I’ve found that with my motorcycle trips I can only plan so much, and at some point I just have to roll with whatever happens. I left San Francisco last Wednesday on my R1200GS for a solo trip to the Overland Expo in Flagstaff, AZ. Overland Expo is a gathering of like-minded adventurers in off-road camping vehicles and dual-sport motorcycles, both large and small.
I made my first stop in Los Angeles to visit some friends and stop in at Spirit Lake Cycles shop to see what they’ve been up to and shoot photos of some of their builds. I always plan ahead and check weather conditions not only for where I’m going, but also for the areas I have to ride through to get there. My plan was to have an easy ride on Thursday to the Phoenix, AZ area and take my time getting there. Then I would head to Flagstaff on Friday. Wednesday evening I heard that a storm system was going to be moving through the Los Angeles area, and would slowly make its way into Arizona in the next few days. This is where things got interesting.
I’ve ridden on the I-10 freeway from Los Angeles to Phoenix many times. I always expect there to be wind considering that it cuts through the middle of the desert. I’ve experienced strong crosswinds and try to always be prepared to lean into them for as long as they push against me. About 30 miles from the town of Blythe, CA I saw a massive wall of dirt and sand about 10 miles ahead of me, climbing thousands of feet high in the sky. I’ve never ridden through a dust storm before, just strong wind. I had the option of stopping, but like many other times I’m riding alone, I make calculated decisions and somehow convince myself it’s better to move forward than to stop and wait it out. As I approached the wall of dust, the crosswind got stronger. I found that if I reduced my speed to 50-55 mph I didn’t get knocked around too much. The wind was fairly consistent in direction, which was maybe the only thing in my favor at the time. I could maintain my constant lean into the wind while trying to not breathe in too much of the dust. After several miles I started to see blue sky again. I was relieved that I’d made it through.
I pressed on and got into Chandler, AZ at about 4:30pm. My front tire had been on my bike for a while now. It was a TKC80 and the tread was pretty worn out. I took a look at it when I arrived and noticed that I was well past the wear bars. The seam where the knob meets the flat part of the tire was cracking and bulging, as if some of the knobs were about to rip off. I still had a long way to go on this trip and decided it would be smart to find a new tire. I called up Victory BMW in Chandler and they happened to have one Metzeler Karoo 3 front tire left. This was great news, and especially good luck because my rear tire is also a Karoo 3. I mentioned that I was passing through town and they were kind enough to fit me in before the end of the day.
Friday morning I woke up early with plans to head straight to Flagstaff for the Overland Expo. The morning news in Phoenix was full of reports of snow in the Flagstaff area. As I gathered more information, I saw that all of the routes I could take were likely covered in several inches of snow. I know many people probably continued on, or didn’t have a choice but to keep going, but I crashed in similar conditions a few years ago and couldn’t bring myself to be in another situation like that. I decided to wait it out and use the day to explore warmer climates in the southern part of Arizona near Tucson at Saguaro National Park.
The Flagstaff storm system came in two parts – the second round hit in the afternoon and evening of Friday, dumping more snow. Saturday morning it looked as though the storm system had passed and I was finally clear to make my way up there. My father-in-law decided to ride up with me on his BMW K1600 GTL. We headed north on interstate 17 and stopped in Camp Verde for gas. Looking at his GPS, we found a road that would get us to Mormon Lake in a more direct route instead of going all the way to Flagstaff and then having to loop around. This shortcut led us on a paved road for about 5 miles before it turned into a dirt road. The surface was wet, muddy and slick with potholes everywhere. I asked Howard if he was sure he wanted to continue on his sport-touring bike, which seemed like a bad idea to me, but he was already moving and said “Yes, let’s do it.”
I let him lead and set the pace. I was amazed at how well his motorcycle did. He seemed to be doing fine as long as he avoided the large potholes. We climbed and climbed, reaching the highest elevation of the road where it was still snowing. At the highest point there were several inches of snow, covering most of the road. As we descended we took a quick pit stop so I could grab a photo of this funny situation and then we continued on to meet up with the paved highway.
Once we arrived at Mormon Lake there was a long line to get into the event. We pulled into Motorcycle Village and found a spot to park. The whole area was a big mud bath, but it seemed very fitting for the crowd and vehicles attending. As I am primarily a motorcycle person, the side with 4-wheeled vehicles seemed like a sensory overload to me. I didn’t realize there were so many different kinds of off-road vehicles.
I first checked out the BMW Motorrad / RawHyde Motorcycle Skills Course. The riders had a few obstacles to practice on as well as thick mud throughout. They would do a few laps and then circle up so the teacher could give more instruction on the next set of skills to work on.
As I walked through Motorcycle Village, the first thing that caught my eye was the Icon Raiden Triumph Tiger 800XC. I’d seen photos of this bike recently and recognized it immediately. It was covered in mud – you know they were having some fun with it. It has an intimidating stance and looks really mean.
Another interesting motorcycle there was an all-electric KTM Adventure by Expedition Electric. They’re taking a trip with electric motorcycles from Alaska to the end of Argentina. I didn’t get to see it in action, but it definitely looks interesting. I look forward to hearing more from them in the future.
I made my way around the 4-wheeled vehicles area of the expo admiring all the unique vehicles. It seemed like everyone was having a great time despite the mud, though I think most of them love this kind of weather. It’s what their gear and vehicles are built to deal with. I also think that for everyone at the Expo, the adventure of getting there was half the fun.
I made my way home from Flagstaff later that day, riding first to Los Angeles and then San Francisco the following morning. One of my favorite parts of traveling on a motorcycle is the unknown. You can plan as much as possible, but you never know what’s going to happen. That’s part of the thrill for me. I look forward to going to the Overland Expo West again next year and hope to be able to spend more time there.
Words and Photos by Nick Johnson