The Cold Ride- part one

bad water basin

“You’d better wear your thermals,” my husband warned as he came inside with the motorcycle cover bundled up in front of him. “It’s only 39 degrees out there!”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got them on,” I assured him in a muffled voice, as I bent over to zip up my stiff leather chaps. As I added layers of clothing, it became difficult to move. Currently I had on a thermal top, sweater, leather vest, thermal bottoms, jeans, chaps, and a heavy leather Harley jacket. My arms came to rest at nearly right angles from my body, and I couldn’t raise my leg higher than an inch. Getting on our Ultra Limited touring bike was going to be challenging. Too many pieces of clothing to be wearing in the fuzzy predawn hours.

“Let’s go,” Frank said. “It’s too hot standing inside with all this gear on.” He was clothed head to toe in black leather, his pale blue eyes sparkling with excitement. Riding with the Inland Empire Harley Owners Group was an adventure no matter what temperatures we faced. We had already experienced a relentless rainstorm and snow flurries on last year’s Grand Canyon trip, so we were confident that we were ready for anything.

So began the Harley trip forever known as the Cold Ride. (Here I insert my plea that if you are a permanent resident of Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, please suffer the whining of southern Californians.) It was the end of February, which for our desert region meant weather anywhere from 60 degrees to 80 degrees, and rolling the dice for either rain or blue skies. It was a bit cool when the group rolled out of the parking lot that morning, but foolishly, I believed it would warm up as the trip progressed. Everyone knows Death Valley is the warmest place in North America, right?

Hours later, as we approached the National Park entrance, I noticed a thin coating of white covering the barren desert around us. “What is that white stuff?” I asked my husband through our com system.

“It must be salt,” he answered.

Our pack of twenty motorcycles had been on the road since 7:00 a.m. with one breakfast break, and my leather gloves were not doing their job. Fortunately, I was the passenger, not the rider, so I could hide my hands behind the windbreak of my husband’s broad back. Even with a thick wooly gaiter protecting my neck and chin, my face under my helmet felt like it would crack if I smiled. As the hours passed, I progressed from chilly to freezing cold to numb to final acceptance that cold was the new normal. The sun on the back of my jacket felt less cold than the racing wind that flowed around the front windshield and fairing before exiting over the tour pack behind my seat.

As I continued to ponder the patches of white crust that continued on both sides of the road, I had the sinking sensation that it was not salt.

After entering Death Valley, our road captain led us down to Badwater Basin, the lowest elevation in North America. We stopped for a break in a parking lot next to a dried up lakebed. The wall of rock facing us had a sign—282 feet below sea level. Further up, another sign announced sea level. The sun felt good on our faces, and I sighed in relief. Frank and I took off our heavy leather jackets.

“It looks like we’re surrounded by sculpture,” my husband said, looking around at the multicolored walls of rock that framed the lakebed. Jagged red cliffs towered over hills painted with bands of white, yellow, brown, and black. The lakebed looked like a large dried up mud puddle, with some moisture still lingering near its center.

“It’s beautiful,” I agreed. We ate some trail mix and drank water. Then we walked around, shaking out our stiff legs. I debated whether I had time to take off my leather chaps. At that moment, the chapter photographer called us together for a group picture, and it was time to saddle up.

From the bottom of Death Valley, the Harleys wound around a narrow road that led us to a higher vista. The winding road compressed into two final switchbacks before reaching Dante’s View. Icy bursts of wind replaced the mild sunshine down at Bad Water Basin. I was glad I had resisted the temptation to take off my chaps.

We stopped at the parking lot on the flat top of the sharply rising peak. From here, the entire mosaic of Death Valley spread out before us. The parking lot at Badwater Basin looked like a tiny speck from our perspective. It took my breath away, or maybe it was the icy wind buffeting me.

“Aren’t you cold?” I asked Frank. His face was red, and his hands were buried in the pockets of his lightweight windbreaker. He had taken off his chaps at our previous stop.

“A little,” he admitted, as he reached into his saddlebag to put on his leather jacket.

Our group walked around, taking pictures from different places. One rider shared his famous lemon bars from a Tupperware container in his tourpak. He brings them on every overnighter. I licked powder sugar off my frozen fingers before replacing my gloves. Most of us still had our helmets on because of the cold, but with modular helmets, the front piece raises up so that you can still eat and drink.

Having mercy on us standing there shivering, the road captain called out, “Let’s ride,” and we cautiously crawled back down the hairpin turns and out on the level, straight road through Death Valley.

“I bet there’s tons of other places we could go around here,” Frank said on the com.

I looked around at the dirt paths that spread out into the wilderness on both sides. “I don’t know if those roads would be good for Harleys,” I said.

“Come on, dear,” he said with a chuckle. “Where’s your sense of adventure?”

My sense of adventure included traveling on asphalt roads that actually appeared on maps and led us eventually to our warm motel.

Our next stop was a tiny gas station in the middle of nowhere. The gas price was double what we would have paid back in Riverside, so not all of the riders filled up. As I looked around to the barren wasteland, I insisted that Frank get gas. Who knew when we would see a gas station again.

After a quick break, we rode on and on through the desert, with no civilization in sight. I was glad that the road captain had already pre-rode this trip, so he knew our turns. If you got lost out here, it might take you all day to reach the next town before you discovered you were going the wrong way.

As we rode, I noticed that we were gradually going higher and the temperatures were getting colder. The sun hid behind clouds near the western ridge, and I had to sit on my hands to keep them less cold. We finally turned right onto a road that led up a large hill. I noticed that the group had slowed down considerably. It took forever for us to reach its crest, but when we did our destination of Beatty, Nevada was in sight. Not until we stopped that night did I realize that the road captain had been one of the riders who didn’t fill up at that lonely station, and his low fuel warning had come on. Some things are best not known until the ride’s over for the day.

When we reached that tiny mining town, I was ready for a hot shower. Most of the day had not been warmer than 50 degrees. Even with sunshine, it had been the coldest day of riding I had ever experienced. But my desire for warmth would have to wait.

