I’ve got to ride. There’s no way around it. Keep me off my scoot for a couple of days and I start turning into something ugly that you don’t want to be around. I ride whenever I can and wherever I can but if we’re going to talk serious motorcycling, then for me there is only one kind – the long distance ride with my bedroll and a small pack hitched to the sissy bar. A serious ride involves at least a thousand miles and, at least, three or four days. Twenty thousand miles and six months or a year would be better but I haven’t done that one yet.
“Yondering” is a compulsion at the very core of my being. As far as I know, Louis L’Amour was the first to use the word, “yondering” in just this way. But Webster doesn’t allow us to say, “I want to ‘yonder’.” And that is what “yondering” is all about; stretching the limits, ignoring the mundane rules. You can look “yonder” up in the dictionary but it won’t be listed as a verb or a noun. As an adverb or adjective it is a modifier which refers vaguely to distant places. Taking the liberty to make it a verb, I use it to mean getting to those uncertain locales. I think it is similar to the Australian expression, “Walkabout” – getting out to lonely ground and giving your feet their “head” to see where they take you while your gray matter and heart do some pondering. I have a passion for doing just that; getting over the horizon, seeing what is around the bend or on the other side of a mountain or ocean. It clears my mind and places things back into perspective. But it’s gotta be rather aimless. You get too purposeful and yondering loses its magical mystique and becomes simple travel.
I need to see what a town named Posey or Rough and Ready or Hyampom looks like. I have an itch to know what kind of people live there. Some friends even nicknamed me “Yonder” once and I rather like it. Yondering makes a man confront and define himself and acknowledge his boundaries or limitations – or his lack of them. A sedentary man in front of his television set might think of this as fun, and it can be. But for the man who risks, who gets out of his backyard, it also can be a test of his discipline, courage and capacity to stretch, adapt and endure. Who among us doesn’t question, down in the secret recesses of his soul, how he will stack up against the unexpected?
The experience of yondering is intensified when it is accomplished from the control deck of a motorcycle. A motorcycle adds a unique dynamic. A biker is, by necessity and definition, a part of his scene; a contributor, a participant. A man sees and senses more from a motorcycle than from most other modes of travel because while riding a motorcycle he’s actually out in the place he’s experiencing. He is an integral component of the experience, a necessary ingredient. He is not a passive visitor casually passing through a scene, safe behind steel and glass, protected in a sterile bubble. The threat of loose gravel in the roadway, a swarm of bees or an inattentive motorist takes on an entirely new significance.
If it’s really hot, a motorcyclist will roast. The only air conditioning is a wet bandanna and more speed. When you follow a log truck at 60 miles per hour on a motorcycle and dirt is flying off of the bark, your face gets sandblasted. You are aware of the logs, the truck, the speed. You notice and mind clouds and weather indicators. If it rains, a biker gets soaked and will get dry only if the sun shines or when he finds an available and accommodating place to stop – wherever that might be. He worships a spot of sunshine on a chilled, foggy morning. Motorcycling heightens the senses and intensifies the experience of being alive.
When a man goes to a strange and different land he is forever changed. He leaves part of himself there and he brings away a modified (in however small a way) belief system or behavioral pattern. Visit a more primitive place than you are accustomed to and you must confront your flexibility and resourcefulness. The same may hold for a more civilized place than one is familiar with. It really doesn’t matter if you are a city dweller thrown into the Yolla Bolly Wilderness of northern California or a country boy dropped off in South Central Los Angeles. You are going to learn some things about yourself.
Imagine two best friends, living 500 miles apart. Both of them own new, evolution grade, Harley Davidson motorcycles. Give them a five day window of time to spend together with no particular destination. You’ve got the ingredients for a motorcyclist’s dream; a memory-making opportunity for yondering of a kind all too rarely acted upon.
My friend, CC, and I go back over twenty years. We’ve seen each other through a couple of marriages, a few careers and a lot of adventures, including a handful of life-threatening encounters; but those are each six-pack stories and this is only a one beer report. I just want to lay some groundwork so you can appreciate that ours is no story of the flighty acquaintance of two guys who liked Harley’s and who happened to take a ride together. If I call, CC will come a-running and vice versa. I am not theorizing romantically. I’ve called. CC didn’t ask why or how soon. He just showed up and took care of business. It is a fortunate individual who creates our kind of friendship even once in a lifetime.
CC and I tend to think a lot alike. Our reasoning process, to a large extent, is cut from the same cloth. We have so frequently experienced amazing similarities, shared thoughts and preferences that, basically, we have come to expect it. That is not to say that we ignore the coincidental experiences. On the contrary, we revel in them.
Still, we were absolutely shocked when we found out that, totally unbeknownst to each other, we had both bought brand spankin’ new Sapphire Blue, Harley Davidson, Softail Springers within the same two-week period at the end of April, beginning of May 1992. To fully appreciate this magic, you must consider the large number of different models and configurations of Harleys available and then factor in the multiple color options and the limited availability of Harleys in general. What are the odds that we’d both pick the identical scoot? And in the same month? I mean, he knew I wanted another Harley someday (I had owned one previously and ridden others for a couple of years when I was motorcycle cop) and I knew CC had ridden dirt bikes but I had no idea he was even interested in a Harley. We’ve done that sort of “coincidental” stuff for years.
In early July, CC and I, along with our wives, spent a weekend together in Santa Barbara. Over wine and a lovely dinner, the four of us discussed the idea that CC and I should take a camping trip together – on the Harleys. I visualized and fantasized but knowing CC’s busy work schedule couldn’t get a believable vision of how it was going to happen. Still we claimed the desire and our ladies, bless ’em, spoke their support.
