Skip To Content
Browse Current IssueGear Sometimes The Best Medicine Is A Moto Trip To The Doctor

There’s a traffic jam on I-15, and all around me I see reflections of my feelings: anger, powerlessness, frustration, and defeat. I’m telling myself to stop worrying about the deadline I missed and the overdue gas bill, but it isn’t working. I’m stuck in the plodding stop-and-go pace that defines city riding, and I can hear the woman in the Honda Accord next to me shouting at a co-worker on the phone. She looks put together, like an insta-mom influencer, and her words are biting, quick, and without pause. I see a break in the cars in front of me and take it, removing myself from the immediate sphere of her anxiety. I need to quiet the voices in my helmet, so I’m riding into the southern Utah desert to see a doctor.

The first hour and a half southbound from Salt Lake City are largely suburban: overly watered lawns with non-native grass, streets lined with SUVs, billboards advertising plastic surgery and warnings about opioid addiction from pain pills. Somewhere behind them is a stunning view of the Wasatch range of mountains. I tuck into a sweeping four-lane highway (US-6), finally let the Metzeler Cruisetecs claw at the pavement like they were meant to, and breathe for what feels like the first time in hours. Mountains give way to arid desert, opening up into vistas of distant plateaus as I ride through the burning flats. My thoughts of work are muted entirely.

The habitations out here, such as they are, are the opposite of the SLC suburbia: often families are living in converted RV or camper shells, ‘60s mobile homes, or structures that look like they should have collapsed decades ago. There’s little sign of public utilities, and as I pour sweat in my helmet and jacket, I wonder where the locals get their water. As I approach Green River, my Indian Scout runs out of gas. The low fuel light has been on for 35 miles or so in the middle of hot nowhere, leaving me little choice but to tuck in and coast down the nearest off-ramp. A half-mile from a gas station, the Scout’s V-twin stops, and I have to push the bike up the hill to the station in 100-degree heat. City life has made me dependent on convenience.

There’s 30 minutes between cars out here, and the nearest hospital is two and a half hours away at full throttle; because of that, people here are necessarily less bound by expectation. The farmhouses I ride by all display some form of folk art that my Midwestern sensibilities find surprising: metal trees welded together out of old equipment and hung with glass bottles; wind chimes made from old threshing blades, and paintings and frescoes of wildlife or family on any available surface. The car carcasses that accompany every house speak to the freedom from anything even resembling an HOA.

My helmet is filled with shouts of joy and gasps of awe at my surroundings. I routinely scrape the Scout’s forward controls coming into turns, and grin easily as the Cruistec tires hook up and shoot me out exactly on my chosen line.

The winding, stunning two-lane roads that border Goblin Valley and Grand Staircase-Escalante parks follow rushing creeks, wrap themselves around and over cliffs, and claw for the sky with 1,000-foot dropoffs on either side. My helmet is filled with shouts of joy and gasps of awe at my surroundings. I routinely scrape the Scout’s forward controls coming into turns, and grin easily as the Cruistec tires hook up and shoot me out exactly on my chosen line. Despite the heat and the thirst, this is surely a brand of heaven.

Riding on this road, it’s easier to comprehend that — in the scale of time of the cosmos — the frozen granite around me is very much an active sea, boiling and rolling just as we see water on a volatile shoreline, and that the sum of my perception is limited to such a gnat-sized slice of existence that it’s surely better to concentrate on the joy of grippy tires and well-banked roads than to pretentiously seek a deeper understanding of infinity. I am in a state of bliss. I glide into Escalante as the last rays of desert sun kiss rooflines and the waves of long local grass, and I feel refreshed by the darkening sky and sweet wind. I come to this place intentionally, looking for a local legend: The Desert Doctor.

