The road uncoiled itself, dumping onto a long, knife-point straight, a tarmac scar across the Utah desert. Open range spilled out on both sides, low, drab scrub and sunset sand running to meet a pale morning sky. It was the kind of beautiful that fills your lungs and sustains you through interminable days in front of a computer screen, and I was ripping through the heart of it on a bass-boat-green Kawasaki Ninja H2 SX SE. Somewhere to my west, Editor-in-Chief Chris Cantle was doing the same, pinning a Kawasaki Jet Ski Ultra 310R, blasting down Lake Powell in an attempt to beat me to the Wahweap Marina. It was already turning warm, the cattle bedding down in whatever shade they could find. At least, that’s what I was hoping as I gapped the throttle, letting the H2 SX SE and its 197 horsepower reach out and pull that horizon closer, the speedometer stretching wide.
I’d never crossed a cattle guard at that speed, and my mind had just enough time to construct a few fairing-scattering scenarios before the bike blitzed over the metal bars, the tires playing a fraction of a ray-gun buzz before landing back on solid pavement. The grips had barely stopped shaking when I snapped open the throttle again, the supercharger pleading in lament or encouragement, the speedometer a blur of digits. I wasn’t racing Editor-in-Chief Chris Cantle. I’d squared off against this desert and the worst bits of myself.
Lake Powell is the West at its most American. When the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation finished the Glen Canyon Dam in 1963, it all but stopped the Colorado River, turning the magnificent and twisting sandstone gorge into one of the largest freshwater reservoirs in the United States. By water, it’s 140 miles from the launch at Hite, Utah, at the northern end to the Wahweap Marina down south in Arizona. The lake sprawls out over the desert, filling the snake-spine path carved by the Colorado over the course of a few million years. The vascular tributaries stretch out into the dust, which is why it’s 250 miles from one end to the other by road.
The wager was simple: I said I could make it from Hite to Wahweap by land before Cantle could do the same by water. He said I couldn’t. He was betting on 110 additional miles, most of which threaded through the well-policed Hopi and Navajo Nation Reservations. Throw in a few small towns, stoplights, at least one fuel stop, and lines of ambling tourists marveling at Monument Valley, and there was scant chance of maintaining a decent average speed. Kawasaki was kind enough to level the playing field, lending us the mighty H2 SX SE, the company’s supercharged, 197-hp, 1,000cc sport-tourer. The machine seems made for this contest. It’s stable at speed and maneuverable enough to tackle the coiled pavement that slinks down off the plateau north of Mexican Hat into the valley below. A 4.5-gallon tank provides a range of at least 135 miles under aggressive riding. It’s also relatively comfortable—perfect for spending a few hours in the saddle. I liked my odds.
Cantle made it easy on himself, securing a supercharged Kawasaki of his own—the Jet Ski Ultra 310R. With more than 300 hp, it has a governed top speed of 68 mph. It also has a cavernous 21-gallon fuel tank, which it needs because at full tilt, it empties in about an hour. That meant at least two fuel stops, crawling through no-wake zones, and contending with slow marina pumps, where all the horsepower in the universe is flat worthless.
The race started a month ago, the two of us sandbagging every chance we got. Neither of us is the losing sort, nor are we so honorable as to keep from putting a thumb on the scale should the opportunity present itself. Cantle would prattle on about unnavigable canyons, rough water, and fuel starvation between marinas. I would remind him how much farther I had to travel, making a show of how I planned to weld the speedometer to the speed limit to save fuel.
We were still at it when we arrived at Hite. The only thing missing was the lake. The water was low. Weeds popped through the surface here and there. Runoff from Rocky Mountain snowmelt swells the Colorado and helps restore the lake in June and July, but that was a month away. It would only take one rock sucked into the 310R’s impeller to leave Cantle and the boat stranded.
We decided to reroute to Halls Crossing, effectively the northernmost landing on the lake this time of year. My ride would be about the same. Cantle’s would be 40 miles shorter. As a compromise, we picked a buoy 20 miles upstream. He’d ride north, round the buoy, and head south again. The 310R bobbed in the water, the H2 SX SE gleamed in the sun, and we stood between the two, shaking hands. Cantle grinned like a cat that had invited a mouse to dinner. The second we let go, we bolted to our machines.