As we roared down the main street, I thought I noticed eyes peeking out of curtained windows. Other than a few semi-trucks, there wasn’t any traffic. The gas station was at the far end, five minutes from the beginning of town. We stopped there first before heading to our motel.

Some of us had dinner that night at a saloon on the main street, the same building where I had seen people in the windows. Done with riding for the day, we walked a few freezing blocks to get there. Despite being exhausted, I wanted to run to get out of the cold. The watchers must have put another kettle of chili on just for us because other than a few cowboys, we were the only patrons. The inside of the saloon was wood paneled and smaller than my living room. We sat on the back patio huddled next to the heaters. The waitress remembered our road captain from previous trips and took care of us quickly. No one wants to mess with a thirsty and hungry biker group.

Dragon Rider Part Seven- Stranded

white_dragon_by_sandara-d6ha2cv

After a long day watching the tops of clouds, Silverpointe looked like a mountain paradise. Steep pitched roofs covered in snow, smells of wood smoke, roasting venison, and pine trees contrasted with the crisp cold air. The inn, stables, blacksmith, mercantile, and homes formed a circle on a flat ledge hanging over the mountain range. There was barely room for the dragons in the center of town. Locals gawked as the huge beasts huffed smoke and stomped the hard ground to get comfortable. Stable boys brought out buckets of dead mice and squirrels and dumped them in front of the dragons. Other boys dragged out huge wooden troughs of water.

Emeri helped Worley carry his tack into the stable, adding it to the pile stacked in the corner. She looked around for a place where she could speak to her friend privately. Even though she had sworn that she would tell no one what she had done, the bond-curse changed things.

“Come on,” she gestured to the boy, who continued to watch her with puzzled eyes. They walked behind the stable to a fenced in lookout point on the mountain’s edge. As she looked down into the deepening shadows of snow-softened boulders, her head started to spin. Her decision to let Petal go had seemed so simple, and yet it had become as jumbled as the pile of rocks below her.

“What’s up?” Worley took her arm, turning her back to him. “I’m sorry I scared you by falling off Mist. It’s not your fault I fell asleep. You’re going through enough right now.”

Emeri hesitated, still not certain she was doing the right thing. “It wasn’t your fault. There’s something else going on.” How would she begin? “I told you that First Mistress ordered me to sell Petal when I return from this ride.”

“Of course, but you were going to find a way to change her mind,” Worley said, his eyes narrowed with curiosity, watching her intently.

“First Mistress never changes her mind,” the princess said, “unless she decides to do so, and even then it would be a completely new idea. So I had to take action. I know it sounds looney, but Petal wouldn’t survive another owner. She chose me when she was a tiny whelp. She’s grown up with me.” Her stomach threatened to betray her again, but she took a deep breath. “I severed the bond between us. It had to be done.”

“What?” Worley shouted to the mountains. “Emeri, you’ve taught me everything I know about dragons, especially since my brother was too busy riding to be bothered. When a dragon chooses you, it is a sacred bond! Humans can’t do anything to force it. And Petal, a Crystal Dragon! You’ll never have a dragon like her again!” He turned away from her and started pacing back and forth, holding his head. Then he stopped as a new thought struck him. “First Mistress will be furious!”

Emeri took his hands. “You trust me, don’t you?”

“Of course,” he said, his face betraying the opposite. He shifted his feet, perhaps remembering how the First Mistress’ anger had come down on the estate workers the year of the bad harvest.

“Petal needed to be free.”

“I know,” he agreed. “But she’ll be suspicious. It’s a little convenient that you lost your dragon on your last ride before you had to sell her. That dragon was a gold mine, and she’ll make us all pay.”

“Buck up, my friend. You can’t go on living in fear of her. I know I can’t. Even though I want to do what’s best for the queendom, I still need to consider others, even Petal.”

“Still, severing your bond?” Worley said, shaking his head. “You didn’t have to actually chop off…”

“I did, but that’s not the worst of it. I didn’t know about the bond-curse.”

“That’s dragon dung, Emeri! Twinkle was joking, trying to get you to spill the truth,” Worley said. “Avery’s never said anything about a bond-curse.”

“That’s because no dragon rider would ever break the bond with their dragon,” Emeri said. “Seriously, Worley, I’ve seen you ride long days before, and you never have nodded off. It’s got to be the curse.”

“I think you’re over-reacting,” Worley said, giving her hug. “You’re just distraught over losing Petal. Let’s get back to the others so I can taste some of that famous Silverpointe venison stew. The smell has been making my mouth water since we landed.” He started to walk back to the inn.

Emeri followed him, feeling a bit foolish. Of course she was jumping to conclusions. She just had a bad case of air-sickness and Worley was just tired, that was all.

The inn’s small common room was packed with the addition of the dragon riders. Emeri and Worley joined the others at their long table, pleasantly surprised to see steaming bowls of stew and tankards of ale waiting for them.

Emeri actually had a small appetite and was able to swallow a little stew, although she passed her ale over to Avery. After dinner, they relaxed in the hot springs, drinking brandy and sharing stories. Every once in a while, the princess was certain she caught Twinkle staring at her, her face grim.

Morning came too early, as Emeri fought nightmares most of the night, ending up tangled up in her cloak on the floor. After they ate thick soft bread smothered in blackberry jam and strong hot tea, the dragon riders got ready to leave. Twinkle decided that Emeri should ride with her. The princess wasn’t sure if their leader felt that she was a distraction for Worley, or if she was still suspicious about the bond-curse.

Twinkle’s dragon, Sparkle, was a grey Crystal Dragon, similar in size to Petal. His large violet eyes regarded his additional cargo with curiosity, perhaps wondering why Emeri wasn’t riding her own dragon. After climbing up, Emeri made sure she fastened the belt her teacher had attached to the saddle. No one was taking chances about another fall.

As they rode through the day, Emeri enjoyed the view from the lead. The bright blue sky stretched out forever in all directions and the clouds below appeared as a solid puffy white surface. Behind them the dragon riders spread out in a long line, flying together in unity.

The princess finally felt relaxed after the morning ride had passed without incident. She was just scaring herself for no reason. There was no bond-curse.

That’s when she heard the loud crack.