In a place as isolated as Escalante, Utah, it’s easy for city dwellers like me to think only of their plans, and how their adventure will be received on social media. The riding in the area is some of the best on Earth, and nobody should be faulted for wanting to experience it, but there’s no dealership to take care of the inevitable mechanical maladies of the desert miles for those who aren’t self-sufficient. Thankfully, there’s a man who will answer calls for help, 24/7. Just off of Main Street, he works out of an open-air shed in his back yard, whose exterior walls are completely covered in black strips of tire with white words written in all caps: the home cities of the travelers he’s helped with tire changes. His yard is littered with all that’s been left behind by his customers or accrued in trade value for his work: motorcycle frames, engine components, wheels, and the odd lawnmower in a town without grass.

The Doctor is a master toolmaker from the North Side of Chicago who followed in his father’s footsteps, learning the art of manual machining. Seventeen years ago, he emigrated from the Midwest to his current incarnation. His age is indeterminate; north of 60, south of 90, but it could be anywhere between. His movements are purposeful and strong, and as he dumps the hot oil out of the Indian, it’s clear he has not been outpaced by modern motorcycle manufacturing methods; he stocks all makes of filters and the highest quality synthetic oils available, as per manufacturer recommendations. He will begin a story and then divert himself entirely to a new subject and finish neither. The interior of his shop pays homage to both greasy biker culture and also the myriad of languages, locations, and experiences his customers have come from. He spends a half-hour rejoicing in the three women over 90 years of age he’s met that are all riding around the world independently (from India, China, and Japan, respectively), then shows me a secret Nazi coin a customer brought for him after finding it buried somewhere in Austria. To say that nobody else defines the Doctor is an understatement.

After I leave his shop, I stop in at a local eatery and overhear the staff discussing daily life in the small town. It seems that individualism is a commonly shared trait here; they speak of a desire to live even more off the grid, away from expectations and prying eyes, and are willing to forgo easy access to comforts to do so. There’s plenty of time to do this, of course, because nobody competes with their neighbor to be the first to accomplish these goals, and nobody questions anybody else’s reasons for seeking what they seek. The conversation has a calming effect, and my stress level has been reduced to almost nothing.

I travel down to the border town of Kanab, which is overrun with tourists due to the proximity of Lake Powell. The spirit here is much less rugged individualism than that of Escalante — with neater little houses and even a Starbucks or two — and the many political lawn signs remind me that the opinions of others can be a full-time job. I blast out to Lone Rock at Lake Powell and ride the Indian right up to the waterfront, and nobody in sight is without modern provisions: cell phones, sunscreen, Yeti coolers stocked with Bud Light, and twelve competing radios all blasting modern country. I swim out as far as I can to get some space.

After the water, I cross into Arizona over the Glen Canyon Dam bridge, and I realize that I’m at the southernmost point of my adventure and will soon have to head back north toward home. A brief stab of nerves reminds me that I have schedules outside of today and that there are appointments to keep and chores to do, but I calmly remind myself what I came here for. I stop and get dinner with a local native, Jason, whose family is scattered around the immediate area, and he describes that in this economy, working at two Subways — as he does — is considered a pretty good gig. Later, getting gas, I watch a chainsmoking Texan fill up his Dodge that’s pulling a $100,000 fifth-wheel camper.

I opt to ride through the Kaibab Paiute reservation on my way back home and stop to look at the Indian Scout in the dying light among the red cliffs. The only sound apart from the occasional truck sweeping by is the whistle of wind off the faces of the cliffs and whispering through the grass. As I ride, I contemplate the different ways we string together our experiences and efforts and call it “a life,” and wonder if any particular path has more inherent value than another, and how much of what we call “value” is just measurement of reaching — or failing to reach — our own expectations.

After hours of riding northbound on the freeway, I am again surrounded by another of handful irritated drivers, a short-term community of strangers that will never speak. Billboards for mommy makeovers become more frequent, and I wonder if anyone in Escalante has had liposuction or some other kind of cosmetic surgery. As I cross back into suburbia, 60 miles south of Salt Lake City, a haze sets in, traffic gets worse, and I again hear the voices in my helmet.

We don't support Internet Explorer

Please use Chrome, Safari, Firefox, or Edge to view this site.