by Scott B. Laughlin
The scent of greasewood hung in the air like smoke around a campfire while the Arizona sunrise rose from behind the Poso Redondo Mountains. April had not yet arrived and the daytime temperature on the Sonoran Desert would be mild. This was the morning after and I thought back a couple of years.
The day I’d first seen the Suzuki on the motorcycle lot was still etched in my mind. “Let’s see if it’ll start,” the salesman had said, leading the way to where it stood. If I’d had half-a-brain I would have turned on my heel and never looked back. But I loved the F series, the teardrop tank, the graceful rise of the handlebars, and the decked saddle. It was eye candy and I was going to own it if there was any way to swing the cost. I made a deal and it was the machine on which we headed south that fateful April day of 1999.
It found numerous reasons not to run, each one different. But rather than admit I’d made the fatal error of falling in love with a motorcycle I fixed each problem and then we inched further south. By the end of the fifteenth day we were in Why, Arizona, seventeen hundred miles from the place we’d started.
Our faulty bike reminded me of a Nevada rancher’s story I’d once read in a back issue of Harper’s. The ageing cowboy had little time for working on vehicles that didn’t contribute to his income. Over the years his accumulation cars and pickups were segregated into three rows. Those closest to the house ran all the time. Those in the second row ran some of the time. The vehicles furthest from the house ran none of the time. The last row was where our machine belonged.
It was with cautious satisfaction that my eyes traveled from the Poso Redondo Mountains to our patio and surveyed what I’d taken in trade for the Suzuki, two cases of Bud Light, an acoustic guitar made in China, and a twenty-year-old Japanese motorcycle, and a Honda Thumper. Oh, and I had nearly forgotten about the crisp one hundred dollar bill in my wallet.
"There’s a rumor that you got a Suzuki stashed here," said the young man with a California accent, nodding his head in the general direction of the metal shed at the southwest corner of our trailer. His name was Robert. I’d seen this tall fellow round and about. He looked forty years my junior. His clothes were dirty, he needed a haircut, and his blue eyes were so vacant that I felt as though I could see into his soul. As usual, he had a cold one in his hand.
"There’s truth in that rumor. Wanna see it?"
He nodded and headed for the shed while I fetched the key.
"Wow! How much you want for it?" he said as I slid the doors open.
"Well, I think it's only fair to say that it hasn't been started for a spell."
He grabbed hold of the kick-starter and rolled the motor over. "Doesn't matter. The motor isn't froze. I can fix it."
"Well, I really hadn’t put a price on it. In fact, Barb and I were thinking about hauling it to Casa Grande to get it fixed," I said.
"Tell you what, I ain't got much cash, but I got a Honda Thumper I'd be willing to trade. She's a screamer."
"I'll even throw in my Chinese guitar," he said.
I just stared at him, wondering why he wanted this Suzuki so badly.
"Tell you what, I'll throw in two cases of Bud Light. They’re still cold and this too,” he said, waving a hundred dollar bill. “I want that bike," he added.
Before the sun had slid behind the Growler Mountains the titles were signed, his wife had fetched the guitar and the two cases of Bud. And I had his hundred dollars in my pocket.
This morning the deal had lost some of its shine. The beer and the guitar seemed okay, but the bike was a bit rundown at the heel. The tires were scabs. The front wheel had a severe wobble, and I wasn’t sure a new tire was going to fix that. The compression release didn’t always work. The condition of the wheel bearing and brakes was anybody’s guess. And then there was the drive chain. I was going to throw good money after bad.
After breakfast Barb and I drove the Chevrolet across the Tohono O'odham Indian Nation to Casa Grande to fetch tires, tubes, engine oil, wheel bearing seals, and a new chain.
Spark's Motorcycle Shop had everything we needed and kept the cost within the hundred-dollar budget. Everything, that is, except the drive chain. They were too costly, so we returned home without it.
In a day’s time the new parts were installed and the old beast passed the road test. Simplicity was the magic word with this old girl--One spark plug, one coil, one carburator. My spirits were lifted and I hinted around that we should ride it to Oregon and visit the kids.
could take the back roads and single track trails when we could find
“Are you asking me what I think? If you are I can tell you right now that I think you are nuts,” she said. And by the flash in her Swedish blue eyes I knew this matter was not open for further discussion. I let it drop. A week later came the surprise.
and I’m just supposing, that we did take that thing?”
