Back Roads to Pioneertown

jrizzotto pioneertown

The ride captain promised roads we had never seen, and our chapter, the Inland Empire Harley Owners Group, was ready to accept that challenge. At the check-in, I was still yawning from the Daylight Savings Time clock change. My husband fiddled with settings on the stereo, twitching with nervous energy. He always awoke by 4:00 am on the days we rode. I shared hugs and greeting with the other women while my husband and the other men settled for a head nod. A few ran into the dealership for a last minute restroom stop, while others downed their last swig of coffee. Then the road captain gave the signal, and we all layered up our leather and lined up in the parking lot.

Two by two, in staggered formation, our Harley-Davidson motorcycles roared down the street, the sound echoing off the surrounding buildings. A few blocks later, 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 in one group. Eventually open space allowed us to line up in staggered formation as we endured the mindless repetition of merging traffic and slow trucks, road construction and oblivious drivers.

Cloud topped mountains drew closer, appearing to my bleary eyes as 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 approached our exit. Not for the first time, I marveled at these independent rebels, Harley riders, obediently following each other, submitted to the safety of the group. At the end of the ramp, we paused, free from the freeway’s chaotic energy. One by one the pack turned onto a narrow winding road that carved through the mountains toward the high desert valleys.

Our Ultra Limited touring bike danced to the rhythm of curves and dips as we traveled through land that scorned man’s ambitions. A sheer rock wall peered at us from the left with a lofty arrogance. These rocks stood witness to Native American tribes roaming 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 bikes stretched their legs and gained speed. Gradually I grew aware of an ominous grey wall of mountains on our left growing closer as we rode. As I looked behind and ahead of us, I could see no end to the ridge. Yet our road seemed determined to connect with it. I wondered how we would cross its summit. Would the road lift us to the top of that wall or would we discover a blasted tunnel, man’s victory over the mountain?

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. No snow or water here, except trapped behind a dam.

The bikes passed 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 surely he was kin to the determined men who settled this desert. 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.

The road called us on, and we descended into another valley, this one much hotter and dryer than the last. Pink mountain peaks lined the horizon on the left. A smudge in the distance slowly revealed to be 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. My husband pulled into the dirt parking lot and parked our bike at the end of the row, just like cowboys would have tied up their horses in front of the saloon.

I carefully dismounted our Harley, stiff muscles protesting. We peeled off our helmets and layers of jackets and leather chaps. Every face revealed a wide smile. Even though we had just ridden for hours over twisting roads and through dry dusty towns, I felt energized. My husband and I followed the line of riders to the restaurant. It was time for food and drink, tales and jokes, friendships forged in adventure.

Hot Tamales, Cool Ride

Indio

 

One of the great things about a HOG ride is that although you know your final destination, but you can never be sure how you’ll get there.

It was our second time riding out to the Tamale Festival in Indio. Frank and I were eagerly anticipating the endless variety of tamales awaiting us. Our friend, Jim, was excited about leading his first HOG ride. The morning air was crisp but the sun gently smiled on us as we parked by the line of Harleys at the dealership. I waddled off the bike, bundled up in layers, knowing that it would be much warmer out in the desert past Palm Springs. Frank, as usual, wore his jacket but no leather chaps. The only time he felt cold was Death Valley, but that’s another tale.

We introduced ourselves to the new people on the ride, and I thought back to the first time we rode with the HOGs. Years later, I still can remember how my heart jumped at the sound of roaring engines as we formed a column in the parking lot. That was the beginning of many riding adventures throughout the Southern California and into nearby southwestern states.

Our ride leader called us over and outlined our route, including a rest stop in Banning, where a few more riders would join us. Then we took our group photo, and buckled on our helmets. We couldn’t avoid the long stretch of freeway necessary to deliver us to the festival, but a more roundabout road would break up the ride.

Instead of heading directly toward Indio on the freeway, Jim led us on a scenic route up Lambs Canyon toward Banning. The road wound through piles of sculptured rock that felt like traveling through an art exhibition. As the passenger, I was free to watch the show unfold around us as we snaked through the hills.

After our rest stop in Banning, it was time to hop on the freeway and head out toward the windmills. Traffic wasn’t too bad considering it was December, and we cruised past the outlet stores, casino, and dinosaurs at Cabazon. Then we charged up the pass, surrounded by churning windmills, always making me feel like we were trespassing on an alien landscape.

