In 1984 Orion Pictures hired me to write a script about bikers – specifically, a father-and-son team who ride their machines from Detroit to rescue the son’s mother/father’s ex from a Tijuana jail. Jon Davison was to be the producer. Jon lived in Telluride. So, always looking for reasons to leave Los Angeles, I proposed a research-oriented road trip, following our heroes’ route, with a stopover at his place in Colorado. The title of the script, though I didn’t know it yet, was War Baby.
At this point, the furthest I had ridden was New Mexico, so the idea of a bike trip all the way to the Motor City and back filled me with exotic delight. By this time I had acquired a BMW 90/6, the very best of my sequence of machines. It was perfect for the jaunt. In those days, 900cc was considered a large engine, and I imagined it more than sufficient for any cross country trip. The disk brake and shaft drive were my friends. There were two fiberglass panniers, and I had one of those tank bags with a transparent cover into which you could slip your map (for there was no GPS back then. Nor internet. Nor lots of other things. But life was still pretty exciting).
So, packing the panniers and the tank bag and strapping a sleeping bag and an (unused) self-inflating camping mattress to the rear seat, I set off. There were 44,280 miles on the clock. It was Saturday, July 7, and the reader might anticipate a tale of travels through sunlit summer landscapes. It was not so. I rode down the 405, crossed into Mexico at Tijuana, ate a late lunch at Cesar’s (a place I cannot recall at all, though it was apparently the home of the Cesar Salad) and headed east on Mexico Highway 2 – La Rumorosa. I’d planned to continue on this infamous road the next day, but it grew dark and I encountered an army patrol searching cars – they waved us on – and no room at the inn in Tecate: there was a fair in town. So I crossed back into the US, and fetched up at the El Portal Motel in El Cajon, CA.
(How easy all the above sounds! It was a 250-mile drive. But what amazes me today is to think of getting out of LA traffic, transiting San Diego, crossing the border twice … all in a few hours. Even on a motorcycle this would be a hard, long slog today. And why did I end up in El Cajon? It seems I embarked on this journey with little idea as to what my daily destination was, or what my options were. Maybe Detroit seemed destination enough…)
Sunday July 8 Idled east again, breakfasting in Dulzura, having coffee in Jacumba, and visiting a famous Desert Tower (again, forgotten). If you have a motorcycle, people want to talk to you about bikes: “I’ve got a Honda 750. Came off it in gravel three weeks ago. Did this. (rolls up sleeve) My son was on the back. We got a flat at 55. I went down through the gears. If I’d have touched the brakes we would have really ate it.” Riding through Yuma I encountered lightning and light rain. Fetched up at the Seashell Motel in Gila Bend, AZ – where the only seashells are fossils. Like many motels I stayed at, the place was owned by (East) Indians. Delicious cooking smells, but no food for sale. 319 miles covered.
Monday July 9 Cut south into Ajo, a mining town with an extraordinarily beautiful main plaza – a mixture of faux-Spanish and John Ford cavalry post. The mine was still active in those days, and the miners were on strike. Headed west on a minimal backroad, ate popovers in Sells, on the Papago Res, and reached Tucson in daylight. 177 miles. Spent the night with friends, sitting in a car on Mt Lemon, watching the city lights.
Tuesday July 10 To the BMW shop. In these days if you were a keen motorcyclist you visited the parts store frequently. Beemers were the finest machines, but they were not for the faint of wallet. The parts were every bit as expensive as their equivalents in BMW cars. Fortunately the only authentic Bavarian tech needed on this occasion was a rubber o-ring for the dipstick. I recall being pulled over by the Tucson police because I had a pillion passenger, riding side-saddle, and the two of us being warned by the officer that side-saddle was not an appropriate motorcycling technique. Was this the occasion when this happened? Or was that another trip? It was unseasonably humid in the Old Pueblo, and there were huge thunderheads to the east. I rode east past the airport, alone. Half an hour out of town it suddenly cooled down. Electric energy filled the air. Then lightning and a terrific downpour. I pulled over onto the shoulder of the Interstate, turned my blinkers on, and sat there as the rain fell. A car pulled up behind me and the driver hit the horn. Ran to the car, an Olds. Door opened. Inside were two army guys from Fort Huachuca. They gave me shelter and sat smoking cigarettes. The rain was so hard we couldn’t see the bike, 20 feet in front of us. One of them was being ordered back to Germany for three more years. The other was going to Monterrey “for languages.” After 20 minutes, the rain stopped and the sky appeared again. We said goodbye.
