It was raining when we left. Not always the best way to start an adventure, but
“You can't appreciate the good if you haven’t experienced the bad” I told my companion: Stuart, “We’re just getting it out of the way first thing.” We rode our motorcycles from the heart of Oregon to Southern California and back, 2,400 miles. We wanted to run from the cold, we wanted to keep swimming, to keep camping, to keep the tan from fading, to keep the summer from ending.
We left rather late. I was busy putting finishing touches on my set-up. It ended up being easier, and more affordable, for me to learn how to weld and build my own rack (complete with sissy bar!) and saddle bags, rather than buy them. I absolutely Love my motorcycle, but riding a 1980 Honda Cm 400 has it’s drawbacks (its rather hard to find accessories to fit). But lucky for me I’m a seamstress and leather worker and my riding partner happens to be a jeweler/metal worker. Naturally I got a little carried away and with 5 days to spare, instead of making some “quick bags”, ended up with what I would call “some sweet ass fuckin’ bags”. Eventually I threw some back up rivets in and said “good enough!”
With the mental compass set for South, we set off and made it as far as Paisley Oregon. There’s a nice little camp spot along the Juniper Creek (47.673349-120.586624), on the road to Coffee Pot Flats. Summer Lake hot springs are not far off, which are a great way to warm up after riding in the dark and cold and rain for hours.
We woke early to try and get some distance between us and home, plus, it’s pretty much the most boring drive until lake Tahoe. That’s where we got our first taste of those dreamy mountain roads. We crossed over the Sierra’s on Hwy 88, through El Durango National Forest. There were big white rocks and scraggly wind whipped trees and curvy roads, I was excited, though I had no idea what was to come.
We stopped in a little old gold town called Mokelumne Hill, it was like a place right out of the mining days, and was at one point one of the richest gold towns in California. Walking down the street you can just see the gun fights and fancy ladies, and old crazy miners hanging out here 150 years ago. We stayed in the old hotel which is known to be haunted. During our trip this area of California was all but dried up and burning. The town had been evacuated and the citizens only allowed to return a few days prior. Needless to say they were thrilled and celebrated passionately in the only bar in town, which was a saloon inside the hotel.
In the morning we jumped on The Golden Chain Highway (Hwy 49) and took it all the way to Mineral King. The Golden Chain was beautiful. Edging along the foothills of the Sierra Nevadas, It was all gently curving roads through rolling hills dappled with vineyards and old gold towns. Sometimes I forgot I was in California and a mere 500 miles from home. The road eventually lead into a series of switch backs, climbing up and around the edge of the mountains. They got tighter and tighter and eventually broke into golden fields and 100 miles of fruit. “I am SO in California right now” I thought as I rode with a big grin on my face for hours. I often think about how crazy I would look if I didn't have a full face reflective helmet, just riding around grinning and laughing and squealing all day.
I followed Stuart, albeit a bit skeptically, off the main road. The sign said Mineral King and the road quickly turned to one lane and crossed the Kaweah River over a beautiful gothic style bridge (beneath which is an amazing swimming spot) (36.4496343-118.7929520). It immediately started with the switch backs and in a matter of minutes we could look out over the entire valley and see the river thousands of feet below. There was a sign that said the road stopped being maintained passed a point, after which it became riddled with potholes and surprise sand traps. I couldn't recall a time I had been so high up on such a sketchy road with no guard rails. and couldn’t help but thinking “If I made one mistake I could just disappear, no one would find me. I would just fall off the edge into the abyss.” After riding for about an hour up and up this desert mountain of orange sand and tarantulas and yuca so big it towers over you, the scene changed suddenly and turned into forest. Thats when I saw my first giant Sequia tree. It was like a wall. Like a building. I could live in there. The road was one of the most fun I’ve ridden, there wasn’t a single car, it felt like I was discovering a place that hadn't been seen in years. At the top there are campgrounds to stay at; we stayed at “cold springs campground” (36.451188-118.612411) it was alright, theres a river and trails where you can hang out on a rock slide and look at the mountain they call “Mineral King”.
After Mineral King we had no plan, no destinations, just total freedom. What an amazing feeling to have 10 days with no where to be, and nothing in particular to do but find cool shit. The world was our oyster. We casually road down to a town called Lindsey, we stopped for a break because there was a cool old bank with the paint chipping off for sale. We had just been fantasizing about what we could do with such a building when a local man by the name of Cookie Rio came up and started asking about us. One of the most amazing things about traveling by motorcycle is the camaraderie between almost all motorcycle riders. People just find you easier to approach when your not locked inside a little bubble of metal and glass. He told us to go up towards Camp Nelson on Hwy 190, that there were amazing swimming holes and beautiful views. He was right. The swimming was great (36.149471-118.752366), the town of Camp Nelson was my dream town, it was nothing but a tiny strip with a bar, a restaurant, a general store, and a gas pump, it even had a little building with a Soda Spring! But the best thing was the road. It was absolutely 100% the most amazing road I have ever ridden, chalk full of those perfect hairpins, a motorcyclists dream. It climbed up through a valley along the Tule river, it was so curvy that to hit each corner you'd be looking up and behind you, and every curve was banked so you wouldn't have to put in hardly any effort, it was like riding a roller coaster. We stayed for two days in the Belknap campground, (36.141335-118.598145) which was completely empty and space number 14 was on a river with a giant sequoia in the site!
