USA – Part 2

I’d like to talk about wind today. Something I had not calculated while envisioning this trip was the incredible gusty winds across the wide open plains here in the southern US. As soon as the protective mountains started to dissipate around northern Utah, the extreme winds have just been battering my poor bike around the highway. At times it has been hard to keep my bike within two lanes let alone just one. The powerful gusts come along without warning and attack from all different angles. Instinctually you want to tighten up you’re upper body and clamp down on the handlebars, but this is apparently the incorrect response. Instead, you’re supposed to grip the bike with your legs and let your arms relax allowing you to correct the bike’s trajectory. Of course, when you’re travelling 70 mph and you get smashed in the chest with a vicious squall determined to throw you from the saddle and causes your motorcycle to veer off the road- try not clenching your upper body. When I’ve mastered this I will definitely be able to say that I’m a step closer to understanding the Zen of motorcycle riding. In addition to battling furious winds, I’ve encountered light snow, incessant freezing rain, heavy pounding rain, blinding fog and just outside Sedona, Arizona… hail. My expectation of the Arizona climate was, you know, warm and sunny. Fred my 74 year old host in Sedona informed me this is true 360 days of the year. I just happened to be there on one of the 5 off days! But all in all my timing has been extremely fortunate. It seems as soon as I leave a place they have a huge storm. The fallout of super storm Sandy has reached as far down as Utah but I got through just in time!

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Day 10:  As my buddy Saba had warned, Salt Lake City is definitely not like any other city you will visit. The streets are immaculate and extremely wide. There is not a lot of traffic especially on Sundays when the whole town feels like Green Bay during a Packers game. And they have the longest stoplights I have ever encountered. This shows how well behaved and god-fearing the populace is because you will witness cars stopped at an intersection waiting 2 minutes for the light to change with no other car or person anywhere to be seen. Downtown, the main LDS temple is stunning- made of white granite; it took 40 years to construct. There is also a brand new billion dollar mall/plaza, built with matching white granite across the street on church land. Stores within the mall include Tiffany’s, Coach, Rolls Royce, Rolex, etc. The mall is a good example of the fiscal power of the Mormons. According to my extremely switched-on couchsurfing host, Ladan, Mormons are expected to donate 10% of their earnings to the church. Some give more. Mormons make up 62% of Utah’s population which works out to 1.75 million devotees. Consider a conservative estimate that 500,000 are employed (discounting for children, housewives, elderly, the unemployed, etc) and make a median wage of $50K; the church would bring in $2.5 billion per year from Utah alone. And I understand that Mormons are pretty savvy in the business world so I suspect the median to be much higher. The founder and long serving CEO of Mariott Hotels were Mormons. (They have the book of Mormon in their hotel rooms around the world). How ‘bout Mitt Romney, he’s worth a quarter billion dollars. The Zions Bank, which was opened by Brigham Young in 1873, has one of the most consistent records all US banks. They didn’t get upended by poor investments during the sub-prime mortgage crisis. At present, they have assets totalling $55 billion. The word that Ladan kept using as he was touring me around the city pointing out the prominent buildings was ‘opulence’.

salt-lake-mormon-temple

As far as the values of the church go, I don’t know enough to say definitively.  There were plenty of Mormons walking around- you can tell by the white dress shirts and dress slacks- and not just on Sundays. There didn’t seem to be anything elitist or sinister about them. They’re polite and keep to themselves. Ladan and I tried to get into the temple to take a look, but a concierge, the whitest man ever- wearing an almost gleaming white suit, stark white hair and teeth like Chiclets, denied us entry. He was ever so polite but told us that due to the occasion of weddings and baptisms, the temple was too harried to conduct tours. Now I’m thinking… they have weddings and baptisms in the Vatican and you can get inside there. Of course, Ladan had already prepped me that non-Mormons are not allowed inside the temples after dedication. It is common knowledge that Mormons practice some pretty hokey secret rituals (as of September 2010, you can now see them for yourself on Youtube!) But Mormonism is certainly considered a fundamentalist religion; against abortion, homosexuality, feminism, pre-marital sex, etc. Blacks were not admitted into the church until 1978. The most alarming thing to me is that same-sex touching is not allowed in the church-owned shopping mall and security guards will escort people out for not following the rules of the church. This blew my mind so I looked into it and because it’s considered private property, this is entirely lawful.