Sparkle’s right wing flew straight, useless, and the dragon tried to keep flying with one wing, roaring in pain. Twinkle yelled commands and tried to keep them in the air, but they began to spiral downward. Emeri could hear the shouts of the other riders as they tried to rally around them.

“What should we do?” the princess shouted in the ride captain’s ear.

“Hang on,” Twinkle called back. “We’re going to land.”

“Not too quickly, I hope!” Emeri replied and ducked her head down behind Twinkle’s back. They dropped through the sky, covered in dragon smoke.

And then suddenly there was a huge jolt and scratchy flashes of green as they fell through the arms of a pine tree, finally resting in thick pile of dry needles. Sparkle roared once more and then collapsed into unconsciousness.

“Are you hurt?” Emeri asked, as she unbuckled herself and rolled down the ladder.

“I think I’m good,” Twinkle said. She crawled down stiffly, stroked her dragon’s neck, and started to walk around to inspect her dragon’s wing. “Sparkle’s not so good, though. Her wing is broken, that’s for sure. Let me get out my med kit.” She unfastened a leather bag and took out a pot and a roll of linen.

“Where are the others?” Emeri said, peering through the heavy canopy of branches above them. “Will they be able to find us?”

“The dragons should be able to smell Sparkle,” Twinkle replied. With practiced ease, she gently applied a thick coating of salve and wound linen around the wing, leaving it closed up on itself. Sparkle didn’t wake, but he rumbled in protest and sent out billowing smoke. “When dragons are hurt, they send out different smoke that alerts other dragons in the area that they need help.”

“Nowhere to land around here,” the princess observed. The densely forested ridge was steep and there was no open area that she would see.

“Don’t worry, they’ll find us,” Twinkle said as she put back her medicines. “Do you want some water?” she offered Emeri her canteen.

“Thanks,” Emeri said, as she took a small swig. There wasn’t much water left.

Suddenly, Sparkle’s head shot up, and the injured dragon struggled to his feet. He growled deep in his throat, staring at the trees.

“Quick, Emeri, jump up on her,” Twinkle said. The riders scurried up to the saddle and waited. They had barely caught their breath when a large tawny creature emerged soundlessly. It was a mountain cat, larger than any Emeri had ever seen, and it looked hungry.

Dragon Rider Part Four: Ferrytown

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A sudden cross wind ripped Emeri’s gloved hand from the saddle horn and shoved her back against the high rim of her saddle. She gasped and set her feet so that she wouldn’t tumble off her dragon and fall like a huge rain drop to the far away ground. Then the young princess ducked her head, gripped the blankets with her knees, and placed more weight in her stirrups. The constant roar of the wind buffeting her leather helmet had lulled her into a sleep-like trance. Even though the Dragon Owners Group had been riding for hours, any gust of wind could cause disaster.

Ahead of her the group spread out toward the horizon in staggered two by two formation. The sun was far behind them now, as they rode eastward toward the Crystal Mountains. As the sweep, she was responsible for making sure that none of the others were left behind. During the long day, the cloud of dragons flew as one with no incident. Soon they would reach Ferrytown and set down for the night.

The growing dusk revealed glimmering lights below them, reflected into the dark still lake that bordered the town. The tiny lit boxes that would be houses and buildings once they landed were arranged in a horseshoe, the open end meeting a large dock at the waterfront.

Suddenly the dragons in front of her dove straight down. Emeri and Petal followed into the twilight chill, joining the large group of dragons that had landed in a meadow outside of town. The princess quickly unbuckled her straps, and threw down the rope ladder she kept for group rides. Her sore muscles protesting, she climbed down the ladder to the welcome ground.

“Hey, Sweep,” Twinkle greeted her, already with her tack and bag in hand. “Great ride today. We all stayed together.”

“Not much for me to do,” Emeri replied. “Great dragons and great riding. My throat’s parched from that wind though.” She hopped back up the ladder a little to release her saddle and blanket. The heavy pile of leather and wool landed with a whoosh on the cool grass.

“Time for supper,” Twinkle said, “See you there.” Their leader hoisted up her load and headed to the inn.

A while later Emeri stumbled downstairs after a long bath, clean and stomach rumbling. The common room had a low ceiling with a roaring fireplace at one end, and was stuffed with long wood tables. Travelers laughed over tales as they converged upon Ferrytown before they set out for faraway destinations in the surrounding mountains.

“Emeri! Over here!” Worley shouted over the din, and she could barely glimpse his familiar face in the smoky room. Large women in tight-fitting dresses wove their way in between the tables with large tankards of ale that sloshed over the side on unsuspecting patrons. The princess carefully made her way to her friends, thinking that she might have waiting on the bath until after supper.

Anzel, Worley, Twinkle, and four other riders were crammed into table, jealously guarding their bowls of savory stew. She squeezed in next to Worley, and as if on cue one of the bar maids slapped a tankard and bowl in front of her.

Gratefully, Emeri raised the bowl to her mouth and delicately sipped the hot soup. Chunks of tender meat, savory but of unknown origin, tasting better than any royal feast after a long day riding. She took a swig of her icy, bitter ale, and sighed with contentment.

Several bowls and tankards later, when their ferocious appetites had been appeased, the riders sat back, loosened their trousers and talked about their day. The surrounding chatter provided the illusion of privacy.

“What a great ride today,” Twinkle said, lifting her mug. “All our riders did a great job staying in formation.”

“That wind was fierce,” Worley said. “I felt like my head got whipped all the way around!”

“It could be worse,” his brother encouraged. “The further we get into the mountains, the more the wind shoots through the passes. Need to keep your head down.” Although his tone was light, concern glowed in his eyes. “Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Emeri almost get swept out of her saddle.”

“It wasn’t as bad as that,” the princess corrected. “I was being lulled to sleep by Petal’s smooth ride. It’s hard to stay awake when you’re riding the strongest dragon in the group.”

“Hold your tongue!” Twinkle said with a grin. “The ride’s more set by the rider than the dragon. Don’t you remember what I taught you?” She tipped back the dregs of her mug and motioned with it to a passing bar maid.

