Arizona Backcountry Discovery Route: American Walkabout

Text: Florian Neuhauser • Photography: Jonathan Beck

What am I doing with my life? Where am I headed? We all reach a point when we question ourselves and the meaning of life. Maybe you’re stuck in a dead-end job, maybe you’re not getting along with your spouse, or maybe the ever-increasing demand for your attention and time weighs you down. The best way to figure it all out is usually in connection with solitude and nature. Time to think. Time to reflect. Drown out all outside noise so you can listen to yourself. A walkabout if you will.

As much as we all need more time alone, the realities of family and work can’t be ignored entirely. It wouldn’t be right leaving loved ones behind for months to struggle while you go find yourself. But there’s a solution: The American walkabout. Eight adventure- and action-packed days on a dual sport through Arizona, camping along the way, will expedite the process. And if that experience doesn’t shed light on the existential questions, then you might as well sell your motorcycle and start collecting stamps.

In April 2013, the non-profit Backcountry Discovery Routes (BDR) organization put together an orchestrated crossing of Arizona from the Mexican boundary north to the Utah border. Our eight-man, one-woman strong team meets at the Go AZ Motorcycles dealership in Scottsdale to ready our expedition fleet. Among the bunch are two KTM 990 Adventures, one R 1200 GSA, three F 800 GSs, a Yamaha WR450F, and two liquid-cooled R 1200 GSs, one of which I’m testing at the same time. All of the motorcycles are outfitted with luggage and crash protection from Touratech. Trailmaster Adventure Gear provided one of the most useful items, however—a stainless steel shot glass. Good for espresso in the morning and whiskey in the evening. It’s the little things in life that matter.

Cowboys

We leave Tombstone early in the morning. It will be the last time we see a bed, or a shower, until we get to Utah. My brand-spanking-new Beemer is fully loaded. My body is filled with adrenaline as I’m just waiting to ditch the asphalt.

The first point of order is to ride southeast to the Mexican border, so we can officially head due north from there. The wide-open, well graded, off-road sections are very easy, and the few directional changes pump me up with confidence. On the incline to Coronado National Memorial, which pays tribute to the first organized expedition into the Southwest, the first curves get thrown my way. On the top, we reduce tire pressure for easier handling. This increases the chance of a flat, however, and I really don’t feel like fixing one in the next eight days. I decide to keep the psi around 20.

The entire afternoon, we follow a maze of dirt roads until we come to the Empire Ranch. Just up the trail, we find a suitable camping spot underneath huge trees. The last leg already had a few sandy sections, and I’m not looking forward to more tomorrow.

Sand and Hills

Quite impressed by the NEMO tent and sleeping pad, I wake up ready for the challenge. Justin is already on his knees working on the front brake of his 990 Adventure. I look over at my BMW and wink at it. Out in the wilderness, you have to invite positive energy into your life.

As soon as we leave camp, the path turns to mostly sand. Up on the pegs isn’t working for me anymore as I can’t stay balanced. What does work are my long legs and willpower. The GS wants to lie down too many times, but I drop my feet and wrestle it back up. It’s exhausting. Nine o’clock in the morning and I’m soaked with sweat. Touratech Tom gives me useful advice—barely hold on to the grips, keep your head up, and stay on the throttle. Since it sounds better than my technique, I give it a try. I’m not making it look good, but the survival instinct takes over.

Soon, hills emerge and rocks become the obstacle. Lots of them. One peak after another provides endless practice, and (by accident) I find out that the incline beside the rocky path is a lot easier to navigate up. It’s cooler to pass through brush anyway. It’s not cheating. I’m just taking a different path to the same destination.

A quick look at my watch (and the odometer) reveals that it just took us three hours to go six miles. We better press on.

It’s late afternoon, and I am feeling great. The rough path is still somewhat rocky, but ever so slight whoops are providing infinite fun. A few times I catch some air. I’m waiting at the last turn for the riders behind me when the last two of the group are slowly creeping up. Austin Vince is hurt. He blew his knee. The leaders are arranging his departure to civilization while the rest of us chase the setting sun. We don’t make it to the planned spot, but we find a clearing among the saguaro cacti and feel like real outlaws in this scene straight out of a western movie.

And Then We Are Eight

It has been two days without a shower. I’m filthy. After a short morning jaunt, we arrive in Mammoth at a gas station. A water hose on the side of the building has never looked so enticing. Most of us wash as much as is acceptable in public. The cleanliness only lasts a short while though, as we parallel a highway and duck through trees, pass under railroad bridges, and make our way to Winkelman. Today is the most asphalt (fewer than 20 miles) we’ll see this entire trip.

The Continental TKC 80s are reassuring when I point the GS down questionable paths. I’m impressed by the new suspension on the bike too. I seem to float over rocks, but when I look at the others, they’re bouncing around all over the place. It definitely helps to have the right tool for the job.

With a flat tire slowing us down, we scramble to find a camping spot, but massive ant colonies keep us looking until we settle near a small stream. It’s fine by me, because flowing water means bath time!

Mental Test

The Tonto National Forest and the cliff dwellings of the Salado Indians are by far the most scenic areas on this trip. From our early start to a late arrival, we only encounter one vehicle. This is backcountry in its essence. We hug the left side of the mountain with the canyon to our right as we ride over rocks and through streams. Repeat. It feels as though someone is playing a sick mental game with us. Everything looks the same. Did we go in a circle? Will this ever end? Sometime in the afternoon we break for two more flats. I wonder if I’ll get out of here alive.

