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“Seems it never rains in Southern California…” The lyrics of Albert Hammond’s 1972 hit echo in my head as I load my gear on the 2012 Harley-Davidson Road Glide Ultra that sits in my garage. I’m about to head out on a six-day ride that will take me on a tour of Southern and Central California, and the ground outside is still wet from last night’s downpour. The forecast calls for thunderstorms today, though the skies show signs of clearing right now. Rain won’t stop me from riding, but it does force me to adjust my plans a bit.
I have all of the right gear for the rain. I don’t wear a rain suit anymore, not since I got my Harley-Davidson FXRG Jacket, FXRG Leather and Textile Pants and FXRG Boots. I stay dry and warm in all weather, and I don’t have to worry about adding another layer.
I am trying out some new gear on this trip, as usual. I’m a little concerned that I’ve made a rash choice on one item. I decided to buy a Garmin Nuvi 1450 GPS unit, opting for the $149 closeout instead of springing for one of the $600 minimum Garmin Zumo GPS units that are considered weatherproof. So, I’ll have to be careful to put away the GPS if rain threatens. Oh, well. At least when the weather is nice, I’ll have GPS. In the rain, I’ll have to rely on my sense of direction and my memory. That’s okay. They’ve served me well enough in the past. When I do use the GPS, it’ll be mounted to a RAM handlebar mount that will hold the unit securely just above the speedometer. I’ve also mounted a simple $14.99 old-fashioned compass that I bought from Aerostitch Rider’s Warehouse, so at least I’ll know which direction I’m heading. If I get lost on this trip, I’ll only have myself to blame.
The first leg of my journey will take me to San Diego, one of my favorite destinations. A direct route will take me from my home in North Hollywood, a suburb of Los Angeles, down the major West Coast freeway, Interstate 5. I normally avoid the freeway on my trips, but the weather has caused me to change my plans. Rain near the coast can result in snow in the hills and mountains at this time of year, and I’ve heard reports of road closures along the way. I don’t want to risk that at the start of my trip, so I’m sticking to the highway.
I back out of my garage, and wave goodbye to my wife Robin as she closes the garage door. I’m very lucky. She’ll keep the home fires burning, watch after the dogs and cats, and take care of everything while I’m gone. It’s more fun when Robin can get some time off of work and ride on the back of the bike with me, but I have a great time on the road alone, too. I’ll miss her, but I know that she’ll have a great week on her own, bonding with our new puppy Chet and watching Downton Abby on the DVR.
Living in Southern California, sometimes we forget what a great tourist destination our area can be. Between our home and San Diego are some of the most popular attractions in the world. On my ride south, I’ll pass Universal Studios Hollywood, Knott’s Berry Farm, Disneyland, the Discovery Science Center and Legoland California, all fantastic family attractions and day trips during a local stay. It would be very easy to stay at a Best Western hotel in the Los Angeles area and explore all of these attractions during a short vacation.
But that’s not really my thing. I like to ride, and I like to see places that I’ve never seen before.
Today is Sunday, but I still get caught up in traffic while passing through downtown Los Angeles. At least there’s a reason this time: The Los Angeles Marathon. This year marks the 27th annual running of the 26.219-mile race. The LA Marathon has turned into a big event, attracting world-class runners, over 23,000 entrants and hundreds of thousands of spectators. It’s one of those days when the whole city unites around one event. The marathon, officially the Honda LA Marathon, will be held again on March 17, 2013. A Saint Patrick’s Day marathon! That should be worth attending.
South of downtown, traffic opens up, and I’m soon zipping down the highway. The skies look ominous, with dark clouds building in the near distance. The rain concerns me less than the wind, which has picked up significantly during my ride. Luckily, I’m on the Road Glide, probably the most stable bike in the Harley lineup. The shark nose fairing cuts through the air, and because it’s attached to the frame, not to the front fork, the effect of the wind gust is minimized. I feel safe and secure, even as I watch small cars around me struggling to maintain their lane position.
