When I arrived at the hotel in Salt Lake City, a fleet of KLR650s were being unloaded off the trailer. This was about to be a reunion for me in two ways: one with old friends, the other with a dual-purpose motorcycle I hadn't spent anytime on since my deployment to Iraq in 2003.
Though this was the second year of the "Guns and Dual Sports" ride, this was my first invitation. Last year, this same group of buddies rode across Colorado. The names were a Who's Who of the outdoor industry, including Mike Schoby, editor of Petersen's Hunting; John Snow of Outdoor Life; Kerry O'Day, owner of MG Arms; Mark Sidelinger of Media Direct; Jeff Herzog of Kawasaki; and legendary motorcycle photographer Alfonse "Fonz" Palaima. This year, we would ride Utah.
At home, I ride a ratty Harley. My need to adapt quickly became apparent when I first sat on my assigned KLR650. On a cruiser, my feet are farther forward and I'm sitting back. The KLR had me sitting over my feet with more weight over the handlebars. We donned KLIM riding gear and Arai helmets with Sena comm units and fired up. After a couple laps around the hotel, we hit Interstate 80 East toward Park City.
The KLR650 has a torquey, four-stroke, single-cylinder engine, which proved very responsive on the twisting mountain road. Though this was asphalt, Kawasaki's adjustable Uni-Trak rear suspension and new seat were more comfortable than I was expecting, which made the ride a beautiful experience.
From Park City we continued to Big Hollow Shooting Range near Heber City. We were all hardcore shooters, so leave it to us to make Utah's finest shooting ranges a sort of gun guy poker run.
Arriving at the range in a cloud of dust, we parked the bikes and met up with our support trailer, which was any guy's guy dream: bikes, bike parts, firearms, and cases of ammo. We uncased several Rock River X1 rifles set up with TruGlo red dot sights.
Also on hand were a trio of 1911s: one from Taurus and another from Rock River, as well as a Coonan 1911 in .357 Magnum. Plinking small Champion targets and sending HPR ammo into clusters of holes on paper quickly turned to informal competitions and duels on steel targets. Before we knew it, it was time to suit up and ride on.
We covered roughly 70 more miles that night to Duchesne, where a rusty neon sign pointed the way to Cowan's Café, our diner for that evening, followed by a motel bed.
Heading out of Duchesne the following morning, we comfortably chased Herzog on asphalt for miles until the road turned to dirt and sand. I hadn't ridden dirt like this since leaving Iraq. The pucker factor went up fast.
Hundreds of natural gas pumps and pipelines peppered the desert landscape. The hard-packed dirt road deceptively hid drifts and soft, sand-filled washouts. We quickly had to learn how to judge our approach by differentiating the darker soil from the lighter-colored earth. The farther we went into the desert, the more committed we became to ride to its end.
At some point, we became lost. Cellular service was nonexistent, which challenged our skills for land navigation and map reading. We had an appointment to meet up with an archeological tour guide and, later, a young Carbon County commissioner named Casey Hopes. The plan was to get a history lesson and lunch on the trail with the archeologist, and then Hopes would escort us up to Tavaputs Ranch, a working ranch atop the 9,000-foot Tavaputs Plateau.
Making that meeting seemed dubious. An hour later, it became apparent we weren't going to make the rendezvous when Snow's rear tire was gashed by a piece of pipeline scrap. It was then I realized this trip would teach me more about riding than I would have ever learned at home simply going back and forth to work on my cruiser.
Herzog proved his veteran status as an adventure rider when he pulled out a small soft case of tools from his Happy Trails pannier. Ten minutes later, with the bike laid over on a makeshift workbench crafted from a pile of boulders, we had the rear wheel off its swing arm. After pulling the tube from the tire, we could see by the large rip there was no saving it. Luckily, in addition to tools, Herzog carries spare tubes and a pump. Ten more minutes and we were inflated and back in business.
Dirt eventually turned back into asphalt until we hit the intersection of Nine Mile Canyon, also known as "the world's longest art gallery" due to its 10,000 petroglyphs and pictographs created by the Fremont Indians and Ute people.
Riding west beyond the end of Nine Mile Canyon, we couldn't find our archeologist tour guide who had obviously (and rightfully so) given up on us hours earlier. With no host, we found a shaded spot near a creek, stripped off our jackets, and took a break. Herzog rode away in search of the guide and left us to cool off in the shade and contemplate why no one had been smart enough to pack granola bars and water in their pannier.
An hour later, Herzog returned, with the recently found guide, and after a brief lunch told us to suit up. We were in for a treat. We backtracked up the canyon to see a unique sight. In our haste, we had ridden past "The Great Hunt," the most treasured petroglyph panel in the area. Scholars believe the scene represents an actual hunt featuring bighorn sheep during the mating season when rams and ewes come together. It is estimated that this scene was created between 950 and 1200 A.D.
With riders fed and pictures taken, we said goodbye to the archeologist and rode towards Cottonwood Canyon 19 miles away.
We met Casey Hopes at a gas station and filled up the KLRs' six-gallon tanks before passing a canyon where several live bighorn sheep were feeding.
Grabbing my camera, I couldn't help but stalk them like an early Ute. Ultimately, I got within 50 yards of these majestic creatures and took several close-ups before slowly backing off. I never expected to get that close to wild, living bighorns in my lifetime. It was truly incredible.
