Riding the Rio Grande: Day One

Last fall, Field & Stream Online Editor Nate Matthews and his father, Bruce, spent 15 days fishing the Rio Grande River from its headwaters in Colorado's Continental Divide all the way to its mouth at the Gulf of Mexico. These excerpts from their journals tell the story of their 2500-mile motorcycle ride along the historic river, taken during momentous times in the lives of both father and son. Photographer Tim Romano documented the excursion. Look for the print feature in June 2011.

NM: 9/23, 9:30 AM
On the train, headed to JFK. Leaving for this one was hard. Dropped my son off at daycare this morning and he didn't want to let me go, crying inconsolably, like he knew how long I'd be leaving even though he's only 20 months old. Maybe he picked up on how worried I'm feeling. This could be a risky ride.

I'm not afraid for myself -- I know how to handle a motorcycle. But my Dad, who's 59, hasn't ridden one in a long time. The last time was before I was born, and I'm 32. And he says he crashed it. Now I'm taking him on a 2500-mile through the Rocky Mountains, into the New Mexico desert, and along the border with Mexico in the middle of a drug war. My wife, who's expecting our second child, thinks we're crazy.

Maybe we are. But it's important that we reconnect, and fishing is how we've always done that. He just came out the other end of a messy, nasty divorce with his second wife and is looking at this trip, I think, as a way to find some silver lining in the freedom this has granted him. A sense of peace. A way to clear his head. A chance to spend two weeks on the road together.

We'll be exploring one of the country's most iconic rivers, the Rio Grande, a line on the map you always hear of as a border, but that nobody ever seems to think of as a place to go fishing. And we're doing it by motorcycle, cruising the wide open spaces of the Southwest with our heads in the open air, the way everyone should experience the desert. Seems like the risk is worth the reward.

BM: 9/24, 5:00 AM
_En route to Dallas, on plane. Some of the most incredible sunrise colors - sun doing a slow rise as we head south for two hours. Layered pinks and blues, full moon to the west, looking down to see low clouds blanket the planes.

Thinking about my motorcycle course, which I took last week. Nate set me up with the Motorcycle Safety Foundation. They put on a three-day class that you can take if you don't have a license. If you pass you get a waiver and don't have to schedule a road test.

Last time I'd ridden was, when, summer of '74? '75 I think. 35 years. Longer than Nate is old. During the course three of the seven of us washed out and there were a couple of rounds of tears. One lady inexplicably rode her motorcycle smack into the side of the dealership. Brick wall. Not hurt but the issue was in doubt. But I passed, and got my certificate.

I'm hungry. Today will be a very long day._

NM: 9/24, 8:30 AM
Arrived in Denver late last night, grabbed a few hours of sleep at a hotel near the airport, then up at 4:30 A.M. waiting for Tim to pick me up in the chase truck he'll be driving. Stopped at the Denver Bass Pro Shops at 6:30 to spool reels, stock boxes, grab stuff you can't carry on a plane. Like stove fuel. By the time we're done I'm nursing a jet lag hangover that wasn't helped by that brown, piss-water coffee they served at the hotel. Bleary, flat, hoping my brain was working well enough to remember everything we need, I munch on some espresso chocolate chip cookies Tim brought from home (Boulder is like that) and they finally kick in on the drive down from Denver to the Colorado Springs airport, where we're picking up Dad. All our stuff is just tossed in the back. Disorganized, still boxed, just-shipped. We can barely close the hatch. Don't know where he's going to sit.

BM: 9/24, 7:30 AM
Trade planes in Dallas, then land in Co. Springs. Thinking more and more about the trip. Sure hoping Nate's got the planning nailed 'cause I sure don't. Seems like a lot to cram into a couple of weeks. A lot of riding planned - don't know if my butt will survive. Nate and Tim hopefully have the gear sorted and packed. They're picking me up in the chase truck, then we have to pick up the bikes and ride six hours to Creede, where trout await in the headwaters.
_
BM: 9/24, 10:45 AM
_Nate and Tim arrive. Doors open. Stuff falls out both sides.

NM: 9/24, 12:00 PM
We've finally found Rocky Mountain Cycle, where we're picking up the bikes. KLR 650s. Dual-sports equipped for both off-road and highway riding. They're only 650s, but they're big, tall. Two-stroke thumpers that generate lots of torque. A little intimidating. Dad sees them and his eyes go wide. I guess they look a lot scarier than the 550 cruisers he practiced on back in Michigan when he took his basic rider course at the Harley dealership.

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We've got too much stuff. It needs organizing. While they're prepping the bikes for us we unpack the truck and de-box all our gear, split it up, then repack to see how everything fits. There's a bunch of stuff. We're going to have to ride in at least three climates. Cold wind and maybe wet in the mountains. Dry heat in the desert. Muggy damp down by the gulf. That means lots of layers to sort and stow.

In each region we'll be targeting different fish - trout in the headwaters, bass and catfish in the warmwater river and in the reservoirs, and saltwater species at the gulf - so we have to pack lots of fishing gear. We'll also be camping most of the way, and the tents, tarps, sleeping bags, cooler, and cooking gear take up a bunch of space. To top it all off we've got two floats planned this trip, both overnighters, so there's a canoe strapped to the roof of the truck, which Dad and I will paddle, and Tim has also brought along a custom one-man inflatable raft so he can shoot photos from lots of angles while we're on the river. Rolled up, it fills at least a quarter of the back of the 4Runner.

We make do. Put everything in the order we think we'll need it and then pack it into the truck with the little stuff settled into the cracks, like we're laying stones in a wall. We save space by lashing the frame and oars for Tim's raft to the thwarts of the canoe. It takes all three of us to hoist it up onto the roof rack.**

**NM: 9/24, 2:00 PM****
By the time we're done the bikes are ready and pulled out of the shop. One is red, one is green. The dealer's lead mechanic takes us through a pre-flight check, shows us where all the fluids go, then we hop on to give them a test run. I'm raring to ride, stoked to be back on a KLR for the first time in three years. We used these same bikes on a trip down in Baja in 2007, and I grew pretty attached to the machines. I pick the red one, fire up the engine and burn out a quick turn to get into the parking lot, loving the lean, then stop and look back to see Dad nearly crash his bike right out of the gate.

He pops the clutch, stalls, pops it again, stalls, then lurches forward out of control and can barely keep the motorcycle upright. The mechanic runs after him, yelling at him to slow down easy, to use his feet and the bike's momentum to glide to a stop. "Land like a bird! Land like a bird!" he shouts. I see Dad start to panic. Losing control is not something he does well. But he gets it stopped without dumping, thanks in part to the fact that the mechanic caught up to him and has grabbed the luggage rack to help steady the motorcycle.

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I give him an hour to ride in circles around the parking lot, to get a feel for the clutch and the way the big bike balances. But by now it's 3 PM. We still have a six-hour ride ahead of us, which means we will be riding in the mountains in the dark. I am nowhere close to confident this is a good idea. We scoot across the road for a quick lunch, and as I'm grabbing the check, I ask him if he's sure he's ready for this. "No story is worth killing your dad in a motorcycle accident," I say. He says that he's as ready as he's going to be. Don't worry about me, he says, dead serious, and I have to trust him, that he's ok with what we're about to take on, even if I'm not sure I should. Then he follows it up with a grin. "There's a reason I made sure I switched beneficiaries on my life insurance policy before I left."

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See more photos from Day One of this expedition (and find more journal updates as they are posted) by clicking here. ****