It's a mid-spring morning in Moab. The rust-colored canyon walls radiate with heat, as grass shoots, emerald and not yet parched from the too-hot summer, throw fractured rainbows among its leaves in the spectrum of morning dew. The locals are cleaning their shop windows, looking up and down the streets already filling as farmers might look at the sky in hopes for rain. This place, some 230 miles from Salt Lake City, is unlike any other, and for years cyclists, climbers, Jeep enthusiasts and rafters have made the trek here for the otherworldly natural beauty and recreation it has to offer.
In 2015, a new bunch crested the I-70 skyline, crashed down in a flash of lightning and thundered on the town, washing along the canyon walls like the flash floods known to visit the area. It was a storm of motorcyclists from all over the United States and beyond. It was the first Motos in Moab. Since that maiden weekend campout—a tide of rain, 100 or so dirty bikers pitching tarp tents in the mud for a hip-shot of an event—Motos in Moab has become a global event, hosting those from as far as Australia, quickly morphing itself into the new motorcyclist's Zion.
The event, humbly referred to as "a motorcycle campout" by its founders, Rev Clark and Juan Coles, was conceived over cold beer in Salt Lake City nearly a year and a half ago.
"It literally just started with me and Juan having a beer and were, like, 'You want to go to Moab and camp?'" Clark says.
The founders met at what was then Miller Motorsports Park and gravitated toward each other through everything the other was not. Clark, who sports a slight build and full beard, speaks softly and muses on the details of things. Coles, a self-proclaimed leader and community organizer, speaks in parables with a voice that booms low and clear.
"I don't want to speak to fatalism," Coles says. "But I'd say people call other people into existence when they need them. When you're open to a certain thing, people will appear. We both were a good fit for each other. We're very different from one another, [but] we both have one big common ground and that's motorcycles."
Coles and Clark planned the campout to be just that. Experienced riders themselves, the pair sought out to stage something that would be for everyone, and from the start, both were determined not to replicate other bike events such as the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show in Austin, Born-Free in Los Angeles or even the fabled Sturgis Motorcycle Rally in South Dakota. Their event was not to be a marketplace, swap-meet or fashion show of fabricated steel, raked-out front ends and chrome motors. It was to be what one camper described as "the place that those vendors come just to hang out."
The plan was set, and an intimate campout for a few friends and their bikes the Memorial Day weekend followed.
"We weren't, like, 'Let's have this campout with tons of people and turn it into something.' It was just, like, 'You wanna go fucking camping?'" Clark says. "Then we started talking to people and inviting them. Then we went down to the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show and met a lot of people from out of town. Once it started gaining speed after we got back from Austin, that's when we kind of looked at each other, like, 'Fuck, what are we doing?'"
Next came a series of events dealt like a cooler from a stacked deck, destined to keep anyone on a motorcycle from returning to Moab. As Clark and Coles and 100 others embarked on the trek from Salt Lake City, storm clouds rolled and washed against the Wasatch Front. Rain began to fall and, at 90 mph, the drops became steel beads that stung sharp and cold, freezing hands and locking knees. But, group by group, the exodus marched on. When they finally arrived in Moab, they checked in at their campsite—an RV park in Pack Creek with yellow signs that read "slow down," and "5 MPH" lining the dirt road that snaked between pickup trucks, motorhomes and trailers painted with an acrylic sunset sky over a 1-800-Rent-Me number.
"It was set up to fail," Coles says.
After being kicked out of the campground nearly upon arrival due to noise complaints, the group was forced to find a new home—on Moab's busiest weekend of the year. The Grand County sheriff gave Coles and Clark the names of three property owners who might be willing and able to host the bikers for the long weekend. After visiting the first spot, a private campground nestled between the steep, red walls of Kane Creek Canyon along the shore of the Colorado River, they knew they had found the place. "We had a new home," Coles reminisces.
