I was ready for a break when the phone rang. It was Jeff Herzog, senior media relations coordinator at Kawasaki, on the other end with three KLX250S dual-sports, one box van, and a question. "Ever been to southern Utah?" Call it premeditated collusion or a sympathetic twist of fate-it matters not. Considering the prevailing stress level, he could have said southern Somalia. I only had one question: "When do we leave?"
So what if I haven't left the pavement on purpose in four years? OK, five. The trails I can see from the window of this clattering Beechcraft turboprop look harmless enough from 15,000 feet; like crazy loops of twine draped over a lumpy carpet of aspens and sage. Following them keeps me from wondering if the 1279-horse Pratt & Whitney PT6A to my right is in better shape than its ratty, exhaust-stained nacelle. Nothing ejects imagined doom from the fraying psyche like a quick prayer and thoughts of some pristine trail winding off into the distance. Stop thinking. Let things happen. Be the ball.
It works just as well bearing down on Cedar City Regional Airport at 300 mph as it did at E.E. Brownell Junior High. Besides, what could go wrong? Jeff is down there somewhere with the bikes and off-road paraphernalia. There is one particularly wild card. Somewhere between Salt Lake City and our home base in Marysvale, Gary Nixon is boring a high-speed hole in the night with a defense-less Chevy Impala rent-a-racer to meet us.
OK, so he was already a professional dirt-track racer the year I was born. He still earned back-to-back AMA Grand National Championships in 1967 and 1968. This is a man who has demonstrated no measurable pain threshold over 22 years of professional motorcycle racing and 19 AMA National wins against the likes of Dick Mann, Sammy Tanner, Neil Keen and Black Bart Markel. Inside that 65-year-old body is the same brain that beat fellow Oklahoman Freddy Nix by nine points to take the No. 1 plate in 1968. Nix was killed a year later in a dune buggy accident, and Nixon is a walking, talking repository of random-access racing information. The crash at the Santa Rosa Mile that put 18 inches of stainless steel in his left leg still shows up in his walk, but Nixon's legendary grit is unscathed.
"Hi, Tim," Nixon said shortly after rolling out of the Impala at Moore's Old Pine Inn. That's my cue to turn back into the 10-year-old who remembers seeing him walk into George E. Hall Honda/Triumph in Gilroy-where Joanne Hall shooed us off the CB750s at 3.5-minute intervals-and lose the ability to form words. After marveling at the curative powers of Cheetos and beer, we compare travel notes before adjourning to our respective rooms in Utah's oldest hotel, built in 1882. Zane Grey worked on Riders of the Purple Sage upstairs. Before drifting off to sleep, I pray Nixon doesn't mistake me for traction in the morning.
Marysvale, Utah (population 418), is a small town among small towns. The only grocery store is the Texaco station across the street, and muddy four-wheel-drive ATVs outnumber actual automobiles at least three to one. And since we're still waiting for a FedEx delivery from Kawasaki-you never need a spare clutch lever unless you're 50 miles from civilization without one-there's time for apple pancakes, scrambled eggs and sausage. This factory ride does not suck in any way. Neither does coffee strong enough to wash away the last of last night's Cheetos. Life is good.
The only thing capable of making it better is a truck full of new motorcycles: an '07 KLX250S for Nixon, Herzog and yours truly, plus a KLR650 to haul photographer Kinney Jones and his filing-cabinet-sized camera bag. The big KLR's 6.1-gallon fuel tank is an especially reassuring presence when the KLX tank holds only 1.9 gallons. Otherwise, the 250 is fine. It's a twinge small for me, and stock suspension seems better suited to a husky Siamese cat than an increasingly adipose magazine editor. But I'm concentrating on the fact that it's 75 pounds lighter than the 650 without all that gas and shod with actual knobby tires. When you're heading into the Great Wide Open, handling seems more important to my continued survival than horsepower.
Note to self: Handling improves significantly with something less than the manual-mandated 22 psi in the front Dunlop. Mr. Sphincter ingests less seat foam in downhill off-camber switchbacks. The good news is my first taste of the Paiute ATV trail doesn't involve many of those. And since the whole thing is essentially one big, 283-mile loop, normal people don't get lost. We, however, are not normal people. Because our shipment of spare bits doesn't arrive until 5:30 p.m., we leave at 6 p.m., which means covering about half of the first day's 145 meandering miles between Marysvale and Koosharem at night.
