Epic Rides: A Wild West Ride On An Indian Motorcycle

Master of Roads

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Navigation, my father always says, that is what separates us from the apes. I absorbed that lesson constantly when learning to ride. That is, every time I pulled up to an intersection and asked him which way to go, I would get a cool smile and the rhetorical, “They teach monkeys to ride the things, y’know.” Shifting, using turn signals, and not tipping over are all things that help us get there. But you have to know where you’re going first.

I thought about that as I stared at the roof of my tent in the middle of the night, wearing most of my clothes, unable to sleep. I rolled over and looked at my girlfriend, wool hat covering her eyes, and breathing steam out through a coaster-size hole in the hood of her sleeping bag. Focusing on a serious bout of shivering meant I could feel warm enough to drift off for a few minutes, but the cold would soon wake me up. I drifted in and out of this psychedelic state most of the night, having those perplexing, dramatic dreams that leave one questioning their sanity in the morning. Don’t steer the tanker into Hong Kong Harbor, Grandma! Listen to captain. Who cares if he’s a mule deer! She didn’t listen.

An Indian Roadmaster motorcycle overlooking a red, southwest mesa.
Gazing out over a two-tone, maroon-and-cream landscape to match the Indian Roadmaster, soaking up the freedom of a touring bike with a tent on the back.©Motorcyclist

Then again, those dreams aren’t always less crazy than the dreams we have when we’re awake. If you’re a wheelhead you’re probably up to your eyeballs in fantasies, whether it’s driving the French Riviera in a vintage Ferrari or stumbling through the Himalayas on a Royal Enfield. We’ve all got them, some more realistic than others, and having an opportunity to check one off the list is always too good to pass up.

An Indian Roadmaster sits in front of a blue and white motel
Finally, a motel that matches the Roadmaster's vintage chic.©Motorcyclist

For me, maybe because I watched one too many Wile E. Coyote-versus-Road Runner cartoons, the American Southwest has always held a certain inscrutability in my mind. Similarly, so does the American V-twin. I grew up far away from both. And so the concept of riding to any of our country’s great treasures aboard another one is an idea I’ve never been able to shake. Which is how I ended up freezing my lovely partner within a few degrees of pneumonia on the lip of one of the Seven Wonders of the World.

Behind the bars of an Indian Roadmaster, entering a tunnel into the red rock of Zion National Park
Cruising through a tunnel in Zion National Park. The scenery is distractingly beautiful, and the red roads make for an almost eerie ride, like you've stepped into a cartoon.©Motorcyclist

“Hey, what if we ride to the Grand Canyon over Memorial Day?” I said. “That sounds awesome!” she said. I basked in the glow of my brilliant idea; a road trip on a federal remembrance holiday to a national park on Indian’s Roadmaster with all the free, fresh air she could breathe. What a lucky girl. Of course, I’m merely a child inside with man-size ideas and resources, which became more evident the closer we came to shoving off on the utopian, all-American vacation. I didn’t let on. I had fooled her into thinking I’m a fully functioning adult male for this long—might as well keep the charade going.

A hiker looks back on a spine of rock and the Zion canyon below.
The hike to the top of Angel's Landing in Zion National Park is more business than casual, but the views from the top are worth it.©Motorcyclist
Red roads of Zion from the cockpit of an Indian Roadmaster
More of Zion's red roads and martian landscape from the cockpit of the Indian.©Motorcyclist
An Indian Roadmaster overlooking a vast plain and sunset.
Soaking up a sunset in southern Utah, with the temperature dropping.©Motorcyclist

Sun sinking into the ocean and bike stacked high with camping stuffs, I pointed the land barge we had created east for Zion National Park. Being stuck in traffic, then construction, then more traffic had me concerned that what felt like 1,500 pounds of motorcycle was too much, but eventually we broke free of greater (and lesser) Los Angeles. On I-15 headed toward Las Vegas, the Roadmaster finally hit its stride. Once in sixth gear and with the cruise control set to “gentle canter,” I had a chance to fiddle with some of the other do-dads.

A rider gives the passenger a thumbs up while riding.
Cruise control allows for enthusiasm to be passed smoothly from rider to passenger!©Motorcyclist

I played with the power windshield until I found a good height then played with it some more just to irritate my passenger—er, I mean, pass the time. I reveled in the seat for a while, a little slippery but business-class wide and comfy. With a fully padded back pad and armrests on the poop deck, she was happy too. Manual wind-protection flaps adorn the fairing lowers, multiple on each side, which accounted for lots of entertainment. Once all of the different combinations had been tried we were tired and put down for the night on the eastern edge of California. First thing in the morning we had been welcomed to Nevada and the stench of sin was tickling our nostrils. Happily, I glided through Vegas without slowing down because with a tent and my lady on the back why would I want my luck to change?

Clipping the edge of Arizona, the landscape began to change as we hit Utah and peeled off on state Route 9. Excited to set the mood, I remembered that less-than-freeway speeds meant I could experiment with the Roadmaster’s stereo. I found mostly Christian-rock stations but also a new color of red that the gal-friend’s cheeks turn when she’s embarrassed at a gas station. Once through the gates of Zion, though, the sights muted everything and I shut the radio off. Captivated by the splendor of the scenery, our “quick hike” turned into a three-hour scramble to the top of Angel’s Landing—easily one of the more frightening and stunningly beautiful places I have ever been.

