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Only in America

Photographer Kevin Muggleton travelled Rocky mountain passes and New Mexican deserts to shoot the American Dream. So why did he take a Yamaha to Harley country?

Story and photography by Kevin Muggleton

"Whatcha riding? A Harley or one of those Jap bikes?" Surely a trick question US Immigration officials use to filter the good guys from the bad? I had only meant to let on I was on a photo shoot, but two questions into the interrogation, I'm standing rock solid behind the yellow line, and singing like a canary. Riding a Virago couldn't be such a heinous crime? Deep in a lose/lose situation I was looking at a face-off with Tyson's big brother, sitting supremely smug behind the glass panel at Chicago's O'Hara. Letting on I didn't know would probably secure me a couple of weeks in the State Penitentiary without any chain lube, and pride held me back from admitting the Virago.

"Mike, our tour guide, rides an Electraglide and he'll sort me out." Wow. So smooth. The first, and probably only, time my mouth has shot off without me regretting it. Sign me up for the Diplomatic Corps.

Mike Broadstreet, owner of Freedom Tours, had invited me for 16 days in the saddle. Sixteen days of Colorado, Utah, Arizona and New Mexico. Bliss. Still a few hours and a connecting flight away from Denver, I killed time in the transit lounge, searching out Stetsons, bandannas and cowboy boots. After overdosing on John Wayne films, pulling faces in front of a mirror, and perfecting his accent, I was up to speed with the lifestyle.

radioactive The Wild Waste

If only took 60 miles of hairpin bends through the Rockies, mountain peaks, briliant sunshine and I was singing my heart out, relaxed in the saddle and as happy as I'd been anywhere. The rumble of my cut exhausts lured me into invincibility. I had Scott, a born-and-bred Colorado adrenalin junky, snapping at my heels astride his FJ1200 and plunged into the corners with reckless abandon. It didn't take long to realise that I was out-braked, out accelerated (probably out-gunned) and sitting like Giant Haystacks on a bike with the ground clearance of a low down dirty dog.

A 6ft 3in, what on earth was I doing on a poxy Virago, when I could have so easily slipped into the super cruiser scene? To be truthful, being a skinflint didn't help, but I was already on the ball putting feelers out to swap bikes with other guys on the tour.


The Virago was beaten to the store by the Waltons

Roy, over from the UK, sussed me immediately. "You have to be old enough to apreciate a Gold Wing...." With that gauntlet thrown down, the Honda was definetly off my list.

High up in these mountains, rolling with the punches is a handy skill when the occasional truck comes your way, and a reminder to keep you wits about you. Loaded to the sky with cattle feed, the mountain folk hurtle around the bends as though their World Drivers' Championship is down to the wire. Hemmed in between the rock face and monster rear wheels, a dark, fibrous wad winged past with the driver hollering, "Darn pesky bikers". The whole sketch was straight out of Desperate Dan in the Dandy. All I needed was an enormous cow pie to drop out of the sky. You cotton on quickly that America's 55 mph speed limit is obsolete in places. Cars, trucks and even geriatric Winnabago drivers all roll along at 75 mph.

Climbing towards the 12,000ft passes all the bikes suffered a 20 per cent power decrease. The VFR, reeling around like a punch-drunk fighter, felt the lack of oxygen most. A last spring downpour caught me before I had time to don waterproofs. But pulling into the next lay-by I had to chuckle at the sight of Rick, scattered sideways over a snow drift, tinkering with his VFR. Sun, rain, and snow within two minutes of each other. If a Yeti had tap-danced around us I wouldn't have batted an eyelid.


The worst tailgating accident Bike has ever seen

The contrast of the mountains pales when dropping to the red rock, sandstone valleys of Utah. The temperature shot off the scale, holding the heat in like a Rayburn oven. The cold weather gear went, but the helmet stayed firmly in place to protect my face from burning in the midday sun.

With my peanut size tank, I rolled into Bluff's only gas station to quench the Virago's thirst for the local brews. Fuel is a third of the price of that in the UK and comes with the kind of service that's outrageously fun. "Why that's the purdiest acceent I ever did hear!" She really said that. Darn, if I wasn't gettin into this place.

The heat played its part certainly, but things were done a little slower around these parts. The sun set, the crickets did their thing, bugs were swatted in the warm air, beer was swilled, long stories swapped and rocking back and forth on the wooden verandah, Scott would run through my Berlitz accent course.

"..I'd raather bee....."

"Deeper and slower," he'd cough.

"...I'd raather bee dipp'd in a bucket of daawg sheet." To guage the speed, try putting your helmet on and off a couple of times. If you've finished by the time the strap is done up, slow down and say it over again.


That's the major benefit of being on an organised tour. You relax in five-star guest houses and soak in the bath until it's time to eat, knowing the following day will keep you off the dull roads and pack in the curvy sections. If you just hire a bike in the US, it's easy to forget the country is so huge, pack in mile after bum numbing mile, live off junk food and crash in dodgy motels.

