The Frozen Ride

frozen

 

“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.

They’ll Never Understand Why We Ride

riders

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.

 

 

Planning to Ride

black-pearl

“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.

 

Dancing with Mountains

Ortega

As our HOG chapter roared down the narrow road that paralleled Lake Matthews, the sky was bright with promises of cool spring weather. After previous days of thunderstorms, this blue sky only held wispy feather clouds, incapable of interfering with our ride. My husband and I were riding almost in the middle of the pack, with eight riders ahead of us and nine behind. Before we had left the dealership, the road captain had called for two sweeps, one that rode directly behind us and one at the back of the group, in case we were separated by traffic lights. He also reminded us that if we had difficulty and had to pull off, the sweep would stay with us until help arrived.

Such dire thoughts vanished from our minds as we followed the back roads down to Ortega Highway. As we turned onto the road, Lake Elsinore at our back, I looked up at the imposing ridge before us. I could see tiny cars moving in layers of road that switch backed on the desert side of the mountain. The pack spread out from its staggered formation to single, causing the group to stretch out past my line of vision.

That’s where the dance began. Through the twisted turns, our Harley obediently leaned to the left, straightened out, and then leaned to the right. The pattern had a rhythm that mesmerized me. The mountain had accepted our request for a dance, and he was leading us through the steps. On and on he led us to the beat of unheard music, over the top of the rugged mountains and into the shade of a small mountain community. We rode straight through a canopy of trees for a short time until we started down the other side of the pass.

Here the dancers dangled from the edge of a canyon, the road clinging to its side. Sometimes we were interrupted by an impatient sport bike that rushed past us, unwilling to join our dance down the mountain. Still we danced– riding the left turn, straightening out, and then riding the right turn. As the dance continued, I readjusted my position slightly, feeling like a human caught up in an endless faery reel.

Suddenly, the road shot out straight, and neighborhoods replaced rocky cliffs. We roared to a stop at the traffic light, shaking out shoulders, taking a deep breath. The group bunched back up into two across, sharing about the ride with smiles that peeked out under their helmets. I turned around and snapped a picture of the glistening white canyon behind us. Even though I felt like I had held my breath for the past forty minutes, I couldn’t help smiling with the rest. Good bye for now, and thank you for the dance.