By Steve Larsen, photos by Susan Dragoo.
Honoring my pledge to attend at least one solid motorcycle training event every year to learn a new skill or hone existing ones has had substantial payoffs. Long-time readers of MCN may recall past stories of experiences at Keith Code’s various schools, Gary LaPlante’s MotoVenture classes, and the series on the Phoenix Police motor officer training, among others. One of my goals is to avoid the comment a riding instructor made to a rider bragging on his 30 years of riding experience, “Sir, you ride like you’ve had one year of experience repeated 30 times.” His point was that unless you’re always learning and getting better, your skills won’t improve and more likely, will atrophy. Age and being off the bike for any extended period cause skills to get rusty and we all need to fight this: thus my annual pledge.
For this year, in addition to several local, day-long skill tuning events, I traveled to Moab, Utah to attend a small-group adventure training and riding school pulled together by MotoDiscovery, which relied on Dragoo Adventure Rider Training (DART) and Bill Dragoo for the adventure riding instructional portion. For 36 years, MotoDiscovery has been organizing guided, custom tours around the globe for riders of various skills levels. Skip Mascorro, MotoDiscovery’s founder, learned that smart riders often want a skills enhancement session before a trip and has teamed up with Dragoo to provide this opportunity.
Familiar with the excellent off-road riding programs conducted by Rawhyde Adventures in California, my expectations were that this would be along the same lines. In some ways it was. In others, it was very different. In Dragoo’s definition of adventure riding, an event that comes off precisely as planned with no surprises really isn’t an “adventure.” To Dragoo, adventure begins when plans go awry.
As a result, Dragoo’s training features not only the fundamental techniques of riding motorcycles through challenging terrain with plenty of time to practice these skills (which we’ll cover in more detail), it adds a good dose of what to do when you end up in a tough situation you really don’t want to be in. What do you do if your bike slides out in the mud and you are alone or your buddies have gone ahead, and you need to pick up your heavily loaded bike by yourself? If one bike has a catastrophic failure and won’t run, would you know how to tow one bike with another? You thought you gave it enough oomph but were wrong and are now stranded close to the top of a big rocky hill. What now? Dragoo addresses all these situations and more, while communicating a way of thinking creatively to solve problems that can arise when taking your bike off the beaten path – way off. Combining two intense days of learning new skills with four days of off-road riding to cement the new expertise results in a tremendous boost in rider confidence.
Riders begin trickling into 3 Step Hideaway near Monticello, Utah, the afternoon before the first day of training. Most have relied on MotoDiscovery to provide late model Suzuki DRZ400s and a Honda CRF250, and begin examining their rides. The setting is unique. 3 Step Hideaway is remote and for the most part, off the grid. Electricity is a precious commodity, provided by solar and a couple of back-up generators. Forget about cell coverage. But the cabins are comfortable, the food incredible, and the team running the place more friendly and helpful than you can imagine. 3 Step Hideaway sits right along the Trans-America Trail, so 3 Step Scotty has a garage full of tires, motorcycle parts, and the necessary tools to get people on their way. Riders often ship tires ahead and book a day or two here along the trail before moving on.
First Day of Training
Dragoo follows a well-established process for teaching new skills:
- Explain the concept, how it’s done and why it’s important.
- Demonstrate what was just explained.
- Have students perform the exercise with critique and encouragement until a satisfactory level of mastery is achieved.
Each new skill builds on the last. Difficult and scary exercises are alternated with ones that are more fun.
It’s several hours before we actually get to ride our motorcycles, but we interact with them intensively all morning. The seven riders in the group have a wide range of skills and we start with the basics — proper body position, keeping the bike in balance, the importance of peg weighting, clutch control. One exercise involves walking beside the motorcycle with the motor running, maintaining balance and forward motion using clutch and throttle finesse. This is harder than it sounds. When we graduate to actually riding the bikes we put our skills to work in low-speed exercises. Standing on the pegs, we “slow race” and do tight circles while keeping the bike “in tension.” It keeps our bodies in tension as well and we welcome the day’s finale, a 20-mile ride on a trail adjacent to 3 Step. Dirt roads through the sagebrush lead across the valley and along a high, rocky shelf where we loosen up a little, riding through patches of sand and negotiating some mildly rocky sections.
