Friday, 17 August 2012

Top 10 North American Motorcycle Rides! - Part 1

We’ve all heard the statistics that say a huge percentage of Americans have never travelled outside the US, or even owned a passport…and the answer a lot of Americans come back with is “why would we?” Though perhaps a tad dismissive of the rest of the world, they’re right. North America does have it all…especially in terms of landscape variety; from mountains to deserts, big cities to the prairie, paradise beaches to immense redwood forests and wild rushing rivers! A haven for motorcyclists and all travellers!

After five months on the American road, these ten motorcycle rides stood out above all the rest in terms of dramatic scenery, sheer joy of riding, and for showcasing what North America has to offer the intrepid motorcyclist.

Roughly in counter-clockwise order:

1.       Route 66 - "America’s Mainstreet!" "The Will Rogers Highway!" "The Mother Road!" The nation that has always claimed to have no history is only now taking notice of Historic Route 66. Officially opened in 1926, it became the first fully paved US Highway in 1938 and was officially decertified in 1985 with the birth of I-40 and the Interstate system. During its years, Route 66 saw the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl disaster and the death of James Dean. Its proximity to the painted Desert, the Grand Canyon and the Arizona Meteor Crater meant it saw its fair share of vacationers and two-bit tourist attractions began to pop up all along it, from reptile museums and Native American Trading Posts to Teepee Motels and the "Jesse James Hideout" (actually just somebody's barn).

This led to the Highway's prosperity, with many diners (including the first McDonalds) opening here, but the higher you grow the harder you fall., and today Route 66 is a ramshackle museum of what America once was. Originally it ran from Chicago all the way to Santa Monica Pierhead. (Apologies for the crappy map). Today though, it is in pieces (called "National Scenic Byways") of which the best by far is the Oatman Highway, known for its hairpin bends, steep gradients and the old, gold rush town of Oatman. You can read my account of riding Route 66 in “I’ve been through the desert on a horse with no name” parts 2 and 3. Henry Cole and Billy Connolly have also completed notable rides of 66.

2.       NM Scenic Highway 152 - New Mexico is quite astounding in terms of variation of scenery, but Scenic Highway 152 really has the edge! "Soon the road starts to ascend into the mountains and the bends get tighter and tighter. I quickly identify this as the most beautiful road I've ever ridden, cruising amongst thick, green tree-covered mountains that stretch as far as the eye can see and turn blue in the distance as though the sky is made up of thousands of microscopic blue flecks that build up between my eyes and the horizon. The bends ask you to drop to 20mph, then 15, then 10. I don't, but it's good advice all the same. The bike glides swiftly through them, gaining confidence, leaning further than I've ever had it before. I rumble over cattle grids, a family of deer cross the road ahead watch me get close before scattering into the woods. Soft, plump raindrops splatter on the screen and taste good as they fall into my mouth. Lightning flashes white and lean and soundlessly against the deep blue above. I start to think about what a cool way it would be to die; getting struck by lightning...I sweep this way and that, each bend just visible from the last so that you already know what to do before you get there. Then you pass the Santa Rita Copper Mine, which has turned mountains into patchwork quilts of gold, red and purple and you feel ashamed because you have to admit they're beautiful too in there own way. Finally, when you come out the other side, and the road slowly straightens out, you can take these new bends at 85 with ease because you now know just what you and your bike are capable of."

3.       I-10 Freeway - Though I wouldn't normally advocate Interstates, motorways or freeways, I have spoken to others about it and all concur that there is a stretch of the 10 which is the exception to the rule, just as it leaves Texas for South Louisiana. The change in scenery is dramatic. Amidst giant bilboards advertising "Sex Store Mega Malls" and "Handle Baby Alligators" are dense dark forests, trees growing vast and tall out of the water and from the banks and which every now and then grant you a view of the swamplands sheltered within. The freeway goes up on stilts, above lakes, rivers, creeks and more swamp. This is Huck Finn country and it makes you want to abandon the bike for a kayak and spend the rest of your life getting lost floating about the seemingly infinite network of marshland, which reflected the beauty of the trees so it was impossible to work out where the water stopped and the vegetation began. You are always crossing little rivers, catching glimpses of little wooden jetties, makeshift shacks built into the muddy banks, and you wonder what they're for, how long they've been there, who goes there...Then they disappear back into the trees. But the big highlights are when by suspension bridge you fly across enormous bodies of water such as Lakes Charles, Bigeux, Pelba and Pontchartrain, not to mention the mighty Missisippi itself! Definite one of my favourite regions of North America, and it leads right to New Orleans!

4.       Florida Keys - East Coast USA is usually somewhere I strongly recommend bikers stay clear of, with a few notable exceptions, namely: the beautiful state of Maine and in fact anything North of Boston, the South Carolina to North Florida coast which has plenty of classic Biker haunts such as Daytona Beach and Myrtle Beach, and the btopic of today's agenda, the Florida Keys.  US Highway 1, or the "Overseas Highway" is another that spends a large portion of its length above water. Riding out on the Keys, you begin to get a strange sense of "where am I going?" As you island hop for over 120 miles, the Keys get smaller and smaller. The Atlantic to your left grows deeper, the Gulf of Mexico to your right grows brighter, more turquoise and you feel like you're in the Caribbean rather than the US (in fact, you are in the Caribbean). The climate, despite being in the sub-tropics, is undeniably tropical. The highway spans innumerable Keys, including Key Largo, Long Key and the infamous Key West, the end of the road (last, most Westerly inhabited Key), where you can find the Hemingway house (there is another Hemingway house across the water in Cuba), an abundance of Cuban culture and the "Southernmost Point of the Continental US". The region is also home to the Key Lime Pie, which is never more refreshing than when you pull over and rest on a scorching, white sand beach.

5.       The Cherohala Skyway - One of the most impressive riding routes in the US, the 43 mile Cherohala Skyway runs through the Unicoi Mountains, part of the Blue Ridge Mountains, which in turn are part of the great Appalachean range that runs from Maine to Georgia, as well as the Cherokee and Nantahala National Forests after which it is aptly named. This exceptional motorcycling road will take you from Tellico Plains, Tennessee to Robinsville, North Carolina. (In TN it follows the 165 and in NC the 143.) The area is a haven for bikers, including the treacherous "Tail of the Dragon" (coming up in Part 2 of my Top 10 North American Motorcycle Rides!)...



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