Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Crisscrossing the Continental Divide …

After our weekend at Willow Springs International Raceway (July 12 – 13), we found ourselves without a racing weekend until early October. The race weekend planned for August 9th – 10th was cancelled by our club – National Auto Sports Association (NASA), and although a one day session was organized at the last moment, we were not able to adjust our schedules in time. Our next weekend at the track will be in October, when we had back to the track at ButtonWillow and this time, we hope, we get to drive it clockwise and arrive better prepared.

But the time away from the track has given us an opportunity to do more behind the wheel of our daily drives. We had been talking about this for a few months; what our time on the track has exposed is that following our regular routines would see me behind the wheel and give Margo little opportunity to drive. So for the past couple of weekends, as we criss-crossed the continental divide, Margo gained a lot more time behind the wheel, tackling mountain passes and carving through canyons, having a whole lot of fun as well.

The cancellation of the August race weekend was due to higher gas prices and to a spluttering economy, so I was very curious as to whether traffic would be down from the levels we had encountered in previous years. This was peak holiday time, with many families depending on the highway to get to their favorite mountain and lake vacation place. While we would be looking to enjoy our time behind the wheel and to have fun driving, nearly everyone else was trying to get from point A to point B as cheaply as they could – would we see any changes at all?

The first weekend following Willow Springs saw us head north and into the mountains behind Santa Barbara. West of the San Gabriel Mountains, and a little east of the Sierra Madra Mountains, there’s a highway that takes you through the Los Padres National Forest that we have really come to enjoy since moving to Simi Valley. It is highway 33, and for 60 miles it traces a route between the small resort township of Ojai, tucked in the hills up behind Ventura, and highway 166 that takes you west to Santa Maria. What makes highway 33 a delight to drive is that it is a tight mountainous highway with countless switchbacks and blind crests it is quite exciting at times.

The photo I have included above was taken after we had descended from the summit, with only ten miles to go to the junction with 166, but it clearly shows the landscape on the right of the picture – a large rugged mountainous area to the west of where we had been driving. If you look carefully, you should be able to just make out the images of burnt pine trees – for many miles, the forests to the west of highway 33 had suffered enormous damages in a major fire last year.

Highway 166 west of the junction with 33 provides you with a wonderful, undulating road that winds its way between small rural townships. The valley widens on its way to the coast, with the road becoming more sedate as the curves open up with larger radiuses. As you traverse the small foothills of the mountains, now to the south of you, you are given a great opportunity to develop an eye for the smoothest lines through each new turn.

The day turned out to be great and we enjoyed ourselves immensely. But the crowds we had seen only a year ago were gone. We had most of the mountain passages to ourselves and it was easy to take a picture with nothing else on the road. And when it came time for us to stop at a cafĂ© we had frequented in the past, it was closed… After just one weekend, it was hard to generalize - but the price of gas seemed to be having quite an effect! If your only requirement was to get from Point A to Point B, then perhaps you were missing the joys and challenges that come from driving a picturesque, twisting road.

The following weekend, we made our first trip back to Boulder, Colorado. We took off late Friday afternoon and headed up Antelope Valley on highway 14 before hooking up with highway 58 at Mojave that took us into Barstow where we picked up Interstate 15 for the short run into Las Vegas. We spent the night at Las Vegas, far from the strip as our plans called for a lot of time behind the wheel on Saturday.

The trip to Boulder, Colorado began in earnest after we leave Las Vegas. We continued up Interstate 15 only as far as St George, Utah where we turned onto highway 9 East for the spectacular drive through the lower parts of Zion National Park. Here the road passes through tunnels, as it hugs the canyon wall, and the views of the surrounding hills, in every shade of red and orange imaginable, make it one of the great drives. Leaving the park we turned onto highway 89, a road we have become very familiar with over the years. But this time, we were only going to drive a few miles, as we were taking the exit to highway 12 east, and heading for Red Canyon and the northern extremities of Bryce Canyon National Park. The picture below is of the remarkable rock features alongside the road through Red Canyon.

