Highway Companions | COOK'S CORNER

Emory Pass in south-central New Mexico nearly had us for dinner. On the way over Highway 152 between Silver City and Hillsboro, the road gradually turned from merely rough and dusty to icy and snow-patched as we headed into the trees and the temperature dipped below freezing. Wending through pine-scattered canyons, the highway became tighter and ever more challenging. It was getting dark. Thanks to heated gear, we were all warm, but I had a trickle of sweat running down my back not from the Gerbing's liner but from anxiety.

I had put our group in the path of a bad thing. My pilot instincts finally woke up and kicked me in the head. Stop. Turn around. Get back to known-good weather and clear roads—and gas before someone runs out. I pulled over and the group amassed. Aaron Frank, joining us from Milwaukee (where the weather was probably better), skidded up beside me. I steeled myself for a polite what-the-hell lecture or something worse.

Aaron flipped open his visor and I was shocked to see him with a huge smile. "Man, this is so awesome. This is amazing country, I can't believe we're here!" Zack Courts rolled up next. "What's the problem?" I told him it was getting too risky, that we really would be smart to turn back. "Oh, okay. The road's not that bad, and it's just so beautiful here!" No one else argued that we should keep going, so backtrack we did, putting us at the start of a 100-mile detour. With that decision, Albuquerque was suddenly 299 miles distant.

Over dinner we laughed about the day, trading stories of the awesome roads, incredible scenery, and the rare opportunity to get away from the office to actually, you know, ride motorcycles. And running our photographer (on my long-term Honda NC700X) out of gas when we really didn't have to. New touring rule: Don't trust the gas-station database in the GPS. Supplemental rule: If you've found a gas station not in the database, don't question it. Fill up and go.

Maybe it was the Isotope ale talking, but I suddenly had the realization that this tour wasn't about the bikes, the roads, the scenery, or anything as pedestrian as that. It was about the opportunity to be on tour with like-minded enthusiasts. I was quietly delighted to see how well the group had gelled, how easy the journey was despite the long days in the saddle and culinary miscues. (We had absolutely the worst luck picking restaurants. I now know that the Golden Corral is a frightening, if inexpensive, gastronomical experience.)

Assembling a group of truly compatible riders is complicated alchemy at the best of times, a real treat when it coalesces. You need to get along, that's obvious, but there are subtleties that don't seem like anything until the third successive 700-mile day. Like pace. Here I'm not talking about who is fastest, but, rather, who is willing to moderate both speed and risk-taking (not always the same thing) to help keep the group together. When the fast guys know when to wick it up and, conversely, when to play the pace for a tour (and not a race), everything changes. When the slower riders can accept their pace without riding over their heads to keep up, it all comes together. There's nothing worse than the tail-ender running off the road to preserve his manhood (and, yes, it's almost always the guys who do this) or the quickest rider feeling like he's working far below his level, getting bored, and crashing because his mind is elsewhere. In fact, all get-offs are bad.

We rarely had stragglers at fuel or rest stops. Each of us has ridden in a group with That Guy: the one always last to get his gloves on, first to need a bathroom break, perpetually late to breakfast. This time we moved almost as one, and the road did its thing to take us beyond the ordinary.

I count myself lucky that my coworkers are so easygoing, and that my other riding companions—a group of three from the Milwaukee area plus a dear friend who lives too far away in Florida—form an extended family with whom I'd go anywhere, anytime, on just about any bike. If you have a tribe like this, hang on tight. There's nothing more invigorating or restorative than being on the road with true companions.

Four guys and a photog, the Continental Divide in December. What could go right?