I’m done in Page. Strike gold in the breakfast buffet – today they have a bacon tray. And I’m off.
From the desert rise strange forms and images to occupy my mind with questions as I ride towards Flagstaff.
I’ve been fortunate to find myself invited to Arizona’s airy heights where Lost will gain a new heart and kick her drinking problem thanks to fellow KLRista Chuck. He’s offered to fix my bike for me.
Shortly after acquiring my steel horse, beat up and beautiful, I went to go visit a friend in London. I rode seven hundred kilometers as fast as I could, not that my dear Lost is designed for speed, but that it’s exhilarating to feel so naked, exposed, free on this contraption hurtling down the highway. Around the 140 Kph mark the machine protests, knees slapping the tank as the front traces increasingly faster and wilder parabolas on the pavement. The game is to see how close you can cut that margin, coax those last revs out before the machine begins to shift and shudder. Prior to returning I checked the oil and was horrified – it was almost all gone.
My first ride and I’ve already destroyed my bike.
Clearly a sign.
Going to be getting to Argentina by bicycle.
I swallowed my histrionics and refilled the oil. What else to do? The guy where I bought my oil told me to keep an eye on my RPM on the way home. Sure enough, riding above 4500 RPM the oil level plummets. Below, and losses were barely noticeable. My first lesson in motorcycle ownership: Keep an eye on your oil level because you never know.
Well, actually the first lesson was “if you might drop your bike while loading it onto a truck, have a friend handy to lift if off you”, but that’s another story…
Anyway, I discovered the bike’s drinking problem was so fierce the oil was changed frequently without ever needing to drain. Plan A had me stopping in California for a rebuild that would solve the issue, but while in Page I missed my window of opportunity. Chuck got me rolling again by mailing me a stator. Another reason to love the KLR – what other bike has this kind of community built around it?
A new 688 piston is included in the rebuild, adding power and reducing felt vibrations. The vibe reduction is a real bonus – after a few hours on the road, when I get off the bike my palms tingle and if I clap them together I can feel it resonating in waves of intensified pins and needles.
Chuck is younger than I expected, or younger looking at least. For some reason I always expect these crusty old misanthropes with hands like baseball mitts and brows creased from furrowing at mistreated motorcycles. Instead he’s a genial and welcoming host; I am impressed by his professionalism as he efficiently takes the bike apart and critiques my work. Looks like I had my valve clearances wrong. He warns me to be careful with the spray he gives me to clean the parts while he walks his dogs. By the time he returns I’ve managed to spray myself in the eye and my mouth tastes like radiator fluid. But the parts are clean and polished, beautifully precision machined metal awaiting reassembly – to be completed tomorrow.
Dinner is capped off by margaritas and my shelter by the golf course seems worlds away. Like so many other people I’ve met on my journey, Chuck’s story seems larger than life. A world traveller like myself, and ex pro track racer and instructor. Racers are already nuts to my mind – someone who teaches it has to be on another level. I love feeling the pegs scrape, but at 30 KpH, not 90. He reminded me in many ways of Curtis from Texas – assured and disciplined, and with his own story of perseverance over tragedy. He shattered his leg on a hidden rock in the sand while riding one day, and the doctor said he was going to have to lose it. He refused, and not only did they manage to save it but he now runs daily with his two dogs around the gorgeous trails through the pine forests of Flagstaff. That they would have amputated his leg if he was a smoker is an eyebrow raiser for me.
The next morning Chuck is already hard at work, Lost is looking a little thin and I get to know her insides a little better.
He throws more information at me than I can really absorb – coarse thread bolts are better on single cylinder bikes for resisting wear on threads, the wobble I feel on curves is due to overloading the capacity of the rear shock, carb troubleshooting tips, long-haul riders use lemon oil to stay awake, Inuit villages have polar bear alarms. I even discover he taught at the school that made the manual on motorcycle racing I have been studying. Figures.
He deftly manoeuvres the 688 piston in just past the rings leaving enough room to attach the connection rod. I wish I’d seen the whole process but a soft bed has some powerful gravity and I missed the beginning. He buttons Lost back up in time to go for a late lunch, delicious pulled pork.
Chuck offers to let me crash at his place another night since I still haven’t planned out my route and he has so many suggestions, so I decide to make my famous Asian-ish Chicken, though I cut the meat too small and it overcooks. One more night in a bed is irresistibly tempting. He doesn’t want to send me down the hardcore trails, which I appreciate as much as I bristle at the implication. To be fair, this is my first bike since that little 100cc Honda in Vietnam, and I am not yet two months deep into learning how to handle riding with all the luggage offroad.
I go for a run the next morning, thankful just to be able to. A pink-bottomed tarantula stops when I crouch nearby; it rubs its abdomen releasing irritating hairs into the air to drive off predators and curious explorers. I note with a smile that Chuck has replaced various missing non-essential bolts and cleaned my filthy chain.
I get some final advice and inspiration from his stories, naturally sober advice sticks less than the adrenaline exciting tales of bike wrangling and I am eager to measure myself against an offhand comment he makes – I don’t bother airing down the tires much, if the back tire wants to drift I just let it, keep the front up and the rear follows. Anything he can do I can do better!
No prize for predictions: I drop the bike trying to drift around a gravel corner later. It hurts just enough to knock the humility back in me. Something about superior riders, they seem to inspire overconfidence.
This is after winding through dirt roads to reach a serene overlook where I take a long nap just because I can. From there I make my way down dirt trails to a series of gravel roads that take me to a truly magnificent vista. The ground is littered with shell casings and I consider camping out, but there’s still too much light to end the day so I ride on towards Phoenix through the impressive Saguaro forest. And finally lose the GPS track in a series of winding gravelly hills near the city (where I lay down the bike).
Chuck’s route takes me two days to complete, though it looked like 6 hours from the map. Good thing he didn’t send me down the rough path. Camping by an abandoned trailer that night, I decide not to go to California after all. I’ve overspent my budgeted time here almost twofold already, and there is plenty of world to get lost in yet. Just pick up some new shoes for Lost in Phoenix and head on to Mexico. I have a plan.
No plan survives execution.