Dr. Frazier: Adventure Envelope and Risk

June 13, 2012
Dr. Gregory Frazier
Dr. Gregory Frazier
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Having made multiple runs across the globe, round-the-world adventurer Dr. Frazier imparts some of his motorcycle traveling wisdom in his monthly Dr. Frazier Rides column.

Sugar sand! Sometimes it was a foot deep  others merely a light coating on a hardened surface.
Sugar sand! Sometimes it was a foot deep, others merely a light coating on a hardened surface.

Sugar sand. The white deep stuff ate me, caused me to auger in and ended a day of primitive exploring. I would like to say the tears dripped on Indian Route 28 that afternoon were from laughing at me and my self-inflicted predicament, but the truth was some fell from pain.

The day started simply enough. While looking at my AAA map I saw I had several options to reach my destination for the night, Gallup, New Mexico. I was in Holbrook, Arizona and saw the nearly dead straight superslab of Interstate 40 would have me in Gallup within two hours.

More pavement north to the Hopi Indian Reservation and then east across two-lane Highway 264 would take me on a scenic route through Window Rock. It was a nice enough option, but one I had done at least a dozen times before.

A town name on the Navajo Indian Reservation drew my attention, that of Greasewood. I calculated I could drive about 50 miles on pavement, and then at Greasewood take a dirt road nearly 20 miles across what showed on the map as a great empty to a dot called Klagetoh. There I had the choice of some more pavement and then more dirt, or stick to Highway 191 and back onto the Interstate.

As I pondered the route options I found myself wondering, “What is at Greasewood? Why is the town there and why a road to there from Klagetoh? Who lives there?” And then, “How tough could 17 miles of a reservation dirt road be if it showed on an AAA road map?”

I knew if the dirt road got too tough, I could always turn around and still make Gallup in time for my evening appointment. Curiosity won out over possible common sense and I set off for Greasewood.

The Navajo name for the village was Diwozhii Bil’To and the name on a road sign to the Trading Post that had been there since the early 1940s said it was Greasewood Springs, not merely Greasewood.

Greasewood Trading Post  where I was told  Dont try that road if it rains  but you might be OK on your motorcycle.
Greasewood Trading Post, where I was told, “Don’t try that road if it rains, but you might be OK on your motorcycle.”

As curious as I was about who and what was inside the trading post, the local Navajo shoppers and Post Mistress were equally curious about me and my motorcycle. My inquiries about the condition of the road out of Greasewood Springs and onto Klagetoh 17 miles away were met with, “Road’s fine. Watch out for the cows and horses. Your motorcycle might spook them.” Another comment was, “Don’t try it in the rain. It gets real nasty. But then again, since you’re on a motorcycle, you might be okay.”

The general consensus of my Navajo sample pool was I would be fine, as long as I didn’t get “lost out there, or it rains.” This brought a good laughing session because the temperature was close to 100 degrees and no rain had been seen in days and there was, technically, only one road, Indian Route 28.

Within the first mile I saw a road sign that said the road was only maintained for school buses. My thought upon seeing that sign was if school buses could drive over the road my Kawasaki KLR650 with dual purpose tires should be able to do the same.

After that first road sign I saw no others for the next 15-16 miles. There were several dirt and reddish dust covered roads or tracks vectoring off the main road, none marked with much else other than a painted tire hung on a fence post – likely directing people to whoever lived down that road.

The road surface varied from hard pan, or packed dirt, to deep sand. On the hard surfaces the trick was to weave between potholes and slow down when approaching places where the hard pan changed to soft sand.

One cow tried to run with me after I stopped and took its picture. I had learned that the brain on a cow functioned in the variable mode, so never trust them standing, running or lying down. For me, the best cow is medium well done on a plate, not alive on an open range.

One of the few things moving besides blowing sand was this cow that decided to run along next to me for a few yards  and then darted in front of me.
One of the few things moving besides blowing sand was this cow that decided to run along next to me for a few yards, and then darted in front of me.

This Navajo cow fit with my earlier experiences. As I started to speed up in first gear the cow came off the mound and started to run alongside of me like a dog. I accelerated, thinking I could out run it, but then saw broken road ahead of me and slowed down. As I rolled off the throttle the cow did the unpredictable and made a hard right turn across the road in front of me. As it ran off into the bush I thought, “Next time I see you I hope you are on a menu.”

The next miles were uneventful other than allowing me to enjoy the wide emptiness of the surrounding area. I had seen no cars, trucks, buses or motorcycles since leaving Greasewood Springs, and other than the cow the environment was mine alone to enjoy.

I stopped in a sand wash, obviously where a stream ran over the road when wet. Looking up the dry streambed I saw tire marks. For a few seconds I pondered what was up there that a car, or more likely a pick-up truck, would drive to see. And then I remembered how an acquaintance some months earlier said in a text message that I was “too old to go off-road.”

