GETTING THE BIG RIG HOME: Socorro to Kentucky

In 2017 I flew out to Tacoma, WA to pick up my sidecar rig and drive it back to Kentucky. See the previous posts for the saga. At the end of the last episode, we left our three-wheel operator in Socorro, NM, still sated on pie from Pie Town.)

On the road in the morning, as soon as I can, from the motel in Socorro, after partaking of what they termed “breakfast”. There is, I think, a special factory that makes the slow toasters for motels. I picture people in lab coats with timers, saying “No, that’s still too quick. They might be able to get out before checkout time. Back to the drawing board. “.

Soon I’m on Rt. 60 where I was 33 years ago, headed toward Mountainaire, the Abo ruins and Gran Quivara. Brenda and I toured these places in 1984 on the Green Bike (1975 BMW in “Nurburg Green”, a color not found in nature) when I was working for the summer in Albuquerque and she came out to visit me. Now I’m back, alone, and cruising up these same deserted roads on a very different machine, one I could not have contemplated then. It is a quiet morning, the wind hasn’t started up yet this early before the heat builds. I stop to take a photo of the soft outlines of the hills, covered in low vegetation that looks almost like velvet. One must, or at least I must, always imagine what it felt like to be out here in the 1800’s, on a horse or even on foot, traveling without roads or any guidance but dead reckoning, the sun, the moon and the stars.

I pass by the Abo ruins, but I don’t need to go in and see them again. I still have them in my mind’s eye from that previous trip in 1984. I see Brenda as the young woman that I still view her as being, walking among the relics, smiling at the strangeness of being there.

Before long I’m in Mountainaire, NM and standing in front of the Shaffer Hotel. It is a strange building, two distinct structures joined together. The one on the left, built in 1923, has the decorative “swastikas” that were Native American symbols long before the Third Reich adopted a different version as its logo. The building on the right is the hotel and next to it is a courtyard bordered by a fence that is unique…the only description I can come up with in a single word. It is one person’s vision, Pop Shaffer, of what a decorative fence should be and for that, it is perfect.

The Shafer Hotel in 2017

In 1984, Brenda and I sat in the right hand building, a restaurant of sorts then, at a small table and had pie with Pop Shaffer, who was then in his late 80’s I would guess. He told us stories of the history of Mountainaire, which was in it’s heyday the “PInto Bean Capital of the World”. The whole area was taken up with farming, based on the abundant moisture from both rains and the heavy snows that soaked the soil. Pop showed us the windows about 10 feet off the floor on one side of the building and said that in the winter, the snow would be drifted up to meet them.

Then the weather changed and the water stopped coming. As he put it, “We starved out in ’34” from the farming and had to try to make a go of it with only the hotel and restaurant. But people slowly moved away, houses and farms were abandoned, and Mountainaire is but a faded husk of what it once was.

The Shafer Hotel in 1984

Standing there today, the building closed up, I could still see the table inside where Brenda and I sat listening to an old man’s stories. A fellow passing in a pickup truck saw me peering in the windows and stopped to ask me if I was with the new owners. He told me that the permits have been granted and the town has been told that the hotel and restaurant will soon be opened again to serve the tourists, like me, that still come here to see the Native American artworks, the ruins and stunning geology of the countryside. I hope I can come back and again have pie with Brenda at that table.

Leaving there, the wind has picked up and now follows me, but I know that won’t continue. The winds here have a mind of their own and it seems, a wicked sense of humor. I turn north and now the wind is across me, coming from the right with a ferocity that demands respect. It is difficult to keep the rig pointed straight as I pass through low hills that temporarily block the blasts and then the pummeling resumes as I clear the brief windbreak. I notice that my pack has shifted on the rack, pull over to correct it and have considerable difficulty standing upright against the gale.

Finally I turn again, the wind is behind me, and the quiet is amazing. I sail on toward Tucumcari where I will get lunch at Kix’s Restaurant and if I’m lucky, a room at the Blue Swallow. It is early in the afternoon, but I’m tired from battling Mother Nature and I know She always wins anyway, so I’m going to call it a day.

The Blue Swallow is one of my favorite places with its carefully preserved and attended ambiance of the busy times on Rt. 66 when auto travel was new and an adventure. The rooms are small, by “modern” standards, but as big as they need to be for a weary traveler to stop, lay down his stuff and get a good night’s sleep. Most rooms have an adjoining garage to keep the wanderer’s transport out of the weather.

