Riding a big, heavy, dual sport motorcycle off road is kind of like asking a girl to the middle school dance. You just have to go for it. And not be afraid. Even if you are fairly certain you are about to blow it. I am getting better about this when it comes to my motorcycle. And if I can ever get my time machine working, well, Suzy Letkins better watch out.
This is a story about motorcycles, sure, but that’s a small part of it. It is also a story about friendship and camping and “men being men”, i.e., ‘Dude, you put too much white gas on the fire, you’re gonna take off Tom’s eyebrows…do it again!’ And it is a story about California, which is a big, long, beautiful state.
There are a group of guys I ride with. The PPMC. It’s a club I started. We don’t ride Harleys and we don’t wear little tiny helmets or leather. None of us have beards. Only half of us have hair. We span this great state from Sonoma county to LA county. We ride Kawasaki KLR 650’s…big, underpowered bikes, that can go pretty much anywhere a reasonable vehicle can go. We are bikers, but we lean more towards high visibility, armored gear that will protect us even if it doesn’t look all that cool. And we have much better raingear than most guys you might encounter on a bike. And far more zip-ties.
Our club is about friendship and respect and helping other riders…the only real rule we have is that you have to stop if you see a bike on the side of the road. Even if you are late. Even if it is pouring rain. Especially if it is pouring rain. Well, and if you don’t have your club knife on you then you have to buy the beer. But that’s about it. We work on our bikes together, we BBQ a lot, and we like to ride. Not to the bar to watch the game. Not 150 mph on the freeway. Our ride is a little different.
Recently, we decided to head north and check out the Lost Coast and ride Usal Road. The kind of trip our bikes are designed for. We rode everything from freeways, to sweeping coastal roads, to tight twisties and dirt and rocks and made it home with a little less oil and smiles that lasted for days. And with a newfound love of California. I’ve lived half my life in California and the rest of it all over the two coasts. Trips like this make it real hard to ever consider leaving. The one part of the trip that sticks out the most in my mind was just a brief moment. One of those clarifying moments that feels like diving into cool water on a hot day. We were standing on the side of a dirt road that sees FAR more rattlesnakes than vehicles. The sun filtered through the forest canopy and the dust from the road. I looked over at my friend, Tom, and he had a big silly grin on his face. I was laughing for no reason. Tom passed me some beef jerky and I said, “You know what, Tom? We may not be rich. But we get to do THIS! Can you believe that?!?”
A lot of planning went into this trip. And as much as I love taking trips on my bike, I hate preparing. But you do what you have to. So, I spent the days before the trip making lists of things I needed to take. I cleaned my air filter. I cleaned and lubed my chain. I changed the oil. I got my camping gear together. I got anxious. I got excited. I watched videos of guys riding Usal Road on Youtube and got a little bit scared. And before I knew it, it was time to go. There would be four of us. Me (Dan), the President of the NorCal chapter. Tom, the President of the SoCal chapter. Mark, the Vice President and Dave, our Road Captain.
On the Saturday we left, Tom met me in Burlingame (where my family and I are currently staying with my Mother in Law). I had been up for a few hours. He had been on his bike since 3:30 in the morning closing the distance from Redondo Beach to the Bay Area. He drank a glass of Burlingame water and we were on our way, bikes loaded down with saddlebags, tents, sleeping bags, water, food, clothes, and anything else we thought we might need before we got home on Monday. We had our fishing rods of course. That goes without saying.
My wife and two year old daughter waved as we rode off, and we hammered out a quick two hours up 101 and through the city to meet Mark in Santa Rosa. The plan was to camp on some private land we had permission to camp on and then head north in the morning. Somehow that got confused. So, Mark stayed home the first night. Tom and I added a new rear tire to the pile of crap on my bike and hit the freeway again to get to Dave’s house in Cloverdale. We got to Dave’s around 5 and changed my tire. And then we went fishing.
I love motorcycles. I love lots of things. But I love fishing. We jumped back on the bikes and followed Dave to the intended campground. We crossed a few dry washes and found ourselves on a pristine bank of the Russian River. It was a few minutes before dusk, so Tom and I wasted no time in getting our fishing gear ready. We were traveling light, so I had my collapsible spinning rod and as many lures as I could comfortably fit in an old Sucrets box. I shucked my boots, rolled my pants up to my knees, waded out to the middle and started fishing. There were no people around. No sound except the gentle burbling of the water and the occasional cry of a red tailed hawk in the distance. It was as near to perfect as you could want. And then it happened.
