The road ran us out of Sedona, the sky kettle black and upturned. Rain poured onto that red desert, flooding usually dry washes with a thick slurry of sand and water. We saw it coming, a wall of weather punctuated by jabs of lightning. The temperature tumbled to the low 50s in a blink. We had time to close our vents and brace for the worst of it, 10 hours into a 14-hour ride from Orange County, California, to Jacob Lake, Arizona. There’s exploring to be done up there on the jagged edge of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim.
Jeff Allen and I left on a couple of long-legged machines: a 2017 KTM 1090 Adventure R and a 2017 Honda Africa Twin, escaping the freeway tangle of greater Los Angeles before dawn. The two were glad to consume the long acres of asphalt between where we were and where we were going, blasting across the Mojave at the shallow end of 90 mph. The sun caught us just outside of Indio, slipping beneath a shelf of clouds and banishing the early morning cool. It would be 90 degrees by 9 a.m.
To be so similar in concept, the bikes could not be more different in character. The KTM is a weapon, a fierce and frothing thing. It aches for on-ramps and the constricting asphalt of mountain passes. Its 1,050cc V-twin has deep lungs, and it fills them with glee, swelling to 10,000 rpm with a broad rush of torque over and over again as you click through the six-speed gearbox. The engine is full of character, crass and coarse beneath you. It’s the kind of thing that would take offense at being called a sewing machine.
Say that to the Africa Twin and the bike would beam with pride. Its 998cc parallel twin is smooth, trading a sky-rattling redline for an ocean of civility. It makes most of its power in the lower octaves, with a good swell around 3,000 rpm. It’s a proper heart for this puppy of a motorcycle. It is endlessly approachable and made more so by a dual-clutch transmission. The gearbox is simple. Put it in drive, and the bike does the rest, merrily switching gears with an impressive smoothness most of the time. We were well out of California before I bothered to look for the tach or the gear indicator.
And yet, for someone who’s spent a fair portion of a lifetime trying to learn the intricate steps required to operate a motorcycle, the DCT was underfoot more often than not. Honda abandoned the tried-and-true toe shift for a pair of manual shift buttons mounted on the left handlebar. It’s a popular neighborhood. There are no less than seven different actuators on that bar. I lost count of the number of times I blasted the horn or mashed the indicators while going for a shift. The result requires a half-second of thought on which button to press when you don’t have half a second to spare. It feels like wearing your daddy’s shoes. Close to right, but not quite.
The road to Jerome is a tangle of asphalt. The black tarmac scrambles over old sandstone canyons and weaves its way through a spare conifer forest. Allen, on the 1090 R, vanished like an apparition. Just as well, as the Honda doesn’t delight in on-road antics, at least not laden with four days’ worth of camping gear, tools, and kit. The suspension lacks the KTM’s precision, yielding slower turn-in, and the low seat makes it harder to position yourself on the bike. Throw in a tall, aftermarket smoked windscreen that does little but get into your line of sight, and you’re having a better time at six-tenths than seven.
That storm started beating its chest as we approached Sedona, the clouds tall and sharp as braced knuckles. It was beautiful, the sky rippling in opposition to the bright and rusting desert. We stopped for supplies, loading what room we had left in our panniers with a day’s worth of jerky, granola, and as much water as we could carry. I was glad to be back on the KTM as we left the grocery. The first drops were already on us, and as we climbed 89A to Flagstaff, the sky was in a rage. Water ran down the road in deep, cold streams. We’d lost better than 50 degrees inside of an hour. It took all afternoon to get out from under that storm, the heavy clouds haunting us through Flagstaff and out to Page. The desert turned alien as we rode, purple and sage hills of sand and stone wandered out to impossible walls of rock, the eons of our Earth written in their strata. We watched the rain swell and ebb, saw it fall in great sashes to the empty desert. The low scrub was glad of the gift, and the air erupted with the perfume of that place: mesquite and juniper.
"There was nothing to do but laugh at the impossible beauty of it and how easy it is to miss these moments entirely, to live out our days craving the cheaper balm of a glowing screen. These are the wages of the motorcycle."
It was a long, hard day, full of hot, flat miles and empty hours, but the riding got good again outside of Cliff Dwellers Lodge. The North Rim is 1,000 feet higher than its southern counterpart, and the sun began setting as 89A climbed out of the basin. The light slipped through the storm to paint the hills gold with the day’s embers. Rain fell on our horizon, bent like a thin summer skirt in a breeze, the drops catching the dusk as they fell. There was nothing to do but laugh at the impossible beauty of it and how easy it is to miss these moments entirely, to live out our days craving the cheaper balm of a glowing screen. These are the wages of the motorcycle.
We stayed the night in Jacob Lake, got up early, and covered the 42 miles through the high forest to the lodge on the North Rim. At more than 8,000 feet, the sky’s clearer, the air sharper than down below. Flat-bottomed, white cumulous clouds lazed their way above us as we rode through the open range outside of the park, black cows and calves wandering through the pine, the smell of their manure mixing with the morning air. That road is a wonder, a smooth and gracious two-lane that courses its way to the edge of the North Rim. It tumbles in and out of high meadows, lush and green under the late-summer sun and yesterday’s rain.