South via the Old Sonoita Highway, Route 33 – very picturesque. At Tombstone drank a beer in the Crystal Palace saloon, where men dressed as cowboys watched a Western on the bar TV. Thence to Bisbee, and a room in the grand and ancient Copper Queen Hotel. Watched a documentary about Dien Ben Phu, followed by the news. “80 percent of sulfur dioxide poisoning in the Western US is concentrated in a triangle including Bisbee, Douglas, and Cananea, Mexico…” Only 129 miles. Day most eventful.
Wednesday July 11 In the morning I took the tour of the open pit copper mine, a giant sore on the landscape which had devoured most of the town. “Stripping began in 1918, and by 1921 Sacramento Hill had become Sacramento Pit…” In a print shop window I saw a sign which surprised me: a pro-communist poster, in English, showing a woman endangered by a shadow, with a slogan – ‘With Socialism, Women No Longer Live in Fear.’ I entered to enquire about it. It was the work of Bob, the old printer, once a member of the Industrial Workers of the World. The movie business had come to town recently, shooting John Milius’ anti-communist film, Red Dawn, and Bob was hired to design and print some appropriate propaganda posters. He found it ironic and a lot of fun, as he had always been into politics. “Fritz Mondale gave me a hundred dollars to file so I could run for governor of Minnesota in ‘52. But I was drinking then, and didn’t have the nerve.”
Dipped into Mexico again at Naco. This was then a quiet, easy-going, tiny town. The border crossing was never busy. There was no wall and you could see for miles into Mexico from the US, and the reverse. There was a golden statue of a man on horseback and I asked a kid who it was. “Pancho Villa.” Of course! I crossed back into the US and drove east to Douglas, where Highway 666 began. Highway 666 is no more. Today in Arizona it’s called 191. Rumour has it that the number was changed at the insistence of the Vatican, which operates an astronomical observatory on a mountaintop adjacent to the road. This is unfortunate, as it was a memorable number for a memorable route.
Detouring to glimpse the Chiricahua National Monument (a million rocks), I passed through Safford and Clifton. Bob Richardson and I had ridden out to Clifton a couple of times. It was a pretty copper-mining town in the mountains. On our second visit things were pretty tense. The miners were on strike and on the lookout for scabs. So we didn’t stay long. In 1984, the strike was ongoing still: a blackleg miner hung in effigy from a Coors sign outside a bar.
Beyond Clifton, 666 wound serpentlike in between high, straight stretches. A lovely road, but a slow one. It grew dark, and threatened to storm. I pulled off the road, took off my helmet, and exchanged the clear lens for the yellow-tinted one: night-driving mode. I ploughed on into darkness. Black chasms fell away on either side of me. Sunset appeared briefly – a dark, red eye glowing beneath gray clouds. Lightning flashed below me. I rode on.
Three Honda GoldWings passed, going the other way. One had a sidecar. All towed heavy camper trailers. Such excess was uncommon, back then. Two deer crossed the road ahead of me, and a dozen cattle. (It was foolish to ride this at night as it’s one of the most beautiful roads in the west – 123 miles of high-altitude curves still known as the Devil’s Highway, in honour of old 666.)
Around 9pm I found The Lodge – an inn high in the White Mountains, in a place called Hannagan Meadow. Bob and I had stopped here one freezing snowfield day two years previously, and drunk scotches. The Lodge had closed, in theory, but was still open. $35 got me a cabin with a wood-burning stove. $2.50 bought me two cans of beer. I’d ridden 308 miles. “Life is good” I wrote in my notebook. “God bless Orion Pictures.”
Thursday July 12 At breakfast, I struggled over the title of this script that I was to write. Before the Storm? Into the Wind? The temptations to call it Born to Be Wild or Uneasy Rider had to be resisted… At St Johns, the Beemer and I entered the territory of Triple A’s Indian Country map (which still showed the road as 666) and headed north into red-dirt, Navajo country.