The sheriff then took the motorcyclists to the spot—Kane Springs Campground. Churning gravel and alkali dust behind them as they pulled away from their original host, the procession rumbled along Moab's two-lane main road behind the red and blues of law enforcement usually found on the opposite end of groups like these. From the middle of town, the group snaked along the swift roll of the river, the guttural drone of thumping pistons reverberating off the steep canyon walls. When they finally arrived at the campsite—a luteous hayfield, shaded by riverbank salt cedar and cottonwoods—it was as if the juncture of the event with time and place struck a nerve with its surroundings. Sunshine washed over all. The rust-hued canyon walls jutted into sky and red dirt flung through the air in clumps, still wet as thick-treaded tires dug into the grass and earth. Whoops and laughter, beer foam, coughing carburetors, the rich scent of two-stroke gasoline, blistered palms and busted knuckles, along with the celebratory clamor of the pilgrimage finished, filled their surroundings.
"We got all set up and everything was clicking and it started to rain," Coles says. "And it started to rain harder, and within 15 minutes we were in a flash flood. There was six inches of water, people's tents were floating away; it was like World War III. I was putting beer cans under kick stands because bikes were tipping over. It was the plagues of Egypt. I was praying for Moses, but he never came."
But the torrent did little to dampen their spirits. Tents popped up, beer spilled through sopping cardboard and motorcycles tipped motor down in the mud. Friends, blacktop comrades, survivors of the journey threw in a hand to help one another set up camp, cover their bikes, pass a joint. The din and laughter grew louder still. This was the destination: the relentless quest of motorheads to kill themselves on the road to somewhere. Rain be damned, the destination is always sweet.
And so it is in those moments—soaking wet, drunk and laughing—just how motorcycle culture was reborn to such unlikely bearers becomes clear. A generation of young people, scrutinized for living their lives through their computer and phone screens, reconnect with one another and with the world around them in the rawest way they know how: Hurdling themselves down canyons and around corners at breakneck speeds, willing their machines to somewhere.
"It's not the road we conquer, but ourselves," muses MiM vanguard Anthony Magdaleno, who participated in the first campout. "We've forgotten what real, physical fun is. [It's] just being in the moment. Going so fast that you're thinking about everything and nothing at the same time, just concentrating on not dying. It's like meditation."
Utah's part in the history of American motorcycle culture is small, but not insignificant. The Bonneville Salt Flats have long been the site of the land speed trials for motor sports. And in 1971, Steve McQueen starred in what would become a chopper cult classic, On Any Sunday, which featured the Widowmaker hill climb in Draper. The film, which was nominated for a Best Documentary Feature Academy Award in 1972, highlighted motorcyclists of all stripes and captured professional rider Mike Gibbons shooting up the 600-foot, 89-percent grade hill—the first ever to do it. Since the film was released and Gibbons conquered Widowmaker in 1972, few still had ascended the top before the event ended in 1988. One of the handful to do it, and on a '74 Shovelhead customized specifically for the hill climb, was Utah's own Caesar Boswell. Boswell owned and operated his own "Motorcycle Empire" in Draper for over a decade before passing away in 2013.
The resurgence of motorcycles among young people is as vibrant in Utah as anywhere else. Since the early 2000s, Salt Lake City has seen numerous motorcycle shops spring up in response to the rebirth of the love for two wheels.
"It's different than it has been in the past," Rich Page of Widowmaker Cycles says. Page has been a part of the motorcycle community in northern Utah for over 30 years, beginning at Honda World in Provo when he was 15 years old. He then supported himself through college building and repairing bikes. "The thing that's really cool about it right now is that somebody's gotta get started somewhere," he says. "Kids will go out nowadays, and it's cool to buy a cheap bike and fix it up. It's a gateway to keeping the industry moving forward."
The number of motorcycle registrations in the U.S. has risen by roughly 2 million from 2005-2012, according to a 2013 United States Department of Transportation report, and Utah has come out above average in registered riders per capita. While California keeps leading the pack, Beehive riders continue to take to the roads and mountain trails around them in the spring and summer months.
"We need something like Motos in Moab to make people realize there is a lot going on right where you're at," Magdaleno says. "We didn't even have to ride more than five hours to get here, and it's the time of our lives. You don't have to go all the way to California or Texas, there's people that love what you love right where you're at."
Magdaleno is short, built with wide shoulders, large nicked hands and curtains of curly brown hair. He bought his first bike just months after graduating high school—a '94 Harley Sportster, salvaged by a bike builder who found it abandoned on the side of the road. Magdaleno taught himself to ride it on the iced and salted streets of West Bountiful the following winter.
