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Not-so-easy rider: a motorbike ride across California


One of the downsides to owning an Accord is that you can’t pull a motorcycle trailer, so when I took the plunge and moved from San Francisco to Corvallis, Oregon, I had to leave my bike behind at first. I’d asked my landlord if I could store my bike in the equipment shed outside, to protect it from thieves and the weather. Ordinarily, San Francisco’s weather is mild in June, but the winter rains came late this year, and the day I left for good, it was pouring.

My landlord agreed, and Plumber helped me unlock the shed and pull the bike inside. A few weeks later, Fox and I came back to the Bay Area to pick up the bike. Our plan was that she would drive the car back, and I’d follow in the bike. I’d have all my tools stashed in the car’s trunk in case there were any mechanical problems.

Driving from Corvallis to San Francisco is doable in a single sitting, but it’s a shitty, 600-mile single sitting. Both of us were already exhausted by the time we pulled up to my old apartment building. Plumber got the shed opened up, and I got the bike out…and it wouldn’t start.

At first, I was unfazed. The bike had been sitting for about a month, and sometimes getting it started takes some doing. The starter seemed fine, and the bike had been inside the shed, so I didn’t think there was any way the gas was bad. But the engine wouldn’t turn over. I noticed I had foolishly left the fuel stopper open, so at first I figured the carbs were just flooded. I unhooked the fuel line and let it air out for a while. Nothing. Well, maybe the carbs needed to be cleaned? People were starting to stare a bit, since I was lying on the side of the road and unscrewing my carburetor. I could see that Fox was starting to get impatient; I had expected that the bike might take a bit of time to get started, but she needed to get back to Oregon.

By late afternoon, it was clear that there was something seriously wrong with the bike. With some help from my neighbors, after several hours of work, I was able to get the bike to sporadically sputter to life by heavily feathering the clutch, but it just wouldn’t run normally. And it didn’t just need to kinda-sorta run, it needed to run well enough to carry me 600 miles across the mountains to Oregon.

I looked at Fox, sighed, and said: “Well, shit.”

She stared back, lips pursed. “What’s the plan, Jack?”

Plumber offered me a halfway appealing way out of my predicament — he said he’d give me $1200 for the bike. He offered it semi-apologetically, and said he just couldn’t offer me more, what with the bike not being able to start and everything. But he was a pretty competent mechanic, and said he was confident he could get it fixed up eventually, so he was willing to take it off my hands. I seriously considered this for a while, but ultimately decided that I just couldn’t let Drifter go for that little.

Instead, I called a local shop that I’d worked with before and explained my situation. They had a pickup service, but unfortunately, they wouldn’t be able to get it fixed by the following day. We worked out an arrangement where they would fix it, then call me when it was ready, and I’d find a way to get back to San Francisco to pick it up. The downside to this was that I would not have Fox and the Accord with me for the long trip north, so if I broke down en route to Oregon, I’d be in some real pretty shit. (Game over, man…game over.)

A few days later, the shop called me, and informed me that the reason the bike wouldn’t start was because the vacuum line was plugged.

“Plugged?” I repeated. “You mean, dirty?”

“No, plugged,” the mechanic said, “as in, there was a rubber cap plugging the line. It’s very strange.”

I was momentarily confused, then what had happened unfolded clear as day in my mind, and I thought to myself in a size 80, blood red font:

Plumber had sabotaged my bike in an attempt to buy it off me at a bargain-basement price. His offer and demeanor had struck me as somehow odd, and now I knew why!

“So…you guys can just remove the cap, and it will be fine, right?” I asked, hopefully.

