5 Riders, 5 Very Different Bikes, and 500 Miles of Pacific Coast Roads
This month, my sweetie had the chance of a lifetime: an all-expenses-paid 10-day trip to Ghana to help out a rural community. And me? I had two weeks of unsupervised playtime! :evil
Then my manager announced that he was going to France for two weeks, and that I would be minding the shop while he was out. At the exact same time. :eek1
Just like that, my plans for a 10-day, 1,700 miles solo trip through the Southwest evaporated like so much spilled gasoline on I-5. The best I could muster was a weekend trip. I'm not the type to roll over, so I said screw it, I've always wanted to see Big Sur, let's do this! Just me and the bike and a tarp. Let's go say hi to the sea otters.
Then I mentioned it to my brother, who dropped everything and said "let's go!"
Then Walter, Jeremy and Elizabeth said the same thing, and just like that we had a trip planned. It was completely typical for this gang- the emails flew thick and fast, everyone contradicted each other, agreed that they'd come to an agreement, but not what it was, and who was bringing what again and when were we leaving until Elizabeth said "Hey, I haven't been following, can you summarize?"
Yes. Easy: five bikes, five riders. Oakland to Santa Cruz through the hills (collecting Walter in San Francisco on the way), meet Wayli in Santa Cruz, then PCH to Big Sur, and then back somehow, route TBD. I've gotta tent, everyone bring some sort of food and a sleeping bag, we'll sort the rest out as we go. Easy. Real easy. Right...
In the spirit of adventure, we brought together the weirdest group of bikes we could find. To wit:
-Elizabeth's Ninja 250. Light, quick, with huge saddlebags.
-My Vulcan 500. The ninja's big brother in a cruiser frame. Just for good measure, it was making a weird clicking noise from the upper engine area, and one exhaust header was inexplicably turning blue. I wasn't worried though- I'd recently rebuilt the seat and molded it perfectly to my buttocks. I was prepared.
-Wayli's 15 year old Nighthawk 250 with a bit of heater hose for an exhaust crossover and a beer carton oil gasket. Highly reliable, as long as you have a torque wrench handy.
-Walters Burgman 650. A scooter the size of an aircraft carrier. Walter stuffed a sleeping bag, mat, change of clothes, a six pack of beer, curry, rabbit stew and a god damn mousse cake into this thing with no visible luggage beyond a top box.
-Jeremy's Yamaha R6. A true superbike snorting out 108 fuel-injected fly-by-wire horsepower at its massive rear tire. It had zero storage, so his only luggage was a sleeping bag and mat bungied to the tail, and a backpack with some clean shorts. On that bike, I'd need them too!
In short, no matter what roads we encountered, we'd have at least one clown on the wrong bike. Conditions were perfect for adventure. Jeremy rode from Fresno up to Oakland on Friday afternoon. We had burgers and a beer, and proceeded to terrorize Safeway for last-minute supplies. Mostly Cliff bars and veggie dogs for yours truly.
The next morning, we met up with Elizabeth at my place, did final oil-chain-tire checks, strapped some extra gear on for good measure, fired up the bikes, and rode 50 yards to the gas station.
Here we are, loaded and ready to go.
Everyone poured in the go juice, and Jeremy's bike wouldn't start.
The one bike that I was utterly incapable of fixing even a little bit went whirrawhirrawhirra. Off came the gloves, the helmet, the jacket, the trip was already over and we hadn't even started yet. I was already seeing the two of us staying home and dealing with this as everyone else rode off on MY trip.
What the hell, one last ditch effort- "want me to push it?" Pure bravado. This was new territory to Jeremy, and I'd never push started a fuel injected bike. Would that even work? It sounded really dead. I had visions of the last time I tried to push start an automatic car and ended up with a Mercedes in a ditch with its bumper wrapped around a tree. He wasn't so sure. Come on, I argued "they used to start race bikes like this all the time!" We gave it a shove and va-va-voom! The haughty bitch roared to life like it was finally go time!
Gloves, helmet, jacket, fire, go, go, go before something else breaks!
Wait, hang on, ear plugs! Gotta protect those musician ears. Then across the Bay Bridge in hellish traffic, off in San Francisco, get lost because it's San Francisco and that's what you do there, find Walter's house, knock on the door and hugs all around. Walter hadn't packed yet, on account of bringing fresh food, so we hung around for a bit and cracked nervous jokes about the Yamaha not starting, but it went no problem. Probably just a dead battery, right? Right. There's no reason a new battery can't die in 50 yards, right? Right. We had riding to do.