After purchasing his first bike, Magdaleno developed an insatiable hunger for motorcycles. While his peers chased the increasingly illusory dream of middle-class wages through college, Magdaleno saved enough money for gas one-way, and drove his Ford Taurus to North Dakota in search of work in the oil fields. A few seasons of bone-chilling weather and endless hours in machine shops was a small price to pay for his dream bike: the 2013 Harley Davidson Blackline he now rides.
"Maybe every few decades something about humanity screams for change," Magdaleno says of the rebirth of motorcycle culture. "We might not exactly know the path to get there, but someone wants to do something that makes them feel free. Whether it's cliché or not, motorcycles make you feel fucking free."
Gazing into the campfire, boots crossed on a firestone, he passes a bottle to a girl slumped in a foldable chair next to him, and continues to grasp at what it is that makes the motorcycle ideal so attractive. "You never know what's going to happen, but once you get here, you realize it's a story to tell," he says. "You might break a belt, you might run out of gas, you might have some bad plugs. It brings a camaraderie, it makes you realize that everyone else is trying to get there, and they're willing to help each other get there."
Echoing Magdaleno's words, the rebirth of motorcycles among millennials is a throwback to generations past, a tribute to those bogged down by economic and collective identity crises before them, but it isn't without its own flare. A wrinkle on this group's philosophy is inclusivity—women on the fronts of bikes, rather than the backs. Harleys, Suzukis, Hondas and Triumphs slingshot down the road together, and while they aren't necessarily singing "Kumbaya," these are not the leathered, ball-peen-hammer-wielding bikers of decades past.
The Litas, an all-female motorcycle club born in Salt Lake City in September 2015, is one example of the new wave biker. Founded by Washington native Jessica Haggett, the group embodies the liberation, empowerment and exhilaration of riding motorcycles.
In less than a year, the club has reached 80 cities in 13 different countries around the world—from the States to Argentina to South Africa to New Zealand and beyond.
"This is kind of a time for me to be able to see what I've created in action and meet these amazing, powerful, incredible women," Haggett, one of the many Salt Lakers to make the trip to Moab, says.
While motorcyclists have long been a fixture of counterculture, they haven't been immune to politics, power struggles and marginalization. White men have dominated the ideal for virtually the entirety of its existence. But groups like the Litas are bucking the trend.
"I met some kick-ass girls here," Haggett says. "For me personally, starting the Litas, it's a lot of me behind my computer. Which is not the reason I do it. I do it to connect with these women and give them an opportunity to meet other people."
One of her goals for the Litas was to create a worldwide community in which women felt welcome and empowered to connect with one another through motorcycles.
"What we stand for is having a good time and meeting new people and supporting each other and being something positive where its all inclusive," Haggett says. "I think that has helped to build a positive community and not just a community."
Utah might seem an unlikely wellspring to such a movement. Foregrounded by the heavy backdrop of patriarchy and the machinery of tradition and conservative values long heralded by the state, the emergence of ratty-braided viragos—trading the conventional roles expected of them for two wheels and open road—is heretical. But, as Haggett puts it, starting the Litas wasn't about making a statement.
"It's not even a big deal, it's just fun and we like hanging around good people," she says.
Motos in Moab 2016
Where there was rain, eschewing hosts and aimless bikers the year prior, this year's Motos is a sunburst. The exodus arrives in droves on Friday, engulfing the mile-wide campground from end to end—1,000-plus wheeled bikes and campers and vans and motorhomes around one another. As the sun begins to dip behind the horizon, tents erected and campfires lit, the ocher canyon is alive and groaning for the night. The congregation gathers around a pyramid of hay bails, unlit and chalk-dry, beckoning flame in the center of the campsite. Like prayer, Hunter S. Thompson is evoked through recitation by camper Tyson Call.
"Letting off now, watching for cops, but only until the next dark stretch and another few seconds on the edge ..."
The crowd surges, a bellow of shouting and cheers, the gypsy bunch breaking the illusion of reverence yet simultaneously stoking it as they pull from bottles, abuzz with the excitement of the weekend begun.
"The edge ... There is no honest way to explain it because the only people who really know where it is are the ones who have gone over."