I fly fish. I’m no pro, but I can hold my own. And one thing I know is that you can pretty much guarantee yourself an amazing hatch if you leave your fly rod at home. And that is just what happened. As the sunset painted the sky purple and pink and a bunch of colors that only interior designers know the name for, we hit some kind of hatch. If I was a better fisherman, I would be able to tell you what was hatching. But I’m not, and it was pretty near dark anyway. And I didn’t really care. I was standing knee deep in cool water with the sun setting behind me and thousands of little insects flying around my head and falling into the water. There were thirty or so fish rising around me and I was standing like a sucker with a spinning rod and a bunch of bass lures. Bass is what we had been told to expect. That is not what we got.
After I stopped wishing I had my fly rod, I started watching the fish. They definitely weren’t rising like bass. They were rising like trout. You could see their noses just barely poking through the water and sipping in the little bugs. The yellow rooster tail I had tied on was getting no attention, so I changed to a big bass plug for the heck of it. On the second cast I got a hit. It didn’t fight like a bass. I fished slow and got the fish over to the bank. Tom was suddenly beside me asking me what I’d caught. It was getting on the dark side of dusk and I said, “I have no idea, Tom.” And I didn’t. I could feel the fish under the water and it felt like a trout. But it was mostly silver. We got a light on it and I couldn’t believe it. There, attached to my 2.5” bass plug was a ten inch steelhead. I got the hook out without taking the fish out of the water and let him slip back away. We laughed. And then we starting fishing again.
Dave had gone back to get food to BBQ, and I was debating changing lures when I realized that it was pretty much pitch black. So, I stayed in the middle of the river and cast my bass plug until I saw flashlights worming their way through the woods. Dave and his boys and the food. By the time my tender feet had located my boots 40 yards upriver, the fire was going and there were burgers on. It was a cloudy night, cool, a perfect night for sitting around a campfire and talking about whatever came up (which when you throw an eight year old and a twelve year old into the mix, can be just about anything).
I was halfway done with my burger when I realized it was the best I had ever had. I was reasoning this out when the firelight hit well enough that I could see the blood-red meat. I order all my meat very well done. Apparently, my subconscious craves blood. It was lightly raining as we headed back to the bikes and made our way back to Dave’s house where I played a little guitar and watched Tom’s eyes droop. He’d had a long day and went to bed early. Dave and I were like little kids on Christmas eve. Even at 12:30 when I knew I had to sleep, I couldn’t. But then somehow, I did.
Sunday morning was cold and drizzly. We had some coffee and breakfast and a shower and were on our way. We generally look pretty ridiculous, and the rain gear didn’t help. Luckily, we had no one to impress. And we stayed dry until the sun came out.
The ride north was wonderful. The air was fresh and crisp. The bikes were all running well. We were lost in the paradise of long slow curves and redwoods and…well, someone has to say it…freedom. There is something about a bike trip. You may be tired. Your butt may hurt. You may have road grit all over you, but you can’t hear your cell phone even if you have coverage. You can’t check your email. You can’t….you get the idea. And none of us were about to complain about sore butts when Tom already had nine hours of cumulative riding on all of us.
One of the nice things about our bikes is that we can get about 220 miles between gas stops. And we were making time. We passed a lot of other bikers and even chatted with a few who weren’t afraid of their friends seeing them talking to us (watching a group of Harley riders in leather vests and chaps or guys with Italian superbikes and racing leathers size up a bunch of guys in dirty traveling gear covered in reflective piping is a very entertaining thing).
It was a wonderful ride. It was also the kind of ride that makes you remember that San Francisco and the Bay Area are nowhere near “northern California”. We stopped one last time for coffee at a Starbucks with 40 bikes (none of which could do what we were about to do) in the parking lot and set out to find Usal Road.
The entrance to Usal Road is not marked. Thanks to GPS, we found it without too much trouble, though. We stopped to make sure we were headed the right way. We aired down our tires for the dirt and rocks and water crossings and whatever else awaited us. We smiled. And then we were on our way.