Hwy 190 continued to climb and eventually opened onto a most absurdly amazing view of the Kern Valley. It was hard to comprehend the vastness and the size of the mountains we were towering over. And not a single person or house or road even in sight. It was funny to think of overpopulation when the earth is so big, so big that we hadn't seen much for people in days. And there are places like this, without a soul as far as the eye could see. Slowly our beautiful sequoia forest dissipated and we found ourselves on mars. At least it felt that way. There were no people, no trees, no plants, only rock hills and the full moon. In the middle of all this weirdness is this little oasis: Kernville, like a mirage. It had a strip of motels with neon signs from the 50’s, saloons as old as the town and a sleepy little square full of antique stores and cafes. There was even a motorcycle shop where a sweet couple worked on bikes together.
The next day we finally crossed over to the east side of the sierras. In the rain shadow of the mountains is where the Joshua trees lived, In little tribes like guardians, like the souls of the desert. They welcomed us to the east side, the road settled down, and straightened out, we hit Hwy 395 and opened up. After a week of riding the windiest roads I’ve ever seen, being able to ride over 50 m/h was like feeling bliss. It was like coming home. The adrenaline kicked in instantly, like a switch. The overwhelming sense of joy was such that you see in movies. When the cute quirky girl convinces the sad lonely boy that life is here for living and they fall in love. But that’s the movies and who needs a man when you have a motorcycle?
We rolled into Lone Pine around sunset. This is where they filmed westerns in the 60’s it was all old wooden buildings and saloons and hotels with neon. We stayed in the Dow Villa Hotel, right down the hall from where John Wayne and Roy Rogers stayed. There’s Pendleton on the beds, the coffee starts flowing at 1 am, the hot tub is open 24 hours, and the pool smells like banana waffles. Paradise.
Mt. Whitney greeted us in the morning and we departed reluctantly to follow the road North. The boulders were big, the desert vast, and the mountains good looking. We dropped in to see Yosemite. It was a pretty wicked climb; 10,000 ft in less than 10 miles, straight up. But the valley was like disney world. It was cool to see, there’s some really big pieces of granite down there. But there was actually traffic, and mostly consisting of convertible mustangs. So as soon as we could we got out and back on the 395. Apparently September is the time to ride this section of road because almost every vehicle we saw was a motorcycle. We stopped at a BBQ in Walker, there were a bunch of bikes parked out front and when we walked up to the picnic tables they greeted us jovially and told us to grab a seat and some grub. They were excited to hear and tell about adventures and even jab each other about my being a girl on an old bike riding roads that some of them were not even down with. It feels so amazing to be in the middle of no where and sit down with a group of people who are just as ready and willing as you are to be friends. If you're out here, and you're on a motorcycle, you rode for a long ways to get here, so you can expect some passionate folks. Every time I get the wave on the road I think “If I crashed right now, that guy would be there to help, and vice versa”, we’ve got each others backs, and what better community can you ask for?
That afternoon landed us in Quincy some locals told us of a camp spot on the river by a little “town” called Twain. Stuart put it in his GPS for “shortest distance” which had been taking us on some interesting side roads. We turned off the main road and the short cut quickly turned to dirt. I have road tires on my bike and being all loaded down with my gear, it really doesn't do well on dirt, but I decided to go for it. After a few miles the road narrowed into almost a quad trail there were rocks and things in it but we saw a little wooden sign that said “Twain 5” so kept going. Soon after that the forest dropped off into a huge valley with a tiny river below. The trail hugged the side of the mountain but as we started to decline there were little wash outs and mud puddles dotting the road. Then there was a tunnel, long and dark under a ridge and some train tracks. This must a have been here for 150 years, this must have been the main road at one time. on the other side of the tunnel was a steep hill and at the bottom was an old rusted out and really smashed up car from the 30’s. I took it real slow and wished I had knobby tires like my partner. We made it to Twain, and like the local said, there was some camp spots right on the river (40.0201673-121.0719039), there was only an old miner camped there with a claim staked in the river. A little ways down the road are Woody hot springs. We watched the blood moon from the hot spring and trains going by across the valley all night.
Going on trips like this I always expect it to be a wonderful meditative experience, where I have some sort of epiphany or spiritual awakening. Like I’ll come home a changed woman, birds will fly with me, deer will eat from my hands, and babies will hush and coo when I touch their heads like some sort of snow white mother nature. I expect to figure out all of life’s problems in two weeks, while riding a motorcycle through a playground of roads having the most fun I've ever had on two wheels. The truth is this isn't Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and maybe I haven't spent enough time riding through the flat and desolate parts of America. But I do know that with everything you do in life comes experience, whether they be good things or bad, you can learn and grow from everything and sometimes you don't even realize it. I now feel confident that I could ride my motorcycle anywhere and have a good time, and boy is that a great feeling. If there’s something that you think interests you, try it! It cant hurt to try, and if you like it, then heck, keep on doing it. You’ll just keep getting better at it the longer you do it. Life is for living so get out and live it.