The freeway past the Palm Springs turnoff seems like it goes on forever, and if we didn’t stop, we’d end up in Arizona. Finally, the hand signals went up, and we exited, riding the bridge over the huge sandy wash into Indio. We found parking a few blocks away, and peeled away our leathers to enjoy the warm desert sun.

The Tamale Festival spread out around the old downtown section of Indio. Colorful dancers and lively folk music welcomed us from several stages. We lined up at various booths to buy award-winning tamales, as well as unexpected treats such as lobster macaroni and cheese. After a few tamales, I cooled down with fresh coconut sorbet, served in a coconut shell.

Some of us proved braver than others, sampling jalapeno lemonade and chocolate tamales. Frank and I had a system that we had developed from the prior year. When we first arrived, we both would each eat one whole tamale. After unwrapping it like an early Christmas gift, we devoured the soft crumbly masa filled with spicy meat. Then we would split the following varieties until we couldn’t stuff another forkful into our mouths. Walking around the festival as we ate helped us make room for more.

After completing the circle of booths around the block, it was time to head home, marking the end of another HOG adventure. We had shared the excitement of the journey, delicious homemade food, and shared laughter. If you missed this one, don’t feel bad. Join us for another ride next weekend.

The Rock Store

Rock Store

If you’re not a motorcycle rider, you’ve probably never heard of The Rock Store. Why would a former hot springs resort and bootlegger hideout attract crowds of Harley-Davidsons, Hondas, and sport bikes every weekend? Our HOG chapter spent a warm Sunday in January finding out.

Our group included twenty bikes when we left the inland desert town of Riverside early that morning, navigating the Los Angeles area freeways in one solid block of snarling engines. We successfully threaded through the beach-bound traffic jam to stop at the Huntington Beach Harley-Davidson dealership, earning a rest and shopping break.

After sliding off our Ultra Limited touring bike, I quickly unzipped and unsnapped my leather chaps, folded them up as small as I could and stuffed them into my saddlebag. The morning was warming up fast, and my phone promised temperatures in the 70s by the coast. My husband Frank, who’s never cold, was already wearing a light jacket, tee shirt, and jeans. We shared the last swigs of our first water bottle, and headed into the dealership. I’ve learned over the years riding with a group, that a restroom break should be taken whenever we turn off the engine because it could be a long time (up to 200 miles) until the next stop.

The dealership was set up in a large warehouse building with a high, unfinished ceiling and wide open interior. Rows and rows of Harleys waited for admiration. Half of the store was dedicated to motor clothes and accessories. Some of our group picked at the apparel sales racks while others drooled over the vast selection of bikes. Eventually we all ended up in the parking lot, munching on Jay’s freshly baked friendship cake. The moist cake filled with fruit chunks was delicious and not too sweet. I licked every crumb off my fingers before putting back on my gloves.

After glancing at his phone for the time, our ride leader, Tom, herded up the group to continue on our journey. We jumped back on our bikes and filed onto the freeway, two by two. So far traffic was moving at a normal pace, and I looked up to see a huge jet airliner roaring over our heads as we rode through Los Angeles toward Santa Monica. The freeway finally ended, and we turned onto the Pacific Coast Highway bound for Malibu. Surfers bobbed in the ocean and people lounged on the beach, the cool salt air calling us with its siren song. We resisted its pull and followed our road northward. It would still be a long time before we could rest.

Although our route was not the most direct one to our destination, Tom chose a southern approach to avoid some of the gusty Santa Ana winds that pop up during Southern California’s winter season. He led our long line of bikes around the coastline, jagged cliffs to our right and shimmering navy waves to our left. The multistory buildings of Santa Monica gave way to small single story beach homes huddled together on the beach side, and the large homes perched on the mountainside. I couldn’t help wondering if the dilapidated shack covered by mud we passed was still worth millions of dollars just because of its address.

Finally, our group turned right onto Kanan Road and entered the windy canyons above Malibu. We passed ranches and vineyards, some hidden under the oak groves while others boldly crested the rolling hills. Then one more turn— Mulholland Highway.

I’m sure you’ve heard of it, or have seen the twisty mountain road on car commercials. It’s an old road, pressed into the side of a canyon wall, switching back and forth in tight turns all the way down to the bottom. A technical ride, but that wasn’t the challenging part. At the top of the hill, we encountered a large group of sport bikes parked on the edge of the road and a few riders spinning around in circles in the middle of the road, leaving concentric circles of tire marks across it. A few guys stood with video cameras filming their antics. Fortunately, they moved to the side as we passed, watching them with tight eyes.