The Tavaputs Plateau
We left the paved road for gravel, which then turned to steep switchbacks and rocks. As we rode upward, the path grew narrower and rockier, strewn with large boulders. I tried to not pay attention to the long drops into the canyons to the side and focused on the rock obstacles ahead — one at a time. Negotiating rocks, feathering the clutch, and balancing the bike on the steep, jagged incline proved more educational than I could have ever anticipated.
Fonz, Schoby, and Snow were well ahead of the rest of us as dark set in. Then, at some point Snow lost momentum on a sharp, steep turn and laid down his bike. Schoby stopped to help Snow, which gave me room to ride past. I slowed on the incline to make sure Snow was OK, and I heard Schoby holler, "Don't stop! Keep going up!" I kept on the throttle, bouncing up the steep rise and rode 150 more yards before I hit a slippery boulder wrong and went down.
Sidelinger and Herzog eventually made it up to my position. Sidelinger kept rolling, while Herzog stopped and helped me stand up the bike. At this point it was 11 p.m. We had been riding since sunup. Herzog offered me his yellow KLR with its softer suspension, which I rode for another switchback or two until the path narrowed extremely. I spun sideways and chose to lay the bike down rather than launch off the side of a cliff. At this point, I was done.
Not too far behind was Hopes in his Ford F250. He was climbing the hill in four-wheel low, stopping to offer each rider a lift. O'Day, Snow, and I chose to accept his offer. The others found it in themselves to fight the mountain and finish the climb shortly after midnight.
Arriving well after midnight atop the Tavaputs Plateau, the crew was battered, bruised, and beaten. Some made it to the top of the long treacherous two track on their bikes, others left their bikes part way up, throwing in the towel for a ride in a 4x4. After a dozen hours of riding, a stiff drink, a hot shower, and a good meal were in order. As we trundled to the waiting bunkhouses, carrying our gear with heads hung low from fatigue, we all stopped in unison to stare at the scene above. Atop the 9,000-foot mesa, with no other lights or towns to pollute the scene, the stars shone so bright they appeared as freshly cut diamonds scattered across a jeweler's felt. So close you could reach out and pick up a handful.
The Old West
Tavaputs Ranch is a sixth-generation cattle operation and lodge owned and operated by Butch and Jeanie Jensen. Food was ready for our arrival and beds were made, though I nearly passed out on the living room floor before finding my way to bed.
I woke to a sunrise over Desolation Canyon. At 9,000 feet, the area is dotted with grassy meadows, aspen groves, and herds of elk, mule deer, and black bear. Beaten but not broken, those of us who could not finish the previous night's mountain climb humbly retrieved our bikes and began the descent. Since we had ridden in the dark, this was the first time we really saw the untouched beauty of the surrounding canyons.
Somehow, on the way down, I became the pathfinder. The angle was so steep that I was standing on my pegs, ass over the rear tire, trying to engine brake to prevent gaining too much speed. Unbeknownst to me, my right toe was gently touching the rear brake lever. A little more than halfway down the mountain, I went to brake and felt nothing. Feathering my front brake, I quickly decided that I would try to roll up the mountainside to stop. I picked out the one spot lacking boulders or trees and went for it. Luckily, it worked.
"Brakes went out, huh?" Herzog said as he pulled up behind me. "Don't feel bad, you did the right thing. There's not much else you can do in a situation like that."
And then I realized, I had never before lost my brakes. Chalk that up as another new experience. "So," I asked Herzog, "what do we do now?"
"Pee on the rear brake cylinder," Herzog said.
The smell of urine stunk as it steamed up in my face. Before long, I was dry, so we sprinkled water from a Camelback on the brake until the hydraulic fluid cooled down.
"The trick now is to go down the rest of the way and not use your brake," Herzog said. "Keep it in first gear and shut your engine off. Engage or disengage the clutch to control speed."
It was another experience I would have never encountered otherwise — and another lesson learned. At the bottom, we hit pavement and headed southwest to Price.
Price is home to the North Springs Shooting Range, which is an excellent multimillion-dollar facility that offers long-range rifle and pistol shooting as well as a large "Old West Town."
Kerry O'Day had planned for this stop and had shipped several of his custom bolt-action rifles in for a demonstration. Schoby sat behind a magazine-fed Banshee in 6.5x284. Targets closer than 400 yards quickly became boring, and it turned into a competition to see who could repeatedly drill steel at 1,000 yards. Even with 10-mph gusts of wind, we hit consistently.
Our time at the rifle range was cut short when the opportunity arose to shoot lever guns and single actions at cowboy town. The town was so well constructed that movement between bays was more realistic and entertaining than any other I have ever seen at a Cowboy Action event. I loved shooting Heritage's take on the Single Action Army, but nothing was as fun as quickly running the lever on several different Rossi R92s.
After an afternoon of shooting steel bad guys, we mounted up and rode our longest stretch: 150 miles on UT-10 South to I-70 West until reaching Marysvale. Crosswinds gusting up to 30 mph combined with heavy traffic brought on another new riding experience. By the time we made it to a restaurant in Marysvale, I was exhausted, but as happy as if I had finished first in a marathon.
The next morning this adventure concluded with a 60-mile ride to the town of Beaver (where coffee mugs that proclaimed "I Love Beaver" had to be purchased). There, the Kawasaki support van picked up the bikes for their return to California. It was a bit weird handing over the key to "my" KLR650 as I had grown especially fond of it.
Though I've spent much of my adult life riding street bikes, I can't remember a time when I've learned and experienced more on two wheels. The KLR650 isn't about riding comfortably or being part of some club. Its dual-purpose moniker is truly that; it's a way to get to know yourself and experience the real freedom in a way that no other bike can deliver.