In 2012, I spent 14 days chasing the Dakar Rally as it transversed South America, from Buenos Aires across the Atacama Desert and Andes mountains to Chile, up its coast, then back to Buenos Aires, on the back of a BMW 1200GS motorcycle. On the flight home, I had an epiphany.
(Note: This story isn’t about the Dakar Rally, but that’s a great story, too. You can read my Dakar Rally article for The Overland Journal.)
My epiphany on the flight home was that I was no longer at an age where dirt bike riding should continue to occupy a bulk of my free time. This was not a happy thought, but I knew it was true. One rather important aspect of riding off-road across sand and rocks is keeping your speed up. Going too slow can lead to accidents as well as going too fast. Getting off a fast-moving motorcycle, invariably results in damage to oneself, despite good armored riding gear. And after sixty years old, I was learning that healing was a much slower process than when I was younger. Damage seemed to hurt more, too. As a result, over the next few months, I sold my off-road motorcycles. To avoid an argument, we’ll not discuss how many that was, because what matters for this story is that it was enough to purchase a new Polaris RZR 800S. In 2012, these 4-wheel drive, high-clearance, side-by-side vehicles were just beginning to get popular. Since one of the things I love most about Arizona is its vast expanse of desert and mountain terrain covered with tens of thousands of miles of old mining and forest road trails just waiting to be explored. The RZR was the next best thing to a dirt bike for properly getting out there.
A few days after purchasing my new Polaris RZR 800S, I took it out to an OHV park called The Boulders. It’s west of Lake Pleasant, north of Hwy 74 and covers about 60 square miles and hundreds of great trails with the Picacho Wash running through the middle. It had been a favorite place for me to ride off-road bikes. Heading down the large, flat, wide sandy wash, and finally comfortable with the vehicle’s handling, I decided to test it for top speed. The guys at the shop said it was good up to 65 mph and with the aftermarket goodies I’d added, they thought 70 was possible. Best to give it a test: I pointed it down the middle of the wash and pushed my foot to the floor. The RZR lept forward, obviously eager to get out and run. Faster and faster I flew down the wash, gripping the steering wheel and thankful for the seatbelt as the RZR bounced over the ruts and rocky ground. With no windscreen, the air tore at my face, pulling my cheeks back into a grotesque site. Even though I was pretty sure I’d maxed out the RZR, I kept my foot in it, searching ahead for a smooth place so I could momentarily shift my eyes down to the speedometer and see how much north of 70 mph I suspected I was going. Finally, I got the nerve and glanced down, photographing the speedometer in my head while quickly shifting my eyes back to the obstacles racing by me in the wash. A quick re-glance confirmed what I had first seen: I was traveling just over 35 mph, heading for 40. How could it be? It felt like 90, okay, it felt like at least 80 miles per hour. I slowed down, enjoying the rest of the afternoon at a more leisurely pace. Driving home with the RZR on the trailer behind me, it occurred to me that having a vehicle that made 40 mph seem like 80 was a good thing. I had plenty of vehicles in my garage that made 80 mph seem like 40.
The 800s was wonderful and I loved it, but it would only take two people. I wanted to give more people rides and experience the desert scenes together. So, I sold the 800S and bought a new 2015 RZR 1000S, XP4 with 4 seats. It would go further and faster (theoretically a genuine 70 mph), and climb even more heavy-duty rocks. With a mass of additional upgrades, it was my ultimate and most reliable vehicle for exploring Arizona’s amazing outdoor spaces.
The number of places to ride in AZ is amazing. Only 18% of Arizona land is in private hands. The rest is owned by the federal government, meaning all of us. Some of this is controlled by US Forest Service, other parts by the Fish and Wildlife Service, the Department of Defense and some by the Indians. But by far the largest amount of this land is under the control of the Bureau of Land Management. And their charter is to keep the land open and available to the owners, the public, meaning the citizens of the US. That means no fences and a complete absence of No Trespassing signs. It means we can pretty much use it whenever and wherever we like, camp where we want and ride all over and explore it. Of course, you always want to stay on the trails and roads to help preserve it. Friends from the Midwest, Texas and other states marvel at our wide-open spaces and tell me about how very little land in their home states isn’t fenced off, with the public being locked out. It’s the opposite, here.
Maggie and I would occasionally go RZR riding with neighbors at the end of our block who had a highly modified 2-seat RZR. Ralph drove it fast, but his wife, Koena, drove it even faster. While I tended to take friends out into the Arizona wilderness to leisurely see the amazing sites, Koena viewed those roads as a wide-open race track. She was fun to try and keep up with! It’s important to understand, riding in the RZR was never near the top of Maggie’s “Most Fun Things I want to do today” list. In fact, it wasn’t on her list at all. But if I took her to nice pretty places and didn’t go too fast, she could be convinced to make time for a ride, especially if she liked our traveling companions. And she did like Ralph and Koena.