I ride into Orange County, through the suburban sprawl. I make a quick stop in Irvine to say hello to my sister and her family – I wouldn’t hear the end of it if I didn’t stop for a cup of coffee, and to meet her new dog, Rider. I’m a sucker for dogs – oh, and my sister’s family, too. A cup of hot coffee, a few pats on Rider’s head, and I’m back on the road again.
Just south of Orange County, I hit the San Diego County line, and soon I’m riding along the Pacific Coast. I ride a little faster as I pass the twin domes of the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station (SONGS). SONGS has been in the news lately because of some failed tests and possible weak spots. I don’t think there’s any imminent danger, but I don’t linger. Better safe than glowing, I always say.
Finally, I’m in San Diego, and the rain hasn’t shown up yet. I follow my GPS’s prompts toward Shelter Island, a long narrow spit of land across San Diego bay from downtown. I’m staying at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Island Palms Hotel & Marina, right on the bay in the middle of Shelter Island.
I pull in to the parking lot, and I’m thrilled to discover that the hotel is beautiful, almost resort-like in its setting. The back of the hotel is right on a harbor, with a sprawling marina with mooring for hundreds of boats. Yachts, sailboats and other pleasure craft are packed closely together in the water. The front of the hotel faces San Diego Bay, with a gorgeous walking path along the shoreline. I can’t wait to get checked in so that I can go for a stroll.
My room is in Casa Del Mar, on the second floor with a balcony facing the Bay. I can see Coronado Beach and the San Diego skyline. This is such a beautiful city. I shrug off my leathers, grab my camera and go out walking for an hour before sunset.
I’ve worked up quite an appetite by the time I return to my room. I had planned to ride into the Gaslamp Quarter, one of San Diego’s most swank neighborhoods, for dinner, but upon check-in I learned that the hotel’s Blue Wave Restaurant & Lounge was worth exploring, with fresh seafood specials and a wide assortment of beers. With rain threatening again overhead, I decide to stick closer to home. I’m rewarded with a delicious dinner. I order the special, which turns out to be a twist on macaroni and cheese with blue crab meat, penne and a four-cheese sauce, accompanied by a Stone IPA. Combined with a great view of the marina just beyond the restaurant’s window, I am very glad that I decided to dine at the hotel tonight.
The skies open up just as I return to my room, and I’m treated to a pounding rainstorm. I watch from the safety of my balcony as my red Road Glide takes a shower in the parking lot.
Hope things dry up for my ride tomorrow.
NEXT: DAY TWO: SAN DIEGO TO PALM SPRINGS
Rain. It’s still raining when I wake up and peek through the shutters. A heavy fog sits over the bay, obscuring any view of the San Diego skyline. I get packed and dressed, and dodge the raindrops over to the Blue Wave Restaurant & Lodge off of lobby of the BEST WESTERN PLUS Island Palms Hotel & Marina. I study the weather app on my iPhone as I eat my ham and cheese omelet. It looks like most of the storm has passed, and I’m just dealing with the lingering effects. It’s time to ride.
I load up the Road Glide, and hit the road. I make an extra effort to ride smoothly, going gently with the throttle and easing on the brakes when I need to slow down. I pay special attention to the road surfaces, watching out for slick spots where the oil and grime has pooled on the pavement. Things look pretty good – a few days of rain have washed away some of the slick stuff.
San Diego always seems like a maze of freeways to me. The roadways are wide and smooth, and freeways crisscross all over town. With the rain, I have not mounted my GPS unit – I’ll have to figure out a way to weatherproof it before my next trip. I’m going old school on this leg. I’ve got a list of roads and turns written down, and I’m wearing the directions in a plastic map pocket on my left arm. I spent a while studying road maps before I left the hotel this morning, and I think I know where I’m headed. We’ll see.
After a few miles of freeway, I come to my turnoff, Scripps Poway Parkway, and I find myself riding through some suburbs that I’ve never seen before. Poway seems to be a high tech center, and the place is booming with big houses and elegant shopping centers. Soon, things clear out a bit, and I’m in the rolling hills of San Diego County. I pass through the charming town of Ramona. Just 30 miles from the highrises of San Diego and the high tech of Poway, and I’m back in the Old West. Feed stores and horses, saloons and antique stores line the road. If it weren’t raining, I’d stop and explore. But I’m eager to get further inland, and hopefully away from the rain.