A paved road seen from the cockpit of a motorcycle, with snow-covered fields to either side.
Leaving the Grand Canyon, luckily without snow on the road.©Motorcyclist

Back aboard the barge we gaped and laughed in amazement at the alien beauty of Zion’s red roads and implausible tunnels. The Roadmaster chugged through the park perfectly balanced, feeling a thousand pounds lighter than reality (1,345 pounds we learned later—yes, really) and only touching floorboards when I got too frisky in a hairpin. It all felt like a ride at an amusement park, and we would have gone back for another pass had we not already enjoyed the sights so much already. Also, as the Chief Logistics Coordinator on the pillion reminded me, the sun was dipping and we had more than 100 miles to our campsite.

An Indian Roadmaster sits on the side of the road, surrounded by light snow.
Snow on a motorcycle trip often pairs with sarcastic thumbs up.©Motorcyclist

The sun set as the road number dropped from 89 to 67, the home stretch to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. Temperatures, however, continued downward well beyond 67, and nobody had a closer eye on the Roadmaster’s thermometer than the CLC. Below 45 degrees she announced over the headset each degree lost—it became less a temperature gauge and more a digital readout of how unpleasant camping would be once we arrived.

Unfortunately, in our most testing hour, we also had the most imminent and unpredictable distraction: hundreds of deer. With temps in the high 30s and only the faintest glow of daylight on the horizon we wanted to be there already, but every quarter-mile or so there stood a pack of three to 15 incredibly agile and confused creatures grazing on the roadside. And so the 55-mph speed limit was more realistically 40 mph to keep from losing a tense game of “Deer Dodge.”

A motorcycle next to a tent, under a tree, at sunset.
The campsite in Salome, AZ. Nobody around, just like camping should be.©Motorcyclist

We set up camp and chattered our teeth through the night, certain to be met in the morning with sunshine and the magnificence of Il Canyon Grande. Instead there was hail, sleet, and eventually rain that tapped on the tent all morning, supervising our breakfast and packing. After lunch and a hot cocoa at The Lodge to boost morale, we figured there was an obligation to look at the huge hole in the ground, being that it was the impetus for the ride. The low clouds finally seemed weary of spitting but stayed hovering over the canyon, plumes of fog tumbling dramatically around the spires of red rock that seemed to radiate light. Even on a dreary, cold day, wearing clammy clothes and sleep-deprived eyes, it was hard to come up with a more complete title than “grand.”

We blamed most of our suffering through the cold on our own neglect for remembering that the North Rim of the Grand Canyon sits at around 8,000 feet of elevation, and with that we saddled up and thundered around the eastern edge of the park. Being in my business-class leather seat with heated grips, I was happy. “I wish this thing had a heated seat,” was the comment from astern. Clearly not as happy. [We are obligated to say that the Roadmaster did have heated seats. Good luck explaining that, Zack. —Ed.] Still, we were warmer with every foot descended, and I reminded her that even though the sun was going down we were getting a mile closer to the equator every minute. It would be practically tropical in Flagstaff!

Tropical no, but the next day was splashed pleasantly with Copper State sunshine, which buoyed our spirits. We hiked Cathedral Rock in Sedona and lunched in the funky mountain town of Jerome, before connecting back to Route 89 and cruising through Prescott National Forest and down into the desert of western Arizona. We camped in the town of Salome, best described as non-descript, and ultimately found the sanctum in camping that had been the target. A jagged ridgeline dozens of miles off made a saw-tooth sunset silhouette, and we finally slept soundly, bellies full of camp-stove soup.

The final few hundred miles back toward Hell-A were largely uninteresting—a snack of peanut butter and bread in a truck stop and a lovely trip west on the Pines-to-Palms Highway being the highlights—but did offer steady miles to reflect. For one, I vastly underestimated our national parks. It’s easy to lust after journeys to exotic, foreign lands, but this jaunt illustrated vividly that there’s plenty to be seen in the land between the shining seas.

Two hikers look out over a rocky, southwest landscape and a cloudy sky.
A hike to the base of Cathedral Rock dishes out awesome views of the landscape surrounding Sedona, AZ.©Motorcyclist

And what of the Roadmaster, lumbering land barge of the Wild West? Its 111ci never missed a beat, while the stereo entertained and the dash displayed everything from temperature to tire pressure. Quite a machine, I have to say. It was also the subject of much praise from mostly mustachioed travelers of a certain, maroon-and-cream vintage. “I didn’t know Indian still made bikes!” Does it ever, and with heated seats, apparently.

To experience the majesty of just a corner of our nation was, in itself, worth the effort of a long weekend, and adding the whimsy of not being a real adult (yet) made it fun. But as a chronic gearhead and dreamer, to visit such a deep nerve center of our society’s heritage aboard the modern example of a storied brand was a special box to check. The fatigue, sleet storm, and numb fingertips served us well in the end too, by brushing up on an old lesson. Motorcycles can bring you to amazing places. You have to point them in the right direction at the right time—that’s the trick.