The section of highway 12, as it heads for the small township of Boulder, Utah, it takes you through the Dixie National Forest where the only way down from the high plateaus is along the spine of a very narrow ridge with both sides of the road dropping away into deep canyons. Just when you think there’s no way for the road to narrow any further, it simply plunges down the side of a ravine that gives you an absolutely breath-taking entrance into Boulder. The picture I have included here is from one of the vista points along highway 12 before the road descends into Boulder.

At the township of Torrey, we turned on to highway 24 for the drive down Capital Reef National Park, as we followed the Fremont River into Hanksville. We then continued north on 24, as it took us back to Interstate 70 and taking in the formations across the broad plains, we could easily visualize being on the moon’s surface – only with many more shades of red!

After spending the night in Grand Junction and kicking back with a few well-timed Mojitos, we left early the next morning for Delta, a few miles down the road on highway 50. Filling the car with gas, and grabbing a cup of some of the worst coffee I have ever tasted, we turned east onto highway 92 for the drive onto the northern rim above the Gunnison river and part of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park. The picture below is of the view from the canyon rim. Gunnison is a great little township with a good coffee shop, just off the main highway, and a place we now make a point of stopping at whenever we drive through the area. The afternoon run takes us out of Gunnison and its beautiful waterways up over Monarch Pass (11,312 feet) and down into Salida, a town that isn’t much more than a place to stop for gas before turning north on highway 285 and the run back into the suburbs of Denver.

While some stretches of road in the national parks – Zion and Bryce Canyon – had a lot of vehicular traffic and the going was pretty slow on some stretches, all other passages were wide open and mostly deserted. This gave us a lot of highway for practice and we took advantage of it as we sought out the best lines through the corners and worked on placing the car at the right exit point. Repetition is a great teacher and so over the course of many hundreds of miles we could see our confidence rising – as we continued to have a lot of fun. At all times we were conscious of our responsibilities on public roads, but the absence of traffic for mile after mile really helped us develop. But again, the destinations were never really as the journey – who cares where Point B is!

When it came time for the drive back the following weekend, we tracked a similar path back but this time, instead of heading into Delta via highway 92 we continued on highway 50 to Montrose where we caught up with former HP liaison to the ITUG Board, Patty Fennel. Patty was enjoying a short vacation from Cape Town, South Africa, and was spending time with her father who lives in the town. It was a lot of fun talking, revisiting the times when both Patty and I were on the ITUG Board.

As we really did want to see Utah highways 24 and 12 from the opposite direction, we tracked back through some of the same townships and the picture below is of the landscape around Green River, Utah captured eaarly in the day. Instead of driving the exact same route into St George, we left highway 89 at Long Valley Junction and turned west to take the mountain highway down into Cedar City, a reasonably difficult stretch of highway that twists and turns continuously over the ridgeline behind Cedar City. It was a great experience and, once again, provided us further opportunity to work on our technique.

Only as we left townships did we run into traffic of any density, but we did begin to see a lot more motorcycles on this trip. As we pulled up our driveway late Sunday night, having spent a lot of time in the desert on the last leg of the trip, and dehydrating more than we expected – a major mistake - we already began to think about the next trip.

It was over a very early morning coffee that Margo suggested we take a route through New Mexico as she had never been to Albuquerque or Santa Fe. Essentially follow Interstate 40 until it intersects with Interstate 25 and drive up through the heart of Colorado. I had not taken this route before and was curious as to what we would find. And determined to carry a lot more water with us – and lots of ice!

My first thought of crossing large portions of northern New Mexico was that we would see nothing but desert, but as I looked at the maps, I saw that much of the route would follow the “mother road”, America’s main street, Route 66! Back in 2004, I had ridden a motorcycle over some of these roads, and one of the highlights had been to ride a section of the original Route 66 as it connected Kingman to Williams, Arizona. I had joined some mates from Australia and together we spent four days on the road taking the slowest, most scenic route possible between San Jose, California and Boulder. We referred to it as an “extreme team building”, as all of us worked for Insession/ACI at a time, and we were headed for a week long series of meetings in Boulder that would result in a strategy for the next 18 month. Oh, but I digress…

After following a regular path out of Simi Valley and arriving at Barstow early Friday evening, we turned east onto Interstate 40 and headed for Needles rather than turning north onto Interstate 15 as had been our usual route. No sooner had we done so, than the signposts pointing to the old Route 66 began appearing and it was onto one short strip we ventured for gas outside of Needles. If traffic had been patchy on the first two trips, with very few cars, apart from what we encountered inside the national parks, all that changed on Interstate 40. For mile after mile, the big rigs lined the inside lane. And this was where we saw the only highway accident on any of our crossings. There certainly wasn’t any evidence, this time out, suggesting high fuel prices were putting a damper on motorists’ plans. Getting to Point B seemed to be important again!