But first, back to a gas station- Walter hadn't gassed-and-tired yet.
Come on, Walter!
Heavily laden bikes. L-R: Elizabeth's Nighthawk, my Vulcan and Jeremy's temperamental R6.
I'll spare you the details, but let's just say that for a freeway, 280 ain't a bad ride. Rolling hills, gorgeous forests on both sides, and this is still in San Francisco! Then off on 92 and creeping through bumper-to-bumper traffic toward Halfmoon Bay.
But we had a secret- we weren't going to Halfmoon Bay. We turned left on Skyline and rode that infamous road straight down the voluptuous spine of the California Coast Range, past Alice's Restaurant (we didn't stop), to Highway 9 and dropped down to toward Santa Cruz. It was glorious. Tight turns, big swoops, sunshine, and a few peg-scraping u-turns. We stopped at the parking lot at the junction for a snack and some water, and Elizabeth spotted a young man with a new Triumph sport bike something-or-other and went over to chat. The hot dog vender was out, people were picnicking, a lot of bikes were out and about, and I think I can speak for all of us when I say we were veritably soaked in that wonderful glee of having well and truly started an adventure. Then down 9 into the serious twisties. Both Skyline and 9 have well-deserved reputations as great motorcycle roads, but the the real highlights came later.
Round about halfway down 9, I got the first inkling that my fancy new seat may not be so fancy after all. I had done a lot of the re-sculpting with yoga mat, and after 45 minutes or so in the saddle it was starting to compress and the underlying shape of the seat pan was making itself noticed. Especially a sort of rise smack in the middle of it. Whatever it wasn't bad, I could scoot around on it enough to keep things reasonably comfortable.
We hit Santa Cruz, and went straight to the local taquria to chow, regroup, and wait for Wayli who was finishing up some business in Oakland before howling down 880 and across the notoriously treacherous Highway 17. Its turns are banked out, not in, and it routinely murders cars, but he made it.
Happy smiles! Leg 1 was survived and the glory of world-class riding still percolated through our bones.
We lingered over our delicious Mexican grub and naturally conversation turned to what the hell was going on with Jeremy's bike. Jeremy said that his headlight was out, but I distinctly remembered seeing it on when we'd crossed the bridge. I'd been thinking about this between thoughts about my own seat issues, and figured it might be a bad connection somewhere that was popping the fuse. That would make sense- a short was eating all the current. At some point after the bridge, but before Walter's the fuse popped, and it started just fine.
We decided to investigate.
Four bikes parked behind the taqueria. Everyone's mucking about with their personal steed, and you can clearly see my blue header.
We checked Jeremy's headlight- yep, it was dead. Tried to start it- no problem. Well, let's check the fuse just in case. Best case scenario, we'll have a headlight again, and if it doesn't work, we can just put the busted fuse back in. He borrowed my Leatherman and started dissecting. The fuse didn't look burned out, but the there was some charring on the legs of it. We put a new one in, and lights and bike started right up. Problem solved.
Yanking the fuse.
Shortly thereafter Wayli rolled up, we caught him up and he demanded to see the fuse. He scraped the charred bits off the legs, and suggested we try the busted fuse. What the hell, make the madman happy.
And it worked. No lie, we were baffled by this. Maybe it was just a loose fuse holder, I don't know. Then Wayli told us his latest troubles- it seems that when he got his new shoes on, the mechanic poked into the oil and mentioned he was a quart low. His bike NEVER leaked or burnt oil, and now he was a quart low? He filled the bike before he left this morning, just in case. Crap. Lunchtime, and we already had two problem bikes.
And then there were five.
Whatever, time to get on the road. We saddled up and rode three blocks to Trader Joe's because nobody had bothered to bring veggies. Everyone just heard "fire" and thought "meat," but what concerned me more was the beer. A six pack doesn't go far for thirsty riders, so a couple of bottles of wine were on the docket too. Blue Fin- cheap, goes down smooth, and makes for a beastly hangover. Perfect.
Oh, and then Walgreens next door to see if they had bamboo skewers for roasting things on. Santa Cruz is a student town, so naturally this Walgreens had the usual half-aisle to aisle full of a given thing, and then three entire aisles devoted to booze, and another three to snack food. Damn stoner kids. We found some skewers and beat a hasty retreat for the PCH before they came for our marshmallows.
Roaring south out of Santa Cruz was nice, but nothing too special. A four-lane freeway, then a nice big two-lane highway along the beach front, inland a bit, back to 6 lanes and through a nasty bit of headwind toward...
