Carving Canyons in Utah

Carving Canyons in Utah
Torrey would be an unremarkable small town in Utah but for two things: the soaring crimson cliffs of the Capitol Reef National Monument that overlook it, and Highway 12, which ends there. Arguably the most exciting motorcycling road in the state, it's a 100-mile continuum of fast, open bends, head-spinning switchbacks and wriggling canyon curves. So, I'm not surprised to see the town's general store surrounded by motorcycles. More than usual as I learn because it just so happens I've stumbled upon a relatively new Torrey tradition, the biannual BMW Sport Touring event known as the "un-rally."


I arrive in pious Utah through a portal of improbable contrasts via the sin cities of the southwest desert. Collecting an FZ1 from Yamaha Motor Corporation in the L.A. suburb of Cypress, I push north against a searing desert wind on I-15. I swelter in interminable traffic through Vegas, awed by the surreal, super-sized ziggurats swamping the skyline. In the wake of visiting the Guggenheim Art of the Motorcycle show here in 2001, what I remember most are the sad, sleep-deprived Mexican children thrusting call-girl flyers at me as I walked the Strip. I have no desire to linger.

I cross into Northeast Arizona at a garish gambling-guns-and-gas complex - its flashing neon hustling liquor and slots - and ramble into the Virgin River Gorge, a desolate chasm crusted in muddy pink. At the Utah border near St. George, I pull into the information station to ask about accommodations; but it's closed, as these places always seem to be when you need them. There's a custodian, though, and as he hands me a pile of tourist brochures, I ask if this is a "dry" county.

Salmon-colored cliffs line the road entering Zion National Park.

"Usually," he replies, "though we've had a lot of rain..."

I stop him, "No, I'd like to buy a bottle of wine." For that, I need to go to a government liquor store, a surreptitiously anonymous brick building on the edge of town. I skulk in, seconds before the store closes, at 7:00? They probably turn off the streetlights by eight. Regardless, the liquor store is packed with weekend partiers who seem to be stocking up for The Flood, hoisting wine boxes and 40-pounders of Scotch. Reckon I shoulda picked up my Pinot Grigio back in Nevada.


I head east under glaring sunshine for Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon through the town of Virgin, just a post office-cum-junk store and a cartoonish, roadside, faux-ghost town. The scenery in Zion ( entry for motorcycles) varies from just plain spectacular to the topographically outrageous. Fluted crimson mesas the size of Vegas hotels shoot up from the valley as my route winds up the side of a mountain. The road I've been climbing is laid out below like a Hot Wheels track.

I'm told May and September are the favorite motor-home months here (the weather is cooler and kids are still in school), and I'm surrounded by them. As I sit in line waiting my turn through the one-way tunnel, their air conditioners blow hot air at me, augmenting the hot blast from the FZ1's engine fan. Inside the mercifully cool tunnel, I realize motor homes are also the reason for the wait outside. Though built to take two lanes of traffic, the tunnel can only allow passage of one of these leviathans at a time, so the traffic flow has to alternate. A motor home pulls over in front of me, the window slides down and a camera appears. One snap and they're rolling again.

Spirits roam the hoodoos, spires and natural bridges of Bryce Canyon.

After the tunnel, I'm riding between huge buttes with checkerboard striations, the road climbing into alpine meadows with scrubby pines and snow-melt lakes. Bryce Canyon () is a serenely spiritual valley of rock spires, hoodoos, natural bridges and soaring crags, rendered - as if by a child with an old paint box - in the same muddy salmon color. I've parked the FZ1 and hiked a few yards up the crumbling roadside slope to a rocky overlook to contemplate these magnificent features and the colossal eruptions that must have created them, when...another eruption? No, a posse of bikers, all bandannas, muscle shirts and sunglasses, are ripping away from a parking lot. If loud pipes saved lives, this squadron could avert genocide. And I just know if they had to explain, I wouldn't understand...

East from Bryce are the canyons of Escalante, and Hwy 12 romps over and through them, sometimes carving a deep trench between towering cliffs, sometimes teetering along narrow ridges, but almost never in a straight line. I whisk past salmon-colored buttes and speed through a semi-desert of flint and scrub. Stopping for gas in Escalante town, I hook up with some BMW riders heading for Torrey. I pull ahead of them and lie in wait with my camera. Then we climb out of the desert toward the 9,400-ft pass, where stark, leafless stands of silver birch line the road.

In Torrey, I find out that my co-riders were headed for the "un-rally," an informal get-together (Beemer not required) with but one aim: To ride. Dick France, who took over the event's reins from Cary Littel of Marin BMW in California, explains.