“I remember everything you told me,” Emeri said. She looked at the circle of friends around her and wondered if these would be the memories she would take out, like old love letters, when her life had been diminished into her royal duties.

“It was so clear today, I could see all the way to edge of Tessar,” Anzel said. “But not as clear as the day we flew over Razor Ridge.” He gave a conspiring nod toward Twinkle.

“How could I forget?” Twinkle added. “The air was so clear it hurt to look too long. We could see caterpillars crawling on the leaves of Razor Forest.” She gratefully accepted a full tankard from the bar maid.

“Razor Ridge?” Worley gasped. “Isn’t that where the Bearded Ones live? Did you see any of them?”

Emeri hid her smirk behind her tankard. This was the same story that she had been told on her first dragon riding trip.

“Oh, there were hundreds of them running around,” Anzel continued in a deadly serious voice. “They had carts pulled by oxen. Carts full of gold, rubies, and diamonds from their mines deep in the heart of the mountains.”

“And even with clear skies, they weren’t able to see us,” Twinkle added. “Their eyes couldn’t see in the bright sunshine after all the time they spend inside the mountain.”

“That’s when Tonlon came up with a great idea,” Anzel said with a nod to an older rider with a long grey braid that sat with them at their table. “Tonlon, do you want to tell my brother what your idea was?”
The man took a long drink, and answered. “We wanted a remembrance, a token of that day. So that when we sat around and talked about seeing the Bearded Ones, people would believe us.” He narrowed his eyes at Worley, who hung on his every word. “You do believe us, right?”

“Of course,” Worley said. “We’re all dragon riders here.”

Emeri choked back a laugh.

“Were you there, Emeri?” Worley asked.

“No,no,” Emeri managed to answer. “That was before my time as a rider.”

“Well, you see, as that day was so clear, we could fly next to each other and make up a plan,” the man continued.

“So Tonlon and Anzel followed the Bearded Ones’ caravan that wound its way through the mountains,” Twinkle added to the tale. “Anzel took the lead, and told Blade to set some trees on fire in the canyon, right after the other wagons passed, separating the last wagon from the group.”

“Tonlon came from behind and his Beauty stole one of the chests right off the wagon, in a flash, before anyone could do anything,” Anzel said.

“What did the Bearded Ones do?” Worley asked.

“Not a lot they could do, I guess,” Tonlon said. “The dragon riders were gone in an instant, and they had to rescue their wagon from the fire. What an adventure!”

“But what was in the chest?” Worley wondered.

“That’s the funny thing,” Twinkle said. “When we finally got to our stop for the night, we decided to open it up. It was so heavy; we were sure it was filled with gold.”

“What was in it?” Worley said, his ale forgotten.

“Biscuits,” Tonlon said with a sigh.

“Heaviest biscuits I’ve ever seen,” Anzel said, shaking his head.

“Hard as rocks,” Twinkle said.

Then the entire table erupted in laughter. Worley looked around in puzzlement, until Emeri couldn’t bear it any longer.

“They’re yanking on your saddle strap, Worley!” the princess confessed. “They told the same story to me on my first trip. It never happened.”

The young man’s face turned from confusion to anger to realization. “This is part of my initiation, isn’t it? I’m really a dragon rider now!”

“If your sore bottom doesn’t do it, Anzel’s stories will guarantee it,” she said, giving him a quick hug.

The fire finally burned low, and it was time for sleep before the long ride tomorrow. Twinkle settled their account with the bar maid. Emeri eased her sore legs up the stairs behind the rest of the riders, again swept with grief for the life she would leave behind.

Lemon Bars at Dante’s Peak

bad water basin

As I savored the sweet tanginess of my lemon bar, I looked over the edge of Dante’s Peak into the vast expanse of Death Valley. I shivered in the icy wind, despite the sun beating down on us. The Inland Empire HOGs were taking a much-needed break before zigzagging down the narrow road back down to Furnace Springs.

As I finished my treat, I looked around at the diverse group of travelers that had led my husband and me out of suburban Riverside and into the remnants of the Wild West. We were surrounded by businessmen, teachers, and salespeople, as well as a man who was a talented baker.  There were wives who rode behind their husbands, as well as wives who rode their own Harleys. This journey drew us together as teammates and family, cowboys and cowgals gathered together at the campfire.

Bad Water Basin spread out before us, a still white lake surrounded by a multi-colored tapestry of minerals. Death Valley in winter seemed tame, but the blasted barren ground spoke of summer’s inferno only a few months away. We took pictures, chugged water, and huddled together to talk.

At a signal, helmets were buckled, engines roared, and the bikes lined up single file to gently roll down the hill to the open road. The bikes descended like sure-footed burros and soon we left the lookout point far behind.

How could I have noticed the rugged stripes of crumbling rock walls from inside the confines of a car? How could I have welcomed the sun’s warmth on my face inside a temperature controlled vehicle? Only a Harley trip can bring you face to face with the same West that challenged forty-niners to gamble their lives to reach their dreams of gold.

Who would expect homemade baked goods on a motorcycle trip?

The Dragon Rider

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            The cool night air swirled as her dragon swooped down to land in the clearing. With a whoosh the heavy beast settled into the soft meadow. Emeri released her breath, and gratefully unfastened her leather helmet, pried it off her head, and shook out her chin length black hair.

“Perfect landing, as usual, Lady Emeri,” a soft voice called below her as a ladder was gently set up against Petal’s side. One hand took her helmet and the other assisted her down to the ground, not needed but appreciated just the same. Her house servant handed her master a crystal goblet of apple wine. The rider downed it in one long draw, while the servant sighed her disapproval.

The dragon turned her serpentine neck around to sniff her passenger, who chuckled as the young woman pulled a slice of sausage out of her trouser pocket. Petal extended her long tongue to retrieve the treat.

“Good girl, Petal,” her rider crooned, patting her gloved hands against the dragon’s rough scales. “The credit for our landing should go to you.”

“Glad to have you back, my Lady,” the servant said. “By your leave, I will take Petal back to her stable.” She reached out to take back the goblet.