We spent the night in Williams, where we had dinner at Rod’s Steakhouse situated right on the original Route 66. Not a place I would highly recommend but for a little piece of history, worth stopping at once. The next day it was off to Albuquerque and Santa Fe, with time allowed for a brief stop on the corner of Winslow Arizona, to snap a few pictures, and to buy a T-Shirt! And wonder what the heck the Eagles songwriter had been thinking about – it’s miles from anywhere! The road through eastern Arizona and into western New Mexico was anything but boring or tedious. There was initially miles of high desert, but this gave way to forests and views of the mountains to the north. We arrived in Albuquerque earlier than expected and had time to walk around the old town square and yes, to buy even more T-Shirts!

That night, we found a place that served great Margaritas and we kicked back for the night. The following morning, it was north on Interstate 25 as we put Albuquerque behind us and, once again, the signposts reminded us that Route 66 was close by, finally leaving us outside Santa Fe. Out on the interstate, there were even more motorcycles – and the groups were beginning to get much larger! But the mornings drive surprised us as we continued to climb higher into heavily timbered mountains. I knew nothing of this part of the world so every mile brought with it surprises.

We found a great family Mexican restaurant at Trinidad and when we stopped for gas around Walsenburg, the gas station turned out to be a small museum with cars from the ‘30s, ‘40s, and ‘50s on display. The number of motorcyclists continued to increase, and then it hit us – they were returning from the rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. During the previous trips we had seen them heading for Sturgis and now they were all returning home. It only took a couple more hours before we were back home in Boulder.

The route we had selected hadn’t turned out to be all that challenging. We certainly shared a lot of time behind the wheel, but we didn’t experience anything like what we had a week earlier. Would we take this route again? Probably, but only if we needed to stay well clear of the Rockies and needed a safer, all-weather route back to California. As it now stands, we still have another trip to complete in September, but with our arrival in Boulder, this ended our three weekends of adventure.

The crossings of the Continental Divide had provided us with a timely distraction, as the C6 Corvette we drive at NASA’s HPDE events, was in the shop. We had given it to the folks at A&A Corvette Performance to add a Vortech supercharger, upgrade the fuel delivery capabilities, and to change the exhaust system to something a little more competitive.

But I will leave the details on how this turns out for a later posting and after we have had some time to come to terms with the cars potential. It will also take some time before Andy and his team at A&A smooth out all the wrinkles, as I am confident they will do, but once its all sorted out, I will provide further details.

The trips across the south west were certainly educational. The higher fuel prices have certainly deterred many from using their cars for vacations. While the main interstate highways were well travelled, the secondary highways were all but deserted. And businesses were loosing out badly and we saw many stores with “closed” signs posted. For vehicles with limited fuel range there is now cause for concern as well, and you do need to plan ahead. Big cruising motorcycles with a range of only 100 miles may not be able to take on some of the roads we covered. And that’s going to be a disappointment for many.

On the other hand, the scenery remains spectacular and the vastness of the south west was the real story. Yes, we both gained from the extra time behind the wheel and no, not everyone is vacationing in their cars, or unconcerned about what comes after Point A! However, talking about the miles we had logged over a relaxing Martini, I don’t think I will ever loose my enthusiasm for the roads that carve through the high plateaus of this mountainous region of America.

The driving may have taken our thoughts away from what was happening to our beloved Corvette, but in the end, it didn’t really mount to much as it was the drive that mattered most of all. Even now, as I write this posting, I have to admit I am really looking forward to when late September rolls around and we pull out the maps once again. And I do not care if we go from Point A to Point B or vice versa! It is about the journey…..