Suddenly it was mid-August and we realized that summer was passing us by with total indifference. We talked on the phone and decided that it was time to put some miles on the scoots…together. We penciled in the last few days of August on our calendars.
When I have my boots and shoes all freshly shined and neatly lined up in my closet, it makes me feel real good, real organized and as if I am one step ahead of things. It is not only that I am taking care of my property but a sign that I have time on my hands because when I’m normal-busy, I just don’t find the time to get my shoes shined all at once. Well, my work was slow, my schedule was flexible and my shoes were shined. The ball was in CC’s court. A week or two passed and I didn’t hear from him. I told my wife, “I don’t think it’s going to happen.” Oh me of little faith! The next thing I knew CC was on the phone asking where we were going to meet.
Some people might have thought it a problem that he lives in southern California (we don’t always think alike) and I in the northern part of the state. For me it was a small challenge to be decidedly conquered; an opportunity to purposefully grasp the pen and write our own story on the blank pages of five days out of our lives. A road trip is a material representation of life’s own journey. How many men have stood at a junction and wondered at the perils and fortunes waiting yonder, just beyond the bend? How many, finding themselves happy or sad, have boasted their brilliance or chastised their poor judgement? A real self-test is one you cannot deny.
Real risks, thrills and tests can be very elusive for modern, civilized man. Sure, we all take daily risks on the freeways or in the stockmarkets, but a man really needs more – at least occasionally. He needs to prove himself in simpler, more primitive ways; ways that have, at least potentially, more consequential and fundamental results. These are neglected native needs that course richly in our genes. Winning over these primal drives gives a man a sense of worth and of being at cause in his life. And, by the way, in my opinion “winning” happens at the moment of the attempt at the challenge and not in the distillation or analysis of the outcome.
Maybe the risks we would experience would be small. Maybe the challenges would be no greater than trying to find the next gas station. Perhaps I belabor the point but that is the point. The simple act of stepping out of a normal routine and comfort zone and placing oneself, to whatever degree, in the hands of whimsical fate is, in this structured, safe and prescribed society, as close to risks and challenges as many of us are likely to get. Maybe nothing untoward would happen on this ride. But the adventure begins when the choice is made to take that risk. We embraced it.
The decision was made. We would meet at a halfway point somewhere on Highway 99 in California’s San Joaquin Valley in late August. We agreed that on a Thursday morning CC would start north and I south. We would converge toward an undetermined point, drawing closer and closer until we connected. At noon or so he would call my pager with the number of a payphone so I could call him back to narrow down the rendezvous point.
Excitement was so dominant in me that you could have smelled it gassing out of my pores. For days I dreamed about the trip, planning what I would take; keeping things to a minimum but being sure to be prepared for most likelihoods. In addition to my sleeping bag, some basic tools and an extra shirt and pair of jeans, I packed stuff that I thought might be handy like two small flashlights, a 7x monocular, a plastic tarp, a camera, a jug of water and a compass. In retrospect, the compass probably came along mostly out of romance and the habit of my training. We weren’t going to be off of paved roads so it was not likely to be needed. Still, it was small, lightweight and part of the adventure.
The scoot was all “prepped” on Wednesday night. She was shined, gassed up and fully loaded. The oil was checked. The water level in the battery was topped off. The tire inflation was increased a bit for the added load. Early Thursday morning, while it was still dark, I got up to leave Ukiah. With great anticipation I zipped on my leathers and buckled my helmet. I was on my way.
As I pulled out of the garage, my headlight failed. What luck! How could I have anticipated this? I could not wait for daylight. I had an essential business appointment to keep at eight o’clock in San Francisco, over a hundred miles away. That meant I needed two and a half hours of riding time and I had only allowed about three. The headlamp was not one that I could simply stop into some gas station and replace. I had to get to a Harley shop (or at least a motorcycle shop) and, of course, there weren’t any open at this ridiculous hour. Even if I called the owner of the local shop, and succeeded in persuading him to come open up his store for me because of my dire emergency, I would still be unacceptably late.
I saw no real option. I rode off in the dark. At first I thought I could limp along without a headlight because there wouldn’t be much traffic that early and it would be light in half an hour or so. I got about two miles south of town before an overwhelming bolt of sanity slapped me hard enough to send me back to a coffee shop to wait out the darkness.
After nervously drinking coffee and pacing for half an hour it was still dark. The clock was ticking and the pressure was on. My business had been very slow. The appointment was worth several hundreds of dollars and, to some extent, my reputation. Several business associates, plus my client, had planned to be present and I was the central figure to make the business happen. I had to be there and punctuality was critical.
I decided to go for it again. As I hesitantly crept out of town, a faint predawn light teased from behind the eastern hills. I got behind a big truck thinking that he would at least prevent oncoming traffic from running into me. It didn’t work. He was going too fast for me to follow closely and the distance I maintained didn’t leave me any protection or road illumination. I continued anyway, riding as fast as I dared. Oncoming traffic kept flashing headlights at me, as if I didn’t already know that I was blacked-out forward. I took that as a good sign. It proved that the approaching drivers were, at least, seeing me. Following traffic kept flashing for me to pull over because I was going too slow.
For some foolish reason I had also not put on enough clothing so I became very chilled. My tension probably contributed to my temperature drop. By the time I reached Cloverdale I decided to stop and put on more layers. I didn’t stop sooner because it was so dark I thought it would be dangerous alongside the road. I got another sweatshirt on and the sun was up enough that I could see the road and be seen. I finished the hundred miles south on Highway 101 and over the Golden Gate Bridge. I was fifteen minutes late to my appointment and totally frazzled. My client was understanding but it took me an hour to feel like I had regained my composure.