There was no way to predict who would come out on top, but I’d stacked the deck in my favor the best I could. I stripped the bags from the bike, reducing drag in the hopes of improving my fuel economy. This thing would be won or lost in the number of stops I had to make. My plan was to rip the first 100 miles wide open, tear across that empty desert as quick as my nerves would allow, top off the tank in Mexican Hat, and hypermile the bike the rest of the way.
It seemed so logical, an easy science experiment, but as the road opened up away from the marina and I cracked the throttle in anger for the first time, the H2 SX SE snapped toward the horizon. It sounded like the future, the supercharger inhaling in an electric yawn, a crescendo that ended in the chatter of a waste gate with each shift. You’re always flirting with death on a motorcycle. On this machine, blitzing across that open range with my chin on the tank and the road pinpointing to the edge of the Earth, I’d walked into death’s bedroom with a bottle and a wink, the imp on my shoulder whispering sweetly, “We aren’t built for losing.”
Navigation turned out to be easier on Cantle than he thought it would be. The Ski’s hood was decorated in turns—right at this buoy, left at that one—but the water was smooth and the lake was broad. He rounded mile marker 117 wide open, the Ski slinging an ecstatic parabola before settling south. The dead-end inlets and canyons flashed by on both sides. He was covering ground, punching through cool pockets of air swept out of the shadows, racing across small, choppy waves whipped up by a sourceless wind. They snapped him up out of his seat and reminded him that at any time he could go sprawling across the water, the surface solid as cement at that speed.
I lost all of my momentum where 261 tumbles toward Mexican Hat. The pavement had turned to tatters, broken or absent altogether and strewn through with gravel marbles on an intense grade. For 3 miles, the speedometer never made it past 15 mph. I could feel the time stretching out ahead of me. I could see Cantle’s grinning face waiting for me at the ramp. When the road returned to its former self, I let the H2 SX SE eat, feeding its four furious cylinders with all the air and fuel I could find.
The desert was a blur at the edge of my eyes, a streak of earth tones. When I stopped for gas, I’d covered 100 miles in an hour and 15 minutes. I didn’t get off the bike, I just ran the pump from the seat, filled the tank to the brim, slammed my visor down, and lit off again. I couldn’t have been stopped for more than three minutes. I had 150 miles to go. If I was very careful, I wouldn’t have to stop for fuel again. I might have a chance.
Cantle wasn’t so quick at Bullfrog Marina. There’s a long no-wake zone, and he was stuck strolling along at 5 mph. He spent a precious minute searching for 91 octane and knew that in that time I had covered a mile, maybe two. He was there for nearly half an hour, the victim of computer trouble. For once in the years we’ve known each other, luck gave me the sly smile and shoved a stick in his spokes.
This thing would come down to fuel. From Mexican Hat on, I fused myself with the tank, refusing to interrupt the air as it slid around the bike, letting the vertebrae at the base of my skull burn. I was dancing a fine line between maintaining a pace, maximizing my fuel economy, and avoiding a conversation with the local law. I drafted anything and everything. I passed loafing RVs and tour buses, eyed oncoming cars for the telltale glint of a light bar. One stop and I’d be sunk, stuck eating crow from Cantle for the rest of my days.
He was back to hustling, the 310R guzzling fuel as it sprinted down the lake. His stop at Dangling Rope was quicker, but it still takes time to pour 20 gallons. A little doubt shone in his mind. This might be closer than he thought. Hell if he was going to give me an inch, though. He rode hard, pushing himself more than the machine. It was the rollers that caused all the trouble, long-forgotten boat wakes left echoing around the canyons. They were hard to spot, even with polarized glass, and sent his ass and elbows flying, the boat banging off its limiter as the hull went airborne.
I blitzed through Page, snagging only one stoplight. Despite it being Friday afternoon, the entrance gate at Wahweap was empty. I cruised straight through, held fast to the park’s speed limit, and spotted the boat ramp. There at the end sat a Jet Ski, small from my vantage. My heart fell through my boots and bounced off the pavement.
I was nothing but a long stream of curses until I got closer and saw the truth. It wasn’t Cantle. I’d beaten him by nearly 10 minutes.
It could have gone either way. One traffic stop on my end, one slightly quicker refuel on his, and it would have been Cantle’s win. We wanted to swap machines, to keep running up the gorgeous canyons and across the empty plains, to bathe in the beauty of that place as long as we could. It’s a blasphemy to blitz across that country, so alien and perfect. Better to go slowly and savor it, to appreciate the eons it took to carve a place so improbable, to paddle or pedal the thing. Maybe next time we will.