Southwest Express: Winter Touring on Can-Am Spyders

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
After more than two days of droning across the desert as quickly as possible, Big Bend Ranch State Park was a great big breath of fresh air. Our Spyders were loaded with Christmas presents, clothes and camping gear. (Photos by Kurt Yaeger)

So…do we fly? Or do we ride?

Kurt and I were staring at a map of the Southwest, planning a visit to his family in Austin, Texas, for Christmas. Our eyes shifted from Southern California to central Texas and back, mental gears turning in anguish. Via the thick, blue, rather straight line of Interstate 10, Austin is 1,433 miles from Camarillo, and we had only 10 days total. At least three of those had to be reserved for the actual family visit, which was, after all, the whole point.

We’d be leaving on the evening of December 21, the shortest day of the year, meaning our riding time would be abbreviated and cold. And of course it was winter; snow isn’t exactly unheard of in Texas hill country, and it was almost guaranteed if we ventured off the Interstate into the higher altitudes of New Mexico and Arizona.

So of course we rode.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
Map of the route taken, by Bill Tipton/compartmaps.com. The pink line is the outbound route, the red is the return.

By the morning of day two, as we silently trooped back and forth with our gear through clouds of our own exhalations, I was glad we’d opted to take a pair of Can-Am Spyders. We were packing up to leave my mom and stepdad’s 80-acre Sky Ranch, outside Deming, New Mexico, where we’d stayed the night before.

The temperature was 22 degrees, we had more than a mile of rutted driveway and washboard dirt to retrace just to get back to a paved road, and we were pushing east—through brutal crosswinds beneath the drooping jet stream that was delivering frigid air to much of the country, New Mexico and Texas included. Nevertheless we rolled into the desert, our heated vests and gloves cranked up to 11, huddled behind our Spyders’ windscreens and clinging to the heated grips. 

The sun had just popped over the mountains when we hit the dirt road back to the main two-lane county road in New Mexico.

I’d chosen Spyders (a fully dressed RT tourer for Kurt, and a sporty F3 Limited for me) for three reasons: the unpredictable winter weather, the fact that they have semi-automatic transmissions (while he can ride standard motorcycles, Kurt’s prosthetic leg makes shifting a chore and I didn’t want to subject him to it for 3,600 miles) and outright curiosity. I had only ridden one once before, very briefly, and I was curious what they’d be like on a full road trip. 

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
I was appreciative of my warm Rev’It armored riding parka and my Tourmaster heated gear.

Our plan could best be described as “fast and loose.” As motorcyclists, we wanted to balance the need to make haste with the desire to enjoy our journey and do some exploring along the way. We’d already powered across the familiar California and western Arizona deserts on I-10, then diverted onto two-lane highways to angle down to Deming, keeping our Southwest Express on schedule for a Christmas Eve day arrival in Austin.

The gist of our plan: hop on the “express lane” through those areas of the map with big white spaces and no squiggly lines, thereby banking time for the most worthy sections. We had a couple of firm destinations neither of us had ever been to—Big Bend and Carlsbad Caverns—but otherwise we let the spirit of the road move us. 

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
We weren’t in too much of a hurry to stop and explore now and then. In the tiny town of Duncan, Arizona, we spotted a sign for a fighter jet on display. What we found was this derelict old bird; it somehow toppled off its stand, its wings breaking off in the process.

This often meant long stretches of monotony punctuated with bright spots of excitement—some more exciting than others. Near Marfa, Texas, we didn’t see any of the famous lights, but we did spy a strange white object hovering, unmoving, in the sky. After more than 300 mind-numbing miles of open desert so far that day, my imagination was primed for something “X-Files” worthy, but our UFO turned out to be a TARS (Tethered Aerostat Radar System)—an unmanned blimp used to monitor the border for aliens of a different kind.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
Most desert roads, like this one near Marfa, Texas, are all about getting you where you’re going as quickly as possible.

On the other end of the excitement scale that day was Farm-to-Market Road 170 through Big Bend Ranch State Park, a rolling, curling ribbon of pavement with very little traffic and stunning views. It was also the first chance we had to ride our Spyders on a curvy road.

Spyders don’t lean; they’re more like snowmobiles with wheels. They’re more inherently stable in a turn than traditional trikes, but they’re still equipped with a sophisticated VSS (Vehicle Stability System) that kicks in if you get a little too rambunctious, applying front brakes and cutting power as necessary to keep you upright and facing the proper direction. Coupled with the speed-sensitive Dynamic Power Steering (the quickness of which takes some getting used to), riding a Spyder fast on a twisty road is insanely fun.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
In Miami, Arizona, we had to stop and check out this 35-ton, 12-foot-wide, 13-foot-high dump truck—sitting inside a 240-ton open pit mining haul-truck bed.

In the lead position on FM 170, I was focused on the new order of operations—plant outside foot, push handlebar in direction of turn, lean in, drift a little, giggle madly, repeat—and misjudged the proximity of a rather large cow pie to my right front tire. I heard it (splat), I felt it (wiggle)…I smelled it (ewww), and a disgusted yowl in my helmet headset told me Kurt also heard, felt…and smelled it. In his words, I “exploded” it—all over his windscreen. 

