Birthday On the Top of the World: Part One

Don Giannatti
9 min readMay 21, 2023

It was cold and windy, and I was totally alone, but it was glorious.

On my way to Wyoming. This butte is near the border of northeastern Arizona and southern Utah. Photo by Don Giannatti

It was August 2021, and the world was still crazy. Totally batshit crazy.

It was time for a ride. A long one.

To Wyoming. Northern Wyoming.

That means getting up at 0-dark-thirty and getting out of Phoenix before the broiling heat of the sun. At 5 AM, it was 94 degrees… heh.

I knew that if I got to Sunflower and Payson, the hottest part of the ride would be behind me, and the rest of the ride would be manageable. Well, behind me until I returned to the valley two weeks later.

The bike was running super well that morning. I had my mechanic check it out, adjust the fuel injection, and inspect the brakes, so I was set. The purr (growl) of the bike accelerating up the grades was like a long-awaited concerto to my ears.

Next week would be Sturgis, so the roads have a bazillion motorcyclists all heading north, waving at each other and hanging at various gas stations along the route, admiring each other’s machines.

I have never seen a white road sign, so I had to grab a snap. Photo by Don Giannatti

This path was one of three I take when going north. Most of the time, I head up 89 to Kanab and on. Other times I go up through Gallup into Durango and then up to Estes Park for a jumping-off point. This time it was across my favorite place in the world, the Navajo Reservation.

The beauty of the Navajo Reservation is hard to imagine until you spend some time there.

This means Holbrook, Chinle, Round Rock, and Teec Nos Pos. All of them are colorful, fun, and a good place to stop and have a bottle of water. Or two.

One of the things that makes bike travel different from cages (biker term for cars) is that you must look closely at places where you may want to pull over. Motorcycles lean to the left on their kickstands. If the road has a steep shoulder, there is no way to park the bike at that angle. Sand is also not a welcome surface, nor is gravel, deep dirt, mud, or anything so overgrown that you cannot see any tire-piercing land mines left by careless cagers.

The desert is both forbidding and beautiful all at the same time. Photos by Don Giannatti

I spent the first night in Cortez. Great motel and even better Mexican Food. On my bike rides, I eat a wide variety of foods, as long as they are tacos. Yes, if tacos are available, they are my choice. Hands down.

My favorite Cortez motel, and some great Mexican food.

In fact, I rate towns by how good the taquerias are. Cortez gets 4 out of 5 stars. Durango 3. Gunnison… umm. Leadville 3.

The next day, I hit the road early toward Durango. This is a wonderful motorcycle road with lots of sweeping curves, and spectacular beauty. I stop when I can to make photographs, but unfortunately, on this day I had a long way to go and the amazing Million Dollar Highway to navigate.

Silverton, CO. Photo by Don Giannatti

The MDH (Highway 550) runs between Silverton and Ouray and is considered one of the most beautiful — and somewhat dangerous — roads in the country. I never find it scary or dangerous, for that matter, but sometimes some yahoo in a Bronco feels my speed is disappointingly intolerable, and they pass against the solid lines.

Halfway between Silverton and Ouray is Red Mountain Pass. Photo by Don Giannatti

And yes, I don’t hesitate to pull over to let people pass me if they are in such a goddamn hurry.

Powerbar in Silverton, taco salad in Montrose, and then over to Gunnison on Highway 50. I love to ride up the main street and park for a few minutes. There are so many beautiful bikes making the same stop on these cool summer days.

I head east on Highway 50 toward Gunnison. This is a great road, and the weather could not be better. Cool winds, clear skies, and the sound of rubber and a big V-twin pulsing up pass after pass. Absolutely amazing.

And… there’s construction. There’s always construction.

The gravel causes extreme anxiety as it is very deep, and the traffic speed is faster than my comfort level on this 900-pound machine.

The bike wanders now and then, and that causes puckers where puckers are not welcome.

“Let the bike run its course,” my riding mentor would say. “You manage your speed and resist the temptation to try to drive it, and it will find its own path”.

It did, and soon it was just the wind and the growl. And long, sweeping curves.

Gunnison was, well — Gunnison.

Got a soda, gassed up, and headed north.

I was extremely excited to go over Cottonwood Pass. It was paved the year before, and that means big boys like mine can finally see the top of one of the highest passes in Colorado.

The road from Gunnison to Crested Butte is beautiful, and I thought about spending an hour there but decided to go ahead and head for Cottonwood Pass so I would have plenty of sunlight getting into Leadville for the night.

Must have been a premonition or something… a good thing I made that right. Too bad I wasn’t just 20 minutes sooner.

