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.

A different ride- the eventual end

san simeon sunset

The final night of a weekend Harley trip is smooth going down but leaves a bitter after taste.

Our HOG chapter president offered to have dinner delivered for the whole group of thirty riders, and we gladly accepted. After riding all day Friday and Saturday, we were ready to kick off our boots, slip on our flip-flops, and hang out at the motel. There was an indoor pool with a large patio area, perfect for us to congregate.

Frank and I drank wine out of the motel’s tiny plastic cups talking to riders from different rides that day. They laughed at our antics in the Pismo Beach toy store, and we sighed over their tales of hidden mountain roads. We shared stories around five circular tables pushed together near the pool. With nightfall, it was getting cool outside, but it was warm and muggy inside. The patio doors were open, and some of the conversation spilled out into the parking lot.

A young man carrying stacks of pizza boxes found us and it was suddenly quiet while everyone chowed down. Not the best pizza ever eaten, but the most appreciated since we didn’t have to walk or ride our bikes to get it. After we inhaled the first pieces, conversation was restored.

“What time are we leaving tomorrow?” I asked my husband.

“Not sure. Depends on whether we have breakfast first or wait until we get to Solvang,” Frank answered. “Let me ask Tom what they’re doing.” He got up to find our ride captain for the Pismo Beach portion of the trip.

I leaned back in my crisscrossed woven plastic chair, and listened to the threads of conversation around me. Some were talking about how beautiful the beach had been that day. Others raved about the remote twisty roads they rode through the Central Valley wine country. The voices around me mixed into a buzz and suddenly I was tired. The rush of excitement we had experienced over the weekend was slowing down into sore muscles and pizza comas. My heart beat with a dull ache when I realized that our coastal adventure was nearing its end. All the planning, packing, shared stories, frozen fingers, delicious food, and dramatic scenery were almost over. Tomorrow we would go home.

The prospect of a long return ride sent most of us back to our rooms early that night. Or maybe we couldn’t face the dissolution of our riding fellowship. It was hard saying good night, but we knew this would be the last time all of us would be together, at least for this trip.

The next morning, Frank and I joined the group that decided breakfast was a priority. We sipped coffee with sad faces, savoring the cool sea breeze for the last time. Everyone was uncharacteristically quiet. After covering our reluctance with pancakes, bacon, and eggs, it was time to leave.

Our group today was smaller than the previous days, only eight bikes. On the last day of an overnighter, our group splinters as everyone faces different responsibilities at home. The retired riders can take their time getting back to real life. The teachers and sales reps have Monday morning commutes ahead of them. Eventually we would all have to leave our beach haven.

Frank and I joined the end of our line of bikes, following them down the coast highway on the shortest route back to our desert town. No scenic roads or historic roadhouse cafes today. It was time to go home. Everyone seemed subdued, sobered by reality’s intrusion.

As I watched miles of farmland pass by, I marveled that the weekend passed so quickly. I knew that in less than twenty-four hours, I would be back in my classroom with twenty eyes following my every move. Frank would be sitting at his desk, taking orders and fielding problems. We would become normal people again. But my sinking heart clung to hope, as the calendar on my phone held future Harley trips. We would ride the backroads again. I only had to hold it together until then.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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.

The Biker Bar

cooksnew2

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

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.

 

 

Burnt Bushes

wrightwood

The snarling Harley group poured off the freeway and onto the back road that led toward the mountains. Eighteen bikes made it tough to stay together, so the ride captain split us into two groups, each with a captain and a sweep. As we started down the two-lane highway, both groups spread out so that our numbers stretched along the dips and rises of the road all the way to the horizon.

Seated behind my husband, I snapped pictures of the desolate high desert wilderness that surrounded us. A few months previously, a vicious wildfire had ravaged the area, and charred Joshua trees stuck up like stubble on a man’s chin. Dirt roads led off from the highway to lonely chimneys poking out of blackened debris. Trailers sat tethered to the remains of ranch homes. Here and there a house stood on a hill, pristine and untouched. I wondered if firefighters had spent precious water to save the structures, or if God’s judgment had passed them by.