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
Fredericksburg, Texas, is the hometown of Admiral Chester W. Nimitz and the site of the National Museum of the Pacific War, a must-stop destination if you’re passing through. Photo by the author.
Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
The museum’s Memorial Courtyard honors the individuals, ships and units that gave the ultimate sacrifice in the Pacific theater of World War II. I sought out this memorial to the men aboard the U.S.S. Indianapolis, named after my hometown and sunk by a Japanese submarine shortly after delivering the parts and enriched uranium for the Little Boy atomic bomb, which would be dropped on Hiroshima 11 days later. Photo by the author.

The Spyders, while requiring some initial acclimation, grew on both of us as the days passed. With single foot brake pedals (the pedal operates all three ABS-equipped brakes), no levers to squeeze or balancing required, easy pushbutton upshifting (the Spyder downshifts for you, although you can do it manually if you choose) and pushbutton reverse, plenty of wind protection and some of the best suspension I’ve ever experienced on a motorcycle, by the end of that 12-hour-long Deming-to-Fort Stockton, Texas, day, we agreed that we felt far less fatigued than we would have on normal motorcycles.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
We stopped to ogle the massive mining equipment in Miami, Arizona, but as we cruised along Sullivan Street toward the quaint downtown area, we spotted this gorgeous 100-year-old Spanish-style church.

And because we could shift around and stretch our legs, coupled with frequent gas stops (average range was 230 miles, but with stations few and far between we were stopping every 110-170 miles just to be safe), we decided they were even less fatiguing than a car! With 155 (RT) and 138 (F3 Limited) liters of built-in storage, they were also ideal pack animals. We loaded them with Christmas presents, winter clothes, extra layers, rainsuits and camping gear, and still had room for water and snacks. 

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
Fredericksburg, Texas, was founded by German immigrants, and its Christmas decorations included this traditional German Christmas pyramid, believed by many to be the predecessor of the Christmas tree.

After three days in cold, drizzly Austin, it was time to head back, and we agreed that this time we wanted to push farther north across some of the promising green splotches on the map. But first we had to traverse the west Texas oil country, a sepia-toned, utterly flat landscape once populated by ranch cattle, now forested to the horizon with gently nodding oil pump jacks and tall fracking towers.

I’d never seen anything like it; the setting sun filtered through layers of oily fumes so that the air itself was golden brown and somehow greasy. By the time we hit U.S. Route 62/180 and turned toward Carlsbad, both of us were feeling a bit queasy and ready for some fresh desert air.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
Carlsbad Caverns National Park is best experienced early in the morning, before the throngs of tourists arrive and create hour-long waits for the elevators.

When we awoke the next morning to “freezing fog,” a new (to me) meteorological phenomenon, I once again congratulated myself on my Spyder-sense. Freezing fog is exactly what it sounds like: fog made up of trillions of teeny tiny ice crystals, and it had coated everything, including the road, with an invisible but slippery veneer.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
At Carlsbad Caverns, we ran into this trio of young Alaskans on their way to warmer weather in Baja.

Instead of being sidelined until it burned off, because we were on three wheels we were able to get off to an early start to hit Carlsbad Caverns before the crowds of holiday tourists. Then we looped up through Roswell for an alien-themed lunch and on to Truth or Conqequences for the night. T or C, as locals know it, was called Hot Springs until 1950, when it officially changed its name to that of a popular radio program. Apart from the unusual name, I appreciated the town’s proximity to New Mexico Route 152, a hidden gem of a road and the launch point for the best riding day of our trip.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
New Mexico Route 152 is a Birding Trail as well as the Geronimo Trail Scenic Byway.

We rode Route 152 east to west, through the quaint artists’ community of Hillsboro, over 8,228-foot Emory Pass then down to Santa Clara, winding and twisting through the green Mimbres Mountains, part of the 2.7-million-acre Gila National Forest.

Snow was a real possibility from here until we dropped back down to lower altitudes in western Arizona, and twisty Route 152 was slippery with fresh salt, with patches of snow dotting the shoulders in shady sections. Now a week into the trip, we were comfortable enough on the Spyders to dial up the pace, laughing into our helmets as we whipped through second-gear turns as though on rails. 

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
Montezuma Castle National Monument, about 100 miles north of Phoenix, Arizona, preserves this massive, 20-room cliff dwelling built by the Sinagua people between 1100 and 1425 A.D.

Our final day wasn’t supposed to be final, but remember this Southwest Express tour was fast and loose. We’d stopped at Montezuma Castle National Monument that morning and were now gazing thousand-yard stares across Prescott’s picturesque town square as we waited for our lunch.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
U.S. Route 180 isn’t as famous as the nearby “Devil’s Highway” (U.S. Route 191), but it still delivers plenty of beautiful curves on its way north to the town of Alpine, Arizona.

Temps were finally in the high 60s, and past Prescott, Arizona State Route 89 promised 40 more miles of curves, but after that it was a whole lotta nothin’ until we hit the sprawling L.A. metro area. We’d covered 3,200 cold miles in less than seven days (with another 400 to go) and it was December 31: New Year’s Eve. We could make it home in time to watch the ball drop! And we did, but we were both so tired we fell asleep long before midnight.

At the end, we agreed, while we normally prefer a less hurried pace, our Spyder-licious Southwest Express was still a lot more fun than flying.

Southwest motorcycle tour Spyders
I contemplate the last of the twisties on Arizona’s State Route 89, winding down from Prescott to the high desert ghost-town-turned-retirement-community of Congress.

2 COMMENTS

  1. I get Rider Mag but sure don’t remember this article, which I find most interesting sand well done. I would like to contact the folks that made this trip on Spyders, so if they read this, my email is bikerbillwms@yahoo.com, also shown below

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