We are back on the pegs, and the route is only getting more challenging. Rocks the size of heads make it difficult to wrestle the BMW over them, but the advice I get is to be a rock. By envisioning myself as being on top of a huge boulder rolling down the hill, all I have to do is tell it where to go. It works! We come back to civilization (I’m using the term loosely) in Pleasant Valley and stock up on essentials at the only store. We immediately retreat into the wilderness to set up camp. This time it’s along a bigger stream featuring a natural pool. After the hardest day of riding in my life, I float in the water to regain energy.

Pure Bliss

After surviving the previous day, my confidence level is over the roof. There’s nothing this 1200 GS can’t handle. Before we leave for the day, I’m talking silently to my motorcycle and praising it for taking care of me. At this point, solitude and exertion have consumed my mind and left little room to think about anything else. The necessities in my life right now are water, fuel, food, and shelter. I’m not thinking about the office, the things breaking in my house, or all the fighting in the world. Reading the news each morning can have a negative impact, but without a cell phone signal most of the way, I’m completely guilt free. This is just what the doctor ordered.

In the Coconino National Forest, we encounter a few more people, but all is well when we find a spot to camp between tall pines. We are up significantly in elevation, so I’m slumbering in my full gear. The only thing I brought myself, a sleeping bag, is barely adequate enough for a pillow—never mind keeping me warm.

Africa?

The landscape along the way has changed dramatically. We started out in a sandy red desert, and now we see tall green pines with lots of vegetation. Today we take double tracks next to golden grass on brown soil. I spot something, do a double-take, and sure enough—there’s an antelope. If I didn’t know any better, I’d think I was in Africa.

The high meadows we cross are devoid of any sign of humanity. Once in a while we see cattle grazing. We’re close to Flagstaff, though.

We split up because several flat tires are delaying us. I’m riding with the group that has no issues with the pneus. Smaller and meaner, we pick up the pace. I’m already getting too confident, but when a branch sticking out into my path jousts my left pannier and puts me sideways, I barely recover. With my heart in my throat, I slow it down and enjoy the scenery.

After leaving the red and brown soil behind, we’re now traversing black volcanic country. What an otherworldly experience. I did not expect this in Arizona. Volcanic sand by our campsite finally gets the best of me, and I can’t save my Beemer from tipping over.

Crowds Freak Me Out

In the morning, we head straight for Sunset Crater. The black desert beneath me is equal parts mesmerizing and aggravating. I could really do without all this grit!

After lunch, I attempt to catch the rider in front of me. I realize he must be going just as fast (or faster) than I, because I don’t see him. I open the throttle some more. Riding at 60 mph on sweeping dirt roads is easier than it sounds. It forces me to keep my head up, and I don’t worry about every single rock. I just blast over them. Going almost 70 mph on a straightaway, I nearly have a heart attack when at least 20 deep furrows appear and run off in all directions. It’s too late to brake, so I keep the throttle steady and practically fly over the ruts. Of course right after that, I slow down and take a breather. Playing Dakar racer is fun but only for a bit.

We hit the main highway right near the Grandview Point overlook for the Grand Canyon. It’s an absolute treat to see, but all the cars and people make our entire group nervous. I watch my companions as we stay close together and all agree we need to leave here. Now.

After purchasing a permit (per person) that allows us to ride and camp in the Navajo Nation, we’re back in our element. Nobody to worry about except ourselves.

The camp spot right on the edge of the Little Colorado River is magnificent. Pitching a tent next to a drop-off of several hundred feet is something I don’t do on a daily basis.

What Day is It?

I don’t know what time it is. It’s dark outside. I’m trying to sleep with earplugs in, but the heavy wind keeps pushing my tent poles on top of me. I’m afraid if I get out, my shelter will blow away, so I lean out and grab anything that’s heavy to help weigh it down. I’m flat on my back with each appendage stretching to a corner. At times, the gale goes underneath my tent and sleeping pad and lifts me off the ground!

The morning provides many funny stories about the tumultuous night, but we have to travel to Utah today. Nobody seems thrilled that it’s the last day, and we are all dragging our feet a bit.

Traversing Navajo Nation we come to pavement again, and due to a closure, we make a huge U-turn to the last off-road section of the trip. We arrive at the Utah border at Lake Powell with mixed emotions. Reality sets in at the end of a trip. You know you have to leave your new friends behind, and everybody has to get back to the office.

Successful Walkabout

Eight days. I haven’t read the news, I haven’t checked my emails, and I managed to get all negative thoughts out of my mind. On top of it all, I’ve made lasting friendships and honed my off-road riding skills in a “sink or swim” learning environment. My favorite!

Coming back to the work life with my battery fully charged, I’m ready to take on the challenges of the upcoming chaotic summer and fall.

Items I Brought 
But Didn’t Need

  • Pannier full of cooking utensils
- Others had the same.
  • Enough freeze-dried food to last two weeks
- We got fuel daily. Where there’s fuel, there’s food.
  • Tennis shoes
- Flip-flops will do when not wearing riding boots.
  • Phone
- Almost no reception anywhere.
  • Tire repair kit —I’m just that good.

Items I didn’t bring but needed

  • A micro table for preparing food
  • A much warmer sleeping bag
  • Dromedary bags for water
  • More earplugs