When I was finished, I went straight to the Harley dealer to see about getting my headlight fixed. There was a “shovelhead” parked in front of the dealership bearing a Montana license plate. A tall, bulky man in his early thirties, sporting a pony tail, came out of the shop. He was followed by an eye-catching woman who had her arms full of bags. They began packing things on the already heavily-laden scoot.
Intending to be neighborly I said, “You’re a long way from home!”
He chuckled, saying, “Yeah. Try Australia.”
My face registered real surprise and I could see by his satisfied grin that his comment had had the effect he desired. Responding to the interest transparent on my face, he explained that they had been travelling since March. They had been to the world famous, annual Harley Davidson rally in Sturgis, South Dakota. He had purchased this particular Harley in Montana along the way. He casually said that he makes it over for “Sturgis” every year and that he would be back next year too.
“How long will you be scootin’ around the states?” I was salivating.
“S’long as the money holds out”, he answered.
The long-legged blonde had straddled the back seat by now and they were preparing to take off. She sweetly favored me with a self-satisfied smile that surely said she was in no hurry to get back “Down Under”.
For a moment I considered asking him about his understanding of the term, “Walkabout”, and was this trip sort of like one. I wanted to say, “G’day”, but figured that might just be Hollywood stuff that he had heard from every Yank he’d come across in the last five months. Settling for a wave, I wished them luck and sighed, “Motor easy.”
Finished in San Francisco, I rode over the Bay Bridge, through Oakland, and southeasterly toward California’s central San Joaquin Valley. At noon CC and I made the scheduled contact but we were still too far apart to get specific so we agreed to repeat the paging call at 2 o’clock sharp. We continued converging on one another at a collective speed, I realized, of about 130 miles per hour. Now that eats up miles fast.
Two o’clock found me in Manteca, a small town near Stockton at the junction of Highways 99 and 120. Reliably, my pager beeped. When I called CC he was in McFarland, just south of Fresno. Because of the recent wildfires that had plagued California’s Sierra Nevada Mountains, I was concerned about smoke spoiling our ride. So I asked CC if it was smoky down his way. “No. It looks normal to me”, he said. Later, while continuing toward the rendezvous, it came to me that it was pretty silly to ask a guy from L.A. if it looked smoky out.
A brief study of the map showed Madera to be about halfway between us so that was chosen as the final meeting point; the highway 145 off-ramp. Quickly I put four gallons in the gas tanks. I bought a quart of cold water and some badly needed film that, in my haste to leave, I had failed to get in Ukiah. I poured some of the water down my parched throat and some over my head. Soon I was southbound on 99 again, blasting through the midday heat, feeling on top of the world and trying to figure ways to do more of this, while still paying the bills and maintaining my marriage.
When I pulled off in Madera it was easily over a hundred degrees; I loved it. No sooner had I found shade on the east side of some oleander bushes and shut off the ignition switch than I heard the rumble of CC’s custom Python exhaust system on the other side of the shrubbery. The man is punctual! It turned out I was exactly two minutes ahead of him. Damn it was great to see him. Our collision course and pager system had worked. The magical (there’s no other word for it) ride of a lifetime had begun.
That was Thursday afternoon. We found a Mexican deli where we could get out of the sun and have a beer while trying to figure out where to go. I could tell CC was excited. It was a good thing we didn’t get stopped by a cop. As giddy as we were, and having the odor of one beer about us, we would have been hauled in for drunk driving. The tortilla chips in the place were so greasy that if we hadn’t been riding belt-driven Evolution models we could have lubed the chains with them. We didn’t care. We were riding high on spontaneity. We decided that the greasy chips tasted rancid though so we moved on to find another spot.
We met up with a Mexican hombre who told us to stay away from certain bars because they were filled with drunken Mexicans who all carried knives and liked to fight. CC laughingly told the guy, “Yea, you can say that but we’d never get away with it. We would have to say, ‘drunk persons'”. The guy laughed back and said, “Hey, it’s the truth”.
He told us about a biker bar named “Kenny’s” where he said he goes. We found Kenny’s and downed our second beer. It was hot! Besides, when you have two minds, four and a half days and a map of the entire State of California in front of you, picking a route can be a sizeable challenge in itself. We decided to tackle this one day at a time. Remember Rule #1: Don’t get too purposeful. So we shot a round of pool before puttin’ on up 145 toward Highway 41 and Oakhurst.
This was easy-rolling hill country with grassy meadows that were softly rippling in the late afternoon breeze. The earth’s surface looked like a giant was asleep under a quilt with a knee raised here and a big toe stretched up there. There were randomly scattered dark green clusters of oaks in the folds. Maybe that’s the origin of California earthquakes. The giant must turn over in his sleep once in a while.
We swapped “rides” for a while so I could try out CC’s new windscreen and he my forward extended foot controls. Although our motorcycles started out being absolutely identical, except for the serial numbers, we have both done some modifying to our own tastes. CC has a “Heritage” seat on his bike and I have a custom Corbin seat on mine. The “Heritage” seat has an annoying strap that rubbed uncomfortably on my tailbone. I had had a windscreen on my FLH police bike but it was positioned so the top of the screen was just below eye level. That way most of the wind was deflected up over my head but I could still see over the top of the screen, avoiding the distortion of the plastic. CC’s screen was set too high for my taste and, lacking the forward controls, my legs felt cramped. The ride was unfamiliar and uncomfortable.
I call my scoot “Spirit” and it was good to get back on her. It helped me to appreciate the comfort of familiarity. As we cruised along through the foothills I just couldn’t stop grinning. It was as if my face was possessed by some other entity. My teeth and gums would get dry from the hot wind and I would force my lips closed only to find that I was baring my teeth like a fool again in no time. I thought of the old joke about how you could tell a happy motorcyclist by the bugs on his teeth. My skewed imagination set me to thinking that a guy could wear out several toothbrushes on a trip like this.
