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Julia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

Gold Wing vs Vulcan: A Trailer Adventure

Touring motorcycles towing dirt bikes across the Southwest.

Imagine an enormous sandwich. Three slices of bread, meat overflowing, with tomatoes and cheese and condiments tumbling out before you even take a bite. That's what it feels like sitting down to tell this story. I don't know where to start. With assembling box-store trailers in the Motorcyclist garage? Or perhaps with flipping over the handlebars of a dirt bike and realizing—midair—that I probably wouldn't be able to get home with a broken wrist? Maybe I should just start at the beginning, with the idea to ride dunes and slick rock without using a car or truck to get there.

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Sweating it out (with Ari objecting to the photo op) in front of the world’s tallest thermometer in Baker, CA, which read 107 degrees. Triple-digit temperature dogged us throughout the trip.Julia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

“No way.” That was Ari’s response to my suggestion that we tow motorcycles with other motorcycles for 400 miles across the American Southwest in the middle of summer. He made a good point; it was a little bit ridiculous. I badgered him with notions of obligation to the motorcycling public. When that didn’t work I tried to entice him with an anecdote of a guy I used to see in the roadracing paddock who towed his 1970s Honda CB to the racetrack behind a four-cylinder Gold Wing.

You’ll notice, by the photos you’re looking at, that I won him over. Good thing, too, because there were two or three points along this journey where I needed convincing myself. Like droning on the freeway, only recently having escaped bumper-to-bumper traffic in godforsaken heat, water bottles empty, and striving to make it to civilization before passing out.

It had all seemed hunky-dory when we had set out from our office that morning, swaddled in the gentle cocoon of a cool marine layer and a warm, coastal breeze. The thermometer had gone over 100 mid-morning sometime, just about when we escaped the LA basin, and hadn’t let up. My back was soaked and my mouth was dry. My mind wandered. This was a bad idea. Deep breaths. I told myself if my grandkids shake their heads and raise their eyebrows, I would have more than enough satisfaction.

It was well after dark when we set up camp, and we woke up wondering if we had overshot southern Utah and landed on Mars.

Just then Ari glided by in the left lane, cruise control set to about 75 mph and beaming like an idiot out of his three-quarter helmet. Maybe another car passenger was taking our picture, or maybe he had heatstroke. I gathered it wasn’t heatstroke when he cranked his stereo and I heard the faint sound of mid-’90s hip-hop over the road noise. We were approaching Las Vegas and nobody was more excited to be free of the I-15 FM-radio void than he was.

As Ari and his head-bobbing grin moved past, I took a minute to take in his vessel: a Kawasaki Vulcan 1700 Voyager sailing majestically through the desert with a dinghy in tow—Kawi's own KX250F motocrosser lashed to a half-inch-thick slab of plywood along with off-road riding gear, camping supplies, and a change of clothes. We had gotten the trailers at Harbor Freight and found a tow hitch for the Vulcan through an outfit in Iowa called Marvellas. It was an awfully good-looking rig. I was on the matching setup from Honda: the mighty Gold Wing, pulling a CRF250X on the same trailer, in my case hooked up with a slick Bushtec hitch.

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A brief roadside break on the long, hot journey.Julia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

A few days prior, when we had first attached the trailer and rolled a dirt bike on it to look at what we had created, we had some doubts. It was equal parts glorious and terrifying—a massive wave that we wanted to surf but didn’t know where we would find the gall. We teetered cautiously around the parking lot and soon found out that low-speed maneuvers were the hardest part. Above 30 mph the touring bikes didn’t seem to mind the trailers at all. Performance was dulled a bit, but I think we can all agree that’s hardly the point of a Vulcan or a G-Wing. It’s comfort that’s paramount.

And, boy, were we comfy. For the most part, anyway. I had loaned Ari a black leather jacket and told him it vented well. Around midday he informed me, using short and stern words, that the temperature nearing 110 degrees had negatively affected his opinion of the jacket and of my judgment. Point taken. The comprehensive wind protection of the king-Wing and the Vulcan were hurting us too. We stood on the pegs but couldn’t decide if hot, fresh air was better than warm, stale air.

