(Photo by Kevin Austin)
When we rolled out of the Riverside dealership that morning, most of the HOGs were still yawning. Daylight Savings Time had just arrived, and we regretted that lost hour of sleep. The sky was gradually brightening with the promise of a sunny day. Two by two the Harleys lined up at the traffic light, their snarling engines ready to run. When the light turned, we poured onto the freeway, fitting ourselves into the jigsaw puzzle of traffic.
We rode in small clumps at first, eighteen bikes too many to stay together between cars. Eventually open space allowed us to line up in staggered formation as we endured the mindless repetition of on ramps and off ramps, merging traffic and slow trucks, road construction and reckless drivers. Cloud topped mountains drew closer, looking like brownies covered with whipped crème. Frozen whipped crème. Shivering, I zipped up my heavy leather jacket and pulled the collar of my layering jacket over my chin. Promised sunshine now hid away, and the threat of icy rain loomed over us.
Hand signals rippled down the line of bikes as we threaded through traffic toward our exit. At the end of the ramp we paused, free from the chaotic energy of the freeway. One by one the pack turned onto a narrow winding road that carved through the mountains toward the high desert valleys. The road hugged the sides of rippling hills like the zigzag stitch on a blanket. The long procession of bikes spread over the hills into the distance. To the north I could see layers of mountains like bookshelves, the next shelf up holding a slow moving freight train, and the top shelf the frantic vehicles on the freeway beyond our exit.
Our journey changed drastically. We fell into the rhythm of curves and dips as we traveled through land that was unconcerned about man’s ambitions. Water carved red rock hills covered with bristly bushes chased each other into the distance. A sheer rock wall watched us from the left with a lofty arrogance. These rocks existed when the Native American tribes roamed over them on horseback, and they would still stand after our passing. The twisty roads forced us to ride slowly, slowing our pulses, slowing down time. Bike following bike, the road leading us on.
Suddenly the road spit us out into a wide flat valley and straightened itself out. The Harleys gladly stretched their legs and gained speed. Gradually I grew aware that the ominous grey wall of mountains on our left was growing closer as we rode. As I looked behind and ahead of us, I could see no end to it. Yet our road seemed determined to connect with it. How would we get over it? Would the road lift us to the top of that wall or would man’s determination have tunneled through it?
Miles sped by in our race to the wall, and soon I could see the end. The wall sloped down before it merged with another ridge, and into this opening the road stretched through. The bikes climbed over it without strain, and dropped down into another flat valley. The mountain peaks on our right were dusted with snow, and I knew that on the other side, snow boarders were riding rails and practicing jumps in the fresh powder. However this side held dry cracked rocks and joshua trees reaching toward the bright blue sky. Water in this valley had to be trapped by high dams like the one we just passed.
The road passed through white fenced ranches that eventually led into small groups of houses and buildings, towns so small they seemed out of place in overpopulated southern California. A man in his electric wheelchair rumbled on the dirt shoulder. Where he was headed on a straight narrow road with no sidewalks I couldn’t guess, but I admired his perseverance. The line of bikes pulled into a gas station, and we stretched our legs and gulped some water. Although it was not hot, the air was so dry it crackled.
After a brief rest, we roared on our way toward our goal. After passing through miles and miles of caked dirt dotted with brush and more spiky joshua trees, the land surrounding us smoothed out into a huge flat area with no vegetation, a dry lake bed. I wondered what happened to the water—was it diverted for other purposes, or did it simply dry up over time? It felt like a lunar landscape had fallen into our path.
The road called us on, and we descended into another valley, this one much hotter and dryer than the last. Pink desert mountains lined the horizon on the left. A line of buildings in the distance slowly grew into our lunch stop. Wooden buildings, including a saloon front, saddle shop, and a jail, formed the skeleton of an old western movie set, now a tourist attraction and motorcycle destination. We pulled into the dirt parking lot and parked the bikes in a row, just like cowboys would have tied up their horses in front of the saloon. I carefully dismounted our Harley, stiff muscles protesting. We all took off our helmets and layers of jackets and leather chaps. Even though we had just ridden over twisting roads and through dry dusty towns, we were excited to share our journey together. It was time for food and drink, tales and jokes, friendships forged in adventure.