The road follows a beautiful trout stream to the dam to the east. Incredible lake in a very barren valley.

Cottonwood Pass looking west. Photo by Don Giannatti

From there, you head up the pass, gaining altitude in switchback after switchback. All on glorious, brand new, perfect black asphalt.

Oh man, that was amazing and made the ride a true joy.

Cottonwood Pass looking east. Don Giannatti

Stopping at the top gave me views that were spectacular, and I hung out talking to a couple from Belgium for a bit too long. We said adios, and I headed east toward Buena Vista, only to get about 3/4 of a mile and stop.

All traffic was stopped.

An RV had caught fire on the road, and they were concerned that it might trigger a forest fire, so we just sat there on high alert for three hours.

It was said there was also ammunition in the motorhome, but that wasn’t an issue for some reason. It caught my attention. Ya know.

I photographed a group of young people who were heading home after backpacking on the trail between the mountains for a week.

Good kids. We had fun.

Photos by Don Giannatti

It was late in the evening before we started moving down the road, and I had to turn on the headlights after a few minutes.

I hate to ride at night. I just do.

I am wary of cars, trucks, and other bikers and keep them at a safe distance if I can.

I am terrified of deer.

Deer are wonderful creatures, but as dumb as a bag of nails. They will jump right in front of you and stop. I know a guy who was hit by a deer trying to jump over him. It knocked him clean off the bike.

Stupid deer.

It was also starting to get cold. Yes, it is summer, but we are also at elevation. My hotel is in Leadville, and it is at 10,000+ feet. Cold.

Lights blazing, rider on high alert, the bike and I got to the hotel in Leadville a little after 9:30 PM.

Tired and exhausted, I hiked my gear up to the room to find the only taco shop in town had closed at 9.

I got a pizza delivered. It was terrible.

The next morning, I got down to the bike and did my daily inspection.

Holy Kawasakiman! My rear tire was almost bald. BALD. It had plenty of tread when I left Phoenix, and now it was nearly worn out.

Not good. Not good at all. Photo by Don Giannatti

The mystery was solved when I laid down on the cold sidewalk to inspect the sidewall of the tire.

My trusted mechanic inadvertently (I hope) put a front tire on the back of my motorcycle. Front tires simply are not made for that weight differential, and it was nearly bald after coming up from Phoenix.

I had to find a replacement.

I mentioned it was pre-Sturgis week, so most of the shops were low on any sort of gear and tires. And finding someone who wrenched a Kawa was even harder.

I sat with a coffee and began calling shops all over the area.

Nobody had the tire. Nobody.

On my last call, I finally found a shop with a tire in Grand Junction, which was 3.5 hours from me in Leadville. It took 5 hours due to the massive amount of construction on the I70.

Five hours at freeway speed half the time, and crawling along the other half of the time on a tire I wouldn’t have wanted to go across town on. The motorcycle gods were kind to me that day.

A big shout-out to the folks at Perri’s Powersports in Grand Junction. They jumped through amazing hoops to get my tire and get it on my bike as soon as I got there.

They didn’t have to bend over backward for me, an out-of-towner, but they did.

And that timing saved the rest of the ride.

Let’s talk freeways for a minute.

I hate them.

Well, most of them.

But the I-70 from Denver to Grand Junction? Wow!

Spectacular scenery for a freeway. From ski towns at precarious heights to the excitement of Glenwood Canyon and the beauty of the Colorado River, this freeway delivers.

After getting my tire installed and grabbing a bite, I headed up to Craig, CO. That also took me through breathtaking scenery, although as the day before I was burning daylight.

And the deers!

Rocks, ravines, grass, and meadows — and incredible vistas.

Look up the town of Meeker, CO, and you will see what I mean.

Along the road to Craig, I saw at least a hundred deer and a couple of dozen elk. This is an area to consider if you are into the outdoors and landscapes that stretch forever.

Tomorrow I would head to Cody at a leisurely pace, with no rush.

The bike is humming along nicely, the weather is holding, and after the previous hectic and tense adventure I had the day before, tomorrow should be a breeze.

I am looking forward to my first time riding the Beartooth Highway on Saturday, my birthday, and then taking my time riding through the Rockies before taking the long way back to Phoenix.

The adventure had just begun, and surprises were waiting along the way.

My bike along the side of the road. We have been to a lot of places together. Photo by Don Giannatti

This is part one.

Part two is here.

I am Don Giannatti. A photographer, designer, writer, and educator. You can find more of my work on my website and on Substack.



Don Giannatti

Designer. Photographer. Author. Entrepreneur: Loving life at 100MPH. I love designing, making photographs and writing.