The multitude erupts, and like cheat grass dances and comes alive with the wind, the words send a wave through the congregation. It's electric. Reached, the destination, end of the line, bleary eyes burn from wind, alcohol and anticipation.
"Yes!" yawps a shirtless man, lips shining with whiskey, thrusting a bottle into the air.
This was it. Just a weekend in Moab—an intimate campout with 1,000 or so friends and their bikes. Some broke down along the way, ran out gas, even broke handlebars. One man even sliced his hand open repairing a friend's bike along the way and was told by the doctor he would be unable to ride for at least a week. Three hours and a few painkillers later, he was back en route.
As Call finishes reciting from Thompson's "Midnight on the Coast Highway" the west canyon wall swallows the sun and the evening sky swells a mauve bruise.
From the trees emerges Coles, faceless beneath a white helmet and tinted bubble shield. On his back a canister of fuel, and in his hands a flame-thrower. Around the structure he walks, casting blue flame on the hay pyramid. The tower ignites, a flaming mass mad with energy reaching for purple sky. The heat glows on sunburned faces and eyes glazed by the fireball. The moment is as tall as the obelisk canyon walls that frame it, and without a beat skipped, engines thrum on and the inferno becomes the center of an endless parade of motorcycles.
Mad Max in Moab
It isn't set in stone what Motos in Moab as a future event will look like, however popular it has become in its two-year existence. The attendance boom of the campout from under 200 to roughly 1,200 the following year wasn't exactly a shock to Clark and Coles. They project as many as 5,000 attendees next year, meaning the spontaneous and stripped-down nature of the gathering—the very nature that earned it so much popularity so quickly—could be the very thing that stunts its growth as well.
"It has to be [spontaneous], but it's impossible," Clark says. "You get Year 3, 4, 5 and it's not spontaneous anymore."
For attendees, the feeling is mutual. Returning campers lamented the event might have already lost its extemporaneous heart; that it gained so much buzz via social media and within the motorcycle community worldwide, that it was sure to soon be courted by vendors and sponsors.
But Coles and Clark remain true to their original idea. While there were talks of multiple food trucks, beer stations and vendor booths for this year's iteration, campers were greeted by a single food truck (the same one that served them bratwurst and beans, brisket and pulled pork last year). There were no booths, no gimmicky games for discounted merchandise, nor corporate entities scratching at the golden ticket target market of eager 20-somethings. There was the dirt track, lined with bales, the modest stage and acres of open land.
But that's not to say the event will continue to look like that.
While the moderately priced ticket ($60 early registration, $70 regular) left some grumbling that there was a lack of entertainment for the cost, Clark and Coles say they hemorrhaged funds both this year and last. After the several thousands spent on waste management, permits, land rental and taxes, the average cost per attendee equaled nearly $85.
As the gathering likely continues to grow, so too will infrastructure and the cost thereof. While this year's mass filled the plot of land rented from the local property owner, Clark and Coles plan to rent all of Kane Springs Campground next year to support the horde they expect.
Campers have reveled in the feel of the small, DIY event so much so that it can no longer sustain itself as such—at least not without a clear vision and diligent planning.
"I look at it as an ever-growing thing," Coles says. "As [something] I can grow to 20-50,000 strong ... I look to Burning Man."
He adds, however, that an event that size means that the expense of that grassroots feel, at least somewhat, is inevitable.
"I don't feel good about charging people $200, $300 a ticket, but I also don't feel good about writing a $20,000 check out of my savings account," he says. "If you can't make the money up with big-name sponsors, then you pass the cost down to the end user. My hope is that it's a blend."
This is, of course, if Moab continues to host the happening.
Several locals took to the editorial page of the Moab Sun News to express their disdain for the event and its patrons. One writer even called it "Mad Max in Moab," and said that Kane Springs Campground looked like an "upper-class refugee camp" during the gathering.
Yet on the very same day that editorial ran, Sheriff Lt. Kim Neal was quoted by the same paper saying he received just two phone calls, and that the weekend overall "was quiet."
Motos is set to be reviewed by Moab's Grand County Council soon, and Coles has requested letters of support from each event-goer. While there has been no decision made yet, the feeling that the event will return next year is lukewarm by the organizers.
"What makes it special is that it's raw," Coles says, "and that it's kind of spitting in the face of people that play too safe."