“Go on, now. Make sure she has plenty to eat,” Emeri reminded her servant. The young woman acknowledged with a quick bow and reached up to take Petal’s harness. She led the dragon away, fading as ghosts in the twilight, Lacey with her pale braid hair and white dress, and the huge metallic pink dragon. She stopped, and turned back.

“Forgive me, my lady. I almost forgot —The First Mistress wants to see you upon your return.”

Emeri’s twinkling green eyes suddenly turned stormy, and she stomped off to her rooms.

A few hours later, she emerged, hair brushed, face scrubbed, and cinched into her dress and girdle, Emeri descended the worn stone stairs to the library, where she knew The First Mistress would be sitting in front of a roaring fire, keeping the still cool nights at bay. At the door, she knocked lightly, and prepared her best obedient face. The door opened a crack, revealing a middle-aged blonde woman in a white dress.

Upon recognizing her face, the woman frowned as if her presence was disturbing the peace. “Good evening, Lady Emeri. The First Mistress will see you now.” She opened the door, and Emeri straightened up, lifted her chin, and walked in.

The walls were covered in bookcases that stretched up three levels, with a tall ladder on wheels in the corner. The two tall narrow windows on the opposite wall were swathed in heavy red silk, keeping out chill. Three chandeliers stretched down from the ceiling, covered in glowing lamps safely enclosed in glass. As massive and imposing as the scale of the library, an equally imposing small ancient white haired woman with white hair sat wrapped in grey down-stuffed coverings by the fire. Her shadow seemed to fill the room, and her wrinkles rearranged into a questioning stare as Emeri approached. A slight nod toward a chair was command enough for Emeri as she took her seat facing the older woman. The servant exited the room quietly and closed the door.

Emeri knew she should not speak first, but she couldn’t help herself. She was sixteen seasons old now, a full grown adult, not a mere timid child. “Blessed First Mistress, I pray that your days have been full of grace, and your evenings full of peace.” It sounded like an appropriate greeting toward an elder.

The old woman closed her eyes and sighed. “Just when I’m certain you’ve come into maturity, you have to jump right in and make a mess of things. You can’t even wait a moment for us to address you.”

“But First Mistress, by law I am your daughter. Aren’t there some privileges that I’m due?” Emeri just managed to keep the whining tone out of her voice.

“The law does not do away with courtesy. Remember your lessons, and they will serve you well.” The older woman paused to take a cautious sip of her steaming tea. “Thimble poured you some tea. Drink some to calm yourself.” She nodded toward a side table that featured a silver tea service.

Emeri pulled herself out of the overstuffed chair and retrieved her cup. Then she sat down, and obediently sipped her tea, hoping that the steam would cover the reddening of her face. Moments hung in the air between them until the First Mistress decided to talk.

“Now that you’ve reached your sixteenth season, it is time for us to plan your marriage. Even though you are an awkward tiny little thing, you manage to clean up well, and of course you have the finest clothes and hairdressers. My steward, Nathaniel, will create a list of potential suitors, and we will entertain them for the Flower Festival coming up. We should have just enough time to get everything together by then.” She fixed Emeri with a stern gaze that invited no criticism.

“But First Mistress,” Emeri said through clenched teeth, “The dragon ride to Silverpoint always takes place during the Flower Festival. The DOGs need me to ride sweep. There’s going to be at least fifty riders from our kingdom going. I can’t miss it.” Her stomach curdled, and she hastily set down her teacup and saucer before she threw it into the fire.

“That brings us to the next subject,” The First Mistress continued, a tiny smirk appearing in her wrinkles. “Your inappropriate obsession with dragon riding will stop. It was suitable as a hobby when you were a child, but now you are too valuable to risk yourself up in the skies, holding onto a beast!”

“A beast?” Emeri barely kept her voice to a ladylike volume. “Petal is not a beast! She’s my best friend!”

The older woman sighed again and shook her head. “That proves our point, Lady Emeri. Now that you are a woman, you will find friendship other places. Perhaps if you are blessed by the Moon Mother, you will find it with your husband. This dragon nonsense ceases at once.”

Emeri knew that arguing with her foster mother would do no good, but her heart was breaking, and tears threatened her composure. She had known that The First Mistress did not approve of her dragon riding, but she never thought she would forbid it. There was no recourse. At least openly.

“Blessed First Mother,” she said instead. “I know that my life is to serve the Woodland queendom. My fate is in your hands, to do with as Sun Father and Moon Mother would reveal to you. I also know that a marriage alliance will strengthen our land. With such a destiny before me, could you fault me for seeking what pleasures I can find before I must play my role? Such a small thing, like the Silverpoint ride, would make it easier for me to attend to my courtship.” She held her breath and waited, her face controlled in respect.

The First Mistress lifted her eyebrow as if she didn’t expect this answer from the most difficult of her children. She drained the rest of her cup, and set it delicately back in its saucer, and placed it on her side table before answering.

“We are encouraged that you are ready to accept the responsibilities of your position. Perhaps a small indulgence like a last dragon ride would not be too much to ask. You may join the Silverpoint ride, and during it find a buyer for your dragon. You will have no further need of it when you return.” She gestured slightly with her hand, which Emeri knew was her dismissal. She tried not to fall on her face as she hastened out the door in her satin slippers.

After climbing up the stairs, unlacing her corset as she went, Emeri collapsed in her velvet dressing chair near the window. The full moon bathed the room in shades of blue that turned to purple as they mixed with the pink hues of her fireplace. She finally lost all control, and collapsed into sobs. A door opened, and Lacey came quickly to see what was wrong.

“Oh, Lacey!” she sobbed. “First Mistress is going to send Petal away. I have to stop riding! What am I going to do?”

Her servant wiggled into the chair next to her and put her arms around her. “Don’t cry, my Lady. She’ll know you cried if your eyes are puffy.” She pulled out a scented linen handkerchief. “Take this. You’ll think of something. You always do.”

The dejected young woman wiped her eyes, and looked out the window, looking for an answer somewhere. Her eyes glowed in the moonlight, and her face settled to stone. Emeri had always tried to be a mostly obedient daughter, at least as far as anyone knew. But now she was an adult, and needed to think for herself. She couldn’t live without Petal and dragon riding. She would have to think like a dragon rider and come up with a solution.

