Wyoming—97,100 square miles. 27,000 miles of paved and maintained roads. There are a mere 374 stoplights in the entire state, and there I sat on my black and chrome Harley ElectraGlide Classic in downtown Jackson waiting for one of them to turn green. In that moment, looking around, the buildings, the road, the traffic, the tourists, the civilization—all just seemed to fade away. I could feel a part of the early frontier, as written about by Pulitzer Prize–winning author A.B. “Bud” Guthrie, come to life. With little effort, I imagined this spot as it was 173 years ago—a valley, nestled among some of the most glorious, snow-capped, and rugged mountains on earth. Some spots simply transcend what we humans do to them and manage to retain their own essential character. Jackson Hole, The Grand Tetons, Yellowstone—these places are some of those few special spots. I could easily imagine myself in the company of Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, David Jackson, and Jim Bridger—on my way to the 1832 Rendezvous, just up the valley from here. Rendezvous: a gathering of the tribes; where mountain men, Indians, trappers, scouts, and traders gathered each year to ride, swap stories, trade goods, eat, drink, dance, party, and fight in the glorious wilderness that was, and still is, northwestern Wyoming.
While my imagining was a distant trip in time, it was truly not far off the mark in any other detail. I was on the road, in the final few miles of the 1700-mile trek from Texas to a Rendezvous of a modern sort—the Curve Cowboy Reunion 2005. Curve Cowboy Reunion (CCR) is a charitable and educational organization that originally came together from the BMW Luxury Touring Group internet mailing list. Each year, at the end of August, CCR is held in a different and awe-inspiring location, situated in the heart of prime motorcycle riding country. This time, the venerable Jackson Lake Lodge in the heart of Grand Teton National Park was hosting CCR, and I just could not resist the invitation to attend and experience thoroughly the spectacular roads and wilderness of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Grand Teton and Yellowstone National Parks. Just to get out there.
Though still strongly oriented to the big Beemer LT, CCR is open-minded enough to accept all riders—even a confirmed Harley guy. So, here I was, headed for a week of riding, swapping stories, trading goods, eating, drinking, dancing, and partying, like the Rendezvous of decades past. I didn’t expect the CCR crowd to do much fighting.
The logistics of attending the weeklong CCR functionally dictate day rides from the central home base. This is a very different experience from my usual motorcycle trip, which typically consists of planned stops each night at various places along a loop from start to finish. I was concerned that the former arrangement could quickly cause me to tire of the few access roads linking the lodge to the surrounding area.
Not to worry! Though I covered some of the roads 20 or more times, it never seemed that way. The constantly varying light, temperature, wildlife, and companionship transformed each trip into a unique and memorable ride. This type of motorcycle adventure allows one to thoroughly explore and truly appreciate an area in a way that simply passing through it doesn’t allow. And, of course, there is no packing and unpacking each day! It was, after 35 years of riding loops, a new experience for me, but one that I will return to regularly now that I have discovered it.
The Grand Tetons are young, rugged, sharp-edged and steeply peaked mountains—not old, round, and gentle slopes. They cut into the air, challenging the sky with their beautiful and unmistakable shapes, regardless of whether the heavens around them are clear, deep blue or a stormy maelstrom of gray and black. They abruptly rise from the flat and lush grasslands to lofty, snow-capped heights without the softening touch of gentle foothills. Painted with a master’s palette knife, not a soft watercolor brush, they reach out and grab your eye, holding it possessively, demanding your attention and appreciation. As I rode north from Jackson to the lodge, the late afternoon sun silhouetted the western horizon, dramatically emphasizing the contrasting textures and colors of the warm green pine forests and sprawling yellow prairie meadows against the cool bluish purple mountains’ majesty of the Grand Tetons.
My late afternoon arrival following a long day did not deter me from immediately venturing out from my spacious and comfortable accommodations. I semi-unpacked the bike, leaving my riding clothes, fold-up camp lounger, and photography equipment aboard, and rode south to the Snake River access just as the sun set behind the peaks with a scant few wispy pink clouds. Being so near to mountains so tall affords a long and lingering window to enjoy the soft, warm light of the gloaming. I passed the last of a cadre of photographers on their way out as I rode in. Once at the beaver ponds, I had the place to myself.
All world-class destinations seem to have a single view that takes on iconic status, visually representing the entirety of a vast and wonderful place—Yosemite’s Half Dome, Monument Valley’s Mitten Buttes, the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower. Here, the view at Schwabacher’s Landing on the backwaters of the Snake River—with the majesty of the mountains fully exposed and perfectly mirrored in the still waters of the beaver ponds—takes on this status.
Wonderfully alone, I set up my comfy camp chair, mounted the camera on the tripod, and settled in for a while; ’til dawn, it turned out. As the temperatures quickly dropped, I kept adding clothes from the riding duffel. I smoked a fabulous 10-year-old Bolivar Belicoso Fino and sipped a bottle of 1997 Tulocay Cabernet in my plastic stemware. Dozens of time-exposure photographs were captured in the ever-changing light of night with the moon just past full as I snuggly savored the experience, serenaded by a pack of coyotes that hunted the very immediate vicinity all night long. With the coming of dawn, the phalanx of photographers returned to catch that postcard Schwabacher Landing sunrise shot. The last photographer out the night before was the first to arrive that morning. “Didn’t I see you riding in right at dark last night?” he asked. “Yes, indeed,” I told him. “You might’ve caught both sunset and sunrise from here, but you missed the best part in between.” I’m fairly certain he is still trying to understand—but then—he travels to places like this in a four-wheeled cage.