Miles and miles of burnt bushes and trees filled my camera lens, boasting of the fire’s destructive power. I zipped my phone back into my pocket and turned up the Crowder album I had playing in my earbuds. Anywhere I looked my eyes couldn’t escape the chaos. All the overwhelming stress of my life seemed to chase me through the desert –Common Core Standards, screaming parents, bulging school schedule, the new house cleaner that scrubbed the paint off my stove and broke my fairy statue. Even our Harley couldn’t outrun these demons.

But then the music chanted “We Shall Overcome,” and I saw something strange. There were fresh prickly shoots coming out of the black Joshua tree trunks. The wildfire had not killed the trees at all.

The road captain gestured to the left which was repeated down the line of riders. We turned onto the road that would lead us further into the back side of the mountains. Now the road began to twist its way through pine trees. Evidence of the fire diminished until we were immersed in a sea of green. Singed air gave way to a fresh pine aroma, and I took a deep breath.

Finally A-frame cabins and two story homes with railed porches popped out of the forest. We had arrived in Wrightwood, a small ski town north of Los Angeles. Since the November weather was still pre-snow, the town was comfortably uncrowded. Our lunch destination appeared on the left and we turned in, patiently finding places to park our pack of bikes.

The waitress frowned at the size of our group, but barked orders to the bus boys to quickly push a bunch of tables together for us. Then we peeled off jackets, gloves, and outer layers to sit down for a bite. I looked around the table at our riding group. Some of us were married, some remarried, some single through death or divorce. If I looked carefully, I might see the black scars of life’s fires beneath the smiles. But it was covered with life—new and vibrant, full with promise. The roar of a Harley, wind in our faces, and we pressed on toward new adventures on the twisty road we traveled.

The Overnighter- Part Two

eating

 

When Diane parked her Harley at the hotel, her frozen fingers stuck to her handle bars were not entirely caused by the weather. In the last two hours of their ride, an icy mist had followed them out of Needles, buffeting the riders with tiny needles of sleet. Fortunately, the warm asphalt melted the icy drops into water, leaving the road wet but not too slick. Their fearless road captain led them down forgotten portions of old Route 66, seeking less traffic and an easier place to pull off if they needed it. She glimpsed shut down motels, gas stations, and road houses as they sped by, looking even more forlorn in the grey weather. “Not a great place to break down,” she thought. Any help would not be close by.

In her mirrors, she could still see a lone car following them. Surely it couldn’t be that same Prius? Then the car pulled out on the left to pass them on the two lane highway. “He’s really going to pass our whole line of bikes?” she thought. As it blew by, she tried to look into the car, but all of the windows were darkly tinted. Through the windshield she had only a glimpse of dark glasses, out of place on a rainy day. After passing their group, the car swung over into the right lane and sped away.

The road curved around a large foothill before spitting them out into another cattle speckled valley. Suddenly, brake lights lit up the road like Christmas, and the bikes slowed to a crawl. Patty looked back at Diane, who shrugged. Obediently, the line of bikes crept around another curve. The source of their caution was revealed as a white Prius stopped in the middle of the highway with its hazard lights flashing. Mitch pulled the group over as he and Dan went over to see if the driver needed help.
“What’s going on?” Diane asked Patty, pulling her bike up next to her friend.

“I don’t know,” Patty said. “Isn’t that the same Prius that’s been following us all day?”

“Doesn’t seem possible,” Diane said. “There’s a ton of those cars out there. That would be creepy, though.”

“I feel creeped out just thinking about it,” Patty agreed.

Then Mitch and Dan exchanged words, pulled their helmets back on, and returned to their bikes. The rest of the group, waiting in the misty rain, eagerly followed them down the road. Diane stuffed her curiosity into a box labeled Later, and focused on keeping her Harley up. “Come on, Charlie,” she thought. “You can do this.” The rain increased into a constant downpour that the bikes tried to outrun. It seemed like the day would never end, suspended in a grey curtain of water.

But all rides eventually come to an end, and she was relieved to get into her room and peel off her wet rain gear and boots. “Why in the movies does the biker girl’s hair look perfectly tousled when she pulls off her helmet, when in real life she looks like a drowned rat?” she thought as she regarded her limp locks in the mirror.

A short while later, the group assembled at the hotel’s restaurant, eagerly studying the menu. The tempting aroma of grilled burgers and steak made their stomachs grumble. Mitch and Dan began their usual harassment of the waitress, who took their orders and fled to the kitchen. Diane gave them both a stern look that was quickly ignored.