 

 

 

The Frozen Ride

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“You’d better wear your thermals,” my husband warned as he came inside with the motorcycle cover bundled up in front of him. “It’s only 39 degrees out there!”

“Don’t worry, I’ve got them on,” I assured him in a muffled voice as I bent over to zip up my stiff leather chaps. As I added layers of clothing, it had become increasing difficult to move. Currently I had on a thermal top, sweater, leather vest, and a heavy leather Harley jacket. My arms came to rest at nearly right angles from my body, and I couldn’t raise my leg higher than an inch.

So began a Harley overnighter that became known as our frozen ride. (Here I insert my disclaimer that if you are a permanent resident of Iowa, Minnesota, or Wisconsin, you will not feel one ounce of sympathy for us. Please suffer the whining of southern Californians.) Our HOG group set out from Riverside, California to Death Valley, ending up in Beatty, Nevada for the first night. It was the end of February, which for us meant weather anywhere from 60 degrees to 80 degrees, and usually clear skies. We did get the clear skies, but desert temperatures never got above a brisk 58 degrees.

As we approached Death Valley National Park, I noticed a thin coating of white on the land surrounding us. “What is that white stuff?” I asked my husband through our com system.

“It must be salt,” he answered.

Our pack of twenty motorcycles had been on the road since 7:00 a.m. with one breakfast break, and my leather gloves were not doing their job. Fortunately, I was the passenger, not the rider, so I could hide my hands behind the windbreak of my husband’s broad back. Although my neck and chin were wrapped in a thick wooly gaiter, my face under my helmet felt like it would crack if I smiled. As the hours passed, I passed from chilly to freezing cold to numb to final acceptance of the cold. The sun on the back of my jacket felt less cold than the racing wind that flowed around the front windshield and fairing before exiting over the tour pack behind my seat.

As I continued to ponder the patches of white crust that continued on both sides of the road, I began to have the sinking sensation that it was not salt. It was snow.

When we reached the tiny town of Beatty, I was ready to sit in front of our motel room heater for as long as it took to not feel cold. My husband and I both took steaming hot showers that night. We slept huddled under the blankets.

The next day, our road captain led us out in the middle of nowhere to a ghost town. It was so remote that he had to call the sheriff to let him know we were headed there. After riding under the frozen shadow of towering snow-covered peaks for about an hour, I could see wooden buildings huddled on the side of a foothill. This morning the temperature had been 32 degrees when we roared away from the motel. I was already sitting on my hands to keep them warm. In addition to the layers I wore yesterday, I had added two long sleeve shirts and my rain gear pants.

Jumping off our bike as soon as we arrived, I waddled over to the saloon, hoping for heat. However, I was greeted by a wood burning stove right inside the door, which began to heat the area around it, but did nothing for the rest of the large, open raftered room. Some of the other riders joined me, holding our hands as close as we dared to the giant cast iron stove. A few of the passengers had a shot of something the sheriff promised would “heat us up quick” but I passed on it, longing instead for coffee.

Soon it was time to move on, so we thanked the man, and headed up into the icy mountains. Our road would cross over them and dump us down to Bishop, where we would turn south to Lone Pine. Now the white crust became drifts of deep snow on the sides of the road, and I remembered the conversation one of the guys had with the sheriff at the ghost town.

“Is the road to Bishop open?” one of our leaders asked.

“I guess so,” the bearded man said with squinty eyes. “We haven’t had any rain in a week. You know they don’t plow that road if it snows.”

The road before us continued up and up, and the snow on the sides got deeper and deeper. Finally we reached the top of the pass, and the road captain waved us over to the side of the road. Oh no, I thought. We couldn’t see the road on the downside of the pass. Was it blocked with snow? Would we have to go all the way down the mountain and take a different route?

“Let’s take a picture,” my husband said, so I reluctantly unzipped my jacket to take out my phone. Suddenly one of the women passengers headed toward a huge snowbank. She scooped out a pile of snow and threw it at her husband. This began a brief snowball fight which I watched skeptically, with no desire to get my gloves wet. Then one of the men fell back into a drift and began to make snow angels. I was glad I didn’t have to sit behind him on a bike.

I reluctantly took a picture of my husband standing in front of the snow laden pines, and then he took a picture of me, my teeth chattering in my helmet. The group stood around talking and eating snacks. What about the road? Apparently there was no problem with the road ahead. Our road captain stopped so we could play in the snow.

Many frozen hours later, I huddled up to our motel heater in Lone Pine, looking through the window at the snow-covered peak of Mount Whitney. My hands gratefully clutched a scalding cup of instant Starbucks coffee. My husband checked the weather report on his phone, which cheerfully informed us that we could expect rain the following day back in Riverside.

At dinner that night, we talked about the brilliant mountains and sweeping valleys that we had ridden through that day. And of course we talked about the varying degrees of cold that we had endured. The riders who wore heated jackets and gloves that plugged into their bikes offered no complaints. But the rest of us wearing regular gear had plenty to talk about. Yet no one regretted the trip. For us to see that much snow on the mountains was rare for drought-stricken California. Surviving the frigid weather was the price of admission to an adventure that held a unique coolness unlike any other Harley trip.

The Biker Bar

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Suddenly, the appointed time arrived, and we scattered to our motorcycles, zipping up jackets and securing helmets. My husband nodded, and I slid in behind him on our Harley. The noise was deafening as the group lined up. Two by two the dog pack obediently emptied into the street, patiently holding back the thunderous power that its riders sat astride. The bikes passed through the gauntlet of traffic lights and stop signs, growling with anticipation.

At the appearance of an open road, each bike eagerly stretched its legs as riders spread out. As we rode through the backyard of the city, each turn contrasted cobbled together mobile homes with spreading mansions. Both poor and rich shared the pioneer’s dream. Wrought iron fences allowed me glimpses of apartment sized travel trailers, boats, vintage cars, and off road vehicles. The next turn revealed boarded up shacks, artifacts left behind when the dream failed.