Wait, what? Surging? Lagging? Stalling? What the hell was my bike doing? It only had 125 miles on the odometer- it should have at least another 25 miles to go! Whatever, I reached down and flipped to reserve- engine caught- we're good. I roared past the 250's and spanked my tank like it was a deserving cheerleader, and led the gang off the first offramp I saw for gas.
Gojuice, go. Back on the freeway. Then it gave way to the true PCH.
The Pacific Coast Highway is underrated as a motorcycling road. I mean, sure, up on the San Francisco Peninsula it's world famous, and further south the Strips through major beach towns like Santa Barbara, Los Angeles and the like are known around the world, but that bit south of Monterey is just ingenious. Narrow, twisty, wicked in every sense of the word, with massive rock walls to the left and pure air to the right with the saves smashing on the rocks far below.
We had to stop.
I mean, seriously, look at that! The road snakes the cliff face, then coils in between the little hillock and the mountain on the right.
That mountain is probably a thousand feet tall, and drops straight into the Pacific Ocean, interrupted only by a thin ribbon of dirt and tar that some human decided should connect San Francisco and Los Angeles. To the left are California condors, the largest flying birds in the world and recently bounced back from the very brink of extinction, and to the right sea otters, six foot long aquatic skunk-weasels that were almost hunted to extinction for their luxurious furs. We saw no condors, and skunk-weasels only at a massive distance, but they're all rare as hell so they deserve their privacy.
What the hell, here it is again.
That's more condor habitat to the left. They like those big rocky bits with sea breezes. When you've got a 12 foot wingspan and survive off dead ground squirrels and the odd seal, a bit of lift is a welcome thing.
We were in awe. We'd made it. Living the dream. Motorcycles down the coast, between rocks and water, condors to the left and otters to the right, us smack in the middle.
Just to fuck with nature, Wayli decided to check his bike. Not good. It was visibly leaking oil. He started tinkering, and Walter took the chance to blame someone else for any delays and borrowed my Allen wrenches to muck about with his handle bars.
Neither of them got very far, so mechanics were abandoned in favor of watching the might Pacific Ocean gradually grinding California to a powder.
That's Elizabeth in the white, Jeremy with the dark hair and Wayli in the fancy pants. No condors or otters in this picture, but a hell of a bit of coastline.
And by "coastline" I mean "cliff." It was probably 200 feet to the roiling cauldrons down below. Naturally, somebody found a path down to the beach. Naturally, we all ran off down it without a backward glance.
Except it didn't go to the beach at all, just to another bit of cliff 200 feet down the road. Deep inside, I suspect none of us were really looking forward to climbing down that cliff, and even less to the climb back. We were satisfied to stand on top of it and take pictures.
We declared the stand of trees just barely visible off to the left of the picture above to be a deserving and suitably private location for some extra water (a precious commodity out here) and left a bit of ourselves to help the trees grow. Jeremy is reasonably civilized and refrained. Elizabeth did the prudent thing and geared up and declared we were being left before things got completely out of hand. So we left.
Well reported, Dusty. I agree, great stretch of road(s) up there.
Scooter in the mix? bold.
More to follow ? :ear
That scooter had the largest engine in the group by 50 CC, and was three times bigger than our two smallest bikes! :huh
And yes, more coming. We got about 20 hours of riding in over the weekend- this takes us to about hour 5. :evil
Damn. I am in the mood for this PCH fix-a-bike-a-thon amongst friends semi kinda get together.
I used to love in Monterey and yes that stretch of PCH from Monterey to Big Sur is amazing super fun and absolutely beautiful.
Very cool. :lurk Keep it coming.
On a road like PCH, you don't get far between stops. We rounded a single headland, just past that hill, and had to stop again. To our right lay a vast expanse of beach, and do our left piled up massive sand dunes, overgrown by whatever sort of craggy vegetation was willing to put up with sand, salt, cold and constant wind.
We were starting to get punchy, so it was time for the obligatory "spacemen lifting off" shot.
L-R: Elizabeth, Jeremy, Wayli, Walter. Don't trust your eyes, folks, Walter is not actually doing "Gangnam Style" :rofl
One of the things I love most about the coast around here is the utter vastness of species that somehow manage to eek out survival in this hostile environment. There are all sorts of hardy shrubs here, literally covering the dunes and cliffs in a knee deep carpet of stuff. Grays, greens and browns mix with yellows, pinks, reds and the occasional flash of bright white from the sand beneath. Add in a river flowing out of one of the many, many canyons and you've got a bewildering array of environments, from marine to intertidal to beach to coastal to desert, with temperate forest not far off in the redwoods of Big Sur. But we'll get there soon enough.