By day’s end we’re a tired bunch but Scott’s grilled steaks fortify us and we’re delighted with a dessert of berry cobbler and ice cream. Around the campfire after dinner, Dragoo tells a tale or two from his adventure archives, then it’s early to bed.
Second Day of Training
Braking exercises get our blood flowing on the second day, and soon we graduate to a variable-terrain challenge, maneuvering tight turns and loose hills while standing on the pegs. Later we head to the trails again to work on more advanced skills, including the “hill fail.” Riding nearly to the crest of a steep slope, we dump the clutch to kill the bikes, then learn how to escape this predicament. Our final exercise of the day is towing — one motorcycle tows another with a strap attached foot peg-to-foot peg. It is easier than it sounds, unless both riders end up in a massive prairie dog hole, which makes for an awkward ending. The first rider on scene to help also falls in the hole making the whole affair quite humorous. It’s like a miniature Bermuda Triangle appearing from nowhere.
A few of the more aggressive riders stay out for some fun in a sand wash while the rest of us return to base camp to prepare for the next day’s departure. After dinner our MotoDiscovery guides, Alex Moore and Barak Naggan, lay out the plans for the tour. We’ll make an 850-mile loop southwest from 3 Step Hideaway, on and off pavement across the Manti-La Sal National Forest and into Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, then north into Capitol Reef National Park, back east toward Green River across the San Rafael Desert and then south to Moab, before returning to 3 Step.
Third Day: The Tour begins
In late September the weather is crisp in southeastern Utah and a frosty 34-degree morning greets us, so we don layers and pull out early. Our goal is to catch the 4 p.m. ferry across Lake Powell at Hall’s Crossing.
Following Naggan, we ride toward the southwest, stopping briefly to see Newspaper Rock, a large petroglyph panel in a narrow canyon along Utah Route 211. There’s early snow in the La Sal Mountains so we avoid their highest elevations but enjoy spectacular views as we ride dirt switchbacks with precipitous drop-offs. Lunch is a quick sandwich in a sunny, tree-lined meadow. We then move on, skirting the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. The spires of Monument Valley are visible in the distance as we travel west toward Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
We make it to the ferry crossing by 3:30 — ample time to line up for the 30-minute, three-mile trip across the lake from Hall’s Crossing to Bullfrog. Once on the boat, our bikes tucked amid a crowd of pickup trucks, we relax and enjoy the ride. The blue waters of Lake Powell seem incongruous amid the red rock formations lining the shore. The lake hides in its depths the magnificent Glen Canyon, inundated when the Colorado River was dammed in 1963. Houseboats — apparently in storage — dot the lake at regular intervals near the marina and give a post-apocalyptic air to the view. On the opposite shore, perched on a red sandstone overlook, we spy our home for the night, the Defiance House Lodge. The hotel is named for an ancient Puebloan ruin in Forgotten Canyon, now accessible only (for all practical purposes) by boat. In the Anasazi Restaurant adjacent to the hotel, we watch the sun set over Lake Powell through a perfectly placed wall of windows, capping a sensational first day of touring.
Day four: Dealing with mud
It rains overnight and the next morning we’re greeted with light showers. Now we begin to learn just how well the knowledgeable Naggan adapts the route for changing conditions. First we head from Bullfrog down the road to a gas station and grill for breakfast, because of a power outage at the hotel restaurant. Then we get off pavement along the Notom-Bullfrog Road, heading north under cloudy skies for the Burr Trail. The jagged and otherworldly Waterpocket Fold soon comes into view and we ride along the length of this 100-mile long bend in the earth’s crust. We cross the boundary into Capitol Reef National Park and come to the sign for the infamous Burr Trail Switchbacks.
Up we go, ascending 700 feet in about a mile. Each tight turn reveals an ever more magnificent view of the broad valley below. We catch our breath at the top, then head back down and continue north along Notom-Bullfrog Road. Thanks to the rain, we encounter some sticky mud and I take a fall. No harm done, except to my riding gear, which is now covered in bentonite clay mud. Bentonite has long been used for every purpose from sealing underground structures against water infiltration to curing constipation. It will also stick a front tire to the fender in less than 100 yards, hence the patina on my jacket and pants.