Activities back at the lodge were picking up with the arrival of the bulk of the CCR group. I pulled my bug-spattered Harley into a slot, mixing it in among 30 fully detailed, multicolored Beemers. Lovely rides, the BMWs are—sleek, stylish, sexy in a sophisticated way. The riders were just like the bikes they rode—sleek, stylish, and sexy, and fully decked-out in high-tech riding suits and colorfully coordinated full face helmets. My black leathers, chaps, and WWI flying cap contrasted with their apparel as sharply as my bike did, but the welcoming smiles, handshakes, and bike talk instantly made me feel like one of the tribe just arriving at Rendezvous. The vendors were assembled, showing off the latest in accessories and clothing. Integrated mapping GPS, radar detectors, highway hi-fi, and inter- and intra-bike communication systems were in great supply. Rider education, technology, safety and technique classes, and travel presentations started early, and by 10 am the lodge was mostly empty.
These Curve Cowboys don’t burn daylight sitting around—they ride, ride well, and push the envelope. I wondered as I entered the National Park and noticed the signs for the park-wide 45 mph speed limit, how these riders would like it. I’m pretty comfortable lazily cruising the curves in a laid back riding position, listening to the rumbling syncopation of the throaty V-twin and digging the mix broadcast to my H-D’s stereo from the personal greatest hits playlist on my iPod. I wondered how these high-octane Curve Cowboys, astride their wind tunnel–tuned steeds, would adjust. Federal speeding tickets are neither inexpensive nor easy to fight. (Click images to enlarge)
Having Grand Teton and Yellowstone, two of our most spacious and spectacular National Parks, nestle right up to each other, makes for wonderful riding. A handful of Harley buddies had ridden in from Arizona, California, and Minnesota, so it was a healthy mix of new friends, old friends, Beemers, and Harleys that headed out on that first morning ride. A single, highlight-only tour of the two parks from the lodge through Yellowstone takes a full day with plenty of saddle time. Spaced out along the enjoyable new roadways are the scenic sights that have justifiably become so well known—Jackson Lake, Lewis Falls, Yellowstone Lake, Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, Yellowstone Falls, Mammoth Hot Springs, Fountain Paint Pots, and, most famously, Old Faithful. The weather was clear, cool, and everything exceeded expectations. Buffalo, moose, elk, deer, wolves, coyotes, and eagles showed up for us, just on this first day. Back on the road, the numerous and recently added slow-traffic pullouts and passing zones kept the caravans of motorhomes and RVs mostly manageable. Excepting the low speed limits, this is a rewarding, motorcycle-friendly region to ride. (Click image to enlarge)
Top: Luxury on tour. Bottom: BMW meets H-D. (Click images to enlarge)
I repeatedly looked at the map, adding up the miles separating me from Glacier National Park and Going to the Sun Highway—just 700 miles away, and all of it world class riding. It was simply too much temptation, and I am a firm practitioner of surrendering to temptation rather than fighting it. The ride up through the Tetons, Yellowstone, into Montana, along the shores of Flathead Lake, and up to Glacier NP was fantastic. The weather continued to be clear and cool and the gods of highway construction seemed to bless my journey. Going to the Sun Highway is unquestionably one of the best rides on this big blue planet. Precariously hung like a garland on a Christmas tree, the 52-mile-long road ribbons, twists, and clings to the steep cliffs through arches and tunnels up to Logan pass. The descent offers countless breathtaking views of glacier-carved valleys, tall veiled waterfalls, and crystal clear mountain lakes—all illuminated by striking high altitude mountain light. It was the 36-hour, 1400-mile day trip of a lifetime.
Back at the lodge with the CCR gang was a real experience, but don’t let my “Rendezvous in the wilderness” metaphor give you the wrong idea. CCR is like no bike rally you have ever seen. It is a first class hotel, food, and wine experience from start to finish. CCR is a predictably upscale group. Proudly displayed on the windscreen of a basalt gray LT was a Rolls-Royce Owners’ Group decal, though I expect that Beemers of the four-wheeled variety might make a more familiar second vehicle for many of these riders. Still, the focus was the riding. Groups would blast out with first light and wander in all directions. Trip distances ranged from the short tens to over 900 miles covered by one couple riding two-up on their scenic day trip—and they didn’t cheat with an overnight like I did.
The camaraderie of motorcycling is a wonderful thing. At the final CCR banquet, the real spirit of the event was clear. “Focus on Success”, a local program for at-risk middle-school kids, had its annual budget doubled by the donation from CCR. Real friendships were forged and renewed, and park rangers pitched in by bestowing federal performance awards on (surprisingly) few CCR riders for their efforts in testing both the roadways and the rangers’ amused toleration. The tribe had gathered once again for Rendezvous and done themselves proud.The next CCR will be at Chateau Elan Winery and Resort in Braselton, Ga., a premier four-star luxury hotel, spa, and golf resort.
Just a day back home in the real world, washing bugs and road grime off the bike, I was reminded of Bud Guthrie’s words in The Big Sky, words that resonate so deeply:
“This was the way to live, free and easy, with time all a man’s own and none to say no to him. A body got so’s he felt everything was kin to him, the earth and sky and buffalo and beaver and the yellow moon at night. It was better than being walled in by a house, better than breathing spoiled air and feeling caged like a varmint.”
Pack up the bike, it’s time for a ride.