All of the above is so I can tell you the following story: Ralph and Koena own a home in Rocky Point, Mexico. Well, technically it’s Puerto Peñasco, and is just 3 ½ hours south of Phoenix. Located on the Sea of Cortez, it is often referred to as “Arizona Beach.” One day Ralph stopped and showed us a flyer for an upcoming RZR Off-Road Rally in Mexico, starting and ending in Rocky Point. Would we like to come with them, bring our RZR, ride in the Rally and stay at their place for the weekend? For me, this was like asking a Great Dane if he wanted to visit a butcher shop after hours? Maggie, seeing me bubbling over, said, “Okay, sure, maybe we could go. It might be fun.”
I could hardly wait. The event was a couple of months away and I spent nearly the entire time prepping the RZR and buying new stuff for it. The day finally arrived and we left after Ralph and Koena got off work on a Friday and arrived at their home after dark that night. The following morning, after checking in at a local hotel to get our Rally T-shirts and goody bags, we headed to the Rally staging spot just North of Puerto Peñasco. At the top of the hour, a pistol was raised into the air, fired and about 30 or 40 RZRs took off in a line across the desert, pretty much as fast as they could go. It was clear from the start this wasn’t going to be the ideal ride for Maggie. We were a dozen or so vehicles back from the front and the dust was overwhelming. It was almost impossible to see or breath. Fortunately, we’d brought good googles and masks to cover our mouths and noses. Blasting down the roads, occasionally launching into the air, we were certainly exceeding 40 mph, in fact, I’d guess we were going closer to 60 – which as you know, would feel like at least a 100.
After about an hour we reached our first rest stop. Everyone pulled into a rough circle somewhere out in the middle of the desert and ultra-loud blasts of hip-hop music began competing from various sound systems. Finally, we got a chance to meet our fellow riders, mostly heavily tattooed and pierced young people, happy to start slamming down a few beers at 9:00 in the morning. What had I gotten us into? But it wasn’t long before some of the group came over and began asking about our rig, and we wandered around to check out all the enhancements the others had made. No one’s vehicle was stock. Aftermarket engines, exhaust, suspension, and tire mods were everywhere, to say nothing of the added music and light packages. All too soon, we were back on the road, but this time I realized to avoid much of the dust, I needed to get near the front and stay there. Although this level of speed wasn’t Maggie’s thing, she said little and we powered through the rest of the day, with somewhat less dust.
The high-speed ride, oppressive heat, massive dust, and uneven terrain and bumpy roads – when there were roads – slowly took their toll. We got used to the music, began to admire the tattoos and piercings and enjoyed the lunch and other occasional stops and awesome views. Coming into town, we joined other participants at an outdoor Mexican restaurant for beers and burgers, before heading back to the Tapscott’s at dusk, exhausted and happy.
After healthy doses of Advil, showers and margaritas while watching the sunset, we finally headed for bed. I lay there, thinking about the day, and finally turned to Maggie and said: “Honey, I know this isn’t your favorite thing to do, but you were such an amazingly good sport, it’s hard to think of how to thank you. You didn’t complain once all day. You were super friendly to all those weird people we met, you didn’t scream at me to slow down and didn’t beg to go home. You were awesome, and I really appreciate it.” I paused, then continued, “I’ve been thinking about it, and when we get home next week, one day I’m going to come into your art studio and spend the entire day in there with you – every single minute.” It was dark, so I couldn’t see her face, I just heard Maggie let out a low groan and two words dripping with insincerity, “Oh, great.” We both started to laugh, and couldn’t stop for about five minutes. When we finally calmed down, I said, “You know, I could watch over your shoulder, point and say things like, ‘I think you could use a little more blue over here.’” Another bout of laughter.
It’s one of my favorite memories of my years with my RZRs.
Epilogue: The Polaris 1000 and trailer were sold in 2019 and the Tapscotts moved to Lake Havasu in early 2020. We miss them both. A BMW 1200GS dual-sport motorcycle sits in the garage with a set of off-road tires hanging on the wall. It’s carried me on two back-road rides in and around Moab, Utah, a wonderful place to ride off-road motorcycles. I also rode it down and through Mexico’s Copper Canyons. But I don’t ride as I did when I was younger. I’m not doing wheelies nor sliding around corners as I used to. But I do miss the RZR and will be sure to at least rent one for my grandkids when they come to visit.