As we twisted our way slowly down the steep mountainside, sport bikes flew up the road toward us, hugging the center of the road. As we felt their wind buffet us, Frank kept to our side of the yellow line, although not too close to the rocks strewn near the outside edge of our lane. Unlike my husband, whose eyes focused on our path, I had the freedom to watch our descent into the vast wooded canyon, one turn after the other.

Finally, the road straightened out, and hundreds of bikes parked on both sides announced that we had reached The Rock Store. Eventually, and with considerable patience, everyone in our group found a place to park, as sports bikes zipped down the road in front of the tiny diner as if there weren’t riders trying to back their bikes into place or people crossing the road.

Why The Rock Store? It must have been the location. At the bottom of the canyon, it was the perfect place for bikers and sports car drivers to stop for a cool drink. The building itself wasn’t anything to look at. An old rock walled square building with wooden additions sticking out on the sides. A terraced patio filled with bikers. Roaring laughter and revving engines made the air tingle around us.

Inside, antique bikes and photos with movie stars covered the walls. Frank and I walked up to the counter and ordered lunch, and joined the rest of our group upstairs sitting in vintage yellow vinyl booths. History was another reason for this hangout’s popularity. Many celebrities had slid into these now cracking seats over the years. Whether they came by Ferrari, Harley-Davidson, or Ducati, these canyon riders ended up here for refreshment before continuing on their journeys.

The food was good enough, typical roadhouse fare. When we finished, we stood talking to the rest of our group, about the perfect deep blue ocean, the cool wind whipping our faces, and the tree covered vistas. Natural beauty intruded on by man’s constructions. The journey made us into poets.

As I looked past our friends into the bustling crowd of smiling faces jammed into this tiny roadhouse, I realized that now we belonged to a select club, those who had ridden Mulholland and stopped here. Perhaps becoming part of its history was the lure of the Rock Store.

The cold ride- part two

 

frozen

The next morning, Frank coaxed me away from the motel heater with promises of coffee. My phone told me it was 32 degrees. Today our ride would take us up a mountain pass that would dump us out into Bishop, and then we would stop for our second night in Lone Pine. One new couple in our group had been watching the weather, and there was a looming possibility of rain and snow. His wife was cold, and they decided to go back by themselves, through the low desert and skip today’s adventures. I was tempted, but Frank gave me his “You’re kidding me!” look and I stayed quiet.

Of course we couldn’t ride directly to our destination. On our way to the mountains, we visited a ghost town. It was so remote that the road captain had to call the sheriff/owner of the town to let him know we were headed his way. As we rode through the desolate landscape, it wasn’t hard to imagine that we were a pack of outlaws headed out to our remote hideout. Few cars passed or approached us, and the dirt roads that intersected our highway seemed to lead nowhere. Towering snow-covered mountains peeked out from behind the desert hill on our left, and grew closer with every mile.

After riding for about an hour, we turned off the main highway onto a dirt road that intersected the icy ridge. As we approached, wooden buildings emerged between the hills.  I shivered, in spite of my additional layers of two long sleeve shirts and my rain gear pants over my chaps.

Sliding off our bike as soon as we arrived, I waddled over to the saloon, ready to pay a hundred dollars for a cup of coffee. Inside the entrance sat a wood burning stove, which began to heat the area around it, but did nothing for the rest of the large, open beamed room. Some of the other riders joined me, holding our hands as close as we dared to the cast iron giant. A few of the passengers had a shot of something the sheriff promised would “heat us up quick” but I passed on it, still bitter about the lack of coffee.

Frank and I walked around, looking at the restored buildings that had originally been part of a gold mining town. There was a tiny post office, bunkhouses, stables, jail and even a gallows. Apparently the “sheriff” had won money at a nearby casino and bought the town. He lived there with a few other people, but it wasn’t clear what they really did. Some things are better not to know.

The road captain called us back to our bikes. We thanked the man, and rumbled back down the dusty road out to the main highway. The road turned facing the icy peaks, and we climbed up into their shadow. 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,” replied the bearded man 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?

Everyone parked and got off their bikes. Frank and I walked up to the crest of the hill, squeezing each other hands.

“Wow!” Frank echoed my thoughts as we looked out over a huge valley that unfolded before us. A carpet of snow covered the land all the way down to the base of the mountains, but the road was clear and dry. At the base of the mountains, rolling hills spread out in every direction. Was it my imagination, or could I see all the way to the sparkling coast? Nature dominated here, with a few telephone poles and roads to indicate man’s presence.

