"Keep close to Nature’s heart… and break clear away, once in a while, and climb a mountain or spend a week in the woods. Wash your spirit clean." John Muir
I am not sure if John Muir, the naturalist, author, and pioneering environmentalist, had intended this wisdom to be an invitation for a motorcycle outing, but here I was in Moab, Utah, an off-road adventure paradise. And, I definitely had the intent of washing my spirit clean. My quota of time in the asphalt jungle had been met and, for contrast, nothing but dirt trail beneath me and open landscape surrounding me would do. The red rock canyons and valleys of Utah seemed like a good choice to get a little lost-in the best sense of the word.
The majority of my teenage years were spent riding dirt bikes, an obsessive hobby that managed to deliver some of the most memorable experiences from my adolescence (rivaling females). This trip had the classic underpinnings of a mid-life crisis; a middle-aged motorcyclist yearning to recapture some of his youth. I was looking for some back roads of the American dream. There was rebellion in the air-just so long as it did not deprive me of comfortable lodging.
I checked into the Sorrel River Ranch Resort, an outpost of luxury just 20 minutes outside Moab. The hotel’s cabins sit on the banks of the Colorado River, surrounded by towering buttes-a setting of utter tranquility under Utah’s expansive skies. The flowing Colorado lulled me to sleep after dinner, and I slept straight through to the six o’clock alarm the next morning.
The fresh Utah air snapped me awake. Over coffee, I mapped out a 175-mile loop comprised of moderately challenging canyon trails and high desert mountain fire roads. The route was ripe with Americana; road names like Onion Creek, Tin Roof, John Brown, and Geyser Pass would take me into the state of Colorado, through Gateway, Old La Sal, and the curiously named town of Paradox.
The bike that would be taking me on this journey was BMW’s latest addition to its GS ("terrain/street") line-up. The GS series has become synonymous with the adventure category and the F 800-powered by BMW’s newish parallel twin engine-was introduced to fill a gap between the highly successful R 1200 GS boxer twin and the more-docile 650 GS models. The new 800 is designed to handle slightly tougher off-road duties than its big brother, providing enthusiasts who may have been confounded by the bigger machine with a more accommodating alternative.
With a backpack full of water, some sunscreen, and a Nikon camera, I made the short three-mile jaunt from the hotel down the highway to Onion Creek Road, where I touched tires to dirt and headed for the Kokopelli Trail. In short order, I was carving my way through a serpentine valley of surreal primordial spires. Soon, the only hint of the modern world in these deep gorges was the sound of the BMW’s exhaust echoing off the steep canyon walls.
Instantly, those off-road instincts, honed to perfection in youth, are dusted off and re-employed. Once the feel of loose gravel is under the tires and the skittish tendencies of an off-road motorcycle are experienced anew, it is easy to find some of that old confidence and simply enjoy the ride. Because much of my ride was in the dirt, I fitted the GS with Continental TKC80 knobbies, which are more dirt worthy than the street-focused stock Bridgestone Battle Wings.
The liquid-cooled engine makes for a relatively slim motorcycle, and delivers its 85 horsepower with surprising snap. Throttle response is crisp, and the motor revs much more quickly than the 1200. Engineers gave the 800 more of a dirt bike feel than the larger GS, placing the pegs and handlebars in a relationship to comfortably accommodate standing for extended periods. The transition from sitting to standing requires little effort.
I counted 26 water crossings in the first seven miles of trail. It was still early morning and the sun hadn’t reached into the deep ravine. Nothing like the splash of cold water to snap you out of your particular doldrums, the wet and slosh slowly seeping down my legs and into my boots. Later in the day, after the sun had crested in the high desert, the sensation would be welcome. For now, it was a momentary discomfort that was quickly forgotten as the trail challenged.
This particular part of Utah has garnered a reputation as an outdoor adventurer’s paradise. Its famous arches and natural wonders serve as backdrops to an abundance of trails for hiking, mountain biking, and motorcycling. The red rock canyons and palisades define this region of the world with their own unique beauty.
The burgeoning adventure class has opened up a whole new range of possibilities for exploring these types of destinations on two wheels. These machines-unlike pure dirt or street bikes-are designed for versatility. They provide a platform for carrying gear and provisions, allowing for day-rides or packing in enough for camping. Adventure bikes are a self-contained means to getting deep into the wonders of nature, opening up entirely new motorcycling experiences.
Soon, I found an enjoyable rhythm through the myriad rain ruts and washouts on the winding, undulating trail. There was dust and sweat, heat and glare, and bobbles and curses as I plowed through deep sand and slippery red clay. The smell of dirt and the sound of the engine plodding along were sharply reminiscent of my early years when I rode my Honda Mini Trail in the hills behind my home. Again, I was encountering the wonderful confluence of adventure and solitude, curious to see what was around that next bend.
All this was made easier with the 800 GS’s ability to roll over rough terrain like a Sherman tank. Stable at speed and thoroughly manageable in slow going, the 800 is more of a dual-sport bike that can handle pavement and dirt equally, as opposed to the 1200, which is, for most riders, a solid road/touring bike that can handle some dirt.