The road began to climb up the side of the dusty mountain, and I peered cautiously over the edge. The lake below us was wreathed in deep blue mist. As I looked up, I was dazzled by the brilliant snowcapped mountains to the north. Yesterday, my boots crunched in the January snow up in those mountains, but today I rode behind my husband on our Harley in 60 degree sunshine. Again I was reminded why Californians find it difficult to be transplanted to other states.

When we gained the top, the Harley pack threaded through the narrow pass between the peaks. The tree covered mountains stretched before us, looking like a green blanket thrown over the ground. The mystery of their depths remained as we sped past, concentrating on the curves of the road. The wind buffeted our faces as impatient sport bikes rushed past our line, determined to push the boundary between the capability of their motorcycles and eminent death.

Finally the mountains spit us out into the hills near the beach. The pack turned, and we were greeted by rolling shrub-dotted hills. The wide, multi-lane road, bordered with elaborate landscaping, spoke of the area’s affluence. The major intersections boasted stores on all four corners, including upscale fast food restaurants for busy moms on their way home and headed for soccer practice.

A few turns later, we left the red tiled roofs and stretching bird-of-paradise behind and dropped down into a narrow canyon. The crowded big box houses gave way to sprawling ranches nestled under towering oak trees. Elegant horses lounged in white fenced corrals. Bicycle riders in full racing gear shared our mud-streaked road. I firmly planted my boots on my floor pedals so that I wouldn’t bump into my husband’s helmet on the steep crawl following the hair pin turns to the bottom. I realized how close we were to the beach when I saw the hull of a large boat under construction in someone’s front yard.

A flash of dazzling chrome signaled the end of our journey, Cook’s Corner. We pulled up next to custom choppers, full dresser cruisers, and lean sportsters. Live music called to us from the patio, smells of hamburgers and fries making my stomach rumble. After I peeled off my chaps and stashed my gloves and helmet, I followed my husband and our fellow riders across the wooden bridge. Instead of the small biker bar I was expecting, I was greeted with an open air flea market of leather motorcycle clothes, accessories, and garage decor.

After pondering over the motorcycle items we still didn’t have, we finally made it to the restaurant. Inside, bearded men were crowded at the bar, cheering at the football game. Spandex wrapped bicycle riders, an older gentleman in a wheelchair, and bikers wearing leather jackets with patches from various motorcycle clubs all patiently waited in a long line that eventually led to the ordering counter. The buzz of talking created its own energy, making the tiny restaurant more than a barbeque joint. We all enjoyed adventures getting here.

After picking up our tray of food, we joined our group seated at a redwood table outside. The band was cranking out classic rock on the patio a few steps above us, but we were far enough away to enjoy conversation. Looking around, I was again amazed at the variety of people surrounding us.

A table of motorcycle club members sat near a table of bicycle riders. An older couple helped their grandchildren with burgers at an umbrella table. Young sport bike riders in their bright neon green gear drank matching energy drinks with their barbeque sandwiches. Grey bearded riders huddled over their beers at a high counter that covered the outside wall. Our long table was filled with leathered up riders that during the week were teachers, office workers, and contractors.

Not all who journeyed here were motorcyclists, yet all shared the love of spending time outdoors on a sunny winter afternoon. For this moment, it was enough to connect us.

They’ll Never Understand Why We Ride

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Even though my back was stiff, I smiled at my co-workers in the lounge. One of my teacher friends squinted at me and asked, “How was your weekend?”

“Frank and I rode with the HOGs through the mountains to Borrego Springs, around the edge of the Salton Sea, and back over the badlands. 300 miles! It was awesome!” I said, overwhelming her stupor with my residual energy.

Sipping from her jumbo cup of coffee, she waited for my wave of enthusiasm to roll over her. “Wow, isn’t that really dangerous? Just last week, I passed by a motorcycle accident on the freeway. I’m sure they didn’t make it.” She shook her head, and then saw that the copier was open, so she ran for it with her stack of papers.

So I glimpsed the great divide between those who love to ride Harleys and those who think we are crazy.

When Frank and I first married, he told me about his years of riding different types of motorcycles, starting with his early dirt bike days. He would ride all day with his friend until the impending night forced them back to the house. Later, riding became his release, a way to work out his negative energy. But hard times forced him to sell his bike before we met. As we began to share each other’s dreams, I realized that one of his was to own a Harley.

At first he just wanted to find out whether or not I would enjoy riding behind him. My only experience on a motorcycle was as an eleven year old, hanging on behind my father on a vacation in the Bahama Islands. (More like an amusement park ride than a real motorcycle ride.) So we started with a scooter– fun but not very fast. Frank was a confident rider who inspired my confidence in him. Then we moved up to a small motorcycle, which gave us access to mountain roads. Wind rushing in my face and the rhythm of twisty roads reminded me of my skiing days. We enjoyed the ride, but looked hungrily at the full dresser motorcycles that rumbled by, their riders sitting comfortably behind a wind shield, sitting on full seats.

Finally, we had to do it. We bought a Harley, and even my husband, with all his experience, wasn’t prepared for how our lives changed.

For you see, buying a Harley doesn’t just gain you a mode of transportation. It initiates you into a worldwide club. Every Harley you pass on the street greets you with a secret gesture I’d never noticed before as a car driver. Now we had social permission to wear Harley Davidson jackets, hats, and tee shirts. The orange and black emblem started conversations with the most unlikely people we met. The dealership, not merely a place where we purchased our bike, became our club house, complete with donuts and coffee, bike shows and other events.

As we rode, we saw groups pass us with their patches on their jackets and their sense of purpose. Riding was fun, but riding with a bunch of bikes sounded more fun. We sought out other responsible riders who wanted to have fun and live to get there. So we joined the HOGs, the Harley Owners Group. Experienced road captains plan the rides, from the route to the restaurant. Members help out with community charities, and participate in overnighter trips as well as day rides.

But the HOGs are more than that. We have discovered friends that we would never have encountered in our regular lives, comrades who brave heat, cold, wind, and loose gravel to explore forgotten roads. Roads through avocado groves, vineyards, and boulder strewn sculptures. Roads that lead to famous road house diners and more of our kind. People who love their adventure on two wheels.

And their co-workers in their break rooms shake their heads and don’t understand why we ride.