The Fremont River runs through the area along Utah Route 24, and Naggan leads us to an out-of-the-way ford so we can practice stream crossings. This crossing requires us to ride into the river, turn downstream and ride along the rocky bottom, then turn up onto a sandy slope on the other side. Dragoo describes the best way to approach the crossing and demonstrates, then we each take a turn. It is pure fun splashing through the river and, getting more confident, we work on making bow waves as we power through. As the only mud-caked rider, I enjoy the free bike wash. Dragoo also demonstrates crossing two-up with one of my fellow riders, Marilyn Makepeace, on pillion. They are successful but no one else volunteers for the risky ride.
A few riders break off with Naggan and Dragoo to ride a dry wash near Caineville and others head to Hanksville to rest up at the Whispering Sands Motel. There are few lodging options in this vast, seemingly empty landscape, but the Whispering Sands is clean and meets our needs and, better yet, its right across the street from the Hollow Mountain Store, a convenience store carved into the rock.
After playing in the wash, Naggan’s group takes a rough dirt road into Capitol Reef National Park’s Cathedral Valley district. It leads to the Temples of the Sun and Moon, red rock spires which seem to pierce the overcast afternoon skies.
We enjoy both dinner that night and breakfast the next day at Duke’s Slick Rock Grill, named for actor John Wayne and full of appropriate memorabilia and menu items such as “The Rio Bravo” (a ham and cheese omelet) and “True Grit” (oatmeal). We even partake of a couple of local wines, which are, well, fair to middling.
Day Five: Plans go awry
Continuing rains in the area prompt Naggan to announce that the third day’s ride will be on pavement, to avoid getting mired in the mud. We ride north to I-70 and stop at Green River, where we run into filmmaker and moto-personality Brad Barker of “Ride of My Life” fame. At Highway 191, we turn south toward the off-roading mecca of Moab. On the way into town, we pass the turn-offs to Dead Horse Point State Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Arches National Park. We reach Moab in time for lunch and check in to the upscale and excellent Best Western Canyonlands, centrally located in downtown. We then have the afternoon to enjoy whatever side trips we choose. I go out to Dead Horse Point, a short pavement ride with breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape. Some go to Arches to hike, and another group rides out to Hurrah Pass. The return of the latter group is delayed by a flat tire on Dragoo’s bike but it gives him an opportunity to demonstrate in-field tire repair. All come back pleased with the adventure since plans, after all, went awry.
Our last evening together, we assemble in the Best Western’s breakfast room for a video presentation of Naggan’s film of one of MotoDiscovery’s South American tours. Following that inspiration, Dragoo distributes certificates in a graduation ceremony where we are congratulated on what we have accomplished and charged with acting as ambassadors for our sport. A final dinner celebration at nearby Pasta Jay’s caps off the event.
Day Six: Tour ends and some thoughts
We leave Moab on Sand Flats Road, a mixture of groomed dirt, washboard and silky smooth asphalt winding around some of the famed slickrock trails beloved by mountain bikers and Jeepers. A shroud of mist engulfs us as we ascend, stopping at Porcupine Rim Overlook. Our view of Castle Valley is completely obscured but the experience magical as we seem to be floating on an island in the sky. Peering over the edge, someone points out a rainbow crescent splashed across the cottony formations below. Often called a pilot’s halo, this phenomenon is iconic of the personal-expansive undertakings these past few days. With fresh snow on the La Sals, Naggan routes us through lower elevations back to 3 Step where we help one another load for departure and say our goodbyes.
Our immersion tour, as Dragoo calls it, has truly been a memorable experience and more than fulfills my annual rider training pledge. This combination of two intense days of training followed by four days of putting new skills into practice is highly effective. Our toolkits are busting at the seams with new capabilities that, due to the tour, have already been tested over the rocks and rough spots of Southern Utah. All-in-all, an experience I highly recommend.