But it turned out not to be that simple. In fact, Plumber’s evil plan turned out to be a good thing, because, unknown to me, the stator cover had started to crack open. The bike had been blown over a few months ago, during an unusually fierce winter storm, and although I’d fixed the obvious external damage, I’d missed this. It ended up taking well over a month for them to get the right part in — all this was happening right as their Suzuki parts dealer was going out of business — and costed me a lot more than I’d bargained for. (Maybe I should have just sold the damn bike to Plumber, after all…)

It was late August by the time I took the Greyhound from Corvallis to San Francisco. It’s amazing how dirty you can get just by sitting on a bus for 15 hours, even if you haven’t exerted yourself at all. When we got to San Francisco, the first thing I did was go to the UCSF campus and take a nice, long shower at the school gym. Suitably de-nastified, I went to Pancho Villa Taqueria in the Mission District and had a wonderful fish burrito, then picked up Drifter from the shop. She wasn’t exactly gleaming, but the mechanic assured me that she should be good for the trip back. I bought some chain cleaner and grease from the shop, then started my long ride north.

My initial plan was to follow the Pacific Coast Highway (Highway 1) all the way from San Francisco to Oregon. I-5 in northern California is pretty in its own way (Shasta!), but I’d never followed the coast road before, and I figured this might be my last chance to do it.

The ride was awesome at first. The pic above was taken near Point Reyes. The day was warm, mild, and sunny, and the ride was as relaxing as any I’ve been on. I called Fox to tell her how great the trip was going, and how glad I was to be on the road again.

The sun was getting pretty low, and my lack of progress started to concern me. I didn’t have a firm travel schedule, but I also hadn’t intended to be on the road more than a few days. Point Reyes and the mainland are separated by Tomales Bay, a long, narrow body of water. Because the terrain on Point Reyes is fairly rugged, the evening fog hadn’t penetrated to the coast highway. As I passed the end of Point Reyes, and Tomales Bay opened up into Bodega Bay, a dense, cold fog enveloped the road. Cold fog is the worst on the motorcycle, because you’ve got to keep your visor up, or the condensation ruins your visibility. On the other hand, opening your visor with the cold wind blasting your face hurts.

I pulled off at a small restaurant for a quick bite to eat. The cold had started to get into my bones, and I flexed my hands repeatedly to keep the blood moving. It couldn’t have been colder than about 40 to 45 degrees, but low 40’s in cold fog with a 45 mile-per-hour wind feels much colder. The whole world seemed filtered into shades of gray, white, and black:

A few miles later, I pulled off again, shivering, opening up my pack to pull on an extra pair of gloves, two extra shirts, an extra pair of socks, and a scarf. I needed to just stop and find a place to camp, wait for the fog to be chased away by the sun. But I didn’t see any place to stop. I couldn’t see much of anything, with all the damn fog.

I made it to the tiny coastal town of Jenner, and stopped at a little gas station, intending to buy some coffee to help warm me up. They had hot chocolate, which sounded wonderful; I bought a big cup and sat at a trestle table outside. There was another guy seated at the table, an older guy, bald, decked out in Harley leathers:

The Harley guy said his name was Dave, and we talked shop for a while — he had a brand-new Harley, with tens of thousands of dollars worth of upgrades that he spoke at great length about. He had a cheerful sort of gregariousness. I liked him.

He’d come south all the way from Eureka. “Fog’s like this all the way up the coast,” he grumbled, casting a baleful look up the road. “Too bad we’re not a little farther inland. It’s probably 10, 15 degrees warmer on 101.” That sounded pretty darn good to me.

I told him that the fog was bad down to Point Reyes, too, and I wasn’t sure if it would be clear after that. We asked one of the locals about camping in the area, and they confirmed that there wasn’t really anything. One guy suggested that I could just pitch my tent in the grass behind the gas station. This seemed extremely unpromising, so after a while, Dave and I decided to head south a little ways to River Road, which meandered inland and eventually ended up at 101.

It was dark by the time we got to River Road, and I was a little giddy from the cold and just general tiredness, so to keep myself alert I opened up my visor and stood up on the pegs as we roared our way inland, winding through the coast range. Dave was right — the temperature started to rise as soon as we left the coast, and it wasn’t long before the fog was behind us. We saluted each other as we parted ways at 101. As I rode away, I realized that I’d forgotten to exchange numbers with him, and would probably never see him again.

