"Ya gotta see the petroglyphs on the road to Potash," says my new best friend, as he hands me a bottle of Black Butte Porter. The affable Floridian, also staying at the Adventure Inn, is making his annual trek to the Canyonlands. Next morning, I'm standing by the rock face trying to decode the primitive etchings when a car pulls up. One of its occupants surveys the chicken scratch and says, "Neat!" Not the word I'd have used. If I'd turned in anything as untidy in Mrs. White's art class at my English primary school, she'd have given my knuckles a good rap with her ruler.
I'm arriving in Moab a day late and a metaphorical dollar short, my two-day travel plan kiboshed by an early winter storm in Utah's central valley. The weather had been deteriorating all day. I passed through layers of fog around Boise, and lost the sun completely to low clouds near Twin Falls. During the climb across bleak grassland to 5,500-ft Sweetzer Summit near the Utah border, light flurries swirled round the FZ1, and though I-15 through Trementon was dry, I could see the cascading haze of rainfall ahead. By Ogden, the skies had opened up, and in Salt Lake I was riding through a wall of water.
Cold I can handle. Wet is no problem. Modern motorcycle lighting deals with the dark. But put all three together and riding can be miserable. So as I climb through a frigid downpour toward Soldier Summit on US 6 with the light failing and enveloped by cloud, I'm doubting the wisdom of touring Utah's high country in October. And when the precipitation turns solid, I decide discretion beats valor anytime and retreat to Provo to hunker down in a Best Western.
At daybreak, it's like waking from a nightmare. No evidence of the deluge remains when I hit 89 south from Nephi under a crisp, clear sky.
Interstate 70 east warns of no services for the 110 miles to Green River, and I start a long, steady climb into the Fish Lake Mountains. I'm grateful for the FZ1's power reserve as we crest the 8,000-ft summit and roll across high, wind-blasted plains to the San Rafael Reef. Here, I-70 swoops down onto the Colorado Plateau in a series of diving hairpins, narrow dynamite-made canyons and emergency truck turnouts.
Bringing to mind a Wild West Palm Springs, Moab is a city focused on fun in the outdoors. Every other storefront on Main Street either sells, rents or services outdoor recreation equipment, from hiking boots to Hummers, and there are lots of bars and restaurants too. There's a western town feel, but without the tacky mock-facades. It's rambling, colorful and untidy.
Each morning as I ride out of town to start my tour routes, I see squadrons of 4x4s, mountain bikes and dirt bikes heading into the crimson hills surrounding the city. But, as I soon discover, there's plenty to see and experience on tarmac, too.
Day 1: Castle Valley
Unlike my experience in Nephi, there's no frost on the FZ1's seat the next morning, and the day warms quickly. I join the truck traffic and scads of off-roaders north on 191, which swings gently through broad crimson canyons, deep ochre in the strong shadows of the morning, on its way out to the high plains. I spin east on I-70 to the Cisco turnoff, J202.
Almost the first thing I see is a road sign: "Narrow winding road, 20mph curves, next 45 miles." Ya gotta love that! I'm just five miles into the Fun Stuff when I happen on the slender Dewey suspension bridge, built in 1916. From its width and spindly construction, it's clear the designer didn't anticipate the 18-wheeler. A tribute to economical design, the lightweight L-girders that form the uprights seem way too scrawny to support the structure of the bridge, let alone any traffic. It's now bypassed by a mundane but much more solid span.
I'm south of the Colorado River and following its banks as it meanders between towering crimson cliffs. When I pause to take some pictures, a Jeep keeps buzzing me as though searching for something. "Sorry about that," says a twenty-something clambering out. "We're geocaching," a high-tech version of the age-old treasure hunt, which involves retrieving and replacing articles left in out-of-the-way places using GPS to locate the "cache."
Then I'm into Castle Valley, a panorama not unlike how I picture Monument Valley - giant red mesas with thrusting spires, ridges and standing rocks soaring from them, shadowing a broad valley. It's a spectacular sight. I turn left onto Mountain Loop Road, a route that offers even better views with the sun behind me.