As it was Saturday night in Salt Lake, Ladan took me downtown with some of his friends. I was quite surprised by how busy the bars were in Salt Lake City. This is due to a very large contingent of Californians that come to Utah for university and outdoor recreation (climbing is hugely popular here.) There are also what Ladan refers to as the ‘Broken-Mormons’:  people that were brought up very strictly in the religion who then left and ran amok with drugs or alcohol. I met plenty of ex-Mormons while I was in Utah and all of them consider LDS to be a cult. Mormons, like Jehovah’s Witnesses, practice ex-communication of former members. Some of the people I spoke to had attended support groups for those having ‘escaped’ religious cults. Of course what is really shocking to me, Utah aside, is that 49% of American voters backed a member of this organization to be the figurehead for their country.

Here’s an article about the new mall from SFGate:  http://www.sfgate.com/business/article/Mormon-Church-building-mega-mall-in-Salt-Lake-City-3414004.php

Some cool shots I got riding through Utah:

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Day 12:  So after saying farewell to Ladan and gobbling down a pint of fresh fruit I’d smartly purchased at Smith’s Marketplace the night before, bike and rider hit the Lincoln Parkway west to the Great Salt Lake. It wasn’t feasible to travel all the way out to Bonneville to see the salt flats where the land speed races are held, but from the satellite imaging on Google Maps, it appeared there was an area of salt flats just south west of the lake. Sure enough, as I rounded the bottom half of the lake, the stark flat landscape engulfed the freeway on either side. It was a sunny day which made the terrain stand out even more. I cruised over to where the gravel met the salt. Before riding right onto it, I figured I should probably test the surface first- just to make sure there wasn’t more lake underneath… good thing too! The ground was actually pretty spongy and there was about an inch of chalky powder on top. I walked out for quite a ways and it really felt like I was roving across the surface of the moon. Interestingly I kept seeing bones shrouded in the saline floor. I googled this when I got to my next stop and read, “The Salt Flats are littered with the ruins of an ancient seafaring civilization as well as the remains of ancient massive beasts, judging by the size of the bones.” I quickly realized I was on a web page for a role playing game called Guild Wars and the bones I had uncovered were most likely not from some Spanish armada that had succumbed while attempting to cross the 50 km wide Great Salt Lake. Surely there was another explanation. Of course I plucked out one of the smaller bone fragments for a souvenir. It looked very much like a deer vertebrae, but how they became entombed in the salt is still not clear.

Day 13:  Before I had even got to Utah many people had been telling me about Zion National Park. I left Cedar City, where I’d been hosted by a catering manager named Jory, bright and early to maximize my time in the park. Zion definitely lived up to its billing and I was completely blown away by the colourful, interesting shapes of the rocks and the sheer beauty of the park overall. The road meanders right through the park and traffic is very calm. Everyone drives super slow and pulls over to the shoulder every few hundred feet to marvel at the scenery and take photos. I saw some big horned sheep just off the road and watched them climb down a steep gulch to access the green river below. My main destination in the park was a peak called Angel’s Landing. I’d pulled out my hiking gear the night before so it was accessible on top of my panniers and I was super excited to do this climb. Here’s a description from the National Park website:  “Angel’s Landing is one of the most famous and thrilling hikes in the national park system. Zion’s pride and joy runs along a narrow rock fin with dizzying drop-offs on both sides. The trail culminates at a lofty perch, boasting magnificent views in every direction. Rarely is such an intimidating path so frequented by hikers. One would think that this narrow ridge with deep chasms on each of its flanks would allure only the most intrepid of hikers. Climbers scale its big wall; hikers pull themselves up by chains and sightseers stand in awe at its stunning nobility. The towering monolith is one of the most recognizable landmarks in the Southwest.” The hike from the parking area involves a number of switchbacks that take you to a flat lookout at around 5500 ft in elevation. From there you look up and out at an even higher outcropping in the middle of the basin accessible only by climbing along a steep, ridiculously narrow spine to the perch known as Angel’s Landing. As you stand on the initial promontory and gaze upwards, the route you need to take to get to the top appears completely nuts. It’s rated as a Class 5 climb. There’s signage at the base warning that 6 people have died on the final ascent since 2004. It also warns that people with the slightest fear of heights should not attempt the climb. But here goes nothing….

Angel’s Landing

Well I made ‘er to the top alright, but discovered that I’d been working in an office for too long. The climb back down wasn’t nearly as fun )-:

When I got to the bottom, thankfully my bike and gear were still where I’d left them. I won’t be trying this trick too many places in Mexico.