It felt great to be back in the warmth again, and I made good time up 101. I stopped when I got to Ukiah, for gas and to scout out any possible campsites. Although I was starting to warm up again on the inside, I was really getting too tired to ride safely, and I needed to stop for the night. I eventually found a campsite near Lake Mendocino, which was locked up tight for the night by the time I pulled up. I found, however, that although the entrance was barred, the exit wasn’t actually blocked; instead, they’d installed a set of nasty ‘severe tire damage’ blades there. Which, I noticed, did not quite extend to the edge of the road. So I just inched past the blades, shimmied on up on the nearest empty campsite, and, too tired to even pitch my tent, collapsed into an exhausted sleep on a nearby picnic table.

I woke the next morning at the crack of dawn. I’m not ordinarily such a morning person, but it’s hard not to be while you’re camping — particularly if you’re too much of a lazy slob to even bother pitching a tent. I’ve found that, even if I’ve slept outside in some (by ordinary standards) wretched circumstance — including, over the years, camping in the sweltering summer heat in Georgia with no pillow, in a sand dune in Oregon with what sounded like cougars audibly growling outside my tent, and sleeping on a beach covered with ants — I always wake up feeling wonderful. For some reason, I’ve never put this little gem of an insight to use in my ordinary, day-to-day life, where I determinedly sleep indoors and wake up every day feeling entirely wretched. (I will now continue to ignore this fascinating insight and will go to sleep tonight snugly indoors, and tomorrow morning I will wake up late and require my usual dose of enough-caffeine-to-kill-a-horse to get moving.)

After a brief detour to see and photograph the lovely Lake Mendocino — and a momentary brush with terror as my bike briefly stalled on the side of the road — I made my way back to 101, headed north. I didn’t get too far before the early-morning chill forced me to stop in Willits. I bought a coffee and waited for 30 minutes for the local CVS to open, then went inside and bought a Willits, California hoodie, which I still proudly wear to this day. (I love the name ‘Willits’. It’s so desperately uncool that it wraps back around to being cool again. I’m extremely, unreasonably happy that I have a Willits sweatshirt. Just sayin’.)

I would be remiss not to mention the Chandelier Tree, AKA The Tree That You Can Drive Through:

My touristy heart fluttered as I drove through it. I have nothing profound to say about this tree, but it is pretty cool that you can drive through a tree while it’s still alive.

Between Laytonville and Fortuna, there is a whole lot of nothing. (And by ‘nothing’, I mean ‘lots of ancient redwoods and beautiful mountains’.) It was in this whole lot of nothing that I met Raven.

I met Raven at a little roadside stop somewhere along the Redwood Highway. He’d just ridden his fixed-gear bicycle all the way from San Diego, and he gave every indication of being batshit crazy. He was intense crazy — the kind of crazy dude that is out to find meaning in a meaningless world and isn’t afraid to butcher some raccoons to do it.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Raven and I started chatting in a casual way. One reason I love motorcycle trips so much more than car trips is that I always end up meeting random people and having weird experiences on a motorcycle trip. I’ve tried to figure out why this is. I think it’s partially because the bike itself is sort of a conversation piece. It’s unusual and kind of interesting in itself (and Drifter is an unusual looking bike, to boot). It’s like if two guys wander into a bar, one dressed normally and the other wearing a cape and a giant Mexican hat. Let’s face it, people are probably going to talk to the guy with the cape and Mexican hat. Not even because he’s more interesting, necessarily, but just because the weirdness makes him more approachable — you can break the ice by saying, “So, what’s with the hat?” My theory is it’s the same way with motorcycles. Or, maybe it’s just because I’m always a little wired and winded when I climb down out of the saddle, which makes me more outgoing and sociable.

In any case, I at first assumed Raven was a local — how else would he be out here in the middle of nowhere with that fixed-gear bike? When I found out he’d ridden about 700 miles on his bike, I watched him with a new, wary interest. I mentioned that I was a scientist, and he immediately latched onto it.

