Adventure-Touring To The Grand Canyon
Michelle takes her first ADV solo trip, meets new friends
Michelle Christine is a comedian and writer who loves to ride motorcycles. She was first seen on these pages after taking BMW’s Off-Road Academy and writing about her experience. Then she took her first off-road trip as part of RawHyde Adventure’s Base Camp excursion in the Mojave desert. This time Michelle sets off for an adventure on her own. Being gregarious and sweet, she naturally makes several new friends along the way.
That first hit of adventure riding I took after I trained at the BMW Off-Road Academy was on their Base Camp Alpha Adventure in the Mojave. I was hooked. Thankfully my next fix did not require a shady deal at the bottom of a dark alley. I needed a machine with two wheels, and a little dose of spontaneity. A BMW F700GS would be my partner in crime, a seat height well suited for my 31-inch inseam, and enough pep to keep the highway legs bearable. I strapped on a tent, sleeping bag and mat, and filled a small hiking bag with the essentials.
I enjoy meeting people on the road, so I posted on Reddit’s r/motorcycles to see if anyone wanted to join me. I felt less concerned about meeting a stranger on the internet when I was the one propositioning, however my mother might disagree with that statement. Not long after my invitation went live on Reddit, I had a bite. A fellow from Denver was on his way to the Grand Canyon, where I wanted to head, and the timelines would work for us to meet there. It was time to feed my addiction.
My first pit stop was for some fuel in Ludlow, California off Interstate 40. I was dripping in sweat, but my back felt good with the bike’s upright riding position. I figured I would ride until I felt the need to rest.
I made it to Needles, California, ready to hunker down and hunt for a camping spot. I found a KOA and pulled into their gravel paved entranced near the freeway, moving with caution since my tires were designed more for the street. Nothing like the sound of tractor trailers idling to lull you to sleep.
I get to my camping plot and attempt to set up my tent. The wind was blowing, and I imagined the laughter of people at home watching my failings as if I were on a reality show. My tent picked up the wind and almost blew away, but after an undisclosed amount of time, my reward would be a dip in the pool. Urban adventure riding.
Post pool would be spent in the rec room that had an impressive stash of VHS tapes. I decided to watch While You Were Sleeping because I’m that cool before heading back to my tent to get some sleep. It was a restless night since I kept waking up due to the heat. I thought the desert was supposed to be frigid once the sun went down. Growing up in Toronto left me ill equipped to handle the climate of Needles, California in June!
I got up early so I could start the day with a cooler ride, and in the afternoon I would be meeting Mr. Denver at the Grand Canyon. I attempt to roll my tent small enough to fit in the bag but had difficulty, so I reached out to a man walking his dog nearby. He gave me a hand, and some pointers on how to get the air out of the tent first to make it easier to roll. It fit in the bag on his first try. You learn something new every day!
I start my bike and input Navajo Point, our meeting location, and pair my phone to the Sena so I can get startled every time I approach an important turn. My breakfast would be spent at Calico’s, in Kingman Arizona. It was a tourist hot spot for those doing Route 66. At the checkout there were several books you could buy. Understanding Women made me laugh. I’m sure my husband could relate to the subtitle: “A Guidebook For Guys Who Are Often Confused.”
My last pit stop was Seligman, Arizona, to kill some time to align perfectly with meeting Mr. Denver, who I will finally give a name: Eli. Seligman isn’t a big place, but I found some charming areas. One area felt like I had gone back in time (minus the pick-up trucks).
As 1:30pm approached, it was time to hop back on the bike and ride the final two hours. In my head I thought when I got near the Canyon, it would be dusty, dry terrain and then suddenly there would be a giant hole. However, when I got inside the park and turned onto Desert View Drive, trees were everywhere, and also lots and lots of RVs.
Then something caught my eye, a break in the trees, and I could see a glimpse of the canyon. It was jaw dropping. I have seen the Eiffel Tower, the Rockies and Mayan Ruins, but that glimpse reminded me of how Dr. Sattler felt when she first laid eyes on the Brachiosaurus in Jurassic Park. I wanted to keep double taking but had to focus on the road, as signs for wildlife lined the street. I could not wait to get to my meeting place.
As I pulled into Navajo Point, I saw Eli sitting by his Kawasaki Versys 650. He looked like he had been there awhile and seemed relieved to see me. What we realized later was that when we agreed to meet at 3:30pm, he had jumped to an earlier time zone and had not realized it, so he thought I had rolled in an hour after I said I would be. It is also human nature to run the most terrifying scenarios first: she is probably dangling off a cliff, without signal, and calling out my name!
We talked for about half an hour and decided to find a campsite. Eli had been planning his trip far longer than I had and knew good camping spots go quick! We found a $10-a-night campsite just outside the park in the forest. It felt much more like camping than my plot the night before at a KOA. Eli was well prepared. He had one of those small cooking burners, a ton of mountain house freeze-dried food, and even containers to eat the food! I was not hard to impress, as my camping skills were pretty much zero. I had parents that could not comprehend why people would chose to leave the comforts of four walls and a ceiling and call it a vacation.