Most of the bikers you come across are on a mission to cover as many long distance trips as they can. High mileage bikers here, are the norm. Tom, a 70-year-old psychiastrist from California, crossed the Nevada desert on his BMW R1100RS packing a cool 5000-mile round trip just to join the tour, most of that on monotonous highways.


God Help the poor sod who turns up to valet this lot

Just a day in Arizona gave me a taste of what it could be like. The roads put the Romans to shame and after hours watching the centre line do its disappearing trick, the craving for a mountain pass reaches junky level. When a curve arrives, you're whipped into a lunatic frenzy, opening up the throttle, and leaving the turn to the split second before being impaled on a cactus stump. When entering Navajo Indian country, the views around Monument Valley are so mind-blowing you feel like an extra on a film set. It was in the afternoon, though, that I spotted a few snakes warming their bellies on the tarmac, I've seen cobras and rattlesnakes before but these looked like neither. Nor were they your common grass snake, so I kept well clear.

Visiting a true market economy does have its pitfalls. Somebody has won a contract to provide as many signposts as they can fit in along the highways. When bends approach, signs spring, bringing you down in 5mph increments until you hit their recommended cornering speed, a yellow sign. On a bike you can judge the cornering speed by doubling the yellow sign figure, this formula works up to about 45 mph. Roadside billboards only add to the entertainment. They're huge and can be read up to half a mile away -MACDONALDS 43 MILES, TAKE EXIT 32. TURN LEFT AT LIGHTS, THEN EAST THROUGH MEXICAN CREEK FOR 6 MI..... You'd need a Big Mac pretty badly to go through this.


Fashion accessories; see nothing sunglasses

and go nowhere fingernails

Driving styles are a little different in New Mexico and if you had to put the individual states in a pecking order of ability, New Mexico would be near the bottom of the heap. The usual glance to confirm the driver has spotted you, forget it. They acknowledge you, oh yes, then pull straight out, just when you're on the verge of no return. But in Sante Fe, with roads as wide as a flooding Mississippi, it's hard to drum up road rage. Filtering through traffic is illegal and as the lazy afternoons slip by it's therapeutic to let the odd car slip in and wait your turn.

Wherever we seemed to go on the tour the roads were a biking mecca. Dropping the gears as the bike leans from side to side, a grin splits from ear to ear. You then develop this idiotic giggling, progressing into hysterical laughter as you crank the bike harder and faster up through the passes. For serious miles, most other riders you meet are on Japanese and European tourer/cruisers. Harley guys will bitch at this, but when you're away from all the stars and stripes fanfare, they are few and far between. You'll encounter them, but if you're not on a Harley, don't expect to be acknowledged.

Near Taos, it was my turn to meet the hardcore Harley dudes, out in force, flag-waving for Veterans' Day. If you believe only half the hero stories, only special forces units served in 'Nam.


I decided to chat with one of the dudes perched roadside. He was stripped to the waist, regulation full lenth beard, paunch and more tattoos than Edinburgh Castle.

"F**king fags. Just a bunch of rich f**kers from the city. Not f**king real bikers." Gentle enough guy to ask for a photo then.

"Who d'f**k for."

"Bike magazine, back in England."

"Take you f**king picture and f**k off".

Only after chatting for a while longer did I find out his bike packed in near his home, forcing him to hitch by truck. The irony was lost on him. He was right, though , most of the guys were in fact, city professionals, doctors and lawyers.

For all my cursing at the Virago, it only let me down once. Ten minutes out of Steamboat Springs, the power cuts out as though I'd knocked the kill switch. When your bike breaks down out there, we're not talking about fliping your mobile phone and waiting for the AA to sort things out. The only traffic is the odd Coyote and an overhead eagle. All of Freedom's tours have Mike's wife, Linda following in a chase vehicle. Without so much as breaking into a sweat, the bike was carted off to the nearest garage and I was back on the best roads in the Rockies in time for tea and stickies.

After riding around a while you expect to be surprised. Sand Dunes National Park didn't fail. Smack, bang, wallop in the middle of the snow-capped Sangre de Cristo Mountains, enormous sand dunes cover the valley floor. This is as absurd as taking a big portion of the Sahara desert and dumping it on Geneva. Every rock, mountain or grassy patch with a hint of photographic talent is nominated a national monument. This isn't a problem, though, as up goes a gate in the middle of nowhere. Hand over the greenbacks and you're on you own personal test track. Park entrances are around 30 miles from the main highway, no state troopers in sight, and perfectly maintained straight tarmac roads fit for land-speed records.

I need another of Mike's tours to remind me of why I jumped on a bike in the first place. Next time I'll swallow my pride, hire a Harley, don the gear and talk the talk.