Road trip to Vegas: The shivering cold shakedown tour

Mar 24, 2017

We had to get there.

We were going to Las Vegas from Albuquerque, New Mexico. But it wasn't Vegas we had to get to. It was the motorcycle trip headspace. We had to get to that realization that the journey was more important than the destination.

But that's hard to do riding past frozen lakes on Arizona's 7,700-foot-high I-260 west of Payson with a 40 mph crosswind on the first day. It was like Hoth, and a tauntaun would have been a better mount than a motorcycle.

Snow drifts were three feet high. A blue semi was stabbed into a snow drift near an ominous sign that said “6% grade, brake check area.”

And we were all on motorcycles trying to make Prescott, Arizona, before dark, on our way to Vegas for the 2017 Polaris RZR Mint 400 Presented by BF Goodrich Tires 400-mile off-road race.

preparing for trip
To get ready, we carefully inspected each bike and tightened every loose bolt. Here, John Rodriguez, left, and Ethan White work on Rodriguez's 2002 Road King at White's shop, Mongo Motors, in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Photo by Dan Mayfield.
The problem was, for four of the six of us, this was our first motorcycle trip. We have been riding for at least a decade together in Albuquerque. But we're cafe and scooter guys who've never owned bikes we trust outside of the city limits. However, after a beer-fueled night last November researching the Mint 400, we started planning. Then, we started buying cold-weather gear. And, in some cases, new bikes.

It's rare that six good friends could take a week off of work together for one epic trip, and we all jumped at the chance.

I rode a Suzuki M109R, an 1,800 cc beast that has enough torque to pull the rest of the group. Ethan rode a 1992 BMW GS Paris-Dakar adventure bike. Kevin rode a 2013 Triumph Scrambler. John bought a 2002 Harley-Davidson Road King with a troublesome fuel injection computer. Tyson rode his 1988 BMW R100RT turned naked bike.

And William was pulling up the rear in a Nissan Xterra, just in case.

riding in Arizona
Enjoying some roads less traveled, like this one somewhere outside of Prescott, Arizona. Photo by Dan Mayfield.

If there was a merit badge for riding, we earned it on the first day, March 1. Leaving in bitter cold, and deciding to forego I-40 and the big rigs, we froze for the first hour. We bundled up in the small town of Grants, New Mexico, and then froze more as we went through the exotic El Malpies, where the asphalt is forced to wind through ancient giant red rock cliffs on some of the best motorcycling roads we'd ever seen.

Soon we were in St. John's, Arizona and we were embracing fast, fun, new roads.

When we finally stopped at the historic Hassayampa Inn in Prescott after a freezing 11-hour day with just roadside tamales to fuel us, we had somehow embraced the 55 mph roads and the journey. There was no going back. It was both thrilling, and scary, to be 300 miles from home in the middle of the next state on a bike.

Hassayampa Inn
After 250 miles in 11 hours, slowed by cold weather and carb issues, we found the historic Hassayampa Inn to crash at in Prescott, Arizona. Photo by Dan Mayfield.

But we'd only started, and if ever there was a road made for a fast bike, it was the Yarnell Hill coming out of Prescott. Descending mountain passes led us to a one-lane, one-way, 10-foot wide roller coaster for 20 miles. Highway engineers banked the turns just right for motorcycles, or Formula 1 cars. I think this was where my fork seals started to go.

in Las Vegas
We felt both relief and a sense of accomplishment when we made it to Vegas. Photo by Dan Mayfield.

Vegas and Stratosphere
Our Air BnB in Las Vegas was near the Stratosphere, making it easy to find our place for the next three nights. We picked a spot with a garage, just in case we needed to wrench on bikes. Photo by Dan Mayfield.

When we made Vegas, we were sore, tired, cold, and proud, high-fiving at each stoplight as the Stratosphere came into view. We toasted with some cheap champagne, and realized that we had ridden 740 miles in two days. We were exhausted, but on a high. We'd made it.

At the Mint 400 race prep area, we knew were among friends when we saw a restored Husqvarna 250CR hanging from the ceiling of the bar. Seeing the Trophy Trucks, the vintage Ford F-100 race trucks, old-school buggies, and RZRs lining Freemont was worth the trip in itself.

Husqvarna hanging from the ceiling
When we saw this restored Husqvarna at the Mint 400 bar, we knew we were in the right place. Photo by Dan Mayfield.

On Friday, though, my forks had left a nice puddle of oil on the garage floor. I've ridden bikes with sloppy forks before, so I shrugged it off until I hit the first corner on our way to the Mint 400 paddock. The front end of the 800-pound M109r bottomed hard. Six blocks to the paddock was scary, let alone the prospect of 750 miles home. Finally, after 10 phone calls, we reached the team at RideNow Powersports in Vegas, a local Suzuki dealer, where they could fix the seals in three hours.

We made the race on Saturday, after we all hopped in the Xterra, which now had a broken back window thanks to a semi. We made fast friends at the spectator area, learned some rules of off-road racing, and found out you could buy $2 beers from some guys in a white Chevy pickup.

The race buggies were fast. The Trophy Trucks were ungodly fast. We watched the fastest trucks barrel down the straight, usually tailed by choppers. The Red Bull and Rockstar Energy trucks were setting the pace. In the end, Rob MacCachren in the Rockstar truck won, after the Red Bull truck flatted on the final lap.

Though we went for the race, we really wanted to get back on the road. We skipped the trophy presentations, pored over Arizona road maps and found a stretch of old Route 66 east to Flagstaff.

Somewhere outside of Kingman, we lost sight of the Xterra. The support truck, with gear, gas, and beer, was sidelined with a dropped driveshaft. A tow, a late-night NAPA run, and a friendly shop got Ethan back on the road, but he had to post up in Kingman for the night.

At least he missed the windy 28-degree ride we had to make into Flagstaff, where we just gave up at dark.

roadside repairs
As we were trying to make it back to Albuquerque in the cold, the carbs on the BMW were, again, giving Tyson Ratliff trouble and the aftermarket computer on the Road King decided to give up. We pulled over outside of Winslow, Arizona, to re-jet and reprogram to little effect. Photo by Dan Mayfield.

The next day, after four hours on the highway, bum directions, and more cold, we were all seeing dragons. All we could do was freeze, shiver, and follow the white lines home.

We rolled back into Albuquerque at 8 p.m., cold, hungry, thirsty and proud. Fully 1,468 miles later, we closed the loop at the tiny Bar Uno, where we'd planned the trip last November, and toasted our success.

Now, our problems were getting out of the headspace that 1,468 miles on bikes puts you in, going back to work the next day, and planning the next one.