For now, here's the beach.
It was a 360 degree barrage of amazing space. I tried to get a panorama, but a wandering tourist walked into my shot and a car shot through. I was about to try another one, but Elizabeth was putting her helmet on and I knew it was time to hustle.
We kept riding, in earnest this time. Pretty soon, the road soared up the cliffs, nothing more than a narrow charcoal ribbon cut out of the constantly eroding hills. We hit construction several times as the road was shored up or cut deeper into the hill, bridges were built and rebuilt, and heavy cement tunnels were built to keep rock slides off the road.
When I was doing my obsessive-compulsive "researching" (reading everything that has "Big Sur" in it) I ran across the Bixby Creek Bridge, and became infatuated. I like bridges- my last trip was out to find a very specific bridge- and this time I made sure to infect the others. "Yeah, it's, like, the longest bridge in California! Or at least one of the longest! Or maybe it's the tallest... or the oldest, or something... it's pretty awesome anyhow!" Somehow they fell for it, and we all kept an eye out.
And then we saw it, and it was pretty cool. It had a big curve to it, and nowhere to pull over and look at it but it was neat to ride over this tight little canyon and stare down into the yawning maw of this weird crack in the earth. We stalled a few minutes later for a flagman and more construction, and Wayli and I agreed that this must have been it. Yeah, sure, that was cool.
And three turns later, there was a turn out, and people standing taking pictures of this spectacular, spidery web of concrete and steel over the biggest chasm we encountered all weekend. This was the true Bixby Creek Bridge, and let me tell you, it deserves every accolade it gets. One second I was cruising through tight, snakey turns along the cliff, and the next I was on a long and gentle decent toward this amazing bridge, and then I was on it, an emerald green slash of foliage cutting back into the mountain far below and to the left, and the rumbling Pacific framed between two massive promontories on my right.
This, ladies and gentlemen, is what they mean by the freedom of the open road. This perfect moment of accomplishment, of knowing that you personally made it a point to put yourself on this very part of the earth, and at the same moment feeling utterly dwarfed by this huge bridge, which in turn is nothing more than a tenuous thread between to massive headlands, that are mere feet to the mountain on your left. And that's not even starting on the vastness of the Pacific ocean right there in front of you.
The road got windier and more treacherous, with some tight curves and then more construction, and finally a neat cement... thing. It was obviously designed to keep rocks from cluttering up the road (and believe me, that's a necessary thing!), but rather than just slapping in a tunnel, they built a heavy wall to the left and a massive roof above, and textured it all to look like a cave. It wasn't a cave, of course, but it was a nice touch. But wait! You can't hide views like this! So the right side isn't enclosed, but has a series of massive columns, like a Greek temple, with the rolling ocean beyond that.
And then, spent like a tired snake, the road uncoiled and we headed out into the flats and Big Sur.
Right away, we spotted a sign: CAMPGROUND and right beneath it: CAMPING: FULL
I think all of us saw the first sign and veered toward it like moths toward a Coleman lantern, and all of us saw the second sign and got back on the highway without breaking stride. It was a thing of beauty, the whole group really had a feel for it now.
The forest sprang up on both sides, and then the hills rose toward the sky and we were in a narrow river valley along the coast, the sun lost behind the hill and darkness coming on fast in that narrow space. Then another sign: CAMPGROUND and CAMPING: OPEN
Bingo, babycakes! This time it was more of a mad tumble to get off the road and slow down and reorient ourselves from a headlong rush down the highway to riding the brakes down a beastly steep and hacked up road, across a bridge over the river, and into the campground.
I have to hand it to them, they didn't blink an eye when scooter man Walter flipped up his visor and fixed them with bleared and beady eyes to ask for camping for 5 motorcycles. Sure, they said, that was fine.
I rolled up and shouted ASK THEM ABOUT THE BIKES.
Blank stare from Walter.
THE BIKES. SOME PLACES ONLY ALLOW TWO VEHICLES.
He turned to the polite young lady who was by now utterly bewildered by this little ritual and said "we have 5 bikes." She said something I didn't catch, so I did the fiddly I'm-wearing-earplugs-you'll-have-to-speak-up motion near my ear. Blank stare. I knocked my helmet. Nothing. Good grief, I really did need a break! I leaned in and said "Sorry, I'm wearing earplugs. What did you say?"
"SHE SAID $60 FOR ALL THE BIKES!" Walter shouted in my ear.