We stopped in Oakhurst for gas. Continuing north and east, we came around a curve to find 50 to 60 Harleys parked outside of a large Mexican Restaurant. Taking this as an endorsement for a good meal, we went in and found ourselves in the midst of a Northern Fresno HOG (Harley Owner’s Group) dinner run. We found a booth in the rear with a pleasant view out the window. Shortly after we’d ordered, Glenn Miller (I never did ask if he played a trombone) and his lady came over in good brother fashion and introduced themselves, gave us their card and offered assistance should we need it. Being on the road a long way from home, I found that gesture comforting.
The fajitas were excellent so with full (make that stuffed) bellies and the help of Glenn, to push us back up from a downhill parking position, we rode off to Bass Lake to camp for the night. We rode around several campsites in the dark trying to find an available and flat spot that wasn’t terribly crowded. Imagine us, with modified exhaust systems, rumbling around near midnight in an otherwise quiet campground. I wondered if the power of positive thinking could be effective enough to extend a temporary muffler to my pipes. I was trying.
After several rejections we settled on a spot that seemed as good as we were going to find. A neighboring campsite was inhabited by giggling teenagers and two very bright lanterns. We were setting up our simple camp when CC’s warped sense of humor reared its pitiful head.
He asked, “Hey Rik. How good a shot are you?” I got sucked right in and jumped on the opportunity to boast. I pridefully reminded him that I had received honors both as a deputy sheriff and later as a policeman for my shooting skills and that I had won a state championship in 1969 and… “All I want to know is, do you think you can shoot that damned lantern out from here?”
Bass Lake was a “star-happening” as we stretched out on the hard dirt in our bedrolls. You gotta understand, my partner, CC, lives in “L.A.s’ville”. And he doesn’t even own a sleeping bag. He borrowed this one. So when he sees some stars while camping out it’s an event. This time it was a religious experience. CC kept repeating, “My God, look at the stars.”
Because the sky, framed by the encircling black tips of the pine trees, was all we could see while lying on our backs, it was as if we had our heads inside a barrel of stars. The black velvet sky, splattered with lighted pinholes was completely breathtaking. I kept staring at the sky, my mind struggling to grasp the magnitude, the sheer enormity, of all that I was taking in. The effort was in vain and very similar, I recalled, to one that I had grappled with some thirty odd years before. Oh, I now draped the question in sophisticated philosophy but in the final distillation I was still quixotically biting off a bigger hunk than I’d ever be able to chew.
I was reminded of a time, when I was about 11 or 12. I was on a Boy Scout campout in the Big Sur country on California’s middle coast, when some smarter-than-me kid challenged me to count the stars in the sky. I was full of the brazen optimism of youth and decided that I could if I would look through an empty toilet paper tube so as to divide the sky into manageable sections. Assured that I was more clever than anyone, at least in my age group, I accepted the bet. After section three or four I conceded and ended up the next morning doing breakfast KP alone for my brashness.
Somehow, I knew this wasn’t to be the only humbling spiritual encounter we would have in the next few days. We lay there in the absolute darkness sharing our thoughts and contemplating the several days of riding that lay ahead of us. I mused excitedly at the wonder and anticipation of where we would end up and the things we would see and experience along the way. At least these were my thoughts. CC, on the other hand, was probably busy checking his radium-dialed watch to see how much longer he had to endure the hard ground.
We were up before dawn Friday morning and quietly rolled up our gear in the dark. We sneaked out of camp and rode back around the lake toward town. The sight of breaking dawn over Bass Lake was peaceful, inspiring and, in retrospect, portentous of the day ahead.
Simple necessities, like a place to wash your face and hands, can take on a whole different perspective when you’re scooter trampin’. We found a tasty breakfast in a comfortable restaurant with clean and spacious rest rooms. Afterwards we rode north on Highway 49 toward Coulterville.
Highway 132 joins 49 at Coulterville. When we got there CC said, “Hey. Let’s park in the intersection and get a picture with the scoots and the road signs in it. I want to send it to Myles.” So we parked in the middle of the road in the middle of the junction and took a couple pictures. Myles Elsing is an old friend of ours that I bought my first Harley Sportster from back in ’77.
We were clowning around in the middle of the road, like a couple of teenagers the first time daddy gave them the car keys, when this old timer walked over and asked if we were broke down. His name was “Heavy” and he’s had Harleys, too, you see.
CC said, “No. We’re just goofing off trying to get a picture to send to a friend.”
“What year are them Harley Davidsons?”, Heavy asked.
“Ninety-twos”, I told him.
“Ninety twos? Well Hell! You boys must be on welfare to afford them!” Heavy doesn’t own a Harley anymore but he’s in touch.
Miles and miles of ascending and descending north, winding and curving on a deserted two lane road, tested our riding skills as it guided us to Sonora. I lead and CC brought up the rear from about a hundred yards behind. My mind drifted around, enjoying the warming sun and spotting a red-tailed hawk down in the canyon off to my left. But my eyes were continually searching the road ahead for signs of trouble. I watched for gravel, debris, potholes, deer, and the right side mirror for CC’s image to make sure he was still with me. “This is absolutely ‘it'”, I thought to myself. “This is what you bought this machine for. ‘Be here now!'”
In Sonora quick calls were made to check in back home and we were off to Columbia a couple of miles away. Columbia is a town established during California’s early goldrush period that has been excellently restored, a la Knott’s Berry Farm 40 years ago. It reminds me of what Knott’s was like in the fifties before it became so commercialized to compete with the then-new Disneyland. The entire village is a historical landmark and state park.