“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. Frank and I moved quickly out of the way. A brief snowball fight began, 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 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. Despite my fears, 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 on the trip back to Riverside the next day.

Curiously, there was a four-star gourmet restaurant in the tiny town of Lone Pine. Of course, our road captain knew about it, so some rode and some walked a few blocks down to it. Over steaks and salmon, we raved about the brilliant mountains and sweeping valleys that we had ridden through that day. We shared our reactions to the varying degrees of cold that we endured over the past two days. The smart riders who wore heated jackets and gloves that plugged into their bikes offered no complaints. I made a mental note that we would have to purchase these items before the next winter overnighter. But the rest of us wearing regular gear had plenty to talk about.

Yet no one regretted the trip. To see snow-draped 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.

A different ride- part three

PismoFrankme

 

One of the differences between a HOG day ride and an overnighter is how you feel the next day. On a day ride, you roll out of bed the next morning, headed back to work, adventure over. However, on an overnighter, when you get up in the morning, the adventure’s just begun.

After gulping down Starbucks instant coffee, which I always include in our gear, Frank and I got ready to meet up with the group for our second day’s ride. Last night’s hot shower had loosened kinks in my back, and I felt the hum of adrenaline warming me. I pulled my hair back with my headband first and then braided it. Wearing a helmet made hair styling impossible. Outside our motel window, I could see Frank wiping down our Harley, the seats soaked by the moist ocean air overnight. I unplugged our helmets with their com links charged for the day. Then I grabbed some tangerines, trail mix, and water bottles, and carried them out to pack into our saddlebags. I joined Frank, who stood talking with one of our friends who was going to lead the ride today.

We were all going different places. After the initial ride up to San Simeon, our HOG group split up on the second day for various types of rides. Part of our group had already left early in the morning for Monterey through wine country. Another group was going later to Hearst Castle. Frank and I decided to ride with a group headed down the coast highway to Pismo Beach. All of us would meet back for a pizza party by the pool when the sun went down.

Slowly our group stumbled out of their motel rooms and prepared their bikes. A few decided we needed more than granola bars for breakfast so we walked to the restaurant next door. Another group was eating there, wearing their HOG colors. We introduced ourselves to them, a HOG chapter from Ventura. This happens frequently on our rides. Belonging to HOG includes you in large family of Harley lovers all over the world.

After we all had stuffed ourselves with pancakes and eggs, it was time to ride. Even though the sun felt warm, I stayed in my leather chaps and heavy jacket. I knew that when we got up to cruising speed, it would stay cool enough. It was a bright morning with a blinding blue sky and a crisp gentle breeze. Perfect riding weather. The road captain started his bike, and it was time to go.

Our line of sixteen Harleys roared down the highway, crashing waves challenging us on the right and tall pines whispering on the left. The pounding surf raised a spray of mist that hugged the shore. These were not the crowded public beaches of Southern California. This jagged coastline was desolate and untamed.

A giant volcanic boulder, known as Morro Rock, grew larger on the horizon, marking the entrance to Morro Bay. Before reaching it, we took a slight detour into Cayucos, a tiny beachside community. As we passed an RV park, I told Frank on the com link that I would give up our three-bedroom house for that view every day. He laughed. As we passed shops and small motels, I longed to stop and explore, but the captain pulled us further down the road. Maybe another trip.

Upon reaching Morro Bay, we turned inland, and rolling hills carpeted in fresh pine scented green, replaced the sweeping vista of the beach. As the bikes swooped up and down the hills, I caught glimpses of ranch homes and barns, hidden under the trees. On and one we rode, dancing with the mountains, disappearing around curves, and emerging on the side of a distant cliff.

Although I could have ridden like that for an entire day, eventually we reached San Luis Obispo, home to one of California’s missions, and more recently a college town. The downtown area bustled with restaurants and bars. The Harleys crawled through the downtown traffic, our engines echoing off the sides of tall buildings, making a little girl shriek as she stood at the stoplight with her family. I smiled and waved. She waved back.

After our parade through town, we jumped on the 101 freeway that carried us back out to the coast. Time slowed as the bikes roared down the road. From our viewpoint toward the back, it seemed like the line of bikes went on forever in front of us, pulling us toward adventure.