There is no preparing yourself for the canyon. It doesn’t matter how many times you’ve seen it or how many photos you’ve taken. Putting eyes on that vast chasm stutters you. Your mind fumbles the concept of distances so wide or depths so deep, and you find yourself looking from spot to spot in a rush, desperately trying to take it in. The riven earth spills out beneath you, and the sense of your own insignificance rings loud in your ribs. It’s a treasure. We took it in at the lodge with the rest of the tourists lounging on their deck chairs. Hung out long enough to watch the eclipse and pick up our backcountry camping permit.
Our plan was to stay in the park the first night then relocate to the Kaibab National Forest the next, but the ranger behind the desk had some unfortunate news. The forecast called for rain, and the forest roads can turn to a mire with a little precipitation. We took a knee on the first night of camping and headed off the plateau. After a day and a half of pavement, we were ready to get some dirt in our teeth.
What started as a 60-mile loop through the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness devolved into a seven-hour slog, first when Allen and I lost each other for an hour or so and later when I somehow managed to find a 3-inch drywall screw with the Twin’s rear tire. It wasn’t until we unpacked the tools that we understood just how long our day was about to get. In our rush, we brought the spanners for the KTM’s rear axle but not the Honda’s. There was no getting the wheel off. Allen volunteered to ride it the 35 miles back to the motel at Jacob Lake. Our flashers illuminated the twisting road as dusk fell and night rose, the two of us riding in a 25-mph parade.
After borrowing an adjustable wrench from the hotel the next morning, we got the tire off only to discover that our long ride on the rim had destroyed the carcass. The closest replacement was two hours away in St. George, Utah. Allen saddled up and rode the KTM west with the Honda’s rear wheel strapped to the rack while I made calls and an appointment for a new tire and tube. By midafternoon, both bikes were back together and gunning down Point Sublime Trail.
The trail began as an overgrown two-track, the ruts sparkling with still, dark water here and there from the previous night’s rain. The KTM rides smaller than its 456-pound dry weight would suggest. It’s made to be ridden while standing, its bars and tank placed to accommodate the human body’s various angles. It made gleeful work of the ruts and rocks that became the order of the day as we rode further into the pines, up and down steep scrambles. It’s a miracle, a dirt bike on growth hormone.
We stopped in a wide clearing, the road obstructed by a thick herd of buffalo. The great wall of muscle and bone grunted and stomped in the dust, their brown hides a patchwork of thin and thick hair. For a moment, it was possible to imagine them spreading out across the width of our west, unbridled by rifle or fence. We switched bikes before riding through the thick of them slowly, the calves and cows wandering off the road before the bulls. I wasn’t looking forward to more time on the Honda, but the machine comes together off road. It’s a thing you have to work to upset. The soft springs and dampers bound over everything, and the DCT makes standing shifts easy.
The transmission showed its limitations as the road constricted again, climbing up steeper grades over more loose terrain. My right wrist is dumb, incapable of the fine adjustments required to keep traction in low-speed, technical maneuvers, but that’s all that the DCT offers. There is no modulating momentum and tire speed with a clutch. Just spin and pray.
It made for less relaxed climbs, but the bike and I repeatedly got to the top without spending any time on our sides. Descents are another matter. Below a certain speed, the Africa Twin freewheels, losing engine-braking and leaving you to modulate your descent with just the rear brake. It takes some getting used to.
"Every mile feels earned, rare, and precious."
Even so, both of these machines are a joy. We live in a world that revels in gray ambiguity, where the measure of our actions may never be taken. These bikes file us down to the pass/fail point of ourselves, where every twitch of wrist and ankle, every shift in position translate into making it over an obstacle or enjoying a 500-pound deadlift in full riding kit. Every mile feels earned, rare, and precious.
I am not a pro rider. Nothing on my résumé reads “Baja” or “Dakar,” and yet, the taller, more powerful KTM feels more confident under my feet. It’s a combination of everything: ergonomics, throttle sensitivity, and the familiarity of a clutch lever. A superior suspension doesn’t hurt, either, and when we take a break, I talk Allen out of the 1090 R. I wouldn’t give it up until we roll back into Orange County.
It is easier to ride not because of push buttons or an accommodating saddle but because the long days I’ve spent riding have hardwired the muscle movements necessary to navigate the bike over the increasingly demanding climbs and descents we faced. I was on the KTM as we ducked around fallen trees and slogged through axle-deep puddles wide as ponds, their bottoms soft and desperate to put me on my tail. I was on it as my thighs burned after better than 40 miles of pounding over uncertain terrain and when we finally rounded a corner to see the forest give way to the canyon, the chasm glowing red and wild in the late afternoon light.
We set up our tents and feasted on the provisions we bought in Sedona. The sun went sliding toward the west, the light dragging its way across the points on the far rim. We watched the Milky Way paint its way across the sky and caught shooting stars as they went burning toward our horizon. It was a good day. One I’ll hold onto until they put me in the ground.
This is the miracle of these bikes. These same brutes spent one day bashing across the interstate and another ripping up a road made for light and lithe 450s. They brought us to the ragged edge of the Grand Canyon without so much as a change in tire pressure, to a vacant campsite on the teetering edge of our Earth. This is their promise. They are the partners with crowbars waiting to break you from the chains of tedium around your neck. The thin excuse you need to get up and go. To run far and wide.