Along the Trans-America Trail

Text: Ramona Eichhorn • Photography: Ramona Eichhorn, Jeff Sherren

Year to year, under normal conditions, most riders don't contemplate getting very much riding in on the trails in Colorado and Utah after September. But for my Canadian friend Jeff Sherren and me that couldn't be helped, and it was already October by the time we started rolling toward the hazardous trails in the Rockies on a BMW R1200 GS and a KTM 950 Adventure.

Five out of the ten states constituting the great odyssey called the Trans-America Trail - Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas, Oklahoma and New Mexico - and half the trail's distance lay behind. Suffering a serious back injury, Uwe Krauss, my companion for that part of the trip (and so many more off-road adventures), has had to withdraw and recover. So, with the end of the year nearing and the trail-riding window closing fast, I phoned my Canadian friend Jeff to ask him if he could think of anything better than taking part in a two-wheel escapade on the roughly 2,700 miles of trail left to cover. He couldn't, he hurried down to join me for the remainder of the journey.

The Colorado countryside clearly bears the mark of another waning year. The leaves of the aspen trees have turned bright yellow, carpeting the trail and fluttering around us as we pass. A glance at the map reveals that the upcoming route would take us into some very thin air on the high trails of the San Juan Mountains, including Cinnamon Pass, Ophir Pass, with its rocky summit at 11,789 feet, Los Piños Pass at 10,200 feet, then finally the Hancock and Tomichi Passes, at 11,985 feet. Inquiring about the weather conditions at the higher altitudes, we learn that the Cinnamon and Ophir Passes are closed due to a thick layer of fresh snow at the summit. Nevertheless, we decide to try our luck attempting Ophir, the lower of the two.

States of Denial

When we ride up the steep and narrow gravel road winding through vast, rust-red slopes covered with scree and giant boulders, the terrain gets rockier the closer we come to the tree line. The sky is blue, but an icy wind bores to the bone and leaves us shivering. At 11,000 feet, our tires eventually lose traction on the gravel, my heavily laden KTM, weighing some 560 pounds, starts sliding uncontrollably in six inches of powder next to sheer 500-foot drops before we can reach the high point of the pass. Turning back and looking for an alternative route is the best idea we've had all day.

Two days later in Utah, the Rain God is feeling most magnanimous, and the area around Moab has been the beneficiary of a drenching like it hasn't seen in sixty years. Or so we heard, if a long-bearded man we met during a coffee stop is to be believed. This could turn out to be the best place since leaving Tennessee to use that telescoping fishing rod I've been carrying in one of my panniers. If we had not tried to set up camp on a barren, wind-swept hill towering over the town, in the middle of this storm, on a pitch-black night, we might have been able to enjoy the rhythms of the rainfall drumming on the tent while we dozed off.

Instead, other little dramas play out. As we're scrambling to pitch the tent in the strong wind, my bike blows over. Instinctively, we run to rescue it and just as we start lifting it, the tent flies by and heads straight for a barbwire fence. That's followed by a loud crack and, uh-oh, the next thing we know, the post has poked a huge hole through the canvas. We're just going to have to pack it in, ride back to town in the pouring rain, and look for a place to spend the night.

Or so we thought. But as so often happens following one or another of the mishaps I've experienced on the road, fate steps in with a wonderful encounter. Soaking wet all the way down to our underwear, Jeff and I stop at a gas station where we befriend a carload of slightly inebriated First Nation locals. Confronted with the bedraggled spectacle we made, they immediately invite us home to the comforts of hot showers, a warm atmosphere, and what turns into many raucous rounds of arm wrestling that go on until 3 a.m., when the police start pounding on the door. The music is too loud, they say, but there won't be any consequences if we turn it off immediately.

As soon as the door is locked again, the men huddle up and decide it's far too early to go to bed. Besides, everyone is hungry and the fridge is empty. The cook at a fast food restaurant piles our plates with waffles and calories before we finally return to hit the sack at 6 a.m. Nine people sleeping and snoring side by side on the floor of a two-bedroom apartment.

North for the town of Green River, we run up against the mess yesterday's flash flooding created: the formerly dry riverbeds overflowed and our off-road track is now swamped in several feet of mud. A young gas station attendant says he thinks it will take a week for the desert trails to dry out. We set off anyway, like we didn't even hear him, and for the next few hours I can't get the thought of him out of my mind each of the innumerable times I slide down another precipitous incline. One short stretch of sixty feet forces me to pick up my KTM 950 on six occasions, and after that I just stop counting. The ground is so slick that the simple act of walking becomes a feat of strength. And then there's the odd sensation of growing half an inch and adding half a pound of weight with each step as the mud accrues on the soles of my boots. The low front fender of the KTM is a real nuisance too, with sludge accumulating so quickly to block the wheel that I'm regularly flying over the handlebars every thousand feet or so. And of course, we can't remove it since the brake line is in the way, although I seriously consider sawing it off with my Leatherman. I am not amused. But similarly to the British who stop to brew a spot of tea when sorting out their difficulties, I walk away counting to ten and call upon a German ritual to calm me. The espresso maker starts bubbling on our camping stove when the rain stops, and by the time we finish the coffee the surface of the trail has dried enough for us to make some real headway.

Westbound from Green River, with the dirt road mirroring the course of Highway 70, we pass Devil's Canyon, Hell Roaring Canyon and Muddy Wash, names which aptly reflect the mood of the landscape: we haven't seen another soul in hours. But for now, the rain is gone, and scraps of blue sky seem to be gaining ground on the gray.