Usal Road can be nearly impassible in the spring. Certainly impassible on anything but a 4X4 or a real dirt bike. But with summer waning, it was perfect for us. I’ve been riding for a long time, but I’ve only had my KLR for a few years and offroading is still pretty new to me. But this was the perfect road. Not so scary that you couldn’t enjoy a quick glance at the view, not so easy that you could let your guard down. My brain moves very fast. Faster than I would like, and I think that part of the reason I like fishing and motorcycles is that they both demand 100% of your attention at all times. Otherwise you don’t catch fish. Or you die. And while I don’t mind getting skunked, premature death is something I try actively to avoid. Premature hair loss, I can handle.
When we ride, we ride as fast as the slowest person wants to go. We stop when anybody wants to stop. And it varies when it comes to who wants to take it easy. This ride we were pretty much in perfect sync. Even Tom, who I am now convinced has super powers and an ass made of kevlar. We are not youngsters. At 32, I am the youngest by quite a bit. Some of the guys I ride with are near my Dad’s age. And we have nothing to prove and a lot to see. There would be little point in riding Usal Road as fast as you possibly can. We came to see the views. We came to stand narcotized by fatigue in sun drenched clouds of dappled dust. We came to relax. And the kind of riding we were doing was not easy. So we took it slow and enjoyed it, amazed that we were lucky enough to be a part of it.
We made it through the dirt and signs warning about donkeys in the roads with no trouble. One bike went down in the mud, but that’s pretty much a given and the bike and rider were AOK. We rolled into Shelter Cove about 5pm and let Mark’s God-given, internal beer GPS do the rest of the work. Sure enough, we were soon stocking up on cold beer and salami and cashews and lots more food (including a bunch of stuff I forgot I had purchased until we got home…we still have some cashews).
Now, I don’t know if we were there at the right time or what. But I have lived everywhere from the deep south to the English countryside, and I have never encountered friendlier people than in Shelter Cove. The nice woman at the general store sent us on our way with supplies and directions to a campground. The office was closed, but there was a guy on a golf cart emptying the trash cans and he told us to set up and worry about everything else in the morning. He told us where his boss kept the firewood and looked at us like we were insane when we tried to pay for it. We offered him a beer and he said no.
We took the camping gear off the bikes and rode to the woodpile to stock up. We were about 300 yards from cliffs overlooking the pristine coastline. There was a small airstrip, the prettiest red and white lighthouse I have ever seen, and not much else. So, we set up camp, had a little food and a few beers. Made the fire. And then the sun went down.
For years, I worked with kids from the shadier neighborhoods of San Francisco. They were the first thing I thought of when I looked up. The milky way was thick and creamy. Whole milk…not the skim milky way you can sometimes see if you get up the in the hills around San Francisco. No, this was ‘miles and miles and miles from anything resembling a city’ stargazing. In fact, not since I was 6 and really roughing it camping in Anza Borrego, surrounded by howling coyotes, have I seen stars like that. You couldn’t look up without seeing a few falling stars. The sky was crystal clear. I am not a good enough writer to show it to you. You had to be there. I sure wish the kids I worked with could have seen it.
We went to bed dirty and happy. A howling wind kicked up that night and we slept fitfully, but it didn’t matter. I had to get up once to use a tree and the stars were still there. I felt big and small all at the same time. Mostly, I felt lucky that I lived in a place where I could do things like this.
Tom and I were up at 7 and Dave and Mark got up soon after. We broke camp and got some coffee at the local place after paying (for only one person of course…I think Shelter Cove’s economy runs on smiles and cookies) for our campsite. Then it was back on the bikes. We did a good bit of off road and some windy potholes surrounded by a little bit of road. We were back on terra firma by lunchtime. We ate, and then, after we had decided that we could not convince Tom that it was insanity to ride home and work the next day, we figured we could at least get him home quick. So, we booked it. We were back in Santa Rosa by 6:30. I was back in Burlingame hugging my girls by 8:30. Tom sent me a cheerful text message at 4am when he got home.
Motorcycles aren’t for everyone. Nor is fishing. Or camping. I understand that. It is for me. And it is for the PPMC. We don’t break any speed records. Girls don’t like our bikes. We sweat bullets when it is hot (you will never see us riding in shorts and sneakers). We like to be out in the middle of the woods. We like to laugh like idiots without anyone to judge us. We like campfires. We like to forget about California’s problems for a little while and remember what an amazing and diverse place it is…geographically and in pretty much every other way. I am not attempting to convert anyone. But there is nothing better than sharing a beautiful ride with your buddies. And sometimes hearing the story is pretty nice, too. Just ask my wife. She can probably tell it better than I can by this point.