Day 14:  So, foolishly I thought I’d try to cross the Grand Canyon on my motorbike today. My Utah map showed some trails heading south from St. George where I spent the night. I topped off my tank at the Maverick and got a couple 1L bottles of Gatorade for $2. This seemed like a good idea since I was venturing alone into the Mojave desert. My GPS led me to a ritzy suburb on the edge of town and I easily found a trailhead comprised of a very red and dusty dirt road. There was a myriad of dirt biking/ATV trails spread out everywhere across the desert landscape. I hit some of the bumpy tracks to get a warm up but with my luggage loading me down, the shocks were at their max and I kept banging roughly off the seat. So Google Map actually showed these trails stretching clear across the canyon. My expectation of the Grand Canyon was that it was an extremely deep gorge and Google Map has certainly steered me wrong in the past, but I figured I’d check out the condition of the trails and see how far I could get. Using the scale on my road map it looked like the National Park boundary was only 20 km but I guessed that the rim of the canyon was probably a lot farther on.  I stayed on the main track which was pretty hard packed, but there were a bunch of deep sandy patches which a loaded dual sport definitely doesn’t like. Taking it fairly easy, I made it about 15 km in. The mountainous landscape was truly breathtaking but I was moving farther and farther away from civilization and the dread of blowing a tire or being rammed by a mountain goat was becoming overwhelmingly palpable. It was wonderfully hot today and although I’d already lost 3 layers of gear, I was severely overheating. My bike kept wobbling as the tires rumbled over the jagged rocks, I was obsessing about getting stuck in the desert and the steam building up in my helmet was probably contributing the fact that I was beginning to hallucinate ever so subtlely. And then this happened…..

Second time in 2 weeks. I ‘m hoping this isn’t going to become a trend. I was slightly concerned by the puddle of gasoline that was now being absorbed into the dessert sand but, once again… no obvious structural damage. Thank you Givi crash bars! Needless to say I abandoned the mission and, once vertical, rode off in search of paved roads.

A more respectable pose

The potential ride from St. George to Flagstaff was a little too far so I tried to find a town in between. This highway tracks pretty close to the rim of the Grand Canyon and there are not a lot of communities around. The largest place I found was Page, Arizona. There is only one active couchsurfer here and unfortunately he was away for the week so my streak of free accommodation was broken at Day 14. Still a very good run and I met some amazing peeps. (Much easier to find hosts in the US than it was in Toronto 0:) It was the off-season so there were plenty of empty cheap motels and I quickly found a room with a kitchen and internet for $44 taxes in. There were actually a terrific number of both motels and hotels in this small town and I asked the hotel manager what was up? Unbeknownst to me, just outside Page is the Antelope Canyon, which without knowing its name or where it was, I had always wanted to visit. Score! The Antelope Canyons are the most visited and photographed slot canyons in the States. You’ve seen picture of them I’m sure- smooth undulating walls of red sandstone caused by flash floods with light beaming in from cracks above. Images of Antelope Canyon were featured in Ron Fricke’s new movie Samsara which I had seen just days before leaving Canada. I mistakenly thought that these shots were taken in Sedona. Both canyons are on Navajo land and the Navajo people keep the proceeds from tourist visits (a hefty $30 to visit each of the 2 canyons.) I just visited the lower canyon which was unbelievable. I must have taken 100 photos! It was late morning and the sunlight coming down from the desert above was perfect. The guide who took us through stopped a couple times in the larger caverns to serenade us on a traditional Navajo wind flute. The musical accompaniment gave the place a very spiritual feel and I enjoyed my visit very much.

The Kawasaki family descend into the slot. (I had them bless my bike when we got back to the parking area – no joke)

Day 15:  After my failed attempt at crossing the Grand Canyon further west, it was inevitable that I was going to have to pay the admission like everyone else and I came around the east rim to the National Park entrance.  On the way, I stopped off at a truck stop to view the Navajo jewellery and crafts. There were little stands or mobile trailers set up all along the highway- some people just sat out on blankets in the blustery November wind trying to market their wares to the (tres)passing motorists as they sped by. I have always identified turquoise with Native American jewellery from this region. There were some really beautiful handmade gold and silver pendants with symbols of native folklore which appealed to me. But the lady at this stand was a quick talker and trying hard to upsell. I went back to the first vender who I spoke with who had a very calm demeanour and told me that she had been selling jewellery on the highway for 25 years. A job passed down from her mother before. Her work was very simple, much like her air. She had a lot of bead work and natural stones. She also didn’t take visa like the other venders so I had to scrounge through my riding pants to find enough bills. I settled on a modest pair of turquoise earrings- the brown striations in one of them seems to reveal a little face. Since my pierced ear has long since grown over, I guess I’ll have to hang on to these until I run across someone who likes jewellery…

This is what ironhorse cowboys have for breakfast in these parts…. bean burrito and a warm Tecate.

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