Ahead of us lay open country, reddish-grey, studded with cacti. Arizona was the first place I have been for a while that turned out to look exactly like I’d pictured it. As we rode along the blindingly bright highway, I felt happy and charmed. Nestled at an elevation of over 1,500 metres amongst the State’s biggest offering of ponderosa pine forest, Prescott became our next ‘Go to’ base. Usually boasting perfect weather at around room temperature, we rode into an uncharacteristic heat wave for the autumn—amongst granite mountains and all the worthy accomplices of lakes, streams and rolling meadows. Perforated with historical landmarks, you’re hit by the rich history of the Old West. Cowboy style saloons dotted along Whiskey Row fused with the more modern aspects of the traditional town, there’s nothing not to like.
Prescott became the nucleus for a spider web of dynamic folks, all happy to spin us a silken tale or two. Meet the team at Overland Journal, generously hosting us at Motor Lodge for a couple of days. Upon our arrival, Brian greeted us at his kitsch style motel with the key to an apartment and the offer of a glass of wine or craft beer. I liked him instantly. Carefully blending an authentic retro theme into a 1960s one, cleverly working in the ‘70s era as well, our suite was eclectically tasteful as it was original—with a delightful je ne sais quois to boot.
The suite enabled us to seriously enjoy a volume of space to which we’re simply not accustomed. Thank you Scott, founder at Overland International, your red carpet hospitality for the week at our drop-of-a-hat arrival left no expense spared, no moment wasted and made every encounter a worthy one.
Less than 100 miles into northern Arizona, heading up to another vibrant town saw us reach Flagstaff. It was akin to riding into an alpine mountain hub. I gawped at the leaves turning into all the autumnal colours, out in full force. Better known as the gateway to the Grand Canyon, it’s also a Dark Sky City where some of the best star-gazing in the country can be had, the adventure culture is strong and it’s home to an abundance of micro breweries. One of the quips about Flagstaff held by the locals is that it’s a drinking city with an outdoor problem. There are worse city problems to bear.
Taking us in, Ken and Beth invited us to stay in their magnificently understated home. There were quiet silk pillows on the couches and spectacular art on the walls. Craftsmanship resided in every piece of furniture, both beauty and simplicity ran throughout their home. Gregarious as much as they were perfect hosts, we were able to unwind from an intensive few days in Prescott.
A neat window for taking us to a huge hole in the middle of the desert, about a mile wide, presented itself on my birthday. For those that have never visited Meteor Crater, it is worth a visit particularly if you can find the free back trails leading right up to the colossal cavity. About 50,000 years ago, a meteorite hurtling towards Earth at around 12 miles per second smashed into the Arizona desert, just outside of Flagstaff. An explosion equivalent to 2.5 megatons of TNT. Although most of it vaporised on impact, the nickel-iron meteorite is estimated to have been 45 metres across, weighing in at a solid 300,000 tons.
Birthday celebrations continued over a delicious meal and a constant flow of wine with friends of Ken and Beth, melt-in-your-mouth Cherry Garcia cake and a 4, 6 and 10 year old singing America’s three versions of Happy Birthday to me. My favourite part was being told I looked 12 (or 15 at a push) by picture-drawing Sierra, the six year old. Great people. Good birthday. Makes up for all the birthdays I’ve spent at work behind a desk.
With a taste for California and a bite of Arizona’s cherry taken, our circuitous loop of four southern States took us into Colorado. Durango was the destination but Mesa Verde National Park in Cortez is where we finished in fading daylight. A very conservative town with religious references, part of the Bible belt where signs read ‘No matter what anybody says, abortion is murder.’ A little shocking to see this statement plastered at both ends of the town and although it’s difficult to accept, I don’t permit myself to dwell on it. As a fleeting guest in this part of the world, my role is to observe, not to judge.
A pressing desire to locate the Bureau Land Management area for camping led to knocking on someone’s door in a wildly remote area teeming with coyote and deer. Post a feisty little dog called Star snapping at my heels, guarding his home from unwanted intruders, Elise popped her head around the door. A woman with kindly eyes smiled as though she was expecting us and within less than five minutes, had us unpacking our things in the spare bedroom. Her husband was away for the night on a camping trip, leaving me all the more dumbfounded that taking in two waifs and strays seemed like the most natural thing in the world for Elise. Rain fell, damp, cold and misty from a sodden grey sky while we nattered all evening within the warm cosy walls of a complete-stranger-turned-fast-friend’s home. A gorgeous lady.
Riding past forests of aspen with leaves the colour of English mustard on a serpentine route lasted no more than a few hours before gaining height into chillier climes on highway 550. Our first glimpse of an opaque white snowscape, the cold burrowed through me like a worm while we shivered our way towards Silverton. Totally taken unawares, I had not been so ill-prepared in a long time having left the cold-weather riding gear back in Prescott. Yeah, let’s go light on this road trip—this is the south after all! Mmn.
A hard white chill gripped me, my knees ached with a fiery intensity. The cold in the mountains ate at my bones like a starved bear. My breath made a spool-shaped flicker of steam on the visor below the sun that shone anemically through a thin gruel of cloud. A light snow began to fall, meandering flakes that seemed little more than the air itself coalesced into hard grey pellets.
