“Last minute…but epic!”
The attention-getting email was from Manny Pandya, the younger of the Amazing Pandya Brothers, two quick-witted gearheads who handle press relations for Victory Motorcycles. Manny was recruiting a small band of misfits for the Strip to Chip Tour, a floorboard-scraping, back-roads ride from the Polaris dealer meeting on the Las Vegas Strip to the Buffalo Chip Resort in Sturgis. Casinos, crowds and chaps fill me with fear and loathing, but epic rides have the opposite effect. Two weeks later, I stepped off a plane in Vegas, carrying my helmet and a duffle full of riding gear.
At a swanky pub in The Venetian, I met Manny and the three others on the ride, including a guy with the perfect action-movie name, Rusty Creed, a tattooed Allstate agent from Arizona. Manny and his brother Robert gave us a behind-the-scenes look at the impressive 2013 lineup of Polaris hardware—motorcycles from Victory and Indian, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles from Polaris and electric utility vehicles from GEM. Minnesota-based Polaris is a bona fide American success story. Its own brands are growing steadily, it’s an investor in electric-motorcycle manufacturer Brammo and it has partnered with Eicher Motors in India to build off-road vehicles for overseas markets.
The S2C Tour would showcase Victory’s touring lineup, and Manny offered us a choice. He had keys to four Cross Country Tours and one Vision Tour, all 2013 models sporting Victory’s new red “V” badges. When Manny held up the key to the Vision, the other guys stared at their feet but I stepped forward. Bold and futuristic, the Vision looks like nothing else on the road—an attractive quality in my mind but a tough sell among V-twin traditionalists. Wind protection (including an electric windscreen), comfort, power and handling are among the best in the V-twin touring class—perfect for the open road. The top trunk holds a lot of gear, but the saddlebags are small and oddly shaped.
The next morning, we roared out of The Venetian’s cavernous loading area and onto streets still steaming from monsoon rains, winding our way through the less glamorous side of Las Vegas. Soon we entered the lunar landscape of Lake Mead National Recreation Area, where Manny set a brisk pace. The mighty Vision rumbled through Northshore Road’s rolling, smoothly paved curves with ease. As usual, the Mojave Desert in August was brutal, nearly 100 degrees before noon. Out came the sunblock, cooling vests and hydration packs.
Though we shunned interstate highways, an exception was made for the stretch of I-15 through the spectacular Virgin River Gorge, transporting us from Nevada to Arizona to Utah in less than 30 miles. In St. George, Utah, we turned east on scenic byway State Route 9 toward Zion National Park. The heart of Zion Canyon, carved out of red sandstone by the North Fork of the Virgin River, is accessible only by foot, bicycle or shuttle bus. Pressed for time with dark storm clouds looming, we switchbacked our way out of the canyon and through the mile-long Zion-Mount Carmel Tunnel. On the other side, heavy rain assaulted us as the desert landscape gave way to coniferous forest.
At Mount Carmel Junction, we turned north onto U.S. Highway 89, then right onto State Route 12, the Journey Through Time Scenic Byway, passing through a national forest, a national park and a national monument over the course of 122 stunning miles. As the sun sank low, we pulled into the Shooting Star Drive-in, a blast-from-the-past motel just east of Escalante. It has eight classic Airstream trailers configured as private cabins, each with thematic décor celebrating movie stars like Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne, plus a drive-in theater with six classic cars for guests to kick back in during the nightly screenings. Proprietor Mark Gudenas, who looks the part in his porkpie hat and Hawaiian shirt, arranged a BBQ cookout for us, followed by a showing of The Wild One.
The next day, we continued east into the 1.9-million acre Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument. At Head of the Rocks overlook, we tried to comprehend the vast geological formation known as the Grand Staircase, a stepped progression of sedimentary layers that includes famous canyons (Zion, Bryce and Grand), cliffs named for their colors (Pink, Gray, White, Vermillion and Chocolate) and endless mesas, plateaus, buttes and pinnacles, all linked together by a series of scenic byways that offer some of the best riding in America. We plunged down into the Escalante River Valley, and then climbed up to Hogback, a ribbon of pavement atop a narrow, twisting ridge with cliffs that drop thousands of feet on either side. Manny promised an epic experience, and few words describe this road so well.
At Torrey, we turned right onto State Route 24, another scenic byway that passes through Capitol Reef National Park. The varied and unique red-rock national parks of Utah—Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Arches and Canyonlands—are mesmerizing. You can ride through them all in one unforgettable week, enjoying many great places to eat, sleep and visit along the way. At Hanksville, we turned south onto State Route 95, yet another scenic byway that winds its way through Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, offering top-down views of Lake Powell and a bridge over the mighty Colorado River. After a desolate ride through the Navajo Indian Reservation, we crossed into Colorado, stopping for the night in the mining-town-turned-tourist-destination of Durango, telling tall tales over tall beers at the Durango Brewing Company and staying at the historic and supposedly haunted Strater Hotel.
After getting covered in coal dust watching the Durango & Silverton narrow-gauge steam train leave town, we rode north on U.S. 550 into San Juan National Forest. Now in the Rockies, we had traded red-rock canyons for high-mountain passes, like Coal Bank (10,640 feet) and Molas (10,970 feet). The 25-mile stretch of U.S. 550 from Silverton to Ouray is the famous Million Dollar Highway, challenging riders with switchbacks, S-curves and jaw-dropping vistas. North of Ouray, the road flattened out as we approached Montrose and turned east on U.S. 50. We crossed the Blue Mesa Reservoir on State Route 92, following the north rim of the Black Canyon of the Gunnison, and then onto State Route 133 through Grand Mesa National Forest and over McClure Pass (8,755 feet). We spent the night at The Hotel Denver, another historic hotel in Glenwood Springs with a brewpub next door.
On the fourth day, I rode alone. Scheduling constraints necessitated an evening flight out of Denver rather than continuing on to Sturgis. In pursuit of more epic riding, I departed dark and early, eager to conquer Independence Pass (12,095 feet) and make my first of several crossings of the Continental Divide. The Vision’s wheels rolled over Freemont Pass (11,318 feet) and Berthoud Pass (11,307 feet) before entering Rocky Mountain National Park, where Beaver Meadow National Scenic Byway offers Alps-like grandeur, summits several passes (Milner, Iceberg and Fall River) and tops out at 12,183 feet. The cherry on top of a decadent day was Peak to Peak Highway along the Front Range.
An epic ride, indeed. Over four days, I ran up the Victory Vision’s odometer from 27 to 1,313 miles, enjoying conveniences such as cruise control, heated grips (on cold Colorado mornings) and audio. With a pang of sadness, I turned the bug-splattered, floorboard-beveled Vision over to a local Victory dealer, wishing instead I could do the entire ride in reverse and keep going until I reached the Pacific.