 

 

From Culture to Chaos

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The Getty Villa in Malibu is not the usual Harley ride we experience with the Harley Owners Group (HOGs). In fact it normally would not appear on our calendar, but someone at the activity meeting raised their hand and suggested it. The Getty Villa was once the home of the Getty Art Museum before its current location near the Hollywood Bowl. The buildings in themselves are works of art, and they house a famous collection of Greek and Roman antiquities.

Early that morning, I shivered even with my layers of sweaters under my leather jacket and leather chaps over my jeans. It was a cool southern California winter day, just warm enough to ride and make Midwestern motorcyclists jealous. Grateful that our Ultra had a windshield, I hid behind my husband’s back as he rode to our meeting place.

At kickstands up time, we left Riverside to head toward the beach. The freeway ride wasn’t memorable, except for the light Sunday traffic through downtown Los Angeles. A jagged mishmash of tall buildings looked forlorn as they waited for the work week to start again. Dark clouds hung over the distant mountains, but the western view toward the beach was cool and sunny. A perfect day to ride.

After our group of fifteen bikes took turns to pay parking at the main gate, we were directed up the hill over the rough paving stones, our teeth chattering as we rode. A helpful parking attendant led us to our own section in the covered parking garage.

Our group stayed mostly together as we walked through the exhibit rooms. Rooms were filled with vases and larger than life human figures. The male statues obviously were based on an ideal form and not real men. Many of the statues were missing heads or arms, due to the lack of art appreciation from invading armies. One exhibit featured mosaic floors that had been removed from ruins, with multicolored tiny tiles forming pictures of hunting parties.

After wandering the gardens and courtyards filled with black statues, we had worked up an appetite for lunch. One of the guys suggested Neptune’s Net, a biker hangout on Pacific Coast Highway. We pulled on jackets, helmets, and gloves and lined up to exit the parking garage.

That’s when we became celebrities. As the line of roaring motorcycles (amplified by the covered parking garage) filed out, a group of at least fifty Asian tourists mobbed us with cries of “Harley, Harley!” and “Handsome man!” The woman, none younger than 60 years old, stood next to the front bike as their husbands took photos. Then they allowed one bike to pass, and they did it again for the next one, all the way through entire group. When we finally escaped without harming any people or bikes, we headed up PCH with the wind in our faces and the roar of the surf to our left.

We wound through the tiny communities that hug the beach until we reached the restaurant. It was a small building with mostly outdoor searing with the entire front covered with motorcycles. Not just Harleys but hundreds of sport bikes of every brand. I saw a Ducati parked next to a Yamaha that was next to a BMW. Across the street, on the beach side, hundreds of bikers stood on sand dune, talking and looking out at the ocean.

It took a while to find a spot at the end of the long line of motorcycles parked on the edge of the highway. As we walked up to the line to order lunch, I noticed that in addition to the traditional leather clad bearded biker guys, there were hipsters sporting handlebar moustaches, multiple piercings, and vintage store clothes. There also were families with young children that apparently had arrived by car and sports bike riders in full off road motorcycle outfits.

Thankfully the restaurant owners knew that bikers with full stomachs are happier than hungry ones, and we got our food quickly. My fish and chips were delicious, and the seafood platter I saw down the table looked substantial even for the hungriest rider.

Seating was cramped so some of the groups merged at the picnic tables. We shared stories with a biker up from Venice. After I told him about our rock star experience at the Getty Villa, he chuckled like he was there. He told us about their chapter ride that brought the entire state’s members together that day. Even though our riding clubs were very different, sharing food together at this moment, at the beach, on a brilliant sunny day united us as a community of adventurers.

Finally we gathered up our group and formed a plan to meet up at a gas station a few miles down the road. It would be too dangerous to line up our bikes on the side of the highway. However this did not stop the sport bike club from lining up in the middle turn lane and roaring off together without looking back toward traffic. My husband pulled out onto the road, only to have a huge swarm of roaring motorcycles fly by us. The noise was so loud I wanted to cover my ears but I already was wearing my helmet.

As we allowed the bikes to pass and followed them at a distance, I relaxed against my backrest and tapped my com button to listen to music. I thought about the hushed rooms at the Villa compared to the roar of the crowds at Neptune’s Net. We were heading home from another amazing adventure, one that had taken us from culture to chaos.

Planning to Ride

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“Alright everybody! Grab some seconds and then a seat. Each table will make a group to brainstorm new ideas for rides.”

The laughing bunch of riders eventually settled down to start the Harley Owners Group (HOG) activity meeting. Held in a garage that was more finished and decorated than some people’s homes, it started with food and drink, a requirement of any HOG meeting. Tonight it was burgers and salads. One wall of cabinets was covered with chart paper listing different types of day and overnight rides. During previous meetings members had added colored dots to vote for their favorites so that priority rides could be identified. Crossed out locations indicated that the ride had already been scheduled. It was part of an intricate system that the activities director used to involve members in the planning of rides.

I sat down at a table where we were handed three index cards. Each group was tasked with coming up with a day ride, a dinner ride, and a possible overnighter. Groups were made up of veteran members as well as newcomers like me. We talked about possible destinations, dictated by scenic roads, appropriate weather, and good food destinations.

Soon our time limit was up, and I scribbled down the locations we agreed upon. The activities director now offered us playing cards and each group had to choose one. The value of the card determined the order that the groups presented their proposed trips. Each group had to choose one of their three cards to add to the schedule, depending on what was still needed. The goal of the meeting was to plan the next three months with one ride per weekend, and at least one overnighter. We needed longer day trips as well as short Greet-And-Ride trips for newer riders.

After much laughter and heated discussion, our destinations were set and ride captains were chosen (or drafted), filling up the calendar. Our amazing director had corralled twenty highly independent and spontaneous Harley riders into planning a variety of rides including a tamale festival in the desert, a ghost town, and the Getty Villa in Malibu. Our next overnighter would be a three day trip to Death Valley in February. As the rides were completed, we would meet again. Instead of a small group of officers telling us what to do (never the best strategy with bikers) we were all invested in the process and having fun at the same time. That’s another reason we ride with the HOGs.