Small-town Utah shuts down early at night. The Grass Valley Lodge in Koosharem (population 276) has four rooms. The three with the lights on will be ours. The rest of town will be locked up tighter than a trailer park in tornado season by the time we get there. Hence a 45-minute backtrack to Bullie's in the burgeoning metropolis of Monroe (population 1845) for a double cheeseburger with fries.
I hold certain truths to be self-evident in unfamiliar territory, especially after dark. At some point, the GPS-if there is one-will refuse to cooperate. Shortly thereafter, your navigator(s) will get you hopelessly lost, covering the same section of trail from assorted compass headings. An insidious typo will be discovered in the map, allowing everyone to regain the right trail, which you've ridden past 19 times in the last 45 minutes. At times like this, I appreciate the 250's 73 mpg, which, so far, makes up for its teacup of a gas tank.
A mature bull elk, roughly 15 percent larger than Man O' War, will arc across the trail in front of Nixon and disappear into the forest on the other side in less time than it takes to blurt one obscene syllable. The KLX lesser men might have aimed obscenities at each other. After arriving intact outside the cinder-block splendor of the evening's accommodations, I'm grateful this mercifully cold Bud Light didn't explode after 75 lively miles in Jeff's pack. After a day's worth of dust, even this carbonated mule urine tastes pretty good.
Rising some time after the sun, I watch Nixon emerge from the Koosharem Caf and cross Interstate 62 with his morning coffee wearing a Kushitani jacket and motocross pants. If that ensemble doesn't spook the locals, I'm running for mayor. Utah is full of nice people, but the people here are nicer than most. After capsizing the USS KLR gassing up at the local mercantile/filling station, we're headed north on the Paiute, north past Burrville and such geographic marvels as the curiously named Boobe Hole Mountain, Coonah Bench. After a stretch of short, smooth fire road I'm sitting in Mom's Caf in Salina behind a lunch few bona fide mothers could whip up.
Rolling toward Richfield on a flat stretch of I-70 after lunch, the little KLX works hard to hit the posted 75-mph speed limit. Putting the throttle to the stop coaxes the speedo to 79 mph. Tucking in nudges it to 81 mph, right at 9000 rpm. Suddenly, I'm back to 80 mph and the mirrors are full of Gary Nixon, working the side-draft to try and slingshot past-a classic dirt-track move, perfectly executed. Considering I exhibit all the aerodynamic subtlety of a set of bunk beds and outweigh The Nix by 100 pounds, it should have worked. But Herzog and I pried the snorkel off the top of my KLX airbox last night, unleashing at least one more horsepower. Maybe that made the difference. All I know is I may have just won a drafting battle with a double AMA Grand National champion.
After a night in Koosharem, Richfield (population 7044) is Manhattan. A Comfort Inn looks like The Four Seasons at 57 East 57th Street, complete with an actual pool and Jacuzzi to soak away two days worth of kinks. Nixon's "Italian bathing suit" looks suspiciously like a pair of boxer shorts, but nobody seems to mind. We talk about the political debacle that robbed him of the 1976 Formula 750 world title in Venezuela. Then he remembers more about who did what at George E. Hall Honda/Triumph than I do. Then he's already been on the phone to Jay Springsteen-recovering from a nasty crash at the Greenville, Ohio, half-mile-and doing his best to keep Springer's spirits up. Monday night's elk is now big enough to humiliate Godzilla. He signs my ancient paperback copy of Racer: The Story of Gary Nixon. I promise never to sell it on eBay. Nixon, you see is an original: 100 percent Nixon, 100 percent of the time.
Aside from the fact that we're on the bikes shortly after sunup for Kinney's Nikon, our last day on the Paiute goes without incident. Thanks to a little parking-lot airbox alteration, Nixon's KLX is now as fast as mine. It's still seriously asthmatic below 7000 rpm or above 8000 feet, but we manage. We're just having fun. Nixon, I suspect, can go significantly faster any time he's ready. But this isn't a race, and unlike most people in my line of work, Gary Nixon has nothing to prove. I don't want to be bear jerky at the bottom of some anonymous ravine, so it all works out.
Nobody tips over crossing Joe Lott Creek or, parking lots notwithstanding, anywhere else over the 370-something miles of dirt. No hissy fits, no whiners, no drama. Not even a flat tire, despite some potentially challenging situations. It's not like all trips are trouble-free, but with four bikes safely in the box van and chilled beverage in hand, too tired to take my boots off, this one reminds me of why riding was more important than eating or sleeping or even watching Johnny Quest back in 1971. After a few hours or a few days on a dirtbike-it really doesn't matter-everything that was wrong seems just a little closer to right. Thank God for that.