Just a few minutes out of Ramona, the skies clear and I’m riding on dry pavement again. I follow CA-67 as it becomes CA-78. I’m gaining elevation, and the temperature drops into the 40s. I start to notice some snow accumulation on the sides of the road, but the road is clear. At the intersection of CA-78 and CA-79, I pull into the parking lot of the Santa Ysabel Post Office. The roofs of the buildings in the area are all snow-covered. A guy in a pickup truck works on his rear wheel. He’s removing a set of snow chains. Uh-oh. I go in to the post office with my map. I want to make sure that it is safe to keep going on my route. I figure that somebody at the post office will know a lot about the local roads.
I’m right. The postal employee behind the counter is extremely helpful, and assures me that my route should be completely safe. She points out a few landmarks for me to watch for along the way, and places I should be wary of ice. I thank her, and climb back on the bike. I fight temptation, because the Julian Pie Company is right across the street. If it weren’t still morning, I would be munching on a slice of apple pie right now. I will be back.
The road gains elevation as I head up CA-79. The snow now covers the ground on both sides of the road. I’m a little nervous, but the sun is shining and there’s no sign of ice. I watch out for shady patches that the morning sun hasn’t yet reached – ice can lurk in the shadows. Traffic is light, and the scenery is amazing. Mountain peaks have sprouted around me, and the road is delightfully curvy.
I reach the turnoff for SR2, and I follow it through to the Montezuma Pass. I see one of those signs that brings joy to a motorcyclist’s heart – a squiggly line with the legend “NEXT 14 MILES.” The twisties! The scenery just keeps getting better and better, and I crest the mountain range and start my descent into the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. The park is California’s largest at 600,000 acres, and is famous for its spring wildflowers. I’m a few weeks early for wildflower season, but the recent rains have brought out some lush greenery, and the air is crisp and clean. If I was in a car, I wouldn’t have noticed the smell and feel in the air. I love riding through on a motorcycle. It’s a feast for the senses. The park is named for 18th century Spanish explorer Juan Bautista de Anza. “Borrego” means “big horn sheep” in Spanish. I don’t see any sheep around today – or any 18th century Spanish explorers.
I stop for lunch in Borrego Springs, at a little place that catches my eye called “El Borrego.” It’s a tiny place specializing in Mexican cuisine and big statues made from scrap metal. A ten-foot Tyrannosaurus Rex welcomes me in the side yard, and other cool statues and works of folk art decorate the restaurant’s patio. It’s cool and fun, and the food is good, too. I have a shrimp burrito and a soda, and I’m ready to ride again.
From Borrego Springs, I ride to see a big curiosity that I’ve always wanted to behold firsthand. The Salton Sea is the result of Mother Nature overtaking Man’s best plans, with disastrous results for the ecology. The Salton Sea was created when the Colorado River broke through a series of manmade canals in 1905, and all of the water rushed to the lowest point in the valley. With no outlet, the Colorado created a shallow body of water 45 miles long and 20 miles wide before engineers finally diverted the river in 1907. At first, the new sea attracted a wide variety of flora and fauna, and people followed. In the century since, the water has become heavily salinized, killing most of the fish and driving away the birds. The sea is shrinking as it evaporates, leaving arid land. The town seems to be drying up at the same time. I ride down to the shore, looking over the sunbaked landscape. It’s like another planet. I have to ride carefully, because the roads that lead to the shore seem to be disintegrating as the desert reclaims this low land. It’s an eerie place.
I ride on, putting the Salton Sea behind me.
I’m now in the Coachella Valley, a sleepy agricultural area that comes alive every April for the Coachella Valley Music & Arts Festival. The Festival runs over two weekends, and has become a major destination for indie rock and big stars. This year’s event takes place April 13 – 15 and 20 – 22, with headliners The Black Keys, Radiohead and Snoop Dogg & Dr. Dre leading the charge. Even in April, temperatures can hit the triple digits in Coachella, so it’s a real commitment for music fans. I’ll be skipping it this year (again).
