‘glass blower’s behind’. That’s what you get for setting foot off the bike!

The nights were drawing in early and as the sun went down so did the temperature. One thing I will say of camping near the canyon is that it’s very cold at night late in the year – uncomfortably so. If you’re planning to camp, gear your kit up for the cold and make sure your sleeping bag’s up to scratch. Although essentially ‘roughing it’ I will admit to my little camping luxuries. I packed a toaster. No, not an electrical one! A simple griddle affair which set me back about three quid from a camping shop. It’s basically a thin metal plate with holes in it and a few fold-up wires to support four slices of bread. It worked a treat on my single-burner Coleman – lovely golden-brown toast for those chilly mornings. Well, you can’t expect an Englishman to go without tea and toast first thing, can you? There are limits, wherever you happen to be in the world!

One of the well-known Achilles’ heels of the F650’s Rotax engine is the water pump. I had researched the common potential problems attributed to the engine before leaving England over two years ago and carried a spare water pump repair kit with me, along with the other usual suspects like wheel bearings etc. The first indication of tired pump seals is a drip of coolant exiting the weep hole of the impeller chamber casting. Rotax is much maligned for this mooted design flaw, but in actual fact it’s a good design – the coolant will weep out on to the ground rather than into the crankcase unless there is a catastrophic failure of both seals and the weep hole is blocked. It’s an effective early warning system.


I first noticed the weep in Melbourne with 54,500 miles on the clock and it was now getting worse – one or two drips but no contamination of the oil yet, indicating that the inner seal was still doing its job. ‘I’ll keep an eye on it,’ I thought, and pressed on towards Monument Valley, another American geological icon and the backdrop for so many John Ford Westerns.

In the past I’d often thought about booking a flight to the States for a holiday, hiring a Harley Davidson and riding through the valley. Little did I think that one day I would be there on my own machine. Monument Valley lies within territory under the administration of the Navajo Indian Nation. Navajoland or Diné Bikéyah extends into the states of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico and covers over 27,000 square miles of stunning desert landscape. There’s only one main road through Monument Valley, US 163, which links Kayenta, AZ with US 191 in Utah. The stretch approaching the AZ/UT border from the north gives the most famous image of the valley – a long, straight, empty road across flat desert, leading towards the 1,000-foot high stark red cliffs on the horizon.



The most scenic rides in the Valley are to be had along the many dirt tracks snaking off the main highway. I was able to follow one of these tracks for 17 miles, twisting and turning through breathtaking scenery with massive buttresses, mesas and columns of rock towering up out of the flat, pan of the desert – superb riding! It’s worth taking care following these tracks, however, as some lead to Navajo residences. Covered in dust and grinning from ear-to-ear, I turned my back on the mesas and rejoined the highway, to seek my kicks on Route 66 as I continued my journey heading into the Deep South…

Park smart

If you plan on riding several of America’s National Parks, you might want to invest in an America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass. This pass is valid for 12 months and costs $80 (£50). It can be purchased from any of the National Parks’ entrances, and there are close to 400 to choose from across the states!


Death Valley Sun worship

Sunrise and sunset are the times of day when the valley is at its most stunning. There are two types of sunrise and sunset: Silhouettes and Obliques. Silhouettes cast the dunes in darkness while the sky lights them up from behind, which makes for some very dramatic photos; Obliques show the most striking colours. There are various vantage points around the valley which are known for observing these awesome natural displays. See, www.death.valley.national-park.com for locations and times of sunrise/set throughout the year.



The bike

A low-mileage 2001 BMW F650GS bought second-hand for the journey. Its strengths are that it’s lightweight, very economical and has proved to be reliable. There were no catastrophic problems during the journey and it now has 59,300 miles on the clock with only its chain and sprockets being replaced – maintenance is the key! (That’s the Mechanical Engineer in me talking.)
Its weaknesses are under-engineered fittings – the headlight shakes loose on corrugated tracks and the mud scraper on the back wheel breaks off from the flimsy brackets on the swinging arm – all ‘known’ faults. It’s not really an accomplished ‘off-roader’, but then again neither am I. The racks I made to carry extra fuel and water which fit to the back of the bike served me well; they also protected the bike when I crashed (on more than one occasion!)


HOG heaven

One place I just had to visit was the Harley Davidson Cafe on Las Vegas Boulevard. It’s a great place to sit, chat or just watch the world go by. Inside the cafe are all things Harley Davidson – the walls are covered in memorabilia, signed photos of celebrities sitting on their Hogs and a superb conveyor system that continually circulates the latest models through the cafe. One word of warning to those travelling with their girlfriends: you can even get married in the ‘Chopper Chapel’ inside the cafe. Stay off the Jack Daniels fellas or you might find yourself leaving with a wife! Same goes for any free-footed female ABRs; that barman might be cute but what happens in Vegas is probably best left in Vegas!


‘Get to the chopper!’

The sight of all that wide-open desert is enough to put anyone in full-on action-man mode, and if you really feel like embracing your inner Arnie or Mr Bond, a helicopter’s the way to do it. This may sound like an exorbitant expense, but there are so many companies operating in the canyon area that prices are very competitive, and there’s nothing like the experience of descending into the canyon by chopper, believe us. Sites like www.airvegas.com offer package tours which include a helicopter ride into the canyon, a return boat trip down the Colorado, and lunch at the Hualapai Indian reserve for $395 (£247)

Grand Canyon: a bird’s eye view

Fancy seeing the canyon from a butt-puckering view point? Course you do! The Skywalk on the canyon’s west side is a glass-bottomed horseshoe-shaped viewing deck, which juts out 70ft over the edge of the canyon rim. Those brave enough to step out onto the platform will find themselves suspended 4,000ft over the Colorado River, which flows through the canyon. The Skywalk is open year round (so there’s no excuse for chickening out!) Tickets for the Skywalk are $29.95 (£19) and can be bought in advance from www.grandcanyonskywalk.com. There’s also a video online, so you can get a sneak peek at what you’re letting yourself in for!

USA-hand-prints-chinese-theatre-sam-rollasonWho’s riding?

Sam Rollason’s a mechanical engineer who has loved and ridden motorcycles ever since his father sat him on his Francis Barnet as a child. With a penchant for British bikes – in particular Norton Commandos – he’s also enjoyed many adventures traveling around India and Nepal on an Enfield. “I decided to ride to India and then just kept on going,” he says, having recently returned to England after more than two years on the road, visiting 31 countries and covering 50,000 miles on an epic RTW ride. He’s now back at work in the UK to re-stock the coffers!
Photos: Sam Rollason