Somewhere in the region of Ganado or Chinle, I lost my sleeping bag and self-inflating mattress (unused). Retraced my tracks for some miles but saw no sign of the missing items. Headed north again, into another brewing storm. It rained. I sneezed a lot inside my helmet. Then I cut eastward into better weather and still more scenic country. Rode into Cortez, Colorado, at sunset. Spent the night at the Frontier Motel. Ate a bad fish meal, and saw Gremlins at the movie theatre. 391 miles.
Friday July 13 A short 100-mile jaunt followed. Topped up on oil, and ate a huge hot green chile omlet at El Grande. Headed northeast into the most scenic country yet, and more rain. Rico was a charming, ghostly town. Telluride was a damp, hippie hangout. Three more miles of uphill dirt road brought me to Jon Davison’s place. I spent the afternoon with my producer, his charming girlfriend Sally Cruickshank, and dog Felix. The altitude – 8,500 feet – got me to gasping. A fine Italian dinner at the Sheridan Hotel in Telluride ensued. John memorably declared, “The only history of the West is MINERS!”
Saturday July 14 Departing the producorial ranch, I took the high and winding route via Ridgway and Ouray, to Silverton. This was apparently called the “Million Dollar Drive” on account of its visual magnificence, which the weather continued to obscure. According to my notebook, in Ouray I swam in a huge, outdoor municipal hot pool, then rode through the Black Canyon of the Gunnison: “Incredible Victorian-etching-type canyon, myriad of cracked-rock details.” I had now exited Indian Country, according to the map. 239 miles on, I spent the night in Crested Butte, another ski/rich/hippie Tellu-town, at the Elk Mountain Lodge – an old miners’ dorm turned hotel, with showers in the hall.
Sunday July 15 Not cloudy! Not raining! I crossed the Continental Divide at Monarch Pass (elevation 11,312 feet). Outside Leadville, saw a fleet of K100s heading west on the Interstate. These were the new touring bikes BMW had just introduced: instead of a twin, air-cooled motor, they hefted four cylinders and a radiator – like a car… or a Honda GoldWing! To observe this was not a compliment, as the GoldWing was the poster child for giant engines, radiators, heated seats, eight-track stereos and other things a motorcycle didn’t need. Heavy, powerful, unmanouverable, and reliable, the GoldWing ultimately became the model for all large touring bikes, but at the time these flying bricks seemed an odd departure for the company, given that the boxer 90/6 was the perfect motorcycle. In Georgetown, Colorado, I bought a book of essays by Edward Abbey – of course! When traffic stopped on the freeway I lane-split, California style. Passing a group of stalled Aspencades (fucking GoldWings, man), I got yelled at by their riders. “Asshole! Jerk!” Was lane-splitting bad form in Colorado, as riding sidesaddle seemed to be in Arizona?
Dropping 3,000 feet, I approached Denver. It grew hot and humid, and an endless, brown plain stretched ahead of me. Riding the BMW through the western deserts and mountains had been wonderful. The prospect of traversing that great, hot, hissing plain for a thousand miles seemed less than wonderful. I steered for the Amtrak station, which in those days was a shed adjacent to the tracks, parked, and obtained a schedule. Back in those days a train called the San Francisco Zephyr left Denver every evening at 7.10pm. It arrived in Chicago the following afternoon at 2.15. From Chicago there were three trains a day to Detriot, including the Twilight Limited and the Wolverine… I called the friend of a friend in Boulder, and backtracked to that small city on the eastern edge of the Rocky mountains. I had been told to sing the song “Beef Baloney” by Fear to this person, and did so, to good effect. My hostess, whom I had never met, said I was welcome to stay the night at her place. We dined at a restaurant called the Chataqua, followed by drinks at the stately Boulderado. By evening’s end I had convinced myself to take the next train to Chicago. 319 miles that day.
Monday July 16th But wait! What if my protagonists took a more northerly route on their motorcycle journey? I wasn’t tired of riding around – just intimidated by the endless, fruitless plain. Surely there was more of the west to be investigated! I rode north again.
TO BE CONTINUED.