Finally, I reach my destination for the evening: Palm Springs, the playground of the rich and famous. The BEST WESTERN PLUS Las Brisas Hotel is right on Indian Canyon Road, in the heart of downtown Palm Springs. My room is on the ground floor, right next to the pool, and when I arrive there are families enjoying the sun. To think, a few hours ago I was worried about hitting ice in the shade, and here are folks seeking the shade with an ice cold drink.
I unload the bike, and decide to take a walk through town instead of donning my trunks. Just one block over, Palm Springs’ famous Palm Canyon Drive is crowded with restaurants and shops, art galleries and coffee houses. It also features the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, the city’s own version of the Hollywood Walk of Fame. Stars who had some connection to Palm Springs, either owning a home in the area or frequently vacationing there, are eligible for the honor, which includes a star with their name permanently embedded in the sidewalk along Palm Canyon Drive. Over 300 stars are honored on the Walk, which was dedicated in 1992. New stars are added every year. I spotted several of my favorites during my walk, including Elvis Presley, Chevy Chase, Marilyn Monroe and, of course, Sony Bono, who served as Mayor of Palm Springs from 1988 to 1992. Mr. Bono, who also served in Congress representing the Palm Springs area, died in a skiing accident in 1998. A life-sized bronze sculpture of the entertainer and politician sits beside a fountain on Palm Canyon Drive, right next to his star.
Back at the hotel, I stop by the front desk to ask for a dinner recommendation. There are so many restaurants within walking distance of the hotel that I need a little help. The desk clerk asks me what kind of food I’m looking for, and based on my answers, she recommends Fisherman’s Market & Grill, right across the street from the hotel. It turns out to be a busy, informal restaurant with delicious fresh seafood. I know – seafood in the desert. But it’s really fresh, and really good!
After dinner, I’m ready to turn in. I resist the urge to join the crowd in La Cantina, the BEST WESTERN PLUS Las Brisas Hotel’s lobby bar. They look like they’re having fun, but I’ve had a big day, and I’ve got a long ride tomorrow.
Today was one of those days that remind me why I live in California. I rode from rainy coastline through snowy mountain passes and wound up in the desert, all on one tank of gas. Amazing.
More desert tomorrow.
NEXT: DAY THREE: PALM SPRINGS TO LONE PINE
Palm Springs is a sleepy town in the morning. I like that. The Club Room at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Las Brisas Hotel is bustling, however. Breakfast is served, and it's included in the price of the room. A chef is on duty to prepare omelets to order. She’s an artist with a pan. I linger over my ham and cheese creation, and study my maps. I want to make sure that I don’t hit any snow today. I check the weather and elevations on my route until I’m confident that I’ll be safe. No problems manifest themselves on the maps or on the Internet.
I pack up the bike and check out of the hotel. In a town full of hotels, the BEST WESTERN PLUS Las Brisas Hotel is a discovery, with a very intimate, friendly feel. I wish I could stay longer. It’s a great place to relax.
On the road out of Palm Springs, I stop to get a close up look at a wind farm. I’ve always seen them from a distance, but I get a chance to discover the scale of the enormous rotors from just a few yards away. If there’s one thing the desert has to spare, it’s wind. I know that there are potential ecological impacts to wind farms, including danger to migrating birds. But I hope that the good outweighs the bad, because these things are so incredibly cool to look at, and it seems like free energy to me.
I manage to escape Palm Springs without stopping for a date shake, one of the local delicacies. Palm Springs gets its name from the date palms that are planted all around the area. They’re not native plantings. Date palms are actually one of the world’s oldest cultivated plants – they don’t even exist in the wild anymore, even in the Middle East. The only wild dates are the result of accidental seeding by man. During World War I, an enterprising businessman tried to sell dates to the Army as a super food. Dates are packed with concentrated calories and nutrition, and they are easily preserved and last a long time, perfect for carrying in a soldier’s pack. He bought up land in the Coachella Valley near Palm Springs, and planted a number of varieties of date palms. World War I was settled before the plan came to fruition, but the date palm industry in the Coachella Valley was firmly established, and continues to flourish today. If you buy American dates at the store, they’re probably from the Palm Springs area. Fresh dates in the Coachella Valley are a hundred times better than the dates you can find most anywhere else, and the varieties are delightfully distinctive and unique from each other. Hadley Date Gardens in nearby Thermal is the Mecca of Dates. Not only do they have dozens of varieties available, they also have a café where they make fresh date shakes. My mouth is watering just thinking about them, but I ride on, drooling in my helmet.