We stretched out along the road, and didn’t feel the press of traffic again until we reached the beach town of Pismo Beach. The streets were jammed with people eager to hit the beach. We stalked the narrow streets like predators, seeking parking spots for all our bikes. Finally, we found a public lot, and we were able to squeeze four bikes into each parking spot. Then we peeled off the outer layers of jackets, vests, and chaps in the warm sunshine.

Walking down the streets in our biker gear, our group looked fierce and more than a little rowdy. But we were husbands, wives, daughter, boyfriends, and girlfriends, no different than the other tourists that crowded the streets. We ducked into shops along the way, buying salt-water taffy and tee shirts. Eventually we ended up at the pier.  It was Veteran’s Day weekend, and we had just missed a flag ceremony. Elderly gentlemen in military uniforms packed away flags. A white-haired woman carrying a huge tray offered us some cookies.

We spent a few minutes looking out over the pier at the crazy people swimming in the frigid November water. This was classic California winter weather. One day it can be stormy and flooding, and the next day a perfect beach day. After posing for a group picture, we decided it was time to munch more than cookies.

Our destination was Splash, a famous clam chowder shop. It was a few blocks up from the Pismo pier. We got in the line that snaked out of the entrance of the small restaurant and all the way around the side of the building. Although I first despaired, the line kept moving, and soon Frank and I were cradling bowls of savory white soup, with huge chunks of potatoes and clams poking out. It was so fresh and delicious it ruined my appetite for any other clam chowder after that day. I kept licking my bowl until Frank gave me the stink eye.

After lunch, we wandered our way back to the parking lot. I was ready for a nap, but it was time to ride. We zipped up our lighter jackets and strapped on our helmets. One by one, we growled out of the parking lot and back onto the highway.

Our leader decided to take us a different way home, through the inland small town of Edna.  At once we became time travelers, visiting another California, one with town squares and picket fences. Our loud bikes caused many heads to turn. We were outlaws riding through town on our horses, disturbing the peace.

As we passed back through San Luis Obispo on the way back, it felt familiar, like we were friends now. As we poured out of the hills, Morro Rock called us home. I took a deep breath of the ocean air and squinted my eyes against the shimmering foam rimming the coast. Now my hips ached, and my knees were tight. However, Frank looked like he could ride forever, his face frozen in a huge smile.

One more rest stop awaited us along the road. Our leader took us off the coast highway at Harmony. Harmony is a quaint roadside dairy farm that features glass blowing, ceramic art, and gourmet ice cream. I peeked through a window into an old chapel and hall available for weddings. Everything about it was romantically rustic. Frank and I ate our delicious and very expensive ice cream while the group took a break. Everyone was tired from riding all day.

Finally, it was time to load up and head out. As I adjusted my helmet and put on my gloves, I reflected on how different this was from the usual day ride with the HOGs. Everyone was more relaxed. No one was racing off to take care of other errands or responsibilities. We rode a lot, but we also had time to sit around eating and talking. Plenty of time to hear everyone’s stories.

Maybe that was part of the difference. Ride for the day and we become friends. Ride for the weekend, and we become family.

A different ride- part two

san simeon

 

The line of Harleys snaked over the windswept mountains, scattered ranch houses our only company. No people or animals appeared. When did these people work on their land? The lonely hills rolled off into the distance in front of us. The only sound was the roar of motorcycles echoing around us. The bikers in front pointed toward black splotches in the opposite land of the narrow road that lifted us up and down like a roller coaster.

“What are they pointing at?” Frank said over our helmet com link.

I scrunched up my eyes through the dark lens of my visor. Although it was cloudy, the light bouncing off the barren landscape remained bright. The dark spots looked like lumps of something. Animal feces? Until I realized they were moving toward our side of the road.

“I don’t know,” I finally answered. “The wind must be blowing dirt around.” It was probably a good thing I didn’t realize until later that the blobs were tarantulas crossing the road.

The road whipped us along the edge of hills until it finally dropped us down into the oil fields outside of Taft. Now the barren desert around us on both sides featured oil pipelines and dinosaur-like oil pumps. The perfectly straight road lead us into the town of Taft, our lunch stop. We rolled up to McDonalds and I hopped off. Frank waited patiently as the bikes in front of him backed into parking spots. Then it was his turn, and he turned off our bike. After hours of droning motors, it was quiet.

