“So…do we fly? Or do we ride?”
Kurt and I were staring at a map of the Southwest, planning a visit to his family in Austin, Texas, for Christmas. Our eyes shifted from L.A. to central Texas and back, mental gears turning in anguish. Via the thick, blue, depressingly straight line of Interstate 10, Austin is 1,433 miles from Camarillo, and we had only ten days total. At least three of those had to be reserved for the actual family visit, which was, after all, the whole point.
We’d be leaving on the evening of December 21, the shortest day of the year, meaning our riding time would be abbreviated and cold. And of course it was winter; snow isn’t exactly unheard of in Texas hill country, and it’s almost guaranteed if we ventured off the Interstate into the higher altitudes of New Mexico and Arizona.
So of course we rode.
By the morning of day two, as we silently trooped back and forth with our gear through clouds of our own exhalations, I was glad we’d opted to take a pair of Can-Am Spyders. We were packing up to leave my mom and stepdad’s 80-acre “Sky Ranch,” outside Deming, New Mexico, where we’d stayed the night before.
The temperature was 22 degrees, we had more than a mile of rutted driveway and washboard dirt to retrace just to get back to a paved road, and we were pushing east—through brutal crosswinds beneath the drooping jet stream that was delivering frigid air to much of the country, New Mexico and Texas included.
The cold had claimed its first victim; we’d forgotten to bring the camera inside the night before, and when we tried to fire it up for sunrise pictures, it merely blinked its red LED myopically at us—the battery was dead.
We were both bundled up like Ralphie’s little brother in “A Christmas Story,” with Kurt sporting his newest acquisition, picked up at a gas stop the day before. He’d emerged from the station grinning proudly, holding up a bright pink, fluffy, fleece-lined neck warmer—“It was the last one they had, isn’t it great??”
Our heated vests and gloves cranked up to 11, huddled behind our Spyders’ windscreens and clinging to the heated grips, we rolled into the desert, glad we didn’t need the dexterity required of clutch and brake levers.
Our plan could best be described as “fast and loose.” As motorcyclists, we wanted to balance the need to make haste with the desire to enjoy our journey and do some exploring along the way. We’d already powered across the familiar California and western Arizona desert on I-10, then diverted onto two-lane highways to angle down to Deming, keeping our Southwest Express on schedule for a Christmas Eve day arrival in Austin.
The gist of our plan: hop on the “express lane” through those areas of the map with big white spaces and no squiggly lines, thereby banking time for the most worthy sections. We carried camping gear as a contingency (quite ambitious in hindsight, given the frigid nighttime temperatures), and our overall goal each day was, “see how far we get, then stop.”
We had a couple of firm destinations neither of us had ever been to—Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns—but otherwise we let the spirit of the road move us. This often meant long stretches of monotony punctuated with bright spots of excitement—some more exciting than others.
Near Marfa, Texas, we didn’t see any of the famous lights, but we did spy a strange white object hovering, unmoving, in the sky. After more than 300 mind-numbing miles of open desert so far that day, my imagination was primed for something “X-files” worthy, but our UFO turned out to be a TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System)—an unmanned blimp used to monitor the border for aliens of a different kind.
On the other end of the excitement scale that day was Farm-to-Market Road 170 through Big Bend Ranch State Park: a rolling, curling ribbon of pavement with very little traffic and stunning views. It was also the first chance we’d had to ride our Spyders on a curvy road.
In the lead position, I was focused on the new order of operations—plant outside foot, push handlebar in direction of turn, lean in, giggle madly, repeat—and misjudged the proximity of a rather large cow pie to my right front tire. I heard it (splat), I felt it (wiggle)…I smelled it (ewww), and a disgusted yowl in my helmet told me Kurt also heard, felt…and smelled it. In his words, it “exploded”—all over his windscreen.
The Spyders, while requiring some initial acclimation, grew on both of us as the days passed. By the end of that 12-hour-long Deming-to-Fort Stockton, Texas day, we agreed that we felt far less fatigued than we would have on normal motorcycles. In fact, because we could shift around and stretch our legs, coupled with frequent gas stops (average range was 230 miles, but with stations few and far between we were stopping every 110-170 miles just to be safe), we decided they were even less fatiguing than a car!