We strolled down the main street and peeked into the leather shop and other beckoning windows. I had to “belly up” to the bar in the old saloon and have a sarsaparilla.
“Hey, CC. What’s the difference between sarsaparilla and root beer?”
No hesitation. CC is a college graduate. “Root beer is root beer and sarsaparilla is made with sarsaparilla root”, he patiently explained.
CC wanted an ice cream cone but the ice cream parlour didn’t open ’til eleven so we dawdled a bit, moving the scoots closer so we could keep an eye on them. I’ve been riding since I was a kid and have never had anything stolen from my bike. Still, caution is ever present when you’re a long way from home and your ‘possibles’ are protected only by zippers and buckles.
We left Columbia, still unsure of where we were going. North seemed to be the beckoning direction. At the junction of Highway 4, CC said to make a right turn to head northeast. In retrospect, clearly it was one of the better decisions of CC’s entire life. I don’t know what the other one was.
We had been traveling in the predominantly oaken foothills with open, lumpy meadows of pale golden grasses but now we were headed for the more barren and rocky high country, above timberline and into that tranquil scene where a guy spends time in case he never makes it to heaven.
I was reluctant to travel east on Highway 4 because I thought we might encounter a lot of confusion from the recent forest fires. The towns of Murphys and Arnold had been the focus of recent fire reports on the evening news. I wasn’t even sure if the fires were totally out yet. But we breezed through both towns without any difficulty and could see only a little of the burned area from the two-lane highway. Still it was enough to give an appreciation of what terror the locals must have dealt with. I had heard that some houses were burned but we didn’t seem them. We did see houses that the fire had raged right up to before being miraculously extinguished. There were many homemade signs alongside the road saying, “God Bless you firefighters.” “We love you.” and, “Thanks to our firemen.” There must have been some smoke still lingering the way my eyes were watering.
Farther east we came upon an area called The Devil’s Kitchen. I didn’t see anything resembling pots and pans among the unusual rock formations and it wasn’t hot so I remain curious as to the name’s origin. Maybe it is believed to have volcanic beginnings and this is supposed to be where the devil concocted his brew before it boiled over. I have traveled throughout the Scottish Highlands, seen the Bavarian Alps, lived in the Hawaiian Islands and traveled most the United Sates including Alaska but this mountain pass held some of the most spectacular and impressive raw natural beauty I’ve been allowed to see. But then, things really do look different through the unrestricted view one has while straddling a motorcycle.
The road narrowed as we reached the summit, finally becoming a one lane stretch of pavement that resembled a driveway more than a state highway. I began to think I had missed a turn causing us to ride into a campground. A roadside sign quickly told me otherwise.
There was a holy calm as we rode into the sanctuary of Ebbetts Pass. I told CC this must be Harley Church. The feeling was of awe and privilege. We wondered, as one does when confronted with a spectacle, how we would be able to accurately describe this place and experience to people back home.
CC said, simply, “If they weren’t here, they won’t get it”.
The quiet was so thick you could feel it. Sparse high timber carefully guarded glacially arranged, house-sized boulders that encircled a small still lake. CC’s nostrils burned. He decided they were adjusting to the smell of clean, high mountain air. I decided I’d probably need another toothbrush by morning.
CC waved me alongside and asked, “What do you think the chances are of running into a chippie up here?”. He didn’t have to say any more, I knew exactly where his thought was headed. We both removed helmets and strapped them to the luggage. Ahhhh, bareheaded puttin’! Remember when it was legal? We rode east at an elevation of 8,000 feet doing all of 15 miles per hour. We just didn’t want to ride fast. There was no place to go. We were “there”.
Suddenly a few westbound cars drove past us. Bringing up the rear was a deputy sheriff. I knew he must have noticed our defiant criminal behavior and I tensed for his inevitable turn around and pursuit. But he did nothing about our being helmetless. I gotta believe he used the discretionary decision making that a lawman is supposed to be able to exercise. Nobody could be doing anything too wrong in a place so serene.
A few raindrops fell and we were descending rapidly towards Markleeville where we gassed the thirsty tanks. The guy in the gas station had moved there from L. A. several years before. He said that after the first snow in fall they close up Ebbett’s Pass for the winter and don’t open her back up until after the spring thaw. I like that. It’s pretty unspoiled up there and putting the place on ice for half of the year or more will help to keep her that way; sort of like giving the mountain a recess to rejuvenate in and be just the way ol’ Ebbett must have found her nearly 150 years ago.
By nightfall we were in Incline Village on the north shore of Lake Tahoe. I had encountered a dose of reality shock while cruising through the glitzy, casino-lined strip at South Shore. I’ve noticed there is a detached part of my mind that is always the methodical, quiet observer. It is the part that sees, questions and records with digital precision and, certainly, without any consideration for rationale. A true journalist – an investigative reporter.
As we rode through South Lake Tahoe, after having just been to a combination bar mitzvah, holy communion and baptism on the mount, my curious “reporter” was wondering why all of these people were crowded around here rather than bathing in the healing quiet up in Ebbett’s Pass. A likable thing about “Reporter” is that he’s very self-contained and clear. He doesn’t leave unfinished business lying about. He answers his own questions. The reporter, never considering that so many people might choose to bask in the neon rather than the grace of high places, said, “They just don’t know about Ebbett’s Pass.”
“Good!” I said back.
We had permission to use a friend’s getaway house in Incline Village. So we garaged the bikes and cleaned them up before taking blessed hot showers for ourselves. It was just like in the days of the old west when a man had to take care of his trusty steed first so it could take care of him. We always gassed the bikes before we fed ourselves too. We didn’t consciously plan it that way, it just happened.