Later, in the wee hours after midnight, in my bed on old Rt. 66, I hear the wailing horn of a far off train, rolling somewhere. Paul Simon said it best, “Everybody likes the sound of a train in the distance, everybody thinks it’s true”. We all have our moments when it seems attractive to just leave, just hop that train or on your bike, and leave it all behind for somewhere new. Maybe become someone new where no one knew the old you. I met a young woman once in Rhinebeck, NY who had done that. She was on an old Airhead BMW, as was I, so she stopped to talk a bit. She told me that she was originally from New Orleans, but had come to a wedding up in New England for one of her friends. On the way home, the train had stopped briefly in this town and she got off to walk around. She liked what she saw and just stayed.

In the early morning, just after dawn, I had a nice long conversation with Cameron, the son of owners Kevin & Nancy, at the Swallow while drinking the free coffee in the office and petting Obie, the resident Golden Retriever. We talked about children (his is two months, mine 47) and motorcycles (he has a Honda VTX upon which he has built a box for Obie) and sidecars. His wife is from Georgetown,KY, near where I live, and still considers that ‘home’. She misses the greenery and the hills. I understand. The desert is fascinating in its own way, but it isn’t for everyone.

I walked down to KIX for breakfast, where Isabel made sure that my breakfast tostada was fixed perfectly. Spicy and buttery and crispy, it was excellent. Back at the Swallow, I got the rig ready and headed out at about 9, later than I’d intended but the conversations were worth it. It is about 43 degrees, and there is already a strong wind blowing from the west. At Guymon, OK I turn east onto Rt 412 and expect the crosswind to now be behind me. In the strange physics of the west, it is still a crosswind and often a headwind as well. Oklahoma 412 is a good alternative to Kansas, being nearly deserted, flat, straight as the proverbial arrow and with a 70 mph speed limit. Here and there are feedlots which make their olfactory presence known way in advance. I have to use the spare gas can once because stations are so far apart.

A second time, I’m counting down to 12 miles fuel range when suddenly “Slapout” appears. It is a gas station/restaurant/ convenience store with a sign proclaiming it to be “Slapout OK, population 8”. The friendly lady who runs the store says it is more like 4 now (she lives elsewhere) and points out the houses to me where the remaining inhabitants live. This place once was called “Nye”, but the current town name she says came from a saying of the previous storekeeper when it was an older building on this site. When he didn’t have the thing you requested, he would respond ” we’re slap out of those”, and the name just stuck.

By the time I reach Woodward, I’m ready to call it a day. I’ve lost an hour to the time change and the temperature has seldom climbed out of the low 50’s all day. My old electric vest has died, so I’m freezing and tired of the wind battle.

I stop at the Radio Shack and buy yet another multimeter (that makes 3, two of which were purchased on bike trips) and some tape to diagnose and, I hope, fix, the vest. I talk with a guy from New Jersey who is leaving the store and getting on a new Triumph 1200 dual sport. Seems he and his wife rode from New Jersey to the west coast last fall and then left the bike there to fly home. He has now flown back out and is riding it home. I like his style.

I pick a motel for tonight, the Northwest Inn, because its billboards and Google info say it has a restaurant and bar on premises. After I check in, and inquire about dinner at the restaurant, the desk clerk says, “Oh, that’s only open Monday through Thursday, closed on the weekend.” I stand there for a moment with severe cognitive dissonance. Who closes a bar and restaurant on weekends, keeping it open only on the four deadest days of the week?

I do the repair on the vest with a Swiss Army Knife and black plastic tape. It isn’t pretty, but it works again.

In the morning, the couple in the room next to me, part of a Moose Lodge group staying here, come out to watch me pack up the rig. The husband is about 6′ tall and his wife, as she tells me, is 4’10”. Her driving instructor when she was 16 (I’d guess that was nearly 50 years ago) told her to “grow up” because she was “too short to drive”. The husband says that he started riding motorcycles in 1966, and in 2010 switched to a Gold Wing trike, but his wife doesn’t like to ride on it with him. He was hoping I could convince her to try the sidecar life, but she seems not to be that impressed, even after I remove the tonneau and show her the luxurious seat DMC has provided. Then they got in their truck and drove from their room to the breakfast area in the lobby, less than 30 yards away.

After the big storms that rolled through here a day or so ago, the rivers are a long way out of their banks and the fields are soaked, with standing water as far as the eye can see. The post-storm skies though are cloudless blue and now in the morning with the cool air, there isn’t nearly as much wind. I can cruise along serenely at 70 mph, the speed limit here on this two lane road, and the big GS isn’t straining at all. This countryside, varied by low hills, is much more pleasant than the endless Kansas cornfields, in my opinion.