Not long after finding our spot, I went exploring. I saw some wildlife and noticed our neighbor had a Yamaha XT250. His name was Jim, and he was riding through the southern states, chasing good weather and roads for his bike. Jim was 72, retired, and about to head to Utah to do some off-roading in the Valley of the Gods. I took his number and said I might call him the next day if I wanted to make my way to Utah.
I returned to Eli and saw a lady walking her Yorkie (named Tony) to a van across from us. I had a Yorkie back home, and this one was so cute (yes, you are actually on Motorcycle.com…). We started chatting with Cheri and told her we hoped to get more logs for a fire. She said that behind her van the previous occupants left a bunch of wood with our names on it. Jackpot! Cheri’s neighbor was another solo traveler, also named Jim (let’s call him Jim 2), who had brought his bicycle along as well. Good outdoor living in the typically warm and dry Arizona climate.
In the morning Jim 2 shared some extra coffee with us, and I noticed the first Jim had gone. Eli and I rode back to the canyon to do some hiking. We decided to leave the bikes at the parking lot of the Welcome Center and hide our gear in the bushes. Maybe it is the Canadian in me to have faith in humanity, but I had a feeling all of our stuff would be waiting for us when we got back. Our choice for the day would be the Bright Angel Trail.
Most hikes you start with the hard part, going up, and finish easier going down. This hike would be the opposite, so after a 1.5-mile descent, a ranger saw Eli’s condition and cautioned us to return. Solid choice, as the desert heat and lack of shade meant we got pretty toasty on our way back up the Canyon. Apparently there are hundreds of hikers each year who need help being evacuated for pushing themselves too hard. Upon reflection, a clue could have been the Cookie Monster t-shirt Eli was wearing when I met him that said “Munchies.” I do want to return and do the entire hike down to the Colorado River. It is 12 miles return, but I enjoy a challenge!
When we got back to our campsite I thought about the first Jim and how fun it would be to go to Utah and do some off-roading. I wanted to continue my improvement in all things dirt and gave Jim a call. He said he would be down to go riding out with me the next day, as long as I could get to Utah by morning. I figured it would be best to hit the road right away and meet him in Mexican Hat, Utah. It was about 200 miles and it was approaching 6pm, so I quickly packed up my gear, said my goodbyes to Eli, Cheri, Tony, and Jim 2, and inputted Mexican Hat into my phone. It was time for my spontaneous adventure to take another turn!
The first hour and a half of the three-hour journey I had a good amount of light. The sun hit the canyon’s surrounding area in a perfect way to reflect its beauty, and the weather was the ideal temperature. I felt that zen moment on a bike where you are seeing stunning landscapes for the first time and wish you could pause time. Like any good moment, though, it’s fleeting, and the next hour the light began to fade.
I stopped in at the Cameron Trading Post to get some fuel and use the facilities. Inside the shop was an array of native art, I wished I had room to pick up a souvenir. I could do the old, shove it down my pants trick, but I had a long ride ahead, and this wasn’t a trip to my local Walmart.
When I got back to the bike, a young boy ran up to me with his mom. His mother asked if he could have a picture with me. I was a bit surprised, but not in a bad way. I agreed, and her son, maybe 10, stood proudly beside me. The mother thanked me and I wished them well. I wonder where that picture is now. One of the cool things is that this boy is going to grow up with the thought of young women riding motorcycles. We often see young women near motorcycles, but often they’re there sporting umbrellas beside a racer. Now if Maria Herrara keeps rocking it in Moto3, she might prefer a cute fella carrying an umbrella. One can dream.
The last half hour of my journey, as I approached the Utah border, was in pitch blackness. I used the high beam of the F700 for the first time and it did a great job illuminating the road (and showcasing how this area had signs warning of free roaming cattle, awesome). There weren’t many people on the road, and sometimes I would come to what I call an “anchor car,” someone you can ride behind and help use as a guide and who also adds to the brightness up ahead. Sometimes I would get impatient and overtake my anchor car, then darkness would grow stronger, I’d feel a pang of regret, reach another anchor car, and then overtake it all over again.
Jim had told me if I blink I would pass through Mexican Hat (I keep wanting to type Medicine Hat, a town in Alberta, Canada), and I saw the Shell station he mentioned as a landmark but didn’t see the RV park. I went a few more miles down the road and thought I must have missed it. I turned around and came back more slowly and saw a small house on my left with a few RVs tucked in the back. As I approached, I saw Jim walk toward me with a flashlight. The driveway moved from asphalt to gravel, and I was careful to move with caution to park beside his RV.