With 155 (RT) and 138 (F3 Limited) liters of built-in storage, they were ideal pack animals. We loaded them with Christmas presents, winter clothes, extra layers, rain suits and camping gear, and still had room for water and snacks.
It also seemed like we were more approachable than normal, although it’s hard to look tough when you’re wearing a bright pink fuzzy neck warmer. Curious cagers asked questions at almost every gas stop, drawn to the futuristic look and three-wheeled stability of the Spyders.
After three days in cold, drizzly Austin, it was time to head back, and we agreed that this time we wanted to push farther north across some of the promising green splotches on the map. But first we had to traverse the west Texas oil country, a sepia-toned, utterly flat landscape once populated by ranch cattle, now forested to the horizon with gently nodding oil pumpjacks and tall fracking towers.
I’d never seen anything like it; the setting sun filtered through layers of oily fumes so that the air itself was golden brown and somehow greasy. By the time we hit U.S. Route 62/180 and turned toward Carlsbad, both of us were feeling a bit queasy and ready for some fresh desert air.
When we awoke the next morning to “freezing fog,” a new (to me) meteorological phenomenon, I once again congratulated myself on my Spyder-sense. Freezing fog is exactly what it sounds like: fog made up of trillions of teeny tiny ice crystals, and it had coated everything, including the road, with an invisible but slippery veneer.
Instead of being sidelined until it burned off, we were able to get off to an early start to hit Carlsbad Caverns before the crowds of holiday tourists. Then we looped up through Roswell for an alien-themed lunch and on to Truth or Consequences for the night.
T or C, as it’s known to locals, was called Hot Springs until 1950, when it officially changed its name to that of a popular radio program. Apart from the unusual name, I appreciated the town’s proximity to New Mexico Route 152, a hidden gem of a road and the launch point for the best riding day of our trip.
We rode Route 152 east to west, through the quaint artists’ community of Hillsboro, over 8,228-foot Emory Pass then down to Santa Clara, winding and twisting through the green Mimbres Mountains, part of the 2.7-million-acre Gila National Forest. Snow was a real possibility from here until we dropped back down to lower altitudes in western Arizona.
Fortunately for us, we threaded the weather needle. The previous week had dropped snow on the mountains, and shortly after we got home the weather turned again, delivering a winter storm to much of Texas and nasty weather to the rest of the Southwest. As it was, twisty Route 152 was slippery with fresh salt, and patches of snow dotted the shoulders in shady sections.
Now a week into the trip, we were comfortable enough on the Spyders to dial up the pace, laughing into our helmets as we whipped through second-gear turns as though on rails. With a slew of electronics keeping us upright and facing the right direction, we were free to enjoy the road rather than stress over salt.
There is a lot to explore in western New Mexico and eastern Arizona, but we had a long way to go and the days were short, so we headed north on U.S. Route 180, bypassing the left turn for State Route 78 and U.S. Route 191 (the famously twisty Coronado Trail). U.S. 180 is plenty curvy, winding through fragrant pine, fir and spruce forest, finally depositing us in scenic Alpine, Arizona, for burgers and iced tea.
Our final day wasn’t supposed to be final, but remember this Southwest Express tour was fast and loose. We’d stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument that morning and were now gazing thousand-yard stares across Prescott’s picturesque town square as we waited for our lunch.
With temps in the high 60s, Kurt had finally shed his pink neck warmer. Past Prescott, State Route 89 promised 40 more miles of curves, but after that it was a whole lotta nothin’ until we hit the sprawling L.A. metro area.
We’d covered 3,200 cold miles in less than seven days (with another 400 to go) and it was December 31: New Year’s Eve. We could make it home in time to watch the ball drop! Which we did, but we were both so tired we fell asleep long before midnight.
At the end, we agreed, while we normally prefer a less hurried pace, our Spyder-licious Southwest Express was still a lot more fun than flying.