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Browse Current IssueTravel & Adventure Durango to Sedona: A Southwest Soul Scrubbing

Exposure. For some, this means a steep cliff or no-fall zone on a trail. For others, it relates to aperture and shutter speed. For me, it is sitting on a Harley while the sun and wind strip away my stress at 75 miles per hour. Yes, there are times when I pause to consider that I am just a fleshy body atop a combustion machine hurtling down the highway. I am certainly exposed — exposed to the threat of crossing animals, inattentive drivers, epic potholes, bee stings, thunderstorms, flat tires, rogue gusts, and blowing dust. But most of the time, the ride is serene and the vulnerability invigorating.

In early April I packed a small bag and hopped on Joan (named after Joan Jett), my 2003 Harley Wide Glide. I am not her first owner, but I am surely her favorite. We were headed from Durango to Sedona to meet my best friends for our annual Goddess Weekend — a few days where we celebrate our divinity as human beings, explore city and country, drink chai, and frolic (ideally sans clothes) with Mother Nature. Like any responsible motorcyclist, I had been keeping a wary eye on the weather, and although precipitation was finally out of the forecast, temps were still technically “freezing.” But I charged the heated gloves (hard to believe the ’03 FXDWG doesn’t have heated grips), added a down layer, and hollered to the gray sky, “Sedona or bust!” with high hopes of not busting.

I stopped at the Four Corners National Monument to pay my dues; not to the poorly-surveyed lines drawn by white settlers, but to the beauty that these four states bring to our country. I was on my way to the land of vortices, yet right here was a place that pulled in people of every kind and country. This day was quiet, no more than a few families milled about. The vendors huddled in their coats, the wind relentlessly knocking. A toddler crawled into the center of the monument, unaware of the phenomena upon which he sat, while his family took his picture. I thought about the snow in the nearby mountains of all four states. In a few short months, it would make the quick journey from peak to desert. I thought about all the people who would drink that water, who would quench their crops and animals. I thought about the brutal, beautiful elements that connect people to their places. Then I thought about still having six more hours to ride, so I bid the courtyard farewell.

Mandatory fry bread stop in Teec Nos Pos, Arizona.

Fuel at the Sinclair where 191 crosses 160.

Wiped a very large, very decimated, insect from my field of view.

Then we were really cruising . . .

The world felt lighter when I finally parked for the night. I gave Joan a good pat as I pulled my bag off the back. “You did good,” I told both of us.

Riding a motorcycle is like watching the clouds. The terrain changes subtly yet swiftly. The shrubs and rolling hills drift into sandstone slabs, towers, and monuments. One blink, one curve, and the road is suddenly in a canyon of cottonwoods. I watched a school bus let kids out into an empty field. They scattered towards the hillside, the closest houses still miles away. The abandoned buildings with Chip Thomas’s portraits and stories gave life and depth to the winding roads through the Navajo Nation. I pulled into the Diné grocery store in Kayenta, Arizona, to stretch and eat. While grabbing a snack inside, the checker asked me for my shopper’s card, then looked up and said, “Oh, sorry, I know you don’t have one.” I recognized I was the only white person in the store, and we both laughed about it. I sat side-saddle on my bike in the hot parking lot, watching families come and go, and shared my water and snacks with a scruffy rez puppy.

It is true freedom to be alone on the road, especially riding a motorcycle. Everything is simple: A gallon of gas lasts 60 to 70 miles. One sandwich lasts about 200 miles. A solid playlist takes me all the way there and back. I don’t have to dig around in my car for my other shoes, because I only brought one pair, and they are on my feet. I don’t have to talk to passengers, I can just rest my brain. I don’t have to look at a map, because I can read signs and know north from south. Two tires, one small engine, and hundreds of miles to just breathe.

Cresting the pass outside of Flagstaff, a distant memory hits me like a bug to the bike. I was six years old, sitting on the side of the road in that exact spot, smoke billowing from our station wagon during a family vacation. I remember two other things about that moment. The first was that the tow truck driver said he didn’t have enough room in his cab for all of us, so we stayed in our toasted car. He hoisted it onto his truck, and there we were, a family of five, all riding down the highway at a 45-degree angle, still in our seatbelts. The second was the repair shop in Flagstaff informing my dad there were “a few pounds” of dog food stashed in our engine, and that’s what caused it to break down. Clearly this incident was most devastating to the little creature who had worked so hard, stealing from the dog bowl in our garage, day after day, just to have it all drive away and never return.

The sweetest treat of the ride was the final stretch, curving and dropping into Oak Creek Canyon at dusk, the red cliffs glowing in the orange setting sun, the juniper and oak sprouting spring green leaves, the creek bouncing and bubbling alongside me. Vortex or not, there was certainly a pull towards town, an excitement to see my dearest friends, and the relief of a little vacation. The sweet scent of cherry blossoms escorted me into the city limits. I was soothed, calm, vibrant.

(6) Photo: Chip Thomas

(7) Photo: Chip Thomas

The world felt lighter when I finally parked for the night. I gave Joan a good pat as I pulled my bag off the back. “You did good,” I told both of us. She seemed to exhale, too, hot pipes and filthy fairing ready for a break. Over the past eight hours, I soaked up the energy of ever-changing environments, the textures and colors, and the kind people I met at my stops. As I squeezed my friends, I considered the gift of exposure, of spending a day absorbed into my surroundings and manipulated by the elements. The ride scrubbed my soul, leaving only its purest form. My brain was quiet. I breathed in the sweetness of spring in Sedona. 

When I finally closed my eyes that night, I saw the bottom of the rolling, white clouds painted red, reflecting the northern Arizona desert and the winding road that would pull me home again. 

Keller Northcutt lives in Durango, Colorado, with her magical mutt Everett Crowdog and Joan the Harley. She can find all 36 of the Northern Hemisphere constellations, she feels a genuine kinship with hummingbird moths, and she’d rather be on the seat of a motorcycle than anywhere else in the world. Find more of her writing at

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