“You’re a scientist, so you must see things normal people wouldn’t see!” he said, staring at me with a crazed intensity. “What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen out here so far?”

I hesitated, concerned that he would unleash the crazy on me if I didn’t provide a profound enough answer. “Um…I’m not sure, I guess…the cliffs near Bodega Bay were pretty amazing…”

He turned away, his face suffused with fury. An unsatisfactory answer! I thought, inching away from him. Oh God, what have I done??

To distract him from my basic inadequacy as a scientist, I said, “Your chain is looking pretty rough there, Raven…”

“What?” The rage left his face. My plan had worked! “My chain?”

“Yeah, your bike chain. It’s all rusted through.” I pointed to the chain on his fixed-gear. Far from being merely a ruse to cover up my horribly uninteresting perspective on life, his bike’s chain was, in fact, badly rusted. “I have some chain cleaner and grease here, if you want to work it over…”

After helping him clean and lube the chain, he again returned his intense stare to me.

“I must thank you for helping me,” he declared, his eyes burning holes into me.

“Uh, no, look, that’s really not…necessary…” I trailed off as he jumped to his feet and ran at top speed into the woods. I stood there for a few minutes, vaguely apprehensive about what was coming next. What on Earth did he mean by thanking me? Why did he just sprint off into the woods? Should I get while the getting’s good?

In short order, he came sprinting back and halted in front of me. He ceremoniously handed me a small furry object.

“It’s a raccoon’s tail,” he informed me.

“Ah,” I replied, holding it gingerly.

“It will bring you luck,” he added.

“Right. Well, I’ll just stow my luck away in my bags here…” The perfect present for Fox!

Then we said our goodbyes, and I roared off. God-speed, Raven!

A few hours later found me at the outskirts of Fortuna, sitting in a Starbucks, mooching some internet and teleconferencing with my boss, Ken.

I had actually forgotten all about my planned teleconference until I had ridden into the Humboldt Redwoods State Park, and by that point, of course, I was well out of the range of any possible internet connection. Berating myself for my forgetfulness, I hurriedly made my way out of the forest and into Fortuna. The first place I found was a McDonald’s. McDonald’s are well-known for always having free internet, so I figured it would be no problem to just go inside and teleconference from there. When I got into the McDonald’s, however, I was dismayed to discover that they had no power outlets anywhere! At length, I found a power outlet, but it was right beside the bathroom and across from the entrance, so to use it, I had to stretch my power cable all the way across the main walkway.

“What the hell are you doing?”

I looked up from my laptop. “What?” I asked innocently. “Just needed some power, that’s all…”

The man, a weedy, harried-looking middle-aged guy, stared at me with undisguised hostility. “I’m the manager. This is my McDonald’s. I’m not in the business of providing power to people. Unplug this now.”

Damn. I glared back at the manager, then unplugged my laptop, stowed it away, and hurried out to my bike. There was a Starbucks nearby, surely they would have both power and internet there! I was very late for my teleconference already, but I was determined to make an appearance.

The Starbucks gambit succeeded, and Ken looked surprised when I called him over Skype.

“Um, hello, Jack…” he said, smiling and no doubt wondering why I looked like a desperate hobo.

I explained my circumstances to him, and why I had been late for the teleconference. It turned out to be no big deal, and we had a pleasant meeting. It’s my opinion that this marked the point where he realized that I’m a little bit nuts.

I rode for the rest of the day without incident, and stopped at a lovely campsite along highway 199, the winding mountain road that connects 101 to I-5 in southern Oregon.

The final day’s ride was pleasant enough until I reached I-5, at which point the chill in the air became brutally cold. By the time I reached the north end of the mountain passes, near Eugene, my legs were shaking uncontrollably, and I had my fuel tank in a vise grip between my thighs to keep the shaking from interfering with my control. I stopped, jogged in place for a few minutes, shivering, then rode, then stopped, jogged in place for a few minutes… I stopped at just about every rest stop in the Willamette Valley before I finally made it to Corvallis.

Much more motorcycle madness by this author on his very excellent blog.

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