The group spread out over most of the restaurant. I was famished but didn’t want to eat too much before continuing the ride. Feeling too full on the back of a Harley is very uncomfortable. Frank and I enjoyed our burgers and chicken nuggets, and talked with some of the others. You could clearly tell the difference between the regular McDonalds patrons and our HOG group by the huge smiles on our faces. Even though we’d been riding for half a day, we felt energized. Plus we knew we still had a few more hours ahead before our motel at the beach.

When everyone was finished, and the hard part about stopping on a Harley trip is waiting for everyone to be finished, the road captains called us together and went over the next part. Some of us changed out heavy jackets for lighter ones as the temperature had risen to the sixties. I didn’t change anything, because sometimes the beach could be colder than inland. After my Death Valley experience, I’d decided I preferred being hot to being cold.

The group helmeted up, and we started our engines. Two by two, the group lined up in the parking lot, as other cars tried to go around us, giving us jealous stare through the windows of their cars. Then the group was off, roaring back on the road once more.

It only took a few minutes to shake ourselves loose of the town, and we continued to ride past oil fields until they turned into farmland, and then vineyards. The line of bikes headed into the hills toward the beach.

The vineyards proved their prosperity by the huge hotel sized homes that crouched inside. Endless rows of fences held up the vines that often featured shiny tinsel that shook in the wind and scared off birds. White fences surrounded huge areas of land. Signs on the outside of decorative wrought-iron gates invited people in for wine tasting, bed and breakfast stays, or wedding venues. I longed to stop and enjoy the fruits of their labor, but the group continued toward our goal.

By this time, I was tiring of the music selections on my iPhone, and my hips were starting to ache. I was envious of Frank, with his legs stretched out on his highway pegs although I could tell he was getting sore, too, as he often fidgeted on his seat. By this time, we had already been riding for about eight hours. Still the bikes rode on, through the hills, occasionally passing a car, but mostly by ourselves until we ended up in town.

The group dumped onto the 101 freeway, getting up some speed until we got off a few exits later. Then we turned back into the wooded farmlands, continuing our dance toward the coast highway. These fields were lush and green, and we saw our first coastal pine trees. With my visor up, I could smell the fresh tang of salt and pine, a welcome change from the dusty inland.

“Are you ready to stop for the day?” Frank asked.

“I can’t wait to get off this bike,” I said. “I can’t feel my butt anymore.”

We followed the line of bikes onto the coast highway, and I caught my first glimpse of crashing breakers on the shore, rimmed with tall pine trees. The highway passed through pockets of tall trees before opening up to marshland. The ocean glistened in the afternoon sun. The breeze was cool but not freezing against my face.

Finally, we turned onto the frontage road that passed our motel. Our group filled up the parking lot of the small motel. Frank parked the bike, and I stumbled off, walking like a cowboy after a long day’s ride. I grabbed a cup of coffee in the motel lobby and waited in line to check in.

With key cards in hand, I directed Frank over to park in front of our room, gratefully a first floor one. He unfastened our luggage, and I grabbed snacks and drinks out of our saddlebags and we headed into our room. We both peeled off our layers of leather and collapsed on our bed. It felt good to be still for a few moments.

Even though today’s ride was over, the weekend had barely begun.

A different ride- part one

san simeon2

 

Every November, the Inland Empire Harley Owners Group rides to San Simeon, a tiny seaside town on the central coast of California. The group spends the weekend there, riding to various destinations along the coast and into the rolling hills of the surrounding wine country. This year was the second time my husband, Frank, and I had gone, but the first time on our Harley.

Last year, on the day before the trip, our ignition switch broke on our nearly new Harley-Davidson Ultra Limited touring bike. Fortunately, it was a warranty repair, but we would have to wait three weeks because the part was VIN specific from the manufacturer in Milwaukee.

We screamed, we cried, we stamped our feet, and then we pouted. After that, we decided we should go anyway, and chase the group with our car. The scenery was beautiful, friends were a blast, and we even drove up to Monterey and enjoyed clam chowder at Fisherman’s Wharf. Fun, but not the same as riding in a roaring pack of motorcycles.

Fast forward to this year. Our bike was working perfectly. Frank and I met the group at a donut shop at 5:30 a.m., shivering in our leathers. As I signed the ride sheet, I couldn’t believe that we were finally going. Frank joked with the guys as we waited for our KSU (kick stands up time) at 6:00 a.m. On an overnighter, the schedule must be followed to ensure we arrive at our destination before dark. A few more riders signed in, and then we zipped up our jackets, buckled on our helmets, and started up the bikes. We headed toward another meeting place farther up the freeway where the other half of our group of twenty-five bikes planned to meet us.