I ride up the Twentynine Palms Highway until I reach the town of Yucca Valley, where I pick up CA-247. This takes me directly through Rimrock, one of the oddest-looking little towns I’ve ever seen. The houses and buildings in town are built on top of hills of rock, and the town looks for all the world like the Flintstones’ hometown of Bedrock. Very cool and goofy.
Just to the east of here is Joshua Tree National Park, an amazing place to visit. I’m heading in the other direction today, to the north, so I haven’t got time to stop by. The park is a trip in itself. The landscape I’m crossing is dotted with the Park’s namesake plaintive trees, so expressive and grotesque in their beauty. I stop at a roadside grove of Joshua Trees to take a few photos, and to admire their tortured features.
Stopping a motorcycle by the side of a desert road almost always gets a reaction, especially from other bikers. While I’m getting my camera gear out of the TourPak, a pickup truck with a Harley-Davidson sticker stops, and its driver leans out of the window to make sure I’m okay. I give him the thumbs-up, and he flashes me the V-Twin Sign – looks just like the Peace Sign, but we know what it means. It means that he’s a fellow biker, and he knows the rules of the road. Never leave a fellow biker stranded if you can help. There really is a brotherhood of motorcyclists, and I’m not talking about clubs or gangs, or anything like that. It’s about people who share an interest, and appreciate the challenges of life on the road. It’s about looking out for one another, and lending a hand when someone’s in need. It’s a good thing to be a part of, in my opinion. I make a mental note to pay it forward when I get a chance.
Back on the bike, Joshua Trees digitally documented for posterity, I ride on.
I stop for gas in Barstow. It’s lunchtime and I’m hungry, but all I see around is fast food. I’m not that hungry. I look around the well-stocked gas station minimart, and put together my favorite road meal – some beef jerky, a sugar-free Red Bull and a bottle of water. I munch down in the parking lot while I watch the locals come in for their fuel. Suddenly, a big boom hits, and I watch as the windows of the gas station literally buckle and bend. It looks like they turn to liquid for a second, then return to normal form. Then, a second boom. I’m confused, and I look around, expecting to see fire and brimstone. Then, I notice the contrails overhead. Two Navy jets have just passed by, traveling faster than sound, and I’ve just experienced a pair of sonic booms. A man in the parking lot confirms it. He says that it’s a normal occurrence around here, and that the store windows are specially mounted to withstand the force from planes on maneuvers at the nearby Naval Air Warfare Center at China Lake. Wow! I’m not sure I’d be happy in Barstow. I know that my dog Truman would hate it. He hides in the bathroom during thunderstorms.
Back on the bike, I pick up CA-58 for a few miles until I reach US 395. I take that north, into the Mojave Desert toward Death Valley. US 395 runs through the Mojave and up along the eastern border of the Sierra Mountains. The road is also known as The Three Flags Highway, because it originally ran from the Mexican Border all the way to Canada. Much of the road is still in use today.
The views along the way are spectacular, as the mountain ranges grow ever more impressive on the west side of the road, and the desert gets drier and more barren on the east side of the road. Much of 395 is straight and flat in this area, and I have to restrain my throttle hand from seeking triple digit speeds. There’s something about an empty flat road through the desert that makes a motorcycle want to go fast.
The Road Glide is doing great, by the way. I’ve become completely comfortable with the frame-mounted fairing, and I’m actually starting to prefer it to the fork-mounted batwing. The bike feels stable at all speeds, and wind doesn’t affect it at all. The windshield is at the perfect height for me, so that I’m looking over it and not through it. I feel like I’m sitting in a pocket of calm air, even though the windshield is much further away than it would be on an Electra Glide. I’m even growing to like the bright red paint job my Road Glide wears.