CC’s scoot, Kindred, had two fancy gas caps on her with gold eagles on them. While we were cleaning up the bikes I helped myself to one of those pretty gas caps and swapped it with a plain one off of Spirit. The result was that both scoots now had one plain one and one with a gold eagle on it. You can still tell ’em apart because Spirit has the gold eagle on her right and Kindred has the gold eagle on her left. I told CC that this ritual and ceremony bonded our scoots. I declared that they were now and forever “Gasoline Sisters” in the tradition of “Blood Brothers”.
It is an unusual look to not have the caps balanced and matching. I like that. The concept suggests that somebody thought about the look and achieved it by intention rather than just buying two matching pieces as most do. It draws a few questions. Mostly I just answer people with a smile and say something about kindred spirits after which they usually walk away muttering to themselves.
Saturday morning we had omelettes at the Squeeze Inn in Truckee before heading off for Reno. It’s a fun restaurant where there is always a line for breakfast but the people are friendly and the menu is long so the wait never seems so. After breakfast we walked over and poked around the old train station which is home for the local chamber of commerce.
CC was having headlight problems (again) and I was continually blowing taillight bulb filaments. We wanted to get to Reno Harley Davidson for some repairs. Actually, in our freedom-induced state of intoxication Friday night, we had seriously planned on going to the Harley dealer in Boise, Idaho.
We had set the alarm on my wristwatch and awakened at 4 in the morning, figuring it was an eight hour ride and we would have to get there well before closing time. I was still real tired and it was very cold out. CC didn’t have a full set of leathers and would undoubtedly have been miserable riding to Boise at that hour. So with a thin remaining thread of sanity we decided to settle for Reno and went back to bed. About a week after getting home from our trip I realized that Idaho has no helmet law. Had I remembered that on Saturday morning we would have gone, leathers or no leathers.
We rode into Reno on Interstate 80 and exited arbitrarily at an offramp. We asked the first guy we saw where the Harley dealer was. Without hesitation, he gave us good directions, saying that it had moved from where it was a few years ago. It seems everybody knows where to find Harleys.
The springers have had notorious problems with vibration damage to the halogen headlight bulbs so Harley has developed an improved unit for replacement under warranty. I had actually replaced mine at Dudley Perkins Harley Davidson in San Francisco Thursday morning. We got CC’s fixed and then stopped at a Honda dealer to get metric screws for my non-stock taillight lens. My tail-lamp filaments were breaking, apparently, from excessive vibration. Although the “catseye” taillight assembly tucked under the fender and looked real custom, I began to question my judgement in replacing the genuine Harley Davidson stock taillight.
After an obligatory cruise by the bright lights – even in broad daylight – of Virginia Boulevard, and under Reno’s famous arch, we were northbound on 395. We had been riding for nearly an hour or so when CC pulled alongside of me and, looking at an almost mirror image of his own scoot, said, “Nice Bike. Where’re ya from?”
This was a game that had started on Thursday and continued throughout the trip. My standard response was, “Right here. Wanna beer?” We pulled off at a bar in Herlong and downed a brew while seeing if our pool game had improved since Thursday. CC’s had.
After gassing up in Susanville we continued northeast on Highway 89 into Lassen country. There are some real lonely stretches of road up there. It’s high flat tableland that is thickly forested on either side of the mostly straight roads. Even though this was Saturday, we shared the pavement with only an occasional other vehicle. I know of nothing more satisfying than breezing along a deserted mountain two-lane on a Harley. I like to lean back against the bedroll strapped to the seat behind me, and gently hold hands with the throttle to let her have her head, so to speak, but remind her that I’m still there if she gets into trouble. I thought of Steve McQueen’s saying, “I’d rather wake up in the middle of nowhere than in any city on earth”. Steve, by the way, rode a Harley.
There were a few raindrops falling here and the look on the face of the horizon-filling cloud to the north was saying, “These are just my scouts. The whole battalion is on the way.”
We stopped to listen to the small radio I was carrying in order to get a weather report. All we could get was Garth Brooks bragging on his multiple friends in lowly places. We were friends in a high place about to get showered, I decided. Discretion being what it is, we turned southwest and headed for the east shore of Lake Almanor. We blasted by that beautiful stretch and stopped for another brew at a local bar in Graeagle but not before getting a thorough soaking in a quick ten minute deluge.
When it started raining there was little or no warning and it was coming down in drops the size of marbles. CC was wearing his leather jacket while I was still in a T-shirt and vest. I pulled over to get my jacket on but it was well-packed and by the time I actually got it on, zipped up and was rolling again, I was soaked. CC was laughing at me from behind the protection of his windscreen. Isn’t that what friends are for? To help you keep things in perspective?
As I rode on, each raindrop felt like a thrown stone on my face and my glasses were so splattered that it was very difficult to see the road clearly. My desires were wrenched between two extremes. I had the impulse to speed away in the hope of outrunning the storm and, simultaneously, I wanted to slow down because of the sting of the raindrops and fear, induced by poor visibility and reduced road traction. Just as suddenly as it had started, it stopped raining and the road was steaming. The smell of fresh rain and wet pavement and the return of sudden sunshine was a combination that created an exhilaration I couldn’t control. Just then, like so many times in the past three days, I let out an apparently unprovoked and basically involuntary, loud, shrill, glad-to-be-celebratin’-life whoop and holler. It came out, “Wheeeeeeeeeeeeeeeehahhhh!”. Sometimes CC would answer with his own form of primal scream.