When the whole group finally got together at McDonalds off the 15 freeway at Highway 138, it was time for one more cup of coffee, bathroom stop, and a group photo. Hugs and smiles were evidence of the excitement that everyone shared. Frank and I shared a small cup of coffee, sleepy but not willing to drink too much before riding 200 miles to the next bathroom stop. It was foggy and cold up in the pass, and we added soft fuzzy neck gaiters under our helmets.

The ride captain called us together and outlined our route. Most of our day would be spent on backroads, well away from the clogged freeways headed out of Southern California. Instead we would cross the high desert and head into the mountains near Gorman, crossing over the infamous 5 freeway. Then we would cross through the mountains at Frazier Park, and dump into the oil fields near Taft. Then we would cut through wine country toward the coast, and follow the Coast Highway up toward our motel in San Simeon.

After he finished, we scattered toward our various motorcycles. There were touring bikes like ours, with windshields, comfortable back seats, and hard tour packs topped with luggage bags. Others rode more traditional Harley-Davidsons, low-slung with leather saddlebags and backpacks attached to the backrests. Some of the women, like me, rode behind their husband or boyfriend. Other women rode their own bikes. One couple each rode their own bikes and their twenty-five year old daughter rode her own Sportster. There was even a Harley trike.

We lined up on the frontage road in a two by two formation, waiting for everyone to join in. The roar of the engines was deafening, and caused many heads to turn from the parking lot. It wasn’t often that people saw this many motorcycles traveling together. Then the ride captain took off, and Frank followed as the bikes in front of him moved, leaving us in the middle of the pack.

My adrenaline kept me warm for the first hour, at least until we emerged out of the fog and into a sunny desert morning. The desert sprawled out to our right, and a ridge of mountains guarded our left. A few houses and barns sprinkled here and there assured us that we hadn’t completely left civilization. The group droned on toward the coast, owning the road in front of us and as far back as we could see. Some of the cars we overtook were courteous enough to pull over and let us pass. I noticed a man taking video of us on his phone from the side of the road. Traveling with a group of bikes often feels like being in a parade.

Our first bathroom stop was in Gorman, off the 5 freeway in the area known as the Grapevine. My legs were stiff, and I was glad to get off the bike for a little while. All the bikes topped off on their fuel, since it would be a long time until we crossed the mountains and ended up down in Taft for lunch. Of course, the gas station only had two restrooms, so it took a while before we were ready to go.

One of the women riders tried to start her bike after getting gas, and it wouldn’t turn over. A few of the guys went over to look at it. Unfortunately, they couldn’t get it started, so Jim, our HD Chapter manager, called the nearest dealership and arranged to have her bike towed back to Riverside. I gave her a hug, realizing what a disappointment it was to cut off a trip on the first day. But she assured us that she would go back to Riverside, and return in her truck the next day. Jim, his wife and another guy stayed back to wait with her while the rest of the group got ready to take off.  They would catch up with us at the motel.

The group headed up into the mountains. As the sun warmed my face through my helmet visor, I finally stopped shivering and relaxed. Up to this point, this trip had seemed unreal. After last year’s disappointment, I was almost afraid to get excited about it. But this was really happening. Frank and I were riding with the HOGs on our way to a weekend full of backroads and hanging out with friends.

Skiing Palomar on a Harley

Palomar

 

Although Mt. Palomar enjoys an occasional dusting of snow and ice, there’s not enough for a ski resort. The only way to ski its winding road is on a Harley. One simmering day in August, the HOGs answered the challenge of thirty-five miles of twisty roads that loop up to the observatory and back down to Lake Henshaw.

The main road dropped us off like a ski lift, and the ride began. Our front wheel cut through the curves like a set of skis navigating a mogul field. I couldn’t see Frank’s face but if I could, I know I’d see his huge smile. And it’s even more fun from the passenger’s seat, where I was free to look out over the spreading valleys with their guardian mountains while our bike swooshed back and forth on the relentless road. To keep my seat, I had to keep some attention forward as Frank moved his body into turns. The rhythm of leaning left and right turned into a dance accompanied by rock music in my helmet headphones.

Our group of seven bikes turned into a ride of one as bikes spread out into the mountain’s shadows. We rode together, yet the ride was ours alone. The series of curves seemed endless like the ocean, and Frank was constantly setting up our next turn, over and over for miles. He and I didn’t talk much on our coms during the twisties. Time to communicate with the road.