Mount Whitney, the tallest peak in the lower 48 states at 14,494 feet, sprouts in the near distance as I approach the town of Lone Pine. I pull in to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Frontier Motel and park in front of the office. I can’t get over what a great view this place has, with the mountains looming in the near distance.
I check in, and get a few restaurant recommendations from Emily at the front desk. I realize that I’m quite hungry, despite my delicious gas station smorgasbord lunch. I toss my gear into my room, and ride into Lone Pine, just a mile up the road.
I decide on Totem Café, because I notice that a sign outside that invites me to “See Our Famous Walls.” That’s just too intriguing to pass up. Turns out that the Totem Café has been in operation for many years, and they used to invite movie stars to carve their names into the walls. Plenty of them did it, too. I found Gary Cooper’s autograph carved above a door. Richard Boone, Ida Lupino, Edgar G. Robinson and dozens of other signatures (mostly names I didn’t recognize) lined the wood panels. The food is good, the history better. I have the grilled pork chops, and they’re big and juicy with a nice spicy flavor.
Back in my room, I relax and think about my ride tomorrow. It’s a long one.
NEXT: DAY FOUR: LONE PINE TO CAMBRIA
For such a small town, Lone Pine really is in the center of a lot of special locations. Death Valley National Park is to the east. Sequoia National Park and Kings Canyon National Park are to the west. The portal to Mount Whitney is right outside of town. A few miles north of Lone Pine is Manzanar National Historic Site, where Japanese nationals and Americans of Japanese descent were interned during World War II. The BEST WESTERN PLUS Frontier Motel is a great base camp for exploration to any of these remarkable places.
Travis, the General Manager of the Frontier Motel, tells me that his family has owned and operated the property ever since it first opened in the 1950s. He claims that the Frontier Motel is the sixth oldest Best Western in the country. Travis has been running the place for three years, after a stint with the Army in Iraq. He has been supervising upgrades and renovations, all while striving to maintain the original feel of the place. He’s doing a great job – it’s a nice, comfortable hotel, a bit of a throwback in style. I like it.
Breakfast is served in a dining room off of the lobby. I make quick work of coffee, scrambled eggs and sausage before checking out of my room, loading the bike and waving goodbye to Travis and his front desk clerk, Emily. I decide to ride through Lone Pine one more time before I leave. I park to take a few pictures, and wander into a souvenir store that specializes in rocks. Jane at the cash register asks if I’ve ridden up to the Mount Whitney Portal yet. It’s a left at the only traffic light in town, and thirteen miles to the base of Mount Whitney. I’ll be able to see some cool rock formations called “The Alabama Hills” on my way. I’ve come too far not to ride another thirteen miles (famous last words), so I hop back on the bike and take a left at the light.
The Alabama Hills Recreation Area is a series of hiking trails and campsites administered by the Bureau of Land Management. It’s a breathtakingly beautiful area, with rocks forming striking figures, and hiking trails all around. Hollywood has long taken notice of these rocks, using them as the backdrop for many a Western film.
I ride about seven miles up the Whitney Portal Road, the snow capped peaks getting ever closer. I come to a “ROAD CLOSED DUE TO WINTER STORM” sign that forces me to turn around before I reach the base of the mountain, but it was still a worthwhile detour.
Back in Lone Pine again, I ride south. Before I can put the town in my mirrors, I stop at the Beverly and Jim Rogers Lone Pine Film Museum. This quirky little museum “celebrates and preserves the diverse movie history of Lone Pine, Death Valley and the Eastern Sierra.” They’ve collected original movie props, memorabilia, cars and costumes from films that have been produced in the area, and have regular showings of Westerns on Thursday and Friday nights, along with lots of other movie events. I could lose a day looking at all the exhibits.