Graeagle is located at the junction of Highways 70 and 89, about twenty five miles southeast of Quincy. There were a couple of locals in well-rehearsed conversation with the bartender. I’ve noticed how talk is so similar in all of the waterin’ holes, wherever I go. “The government is taking our freedoms away.” “They’re shutting down the mills.” “They’re taxing us to death.” It always makes me wonder. If so many are so opposed to what the government is doing so much of the time, who are those in favor of it? What do ‘they’ have to gain and why is ‘it’ being allowed to continue? Graeagle, Honolulu or Topeka, the perplexing injustice prevails.
Well, we ended up back at the same house in Tahoe Saturday night. Why, yes, we really are macho campers, thank you. Ahhh, another hot shower. I am able, and willing, to rough it, wear the same clothes for days, go without showers and eat minimal cold food if that’s what is required. But I see no point in being miserable in the rain and cold just so that I can say I did it. I’ve done it. It is enough to know I could do it again.
The Price of Freedom
CC bought breakfast at Heidi’s in South Shore, Lake Tahoe Sunday morning with his Saturday night winnings from the craps table. What a guy! Heidi’s is another special breakfast place that usually has a list to write your name on until there is an available table. While we waited we met a couple of guys in their late twenties who drooled all over themselves while ogling our motorcycles. They were nice guys who asked intelligent questions. I could see that they might have Harleys of their own before too long.
I really enjoyed that breakfast. The chef made what was unequivocally the best omelette I have ever tasted – and I’ve had a few. Sadly, it was so big I had to leave half of it.
We decided to head west over the Sierras via Highway 88,
going through Kit Carson Pass. The weather was still beautiful, the scenery was still beautiful and the ride was as great as ever.
There’s a basic local bar at Hamm Station with a friendly barkeep and a pleasant atmosphere that I recommend if you’re up that way. CC bought a map and we laughed at ourselves because, again, our reading glasses were out on the motorcycles and, without them, we couldn’t read the fine print. This business of failing eyes in the mid-forties is all too predictable and automatic for my liking. Maybe that’s why I’ve never been consulted on the matter.
Not much farther west is the turnoff to the sleepy old town of Volcano. The town gets its name from the abundance of volcanic rock in the area and boasts its own little theater, ice cream shop and even a book publisher. I hesitate to spread the word for fear of spoiling this charming example of all that’s right with “tiny-town”, America.
Volcano was having a nice little concert in the park down by the creek. We enjoyed the music as it drifted up to where we sat on a bench on the boardwalk above. As we sat there a pickup came around the corner and accidentally dropped a gallon paint can over the tailgate. The driver never knew and just kept on going. Well, when the can hit the pavement it burst and there was suddenly a lot of baby blue liquid pigment on the pavement. A couple of the local ladies didn’t bat an eye or hesitate an instant. They simply grabbed shovels (amazingly at hand) and began dusting some loose dirt from the roadside onto the paint so other vehicles wouldn’t splash the paint onto their fenders.
Being a motorcyclist, I am real sensitive to the condition of the surface of the roadway and couldn’t help beaming at the independence and consideration of these folks. If this same accident had occurred in most cities I know of, it probably would have been considered an environmental spill and the local Office of Emergency Services would have been called out and had the area cordoned off while some hotshot chemist from the state capitol arrived to analyze the substance so the impact on future generations of ground crawling bellywhompers could be assessed. People aren’t stupid. Too bad they aren’t given a chance to take care of things by themselves more often.
I’m a bit of a history buff so I couldn’t resist strolling over to study the roadside historical plaques. One of them was dedicated to the men from Volcano who had given their lives in the name of freedom during the second World War. I said a silent thanks to them myself, knowing that freedom isn’t free and that this ride that I was on put me smack dab in the middle of one whopping big expression of freedom.
I wondered about great times and how many a guy gets to have in this life or if there was some sort of cosmic allocation of terrific memories allowed for one’s personal collection. I thought that, if there was, I had probably had at least my share and wondered if I was somehow being greedy. It occurred to me that if my number came up today I hoped to have the courage to behave like a satisfied guest and retire gracefully, to paraphrase Mark Twain. Maybe there are only so many good times going on at any given moment. Was I taking more than my share and, in so doing, depriving someone else of their turn? …I do get pensive while scooter trampin’.
Having seen us studying the map, an octogenarian lady came out of the ice cream parlor and asked if we had figured out where to go next. She and her husband had moved to Volcano and built their house over twenty years ago. He had passed along but she remained and looked well suited to her place. I had been watching her play with local children and she appeared contented. Somehow, as I watched her, I had the feeling that she was exactly where she belonged and she was doing exactly what she was supposed to be doing.
She directed us to a back road to Sutter Creek which turned out to be twelve miles of s-l-o-w puttin’, bareheaded and barechested. What a sense of wellness! I just leaned back against the bedroll, relaxed as a guy could be; Lady Sunshine sensuously melting over my face and shoulders. Of course we had to sustain ourselves on this ride by occasionally stopping to partake of the roadside blackberries. As I rode along, comfortable against the bedroll and warmed by the sun, I wondered if a guy could take a trip like this across the whole country and how long it would take at 15 miles per hour. It was at about this time that two female types on bicycles passed us. I guessed it would take a long time and longed for the days.
Sutter Creek is another historical town with a biker-friendly bar. I don’t remember the name of the bar but the building was at least a hundred years old and decorated with Elvis’ memorabilia. The bartendress talked about her patch behind her ear which had helped her quit smoking for two days. Sutter Creek is considerably larger than most of the other towns where we had been stopping. I had the sense that we were returning to civilization. It turned out to be our last stop in the Sierras.