Jim was a cool guy. He was learning how to use his newly purchased GoPro camera. He fiddled with some of the straps and mounts to see what view he liked the best. I’m of the mindset you should always keep learning new skills; “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” is total BS! However, my dad would have had a hard time just opening the packaging, but he was collecting stamps at the age of 40 so he does not count.
In the morning we ate some breakfast and then decided to head to the Valley of the Gods. Jim had shown me some footage of the road the night before, and I was excited to get to it. I enjoy when I can utilize a bike to its full potential. When we approached the start of the road, we saw a couple two-upping on a BMW R1200GS and their son was riding a Kawasaki KLR650. We stopped to chat and found out they were off-roading their way across America! That’s the dream right there. I love how they were doing this as a family. When you travel and meet other adventurous people, it helps unlock what you think is possible.
Now it was our turn to meet the valley. This would be my first intentional off-road experience without a group of coaches and novice students (a few years back I had unintentionally lead my Ninja 250 down a country road filled with potholes, dirt and gravel, not pleasant). The drawback here was that I wouldn’t get any feedback from experts, but the benefit was I’d worry less about getting into an accident due to a large number of newbies riding close by.
Initially I was a bit nervous. This was a 17-mile gravel road that bends through beautiful rock formations, with some steep sections and sand interspersed in the dips. The area was shared with the occasional bike or jeep, but as the miles went by I started to feel more confident. I had been trained to handle this terrain, and the bike was designed for it, although I wish my tires were more knobby!
I hopped on my footpegs, and the extra height helped me see over bumps and provided more stability over the loose gravel and sand. However, in the distance I saw storm clouds, and halfway through the trip, lightening began to go off in the distance. This happened to me in my adventure in the Mojave the last time… somehow I channel the rain gods in desert excursions! The wind and dust picked up, and at one point wind hit at such a force that it was total white-out conditions. I didn’t know if stopping or moving was the better option, but I was hoping to get through the obstacle as quickly as possible. I stuck to my side of the road and moved forward.
After a few moments the dust subsided enough so I could see, but Jim was no longer behind me. I pulled over and waited a few minutes. I was about to turn around when I saw him appear in my mirror. We caught up and chatted about how crazy that dust storm had been and decided with the storm picking up, it was best to head back to the RV. I would be going back earning a new riding badge: survived my first dust storm. I was excited to see his footage.
We get back to the RV and I do the math. I needed to get back to Los Angeles for a sketch comedy class I had once a week. The call to continue on to Moab was strong, but every decision you make has an opportunity cost. I do want to be a kick-ass motorcycle rider, but I’m also a comedian and had already paid for the course. I think we all share in this dilemma. Whether it be a job, school, relationship or parenting, we all have reasons to go out and ride and reasons to ride home.
I get on my bike and decide that Kingman, Arizona, would be my pit stop that night at another glamorous KOA. I book the site from Utah, say my goodbyes to Jim, and set sail. When I ride westward toward California, the sun starts to set and pings me in the eye. I curse the direction I am headed, but I’m am glad I had sunglasses. I can rarely keep track of the darn things. I always take them out with me when it is bright, and then when it gets dark, leave them on a table to never see them again.
I enter the KOA and I see a couple, and I recognize the man walking his dog. It was the same man who helped me pack up my tent in Needles, Arizona. Small world! I guess they are doing the KOA circuit. I am shown to my plot by a man on a quad, and I am again left to set up my tent solo. It gets easier as you practice, and I had a trusty headlight to help me as darkness was closing in. The laugh track on my imaginary reality show went silent!
When I woke up in the morning, I head to McDonald’s for breakfast, and an older gentleman noticed my gear. He asked me what I was riding, I told him an F700GS, and he said with concern, “That’s too bigga bike for you.” I gave a weak smile and wished I had said something clever, like, “Damn, I wish I had of known that 2,000 miles ago, I guess I’m stranded in Kingman.”
As I stopped at my last fuel station in Ludlow, California, my first stop on the trip, I noticed a guy with a tent on his bike and we discussed some of our journeys. I reached for my phone to show some photos, but I couldn’t feel it anywhere. I ran back into the bathroom and saw it sitting on top of the toilet dispenser. If I hadn’t struck up a conversation with that fellow rider, I would have had a long ride back from L.A. to pick up my phone. The comradery of riders saves the day in one of its most unique ways!
My last few hours of highway riding were pretty uneventful. The sun kept pinging me in the eye, but at least my ass was comfy on the soft seat. I was impressed with the versatility of the GS. It made me feel completely comfortable on long pavement rides, and it felt at ease taking a random excursion off- road. This was my first multi-day adventure that I planned on a bike, but wouldn’t be my last.
I left and returned solo, but as you saw, very little of the time was spent alone. When you travel by yourself, you meet a lot of people. You can arrange to have spots where you join forces with someone, or you can find someone camping that allows you to join them along the way. Some of the best moments you have on the journey are the ones that come about organically, where you click with a fellow stranger and your paths align temporarily until they diverge once again.
More by Michelle Christine