“The Thumper?” I ventured.
She nodded. “Suppose we did take the Thumper to Oregon. How far would we travel each day and what would we do with McBark?” she asked, nodding toward our dog.
“We’d go no farther than you wanted to go, and we’d take McBark along. He is a full fledged member of the family, you know,” I assured her.
“And where did you plan for him to ride?”
“I’d do what I said I would never do to a motorcycle. I’d put a milk crate behind the seat.”
She began warming to the idea and by the week’s end we were discussing what we should take. The two of us would probably exceed the recommended weight limit of the tires. McBark would add an additional thirty-five pounds. To keep the load within reason we’d take only what was necessary for our survival. No cooking. We’d rely on cafés.
The final list included a single change of clothes, a half- gallon thermos, and a quart of motor oil, tent, two sleeping bags, two jackets, a small LED flashlight, and a tarp. The entire load weighed seventeen pounds, plus McBark.
From Why, Arizona we followed SR-85 directly through the center the Barry Goldwater Bombing Range to Gila Bend.
Because the sun had not yet risen when we rolled out of Coyote Howls Park we had the road to ourselves, that is until Barb tapped my right shoulder and pointed east across the desert. At first I saw nothing against the glaring sun. Then I noticed a speck growing larger with each passing second. It was an airplane. His speed was phenomenal. In the blink of an eye our serene world was filled with a shock wave, the deafening sound of a jet engine and smoke. It seemed that he cleared us by no more than fifteen feet. We were stunned and nearly crashed as a result of his mock attack. In the brief seconds that followed I found my left hand extended upward at arms length, a salutation, as it were. At least, that's what our pilot-friend apparently read from my gesture. He responded by dipping both wings then issued a quick victory roll. He was hardly upright before his afterburner came into action and he thundered toward Mexico at a high rate of speed. In less time than it took to summarize what had happened to us he was gone. All that remained was the stench of half-burned fuel. Rattled, we held our course, hoping to reach Gila Bend before another ambitious pilot discovered our position.
After lunch in Gila Bend we continued north on Old US 80. The traffic was sparse through the cotton fields. To our right lay a huge irrigation ditch filling from the massive aquifer underlying much of Southern Arizona.
Elderly residents recall a time when Southern Arizona hosted cattle grazing in belly-high grass and shallow wells watered truck gardens. But after the cotton farmers drilled their wells and drew so heavily from the aquifer the water table dropped and what was once an oasis became a windblown wasteland.
After crossing Interstate 10 we followed the old Wickenburg Stage Road over Vulture Mountain and pitched our tent at a campground near Skull Valley.
Our drive chain, after running all day, was hot. I could only imagine how much it had stretched. Visions of it jumping off the sprocket and tangling in the spokes haunted me that night.
The next morning and a dozen miles north of Prescott we chose a dirt road at a junction called Drake and followed it for nearly thirty miles. Eventually, we entered Williams from the south side. After renting a room we spent the afternoon visiting the shops populating both side of the Mother Road.
Our arrival at Grand Canyon's South Rim the next day put nearly four hundred miles behind us. Our luck with the chain was wearing thin. So rather than waiting to enjoy the canyon colors, we headed for Kingman in search of a Honda motorcycle store.
At Ashfork we picked up another segment of Route 66. Peach Springs, about halfway to Kingman, is the largest town within the boundaries of the Hualapai Indian Reservation. After finding a café there, we followed two Reservation Police Officers through the door. They ignored the sign that read "Wait to Be Seated". We, too, claimed places on our own. Apparently, we Gringos had overstepped our bounds because the waitress serving our table was as cool as frosty as a November breeze.
By seven o'clock the following morning we occupied a picnic table near the service entrance to the Honda store. At half passed, Frank, the white-headed service manager joined us with his breakfast, a muffin and orange juice. His interest intensified as he listened to our travel plans. Shortly before eight o'clock his mechanics arrived and our machine went inside for an oil change, a safety inspection, and a new drive chain.
An hour later it was ready. The bill was $135.72.
"It's been taken care of," Frank said, "You have a good trip"
"Are you sure?" I protested.
"Absolutely. Get out of here before I change my mind."