There is a twisted old bathroom joke among beer drinkers that says that rather than buy beer we should only rent it, because we just have it for a short time and then are eliminating it, so to speak. Well, that rented beer from Sutter Creek was due for the obligatory return phase in the natural cycle of such things. Fanny Ann’s was the only public house in Sacramento that I knew of where we could go to take care of this need. Besides, it struck me as highly appropriate that I take CC there as I again rode a Harley into this town that had been a very real part of my first introduction to these fine motorcycles.
Almost twenty years before, I had been the guest of the State of California in Sacramento for two weeks while attending the California Highway Patrol Motorcycle Academy – incredibly fine training that I believe is to be credited for my safe riding experiences to date. I had arrived for my training in the middle of summer and was met by Charlie Beswick, another cop/friend that I worked with. Charlie had been in town for a week so he knew the spots and immediately took me to Fanny Ann’s in “Old Town”. It’s a rather fun and completely zany place. Let me simply say that Charlie and I had a good time there because to say more would not only be a two six-pack story but may also be incriminating.
CC and I pulled up and parked amongst a bunch of scoots from the Sacramento HOG Chapter. Fanny’s is a wild place and we watched the local fauna and talent while renting another bottle of suds and planning the next leg of our trip.
Our destination for the night was to be Concord, southwest of Sacramento, via Highway 160 which runs through the delta along the top of the levee and over bridges to several of the delta islands. What a ride. The sun was going down over the delta inlets and reflecting onto the underside of the trees. This was a radical change of scenery from the High Sierras. And it was cold, riding along the water like that.
A twilight pit stop at Sullivan’s in Isleton helped us to get warm. CC recognized the music coming from a CD player behind the bar and asked the barkeep if it was by so-and-so. It was. I gotta remember to ask CC who that was because I really liked it…soft and lilting stuff that kinda’ suspended you in time.
One great thing about traveling on a scoot is that you stop a lot. I’ve driven this road quite a few times before in the cage of a car but never stopped to see this town. The buildings were mostly old, many of them deteriorating. Many of the store fronts were boarded up and buildings were abandoned. It struck me, as it always does, since, in addition to being a history buff, I am very fond of architecture, that someone should buy the old buildings and preserve them. But if there was no profitable use for them, who would buy the buildings let alone refurbish them? I guess that’s why they were in disrepair. It’s seems like such a waste of resources but I believe there are some questions without accessible answers.
As we “saddled up” for the final push to Concord, CC looked at me and with great conviction on his face and finality in his voice said, “Well, we’ve seen Isleton”. He was being humorous but in retrospect that was one of the special things about this ride. We did see places. Oakhurst, Columbia, Ebbetts Pass and Markleeville, Quincy and Graeagle, Hamm Station, Volcano and so many others are no longer simple impersonal points on a map to me. I know they have a friendly waitress, a fun pub or a proud heritage.
The infamous catseye was still blowing filaments and it was getting pretty dark. Have you ever noticed how hard it is to find a real service station anymore? The best we could do was a gas station that sells coffee, cigarettes and donuts. Ask for a taillight lamp in one of these places and you get a look from a pimplefaced attendant that seems to ask what planet you came from. But there are good people in this country that really want to help if a guy is only open to it. Some boy (I never did get his name) said, “Wait a minute” and proceeded to reach in, through the broken plastic taillight lens of his pickup, and extract a number 1157 basic taillamp. “Here”, he said, “I just live around the corner. Take this and good luck.” People like him maintain my faith in humanity.
We finally arrived at my folks house in Concord where Bunny, my stepmother, puts out a famous volume of tasty chow. CC gets real quiet when he is feeding. Afterwards my folks must have felt like a couple of kindergartners had just run in from their first day at school. CC and I talked excitedly and incessantly for a couple of hours, reliving the highlights of the journey. We took turns and took showers but the storytelling never lagged.
The Fat Lady Whimpers
The next morning was Monday. After a generous breakfast we warmed up the scoots and I rode a few miles west with CC over to Interstate 680 and bade him farewell. He had to head south and I north. I was not happy to see our magical adventure come to an end. As he rode down the on-ramp, and onto the freeway, I turned emotional. In a matter of seconds I flashed from frustration to anger to sadness and finally a melancholy resignation bordering on depression. So much for my “satisfied guest” audition.
I was about 120 miles from home. CC probably had at least four times as far to go as I did. As an example of my denial of the end of this journey, I dawdled so much that when I finally got home, late in the day, there was a message on my answering machine from CC telling me that he had made it home safe and sound, and well ahead of me.
Reality had drawn the curtain on our dream ride; our visit to Harley Heaven. What had we left in the Sierras and what had we brought away? How are we modified and in what way will Ebbett’s Pass, Graeagle or Volcano be different? I can’t answer that just yet. But I have been back home for a month and I can’t stop thinking about the yonder. Every day I think about the roads, the places, the people, the wind in my face and the rumble in my ears. I think about how I felt up there with all I needed in the world tied to Spirit’s saddle. I think about the companionship of having CC for a partner. I still ponder what the real experience was and where the thoughts came from. These are good thoughts and feelings that take me to a “place” that just feels right.
This ride was over but I had memories of a damn fine 1400 mile yonder. I also knew that it wouldn’t be so long before we were coming together again at a combined speed of 130 miles per hour for another “putt”. Arizona is real pleasant in the fall. We’ve still got Boise to do. Wouldn’t it be beautiful to ride Oregon in the Spring? Colorado doesn’t have a helmet law. There’s always Daytona. Yondering is an incurable disease. And I’m smarter now; I’ll pack an extra toothbrush.
You can’t keep good men down and you can’t keep two crazy old friends apart. And by the way, if someday you see a Springer with gas caps that don’t match. Be kind. She’s an honorable ol’ kindred spirit.
Copyright Rik Goodell 2008