I plunged into unthinkable cold, a cold that stopped my breath and seemed, for a long moment, to have stopped my heart as well. My flesh itself shrank, clung in animal panic to the bone, and I thought with perfect clarity, I’m horribly cold. In retrospect, I have a distinct impression of watching myself squirm in the saddle, gasping, lungs clenched like fists, the cold splintering with every mile. The best I could do was pull over, breathing and shivering uncontrollably blowing into cupped hands and heating them on Pearl’s engine. The vast wilderness swathed in tree-clad mountains, scenic byways and high snow-capped peaks along the Million Dollar Highway could not have interested me less while racked in painful discomfort. Still, I’d soon be inside again—sipping on a hot coffee and reading a good book.
Timeout came after only 130 miles when we took refuge in a motel, restoring life back into my core. Sensibly layering up before setting out the next morning, keeping enough room to trap the air and stay warm, I refused to let myself become dangerously cold again. I’d had the day previous to acclimatise so it wouldn’t be half as bad. We faced a long day to Denver, and I wasn’t about to let something as trivial as the icy temperatures stop me from enjoying myself. Just look where you are, Lisa!
Climbing up to 3,440 metres, we re-entered a Christmas scene of tall pines laced in thick snow. Monarch Pass in the Rocky Mountains was the festive fun I’d needed, and it didn’t disappoint. Whichever way I looked, there were mountain peaks with white fluffy sashes around their middles. And evergreens were cloaked in a heavy coat of snow. Life slows down in colder climes and more oft than not, that’s exactly what the soul needs. A winter wonderland that can take your breath away. It did mine.
From the moment we kicked the side stands down on the sunny side of Denver for the weekend, we were taken on a whirlwind walkabout of Woody’s world. The master wheel smith—whose lesser known name is Trautman Gregory Witte—has the demeanour of Jack Nicolson, the voice of Al Pacino and the soft white hair of Santa Claus. He’s a full bearded silver fox with smiling eyes, has a heart of gold and a jovial face, creased with laughter lines. Now in his early seventies, he had enough stamina to race at Daytona just a couple of years back. And no doubt still has..!
Woody greeted us warmly and although he spoke few words upon our arrival, I sensed immediately that he and I would become friends. I liked the peck on the cheek and the big-bear-hug mode of introduction, as well as the handshake-and-smile school of doing business. When things are working, it’s usually best not to break the rhythm with too many questions…
It did occur to me, however, that I had no understanding of what makes his wheels turn. Treated to a factory tour at Woody’s Wheel Works, getting to know Woody was unforgettably special. We spent hours in his company and Jerod’s, his right-hand man. Watching Jerod true one of Jason’s wheels, I observed him reading the wheel like a ranger can read the natural world. Every movement created a noise and every noise created an action. Jerod, like Woody was fluent in “wheels.” My research on wheels went well and both gurus were forthcoming in answering my questions, explaining whatever I didn’t understand. I love being part of a community of people who love what they’re doing.
Meeting female rider Kim Krause at Woody’s house made our stay all the more lively—touring around the place on a BMW F800GS, competing in events such as the GS Trophy as she goes and speaking out on behalf of abused women—Kim was a “work-in-progress piece of art.” Superbly put, Woody.
“You know, Lisa,” positioned Woody the following morning, “we’re looking for a customer-facing girl on the front desk. The job is yours if you want it.” Flattered, it was a tempting offer coming from the voice, the passion and the intensity of a chap like Woody but not one I could indulge right now. I politely declined and later made a joke about something. He laughed and I could see the laughter in his eyes. It said life will continue, the world will change, and we must be open to whatever passes before us, because what other choice do we have? It was a laughter of acceptance. I’ve just met this man, but I feel as though I’ve known him forever. His gentle manner, his innate wisdom, his soft but penetrating eyes have touched something inside of me that I can’t define. Is it possible that he’s tapped into my spirit? By eleven o’clock, Jason, Woody, Kim and I were exhausted from talking and listening so intensely.
During my brief tenure at Woody’s Wheel Works, exploring the wider premises felt like it ran the length of South Jason Street, where discovery of one Aladdin’s Cave after another gave us an intriguing insight into Woody’s other love for miniature model outboard motors, alongside his collector’s life size ones. He asked as many questions as he answered, and we shared our history, our interests, our families over breakfast, enjoyed a group rideout and an exquisite sushi lunch. I had no problem mutilating the delectable offerings, which were delicately presented, so beautifully unadorned, moist and sweet with a touch of soy sauce, lemon and ginger.
Woody did much and more than set our wheels on the straight and narrow, he forged a tactile friendship like he superlaces his wheels. It was a wrench to leave. Woody is one of those guys who just ‘gets it,’ there’s a lifetime of knowledge behind his intelligent eyes where ultimately, he cares about what makes us human, has a love of poetry and a zest for life. Far and away from the virtual world of meaningless endeavours. And I agreed with Antoine de Saint-Exupéry that what is important is invisible to the eye. I was smitten.