Between Woodward OK and Tulsa, there are mesas. I trundled along through thousands of acres of rolling grassland, nearly featureless to the uneducated like me, and then suddenly as if the scene had changed in a movie, I was in red rock mesa country, as much as any in Utah or New Mexico or Arizona. Admittedly not as frequent or as high, but the same structures nonetheless. This went on for many miles and then the scene changed again and I was back in the low rolling hills and grass as if the previous features had been imagined. I guess Hollywood could use these if the Utah sets get filled up with cowboys waiting their turn to shoot at each other from behind the rocks.

I had arranged to meet my brother in law, Jay Smythe, in Eureka Springs, Arkansas to pair up for the remaining miles home. As I arrived, Jay texted me to say that he was calling it a day still east of Harrison, so I was on my own for the evening. I settled on a motel with its own restaurant just at the point where the road began to dip steeply down into the town.

As I was leaving the office with my room key in hand, I found a local guy on a BMW 1150 GS checking out the rig. He had spotted it on his way home and had to pull in to see who had brought this strange thing to his patch. He tells me he started riding BMW’s in Europe while he was in the service and gave up all his other motorcycles upon his return home. Since he’s local, I ask him about Jerry, the Arkansas Adventure Rider store guy that Jay and I had met here the last time we were here. I had noticed the store was closed. Jerry was the “real deal”, an adventure rider with decades of experience, who walked the walk. The fellow tells me that Jerry, got tired of the touristy hubbub in Eureka Springs and reopened the store in Jasper, a smaller town a few miles down the road. Glad to hear that he’s still in it. There aren’t many like him, the old school adventure riders from the days long ago when specialty bikes didn’t exist and one had to make it up as needed from what could be modified and adapted to the purpose.

I met up with Jay in Harrison the next morning for breakfast at the cafe on the court square across from the tiny park where during a BMW rally we had talked with the “little old lady” (not pejorative…she was all three in fact) who had worn out two F700GS’s on her travels around the world. She was there in Harrison on her third 700, planning after the rally to head to South America for a few months of travel down there. Her white hair and small stature (she could barely tiptoe the ground from the seat) belied an obvious toughness and adventurous spirit that put many of the macho men at the rally to shame. No such encounters today, though, just quite good pancakes and a perusal of the map to select a circuitous way home.

In Missouri, we made our mandatory afternoon pie stop at a small cafe where the waitress gave us her recommendations for the pastries of the day. Coconut cream and butterscotch carried the day. Later, as we threaded our way between flooded fields in the lowlands, a yellow crop duster type plane, the pilot obviously having a bit of sport messing with me, flew right at me across a fence, rising at the last minute as I was considering how to ditch the bike. I felt a little like Cary Grant in North by Northwest…actually the only time I’ve ever had anything in common with Cary Grant. As we rode on, we saw houses standing in the water with just the tops of the first floor windows visible. As the saying goes, it’s the commonality of Time, Money and Water…the problem is not the supply, its the distribution.

We crossed back into Kentucky near Madrid, once the scene of the largest earthquake in the eastern US, but found it quiet today. Breakfast came at a tiny roadside cafe near Wycliffe. Inside there was a shelf near the counter where several pairs of glasses were lined up. The waitress explained that the old men who meet there every morning leave them there so they can read their newspapers.

At Columbus Belmont state park, we can see a display of a piece of the huge chain that Confederate General Leonidas Polk placed across the Mississippi River during the Civil War to control traffic. The original was over a mile long, with each link weighing over 20 pounds. Once welded together, each link inextricably joined to others, it left the blacksmith dealing with more than 5,000 feet of chain, several tons of iron. I tried to picture in my mind the session when General Polk told the village smithy what he wanted. I’m sure the smith’s reply was something like, “No, really, what is it you need ? Shoe your horses, mend your sword, what is it really ?”. You can’t be serious about a “ mile long chain”. Despite the grand plan and all the work to put it in place, the chain was temporary and largely ineffective. And the blacksmith probably got paid in Confederate money.

This is my second sidecar rig retrieval trip from the west coast in two years and I think I like it. There are no immediate plans to do it again, but surely something similar can be arranged. This excursion covered just a tiny bit shy of 4,000 miles and took 15 days. (Google maps says I could have made it in 2,158, and 46 hours, but they are spoilsports). I found new places I hadn’t seen, checked off a few bucket list items, and returned to some familiar places from my youthful travels. The rig performed flawlessly. It isn’t as “cute” as the little red one and doesn’t seem to inspire the same kind of puppy-like admiration in onlookers, but it is more suited to long distance travel. And I plan to put that capacity to use.

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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