We detoured to the Hoover Dam because it felt like the right thing to do. Plus it was also reassuring to see a structure that outweighed our four-wheeled freedom yachts. After that, a single trip down The Strip was enough to satisfy our thirst for Vegas tourism, and considering the contraptions we were riding it felt like fate was tempted enough. With the mercury dropping mercifully through the 90s, we left a sunset over the neon lights of Sin City in our wake and hightailed it for Sand Hollow State Park.

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Miles from camp on two lightweight off-road bikes. This is as far from touring as one can get, yet we wrapped both activities into the same adventure.Julia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

It was well after dark when we set up camp, and we woke up wondering if we had overshot southern Utah and landed on Mars. Chestnut-colored rock jutted out of a sea of powdery, red sand as far as we could see. The time had come to realize the potential of this whole harebrained idea, and we triumphantly unloaded the dirt bikes. No ramps needed, incidentally—a fringe benefit of a low trailer and nearly a foot of suspension travel.

No, as it happened, suspension definitely wasn't the problem. It sounds obvious now, I know, but what we really needed were sand tires. Our first task leaving our camp, and basically our first attempt at riding in sand, was to climb up about a half mile of dune and rock. Even though Ari's KX250 was made for motocross and not off-road riding, it worked surprisingly well. Or maybe we just didn't know any better. My CRF250X was amateur-off-road bliss: linear power (but not too much of it) and a solid chassis to match.

That said, with stock tires and flour-like sand we soon realized that in order to maintain speed the bikes had to be wide open most of the time. That was all well and good until the rear tire caught a slice of red rock, which we came to learn has at least as much traction as asphalt. Some of the accidental wheelies were very exciting.

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Left: Ari | Right: ZackJulia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

At first we stayed close to camp, gas, and water. We practiced leaning back and letting the front wheel wander across grooves and tire tracks in the sand, throttle almost always pinned, upshifting whenever possible. The bikes planed and weaved. It was really difficult and just as rewarding.

We were sore, dehydrated, sunburned, and tired to the point of slurring speech.

Now and then we’d get cocky, slide forward on the seat, and try to carve a neat arc through the red powder, which was followed shortly by coughing up sand and cursing the brutally hot weather. We had brought knobbies to a paddle-tire fight, but we decided it was an honor to get our asses kicked by the terrain for a morning. A rite of passage. Our confidence went up as we rode, and by early afternoon we were traversing wide swaths of dunes without stopping for hydration or swearing.

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The Utah landscape is truly otherworldly.Julia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

Tired and sweaty as we got, there was no growing weary of the Utah landscape. It was truly otherworldly watching dune after dune rise up over a shallow horizon. We eventually reached a jagged cliff of red stone and tenacious shrubs, with sand spilling down toward the valley below. We followed the edge of Sand Hollow until it seemed we couldn’t go much farther, perched on a round bulb of Martian rock looking out over the sunset and what felt like most of the Southwest. Even though we still had to get back to camp, load the bikes, sleep, and ride back to California, the trip felt complete. We had summited the mountain, reached the pinnacle. Sure, we still had to go back down, but this is what we would remember.

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Sand, sand, and more sand. Riding dunes and red rock was just as unique an experience as bikes towing bikes. Combining the two was an inspired way to take a tour.Julia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

There were problems, yes. The sweat running down my back at 75 mph. The seriously uneasy feeling of riding a 900-pound bike with a trailer in and out of gas stations. Ari hated my jacket and really wished he’d brought a dirt bike with electric start. We were sore, dehydrated, sunburned, and tired to the point of slurring speech. Yet we found what we always have: The lack of perfection in this motorcycle adventure is what made it special.

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Perched atop our final summit, as far from a foggy office park as anyone could hope to get in 400 miles.Julia LaPalme & Spenser Robert

We would have been much more comfortable for 1,000 miles if we had taken a truck. Just like a climber would be better off, for sanity, dignity, and health if they just stayed off the mountain. But there’s no story there—no sand-riding education and no satisfaction. It’s something I’m going to remember the next time someone suggests a motorcycle trip and I want to say, “No way.”

Watch the Episode of On Two Wheels