She couldn’t wait any longer. “What happened back there with that Prius?” she asked Dan, who was sitting across from her.

The rest of the group dropped their conversations to listen to them.

“It was the weirdest thing,” Dan said, sharing a look with Mitch at the end of the table. “When we went up there to ask the guy if he needed help, he said he was fine.”

“Yeah, he said his car was covering a sink hole that had opened up because of the rain,” Mitch added.

“So we looked under his car, and sure enough, there was a giant hole. Big enough to swallow up a Harley!”

“Was his car stuck in it?” Diane asked.

“That’s the thing,” Dan said with a smile. “The guy said he stopped his car to cover it up so that we wouldn’t ride into it.”

Another waiter had returned with their drinks, so the group helped him distribute the various microbrew beers with strange names. Diane sipped hers, called Bitter Barrel Butter.

“Why would the guy do that?” Patty asked, after all had refreshed themselves.

“I have no idea,” Mitch said before he took another long drink.

With no resolution, the conversation turned to lighter topics. Usually no one in the group wanted to dwell on potential crashes or road hazards. But Diane couldn’t get it out of her mind, even when her plate of baby back ribs was thrust in front of her.

“Was that driver really following us?” she asked Patty after a spicy mouthful of meat.  “Why did he stop to prevent us from falling into that hole?”

“It’s like he was some kind of guardian angel or something,” Patty said. She frowned at her phone. “I’ve been trying to get ahold of Paul all day, but he’s not answering his phone. We always call each other when we ride apart.”

“He’s probably sleeping or something,” Diane reassured her.  She ordered another beer, hoping that it would soothe her thoughts and prevent her from considering whether the man in the white Prius was a predator or protector.

Sea Turtles

sea turtle

 

Ancient eyes watched me struggle to breathe through my snorkel. An immense shell blocked the sunlight filtering through the water and suddenly I was aware of the sea turtle floating close to me. I backed away from its penetrating gaze. Curiosity drew it closer, but I pushed away in obedience to the guide’s direction that we were not to touch the turtles. Hanging in the current, the creature was completely at ease, for it could stay under water for hours without going to the surface for air.

However this was my first snorkeling trip, and I still felt nervous trusting a narrow tube poking out a foot above the rocking waves to provide me with a consistent flow of oxygen. My breathing was rushed and desperate like a newly trained astronaut on their first mission. I remembered all the snorkelers we saw at the beach the day before, their faces in the water, barely moving their legs, arms at their sides. As my breathing slowed down, my body relaxed into the warm tropical water. I kicked farther away from the turtle and followed the other fins in front of me.

The underwater landscape was a peaceful change from the bumpy ride we endured on our Zodiac raft in route to the diving spot. Schools of black and yellow striped fish flowed around the coral reef with little effort. Turquoise and orange striped fish picked algae off the bottom. Tiny white fish streamed out of holes in the volcanic rock. In the distance I could see the massive shapes of other sea turtles, resting in the cradle of current. Pale grey fish, as large and as flat as dinner plates, swam right in front of my face. Streams of bubbles and chopping of swim fins provided the soundtrack to this alien world. My husband and the others in our group hung on the surface of the ocean, mesmerized by the abundance and variety of marine life.

Suddenly I sniffed up some water that had leaked into my mask and I lifted my head, choking on salt water. The waves lifted and dropped me roughly as I found it harder to breathe without the snorkel than when I had my head underwater. My stomach heaved and I got sick, unfortunately still with the snorkel in my mouth.

The guide that remained on the boat called out to me, “Are you alright?”

Not wanting to sound wimpy, I replied, “I am now!”

After rinsing out my snorkel, I replaced my mask and put my face back in the water. The churning ceased as I was back in the calm underwater world once more. This time it was easier to breathe, and I watched the show around me through the window of my mask. Time was suspended. There was no sense of the bustle of the air-breathing world above us. Fish grazed on the algae covered coral like brightly colored sheep. A grey fish with yellow fins and tail regarded me with disdain before swishing past my face. Turtles paddled to the surface for air and dropped back down into the depths.

Gradually I became aware that I didn’t see any other fins around me. Reluctantly, I lifted my head to see the rest of our group back on the raft. The guide waved at me, and I paddled toward her. It was time to return to the world of man.