Those words echoed around the inside of my helmet, not the “too old” part, but the “off-road” bit. I was alone, 10-15 miles from any pavement and thinking of piloting a fully loaded motorcycle up an obviously challenging creek bed, well off-road. Common sense won out over my curiosity and I passed on the creek off-road adventure.

Two miles from the paved road showing on my map, Highway 191, I went down. What ate me was deep sugar sand hiding a rock the size of a baseball. I had been slowly paddling through a section of the deep white soft sand when my front wheel hit the hidden rock, forcing the handlebars into a far right locked position. At 10 mph one second I was upright, two or three seconds later I was down on my right side, face buried in the sand, right foot twisted painfully under the rear of the motorcycle and the throttle was pegged with the engine screaming at top rpm.

Down I went  eating some sugar sand and severely injuring my right ankle.
Down I went, eating some sugar sand and severely injuring my right ankle.

The pain shooting to my brain from my booted foot got my immediate attention. I had felt things tear as I rolled off the motorcycle and it took several tries before I could free my foot. Before standing up I pushed the kill switch on the right side of the handlebar to shut the ignition off, then reached the key and turned off the entire system.

Next I spit out sand, seemingly several cups full, but actually just a spoonful or slightly more. That was the price I paid for having the face shield up while paddling through the slow area in the 100 degree heat.

The ankle hurt, badly. At first I thought I might have broken my lower leg at the ankle, but movement inside the boot resulted in no bones feeling broken, just severe yellow to orange to red pain. I tried to stand but the right ankle would not support my weight.

Using the motorcycle as an aid, I was able to push myself upright. The ankle hurt the blazing color of red. I tried to walk off the hurt, but my vision of “manning-up” turned to the red zone of tears and more than saying “Ouch!”

I sat down on the flopped motorcycle and made a mental list of my problems: I was hurt, alone, with no cell phone and seemingly on an empty road. I could wait for someone to appear in a car, truck or bus and help me upright my downed motorcycle.

That option made sense. As I sat on top of the right side aluminum pannier I was reminded of a lady acquaintance who once told me she always carried an umbrella when she traveled. She admittedly could not pick up her BMW motorcycle, loaded or unloaded. When the motorcycle fell over, like in Africa, she would get out of her hot riding jacket and helmet, unpack her umbrella and sit in its shade until help came along. As I cooked in the Arizona desert that afternoon I wanted to kick myself for leaving my umbrella on another one of my motorcycles. I kicked not, however, as it was painfully impossible with the twisted right ankle.

Thirty minutes went by. During that time I had plenty of time to think about why I was where I was and the elements that had gone into the situation. I had pushed my adventure envelope no further than I felt was beyond the safe side of risk. The driving conditions were not above my skill level, nor was my equipment wrong for the task chosen. A simple rock had given me a taste of bad joss.

Too heavily loaded to lift upright  I had to lighten the load by off-loading some luggage.
Too heavily loaded to lift upright, I had to lighten the load by off-loading some luggage.

After my mental philosophical debate I knew one thing: To get out of there I was going to have to “cowboy up,” somehow get the motorcycle upright and me moving out of the hot sun. On my knees I unpacked the luggage and tossed it away from the motorcycle. My first attempt to lift the lightened motorcycle was a painful failure as I did so while facing the motorcycle and trying to use both legs to push it upright.

My right ankle was useless except for keeping me awake from the pain had I been sleepy. I turned around and with my left leg doing the major work, my hands grasping the handlebar and one of the pannier mounts, was able to slowly work the motorcycle upwards. It took several attempts but eventually the motorcycle was upright. I leaned over the seat from the right side and levered the kick stand down, then went into a quiet mode while breathing returned to normal and red washed away from my eyes.

Loading the gear back on the motorcycle took some walking around in the deep sand that was as painful as lifting the motorcycle. Once it was loaded I tried to “throw my right leg over the saddle,” but discovered some new pain in my rib cage and right shoulder, plus I could not lift the right leg high enough to get it over the pile of luggage. Some hopping, twisting and sliding got my right leg over the seat and then my foot down to the right peg.

Fortunately the KLR650 started quickly. I carefully shifted most of my weight off the left leg, let the clutch out and one-foot paddled out of the sand. Five minutes later I was parked on the safe pavement in front of the village store at Leeyi”to”, the Navajo word for the village of Klagetoh. Here I limped around to ascertain my mobility, which was severely limited.

My day of adventure riding off-pavement was over. The next miles into Gallup were slow and steady, while trying to work motion into my right foot through the swelling ankle.

That night as I reflected on my day I made a short list of lessons I had learned. Most items on the list I had learned earlier and forgotten (like the umbrella). The one that was new was that I did not like the taste of sugar sand. It tastes nothing like sugar.

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