First gear is a little too high, and the bike would benefit from gearing down a bit. However, in doing this, the already limited top speed will suffer. The machine’s claimed dry weight of 392 pounds (100 pounds fewer than the 1200) makes it relatively easy to muscle around in tough sections; if you fall down (a foregone conclusion when messing around off-road), you do not need assistance to help you right the beast.
By the time I crossed into Colorado and descended the mountains into Gateway, I was covered in a layer of dust and my mouth was dry. The drenching I had taken earlier in the day was long since baked out of my riding jacket and pants. All the vents in my BMW apparel had been opened, as the day had grown progressively hotter. I had last taken on liquids when I stopped a while back to see a trail of dinosaur footprints. What had been a muddy patch of ground a few million years ago, now held the prints in hardened rock.
I had lunch at the Gateway Resort, another luxury lodging nestled into the red rock canyons to provide escape for tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people. The last thing I would have expected to find in this bastion of scenic and spiritual serenity was a collection of antique cars. Beautifully camouflaged in the same adobe motif as the resort is a sprawling museum that holds several dozen immaculately restored American automobiles chronicling their evolution-replete with advertisements of the period-from the early 1900s to the heyday of the muscle car in the ’70s. This impressive presentation is courtesy of John Hendricks, founder of The Discovery Channel, who built the facility.
Among the collection of vintage Detroit iron was a vehicle that contributed to this journey of recapturing my youth-a pristine, white 1954 Ford ice cream truck. It was an exact version of what the Good Humor men used to comb the streets of Dallas with in the sweltering summer heat, dolling out popsicles and ice cream sandwiches to screaming barefoot kids. But, there wasn’t too much time for reminiscing. It was past mid-day and I was a long way from my base at Sorrel River Ranch.
Forty miles of winding pavement gave me an opportunity to relax on the bike. Though intended more as an adventure mount, the GS 800 handles highway and canyon roads just fine. However, the suspension-skewed more toward off-road duties-transmits a lot of the road up to the rider. At speed, the semi-knobby tires subtly vibrate the handlebars like an electric toothbrush. The seating position, ideal for off-road, puts a lot of pressure on the rider’s lower back when sitting for an extended period. Though the GS is more than capable of a long road trip, one would be well advised to allow for frequent stops to stretch.
Top end is limited by the low gearing, so you have to keep the parallel twin humming if you want to maintain Interstate speeds, though the windshield does a respectable job of deflecting wind. On winding, twisting two-lane roads the 800 is remarkably adept, the bike’s light weight delivering superb maneuverability, despite the lack of rubber contact area when shod with knobby tires.
Back on the trails, the red rock canyons and towering palisades give way to high desert. Road signs, faded by the sun, warn of closed mines containing radioactive trimmings, a reminder of the area’s lost mining economy. Out here there is no reason to look behind, because there is not one thing to worry about that might be gaining on you. Well, maybe one.
The trails and fire roads took me past the Bedrock Café-a strangely surreal establishment in the middle of nowhere-into Paradox, back across the border into Utah. From there, it was on through Old La Sal and into a steady ascent through the Manti-La Sal National Forest. The aspens were changing their colors, and the entire area was a rich tapestry.
At the summit, I detoured to see Dark Canyon Lake, at an elevation just over 10,000 feet. Hours earlier I had opened up my jacket vents to the heat of the valley; now, the air funneling in over the crest chilled me. The day was making its way toward evening so I pressed on.
Dropping down out of La Sal Mountain, through tunnels of aspens, I was rewarded with a view of the red rock palisades that give Castle Valley its name. The sky tends to go on and on, unobstructed by anything other than what nature has placed beneath it. The sun was dropping onto the horizon, taking the light with it.
The last stretch of the route was smooth paved two-lane highway. I pulled back into the hotel, just as the dash of the F 800 GS was beginning to show against the darkness. The massive buttes were silhouetting themselves against the sky and the driveway lights were coming on.
Out here, beneath Utah’s sky, lost in the vast canyons and the expanse of the mesas, a person gets a better understanding of his dimension in the world; a man is humbly reminded of his size in the grand scheme of things. Even if the modern definition of remote means merely being out of the range of cell phone reception, it is enough to experience some solitude and remind oneself about the beauty of the great elsewhere.
Returning to my cabin, I pulled varying lengths of twigs from the buckles of my boots. When I pulled my gloves off I found again those handgrip-calloused hands of my youth. After washing off the dust and dirt accumulated on my body and gear over the 175-plus mile loop, and downing a half-liter bottle of water, I fell back in the fresh, clean folds of that splendid bed. As I drifted off to sleep, gloriously content, I thought of something John Muir had written.
"I only went out for a walk, and finally concluded to stay out ’till sundown, for going out, I found, was really going in." – John Muir’s Journal, 1913
Photos by Jonathan Beck + Jeff Buchanan