But I have to ride on. My route today is a bit circuitous, because I can’t cut through Sequoia National Park. It’s still winter at elevation, and the roads that go through the park’s mid-section are blocked with snow, even in late March. I’ll have to retrace my steps and ride south on US 395, then ride on CA-14 for a few miles until I reach CA-178. I zip along Three Flags Highway, doing my best to keep an eye on my speed. Good thing, too, because the California Highway Patrol is out in force today. They must have heard how fast I was riding yesterday.
I ride east on CA-178, which turns out to be a fun two-laner with plenty of twists and turns. Warning signs hint that cattle might appear on the road at any time, but the only ones I see are munching on grass in the pastures, just as they should. I ride through Weldon on the way to Isabella Lake, a beautiful, serene lake nestled in the mountains. Locals call it “California’s Best Kept Secret.” The secret is out – it’s stunning. I stop for gas in the town of Lake Isabella, and reluctantly ride on.
CA-178 follows the path of the Kern River, which winds and twists its way through the canyons that it has carved over eons of flow. This makes for extraordinarily good motorcycling. I take it pretty easy, because the scenery is so distracting. Traffic is light, but everybody seems to have the same attitude. Nobody’s rushing to finish their path down this road.
I emerge from the Kern River Valley as the canyon opens up and the city of Bakersfield splays out across the flat land in front of me. Bakersfield is often the butt of California jokes, but it has some rich history. It just has kind of unfortunate geography. It’s flat and dusty and hot, and nobody really did much city planning to remedy that until recently. Today, there are plenty of great amenities in Bakersfield, and riding through town, I noticed some nicely landscaped parks and recreation areas that make the ones near my house look shabby. Go for it, Bakersfield. I’m glad that the town honors its musical legend, Buck Owens, who was responsible for the “Bakersfield Sound” in country music. Buck’s old club, Buck Owens’ Crystal Palace, still operates some six years after the musician’s death. It’s right there in town, on Buck Owens Boulevard. Nice.
I stop for a cup of coffee and some water, today’s lunch. I know that I’m going to have a big dinner tonight, and with all those scrambled eggs and sausage back at the Frontier Motel, I’m not all that hungry yet.
I continue heading west on CA 58. After I leave Bakersfield and surroundings, I’m in agricultural country. California is a major producer of all kinds of agricultural products, from produce to fruit to wines to beef. With the cities dominating the news, it’s easy to forget that most of California is still wide-open space. Riding through the farmland of central California, I’m in awe at the vastness of our farmland. It’s not like the farms of the Midwest, with rows of corn and acres of sameness. It’s more sprawling, and each little valley seems to have a microclimate that changes the nature of what grows best. I spot groves of olive trees in one area, then groves of grapes in another hilly region. I pass what look like almond trees – I’m not good at this – or walnuts? Then, fields of onions, just starting to sprout. For a while, I spot small herds of cattle, lots of horses, a few sheep wandering. There are some mega farms that look quite industrial, and other small farms that look like family operations. Being California, I also spot Brahma Bulls, Texas Longhorns, llama and alpaca, ostrich and emu along the way. The variety is intoxicating.
So is the riding. Nobody seems to be on the road today, and the road follows its own course, darting around hills, turning left and right, and changing elevation constantly. I’m not pushing hard, just riding within my limits, and I’m still getting surprised along the way. It’s a challenging ride, but a lot of fun.
Soon, the air gets heavier and the temperature drops a few degrees. I’m getting closer to the coast. I pull over and turn on the GPS for the final stretch of the ride, because I’m not really confident about my directions. The Garmin guides me through Paso Robles, an elegant town that’s all about its horses. Finally, I reach Highway 1, and a short blast north brings me to Cambria. I follow the directions to Moonstone Beach and discover the BEST WESTERN PLUS Fireside Inn. I park in front of the office, and meet Justin, the assistant manager. He checks me in, and I load my gear into my room. It’s lovely, with a working gas fireplace and a little patio, from which I can see the Moonstone Beach Boardwalk and the Pacific Ocean. This place has million dollar views, no doubt about it. I grab my camera and head out along the boardwalk. I look over the edge of the boardwalk to the rocks on the beach below, and there are several enormous seals asleep in the afternoon sun. Just lying there, catching a few winks. The coastline unfolds up and down before me, but I get distracted by the wildlife. Some very assertive squirrels check me out to see if I’ve brought snacks for them. A bird lands on the railing beside me, chirping at me to demand attention. A few brave bunnies graze on the flowers that grow beside the boardwalk, paying no attention to me at all.