When the group reassembled at the stop sign, it seemed like we’d been on a journey even through it had only been about 15 miles. Every rider was tested through Palomar’s gauntlet. Our bike stopped, but my heart was still racing.

After collecting up our riders, we took off again, headed for the observatory at the top, an elevation of 6142 feet. I noticed campgrounds as we zoomed by, but seriously wondered how large RVs would make it up that road. Pine trees mingled with oaks on both sides, creating a spicy refreshing breeze, making us aware of our damp clothing. Upon arrival at the picnic grounds and observatory parking lot, we parked The Black Pearl in a row with the other bikes and hopped off. Definitely time for cold water.

After a break, what comes up must go down, and we headed down the East Grade road toward Lake Henshaw. This road seemed easier than the road up, the curves a little more relaxed. But maybe not. Maybe we were warmed up from the first batch. Halfway down the hill I caught glimpses of the lake, surrounded by brown fields dotted with cattle. The pine scent was replaced by a burnt desert smell marking our descent to the highway.

As we rode back on the 76, long sweeping curves swirled us back down to Pala. These turns held us longer than the short choppy ones on the road to Palomar. They pulled us in like a storm drain, a whirlpool headed for the ocean. When we reached Pala Casino and parked our bike, I still felt the sway of the road for a while.

Much later, back at home and sitting in our pool, Frank and I compared our experiences on the mountain. We both loved the ride, although my impression included fear and relief that the ride was completed. However, Frank was ready to go back and challenge the mountain again another day. Not many rides can compare with skiing with your Harley on Mt. Palomar.

Under the Thunder: our first time riding West Coast Thunder

wct

The moon cast ghostly shadows on the asphalt as my husband backed our Harley into the curb on a deserted side street.  I yawned in spite of my racing heart. Four thirty in the morning is not the usual kickstands-up time for a HOG ride. Clutching my thermos of coffee close to my leather jacket like a favorite teddy bear, Frank and I walked down the row of k-rails to a table. This was our first West Coast Thunder, and we had chosen to see it from a volunteer’s perspective.

Slowly others joined us, zipped up in jackets against the breaking day chill. “Gather round,” our leader called and we pressed closer for last minute instructions. Everything was organized to make sure that riders that registered this morning would move quickly through the lines and get set up for the ride. Since midnight, teams had been tirelessly working, setting up the rails and blocking off the streets in order to stage thousands of motorcycle riders for the parade.

Our marching orders given, we scattered to our tables with our box of registration forms, credit card machines, and cash box. Monica and Jeff were the other couple assigned to our table, for which I was grateful as she had already been doing registration before the event.

The sporadic growl of engines disrupted the early morning silence. The sun emerged and everything was bathed in a pale pink glow. Suddenly we were in business as a long line of bikers wearing the same colors pulled up and parked in front of us. Beyond them, on the other side of the rail, prepaid riders were riding up to their spot in line.

Monica and I pointed at the places on the forms that needed to be completed and signed. We passed out headlight stickers, drawing tickets, and concert tickets. As our line grew, Jeff and Frank greeted riders and collected money.

In the variety of faces we saw that morning, there was one common factor. Whether young or old, male or female, married or single, all reflected the same respect. Respect for our military, those who serve, those who had served, and those who gave their lives for their country. No matter what political view they might hold, today’s parade was for those who made the ultimate sacrifice.

Hour after hour passed, and the rows of rails were jammed with all types of motorcycles. A hum of thousands of conversations hung over the cluster of chrome and metal like a gigantic bee hive. I wondered if there would be enough room for everyone, but the bikes kept coming. In the midst of the excitement, HOG officers rode around on golf carts, picking up cash, delivering pastries, and checking on us.

Finally, we got the signal to shut down and join the party. Frank fired up our bike and we circled around the block to find the end of the prepaid riders’ line. At first I thought we would take off right away, but this was the next stage of waiting, as the color guard ceremony and other festivities up at the dealership were still playing out. Later I would look at the video that other HOGs made and entertain a twinge of regret. If we hadn’t been doing registration, we could have been up there with our other HOG friends watching the show.

Squinting in the bright morning sun, I finished my last sip of coffee and looked around at the small group of volunteers ready to ride. Even though we were some of the first people to arrive, we would ride around the middle of the pack. But West Coast Thunder wasn’t really about the ceremonies, or even the concert to follow later. It was about remembering those who had served our country, who probably never received honor during their lives. Perhaps the best way to honor them was through serving others.

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?