In high spirits, I set out to cross what looks like a sandy riverbed but turns out to be a sinking mud hole that traps the bike saddle deep. Excavating it exceeds our current energy levels, so we regroup on drier ground to rest and prepare for the chore with a fortifying lunch. Just as we're starting to dig into our bean tortillas, help appears again when two Jeeps round the corner. The passengers, hunters in camouflage, are from nearby Richfield, and they know the area thoroughly. Getting out to survey our predicament, the first driver says, "If I was you guys, I would not try to make it any further. There's mud holes much worse than the one you're stuck in. It's going to take you days." He adds that the turnoff to Highway 70 can't be more than three or four miles back. "By the way, could you use a hand digging out that bike?" he asks, reaching for the shovel in the back of his Jeep.

High Anxiety

Shortly before the Nevada border, the wind and rain return. Jagged hills curve upward on either side of the sandy trail. There's a dark chain of mountains on the horizon and the evening sky is clotted with troublesome clouds. Heading into them, we soon enter a sinister, treeless landscape that's dead calm and obscured in gloom. Suddenly, with a huge crash of thunder, the sky cracks open and all hell breaks loose. Lightning strikes nearby and hail stones the size of marbles drum on our helmets. The noise is deafening.

I try to summon up all I learned in physics classes about the enormous "short" that occurs when the voltage difference between a storm cloud and the ground is more than 100 million volts. Probable targets: high, freestanding objects. As far as I can tell, nervously peering through my streaming visor, we are the only conductive objects far and wide. No trees or towers (though Jeff is taller). Sensibly and hurriedly, the bikes are abandoned on the trail and we move away to duck and cover, crouching in a ditch. The trail soon becomes impassable, layered in ice. Making the best of it as the din diminishes, we pitch our patched tent amid some sagebrush, and in no time we're out of our sopping wet riding gear and cozily tucked into our sleeping bags. For dinner, we share a can of cheap, lukewarm beer that tastes surprisingly good, given the circumstances.

The next morning, with cups of coffee in hand, we greet the day on a little dune. The rising sun strikes the surrounding mountaintops glazed with fresh powder. An herbal aroma rides the dampened air. Patches of mist dissolve between the branches of sage. Looking around, I wouldn't have it any other way. But as far as lessons learned go, the next time I travel here, hoping there will be another time, I'll be sure to set out from Colorado when the aspen leaves are green.

Touralight LED Tent Lamp

Whatever situation motorcycle travelers and camping devotees find themselves in from dusk to dawn (whether cooking a meal on the camping stove, servicing the bike, or just reading in the tent), they don't have to spend any more time in the dark with Touratech's innovative Tent Lamp along. Taking full advantage of the latest LED technology, the reliable Touralight is a rugged, high-performance, lightweight (3.52oz) lamp that casts a bright, natural light using four yellow and four white LEDs. Wrapped with a 16-foot connection cable (packing size 130mm x 30mm), it simply plugs into the motorcycle's electrical system (12V plugs only) and arrives in a fleece bag from www.touratech-usa.com for .80.

Touratech Tent Bag

If you're fed up with the time-consuming, frustrating chore of stuffing that tent into its original, often quite tight and small, carry bag, Touratech has come up with an interesting solution - a tent bag with a large 11-inch (28cm) opening and three tightening straps that compress any tent to an optimal packing size. The bag makes quick and easy work out of tent stowage, especially if the tent is wet, when it can be rolled up relatively loosely. Sized 28-31 inches (70-80cm) long, made of Cordura®, weighing only 0.7 pounds (320g), it's closed on one end and features two drawstrings. The compression straps help prevent chafe marks and rubbing during transport, and consequently damage to waterproofing. A durable, handy bag (.00) from www.touratech-usa.com.

Marmot Sawtooth and Haglöfs LIM 50

The fact that riders who camp spend about a third of their time in sleeping bags makes choosing the right bag a painstaking procedure. Personal preferences concerning the weight, filling (down or synthetic?), comfort range, packed size, cut and price, all have to be considered.

Looking for a versatile all-rounder, suitable for a range of climates on our CAN2MEX tour, we came to the conclusion that the multi-layer principle is best.

The base is the Marmot Sawtooth, a down bag with all the sophisticated features one expects from a typical American sleeping bag: two-way zip, internal pocket, hanging loops, and a well shaped hood. The 1.5-pound goose down filling provides an excellent sleeping climate. It packs very small and weighs under 3 pounds. Ground-level side seams don't cling to the body, eliminating cold spots, and the bag remains comfortable in temperatures down to 21°F. Order from www.marmot.com for 9 (including packsack and storage bag). Available sizes: Regular 6'0" (2.9lb), Long 6'6" (3.1lb) and X-Wide 6'6" (3.5lb).

Haglöfs LIM 50, an ultra-light (1.1lb) synthetic sleeping bag, is ideal as an inner liner for the Sawtooth, but with a comfort temperature of 50°F it can also be used alone in the summer. The outer shell and the packsack it comes in are black; the inside is red. You can use these two sleeping bags alone or combined: the combo is good for temperatures down to 5°F. Packed size is 8.7 x 5.1inches, length 6'2", price 0, at www.touratech-usa.com.

Motorcycles: BMW R1200GS and KTM 950 Adventure
Helmet: Shoei V-Moto Helmet
Jacket and Pants: Hein Gericke Tuareg Rallye GTX II for women
Boots: Motonation Set Up Adventure boots
Gloves: Acerbis Impact Line 06