This took a second to percolate. $12 is amazingly cheap for a private campground in a place like this, but she must have been desperate to make a sale and piped up with offers of flush toilets, free hot showers and coffee or tea in the morning. We'll take it, thanks!
Next came the game of juggling these heavily loaded road bikes through badly maintained campground dirt, but everything handled surprisingly well I thought. We found a place, pulled out, found a better one, moved the bikes and got ourselves situated.
We'd done it. Made it. Big Sur. We were really, finally here. Construction, windy roads, crazy meet-ups, bike issues, rocks, full campground, and here we were, a mismatched, raggedy bunch of randos that had successfully navigated a ourselves to one of the most beautiful places on earth, on two wheels and all at the same time. From here on out, it was all gravy. No matter what came next, success was ours.
The tent was put up (mostly- everyone ran out of interest halfway through, and besides, you can't see the sky with a rain fly, so it was really more of a shelter from non-existent mosquitoes and a place to chuck our stuff), the fire was started, and beer was cracked.
None of us had expected showers, so of course nobody brought a towel. Except for Walter. This man is to be commended, here in public for all to see, for his insane dedication to this trip. He not only baked a friggin' mousse cake, but then had the foresight to wrap it in a wet towel and freeze the whole thing solid so it'd be cold and unspoiled by the time it made it here. AND now he had a towel! It just needed to be dried out. This took most of the night, and the last time I saw the poor towel it was kicked under the picnic table and was still a bit sodden, but still: towel.
Elizabeth, our intrepid ambassador schmoozed with our neighbor who turned out to be a yogi and musician on the run from relationship woes. Neat guy, and happy to share in our fire, wine and sausages, and to repay us the next morning by sharing his breakfast of fruit.
Jeremy, Wayli and I decided the really important things in life came in bottles, and made short work of the beer. As you can see, it was getting chilly- half of us were still in our riding jackets.
And then it got dark and meat happened over the fire.
Quiet hours happened and were enforced by 10, so after that it was half-drunk dirty jokes and muffled chuckling, much to our friendly yogi neighbor's amusement.
I think it was Walter who pointed out how different camping is when you're and adult than when you're a kid. When you're a kid, everything is cold, the food tastes funny, there's dirt in your sleeping bag, and you'd much rather be home but Mom and Dad force you to come out here. But when you're an adult, it's a whole different game! It's cold, but it's YOUR cold, damnit! This ain't no stinking office with A/C and heater, this is real cold! Outside cold! And the food? Damn right it tastes funny! This is nothing you could buy in a restaurant, this is honest-to-god camp food, burnt to whatever flavor you desire over hot-as-hell coals from real hardwood. No gas stove here, no brickets, just wood, burning, and some metal pipes in a grill shape. There may be dirt in your sleeping bag, but there's nowhere in the world you'd rather be, because you CHOSE to be here. You made the choice, and then made it happen. It's a feeling of victory and of accomplishment. For some of us that happens in the Serengeti on a month-long trip. For some, that's a hike in the local park between work and dinner. For us, it was 150 miles from home in Big Sur. Not the Serengeti, but a hell of a lot further than the local park.
Still, no denying that it was cold, and the smoke was turning my eyeballs into kielbasa. I headed to the local "flushies" to refund some of the beer and caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. I'm not above using decent plumbing when it's available, but that glimpse told of much more than one day on the road. I felt good. Alive. Filthy, cold and full of funny tasting dinner as any bear in the woods. Or sea otter, or condor, or whatever. Sometimes you look in the mirror, and think "That isn't me. Where am I?" For me, that person is in the bathroom mirror of a campground in Big Sur.
It was time to turn in. We'd made our goal and the trip was complete, but the adventure had barely begun. We still had the whole next day and the whole way back, and that, my friends, had not seen a lick of planning. We didn't know how we were going to do that until we got there. Boy howdy, was it worth it!
Good ride report so far!
A friend and I will be riding the 101/1 from central Oregon to Santa Barbara. We head out one month from now.
I love the scooter! I know it's more than a scooter - I always thought it would be funny to see a big group of them going across country together.
Great report so far:thumb
I think you've discovered that you don't need the perfect bike or a lot of planning to have a great ride. Just jump on whatever you got and go:ricky
I'm looking forward to reading about the rest of your trip.:clap
The scooter performed remarkably well! And yes, it's really a scooter. A damned big one, but still a scooter! :D
Klaviator, I've always had the theory that hiking across my front lawn in snowshoes in August made more sense than sitting on the couch. Then I saw this, and it summed it all up perfectly:
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