It’s time for dinner. I head across the highway to the main drag of Cambria, directly to my favorite restaurant in town. I know that I should explore more, but Main Street Grill has the best tri-tip steak sandwich in the world, and I can’t imagine eating anywhere else. Suitably gorged, I head back to the hotel for the evening. I’ll probably sit out on my porch for a while and listen to the waves. After a long day in the saddle, this is the perfect retreat.
NEXT: DAY FIVE: CAMBRIA TO SANTA BARBARA
The sound of seals barking on the rocks greets me when I step out onto the patio of my room at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Fireside Inn this morning. Seals are particularly vocal animals, and they have no problem expressing themselves at full volume. They're hilarious to watch, as they spend many of their waking hours telling each other who's boss. Moonstone Beach's seals look very well-fed and healthy, and seem to enjoy having an audience.
I pop into the breakfast room at the hotel for a quick breakfast -- scrambled eggs and sausage from the free buffet, and a few cups of coffee to shake off the morning fog.
I check out of the hotel, load up the Road Glide and take a short ride across CA-1 into the main part of Cambria for a little gift shopping. Cambria is a village of 6,000 residents. The local economy is built on tourism, being located halfway between Los Angeles and San Francisco on the Pacific Coast. There are dozens of restaurants, cafes, art galleries and antique stores in town, nestled between the beach and the rocky cliffs. Not only is the town an attraction, it is very close to one of California's greatest manmade wonders: Hearst Castle.
Just six miles north of Cambria on CA-1, Hearst Castle is the former home of newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst. Hearst was the target of Orson Welles' brilliant film CITIZEN KANE, but in real life, he was even more of a giant. Hearst Castle is a 165-room estate with 127 acres of gardens, terraces, pools and walkways, designed and created by Hearst in collaboration with architect Julia Morgan. They began construction in 1919 and completed their building in 1947. Hearst collected art, furniture, sculpture and artifacts from all over the world to fill his castle, and invited dignitaries and celebrities to help him to enjoy the property for parties and gatherings. Winston Churchill, Charles Lindbergh, Charlie Chaplin, Gary Cooper, Harpo Marx, Jack Warner and George Bernard Shaw were among the many, many guests at Hearst Castle over the years. The Hearst Corporation donated Hearst Castle to the People of the State of California in 1957, and it has been open for tours since 1958. Currently, there are four different tours conducted at the Castle, two of which are also conducted for visitors with accessibility issues. You can call 800-444-4445 to make reservations in advance for any or all of the tours -- which is highly recommended, especially on weekends and during holiday seasons. Tickets for the Grand Rooms Tour (the best overall starter tour), Upstairs Suites Tour and Cottages & Kitchens Tour are $25 for adults and $12 for children (ages 5 - 12). Tickets for the Evening Tour are $36 for adults and $18 for children. Parking is free.
Fifteen miles north of Cambria on CA-1, I stop at the Piedras Blancas Elephant Seal Rookery. Elephant seals are enormous, blubbery sea mammals with big, hanging noses that look like short versions of an elephant's trunk -- hence, the name. Male elephant seals, called "bulls," can be 16' long and can weigh up to 5,000 lbs, while females are about half that size. Only the males get the trunk -- the females look much more like other seals. Elephant seals mate and give birth on land, and the Piedras Blancas Rookery is one of the spots that many of them return to year after year. Breeding season begins in late November, and the pups are born in late January. The females remain on shore for about five weeks, and the males are onshore for about 100 days, from December to March for breeding season and in July and August for molting season. The Rookery is directly off of CA-1 -- it's just a matter of pulling into a parking lot on the ocean side of the road, and observing the site from a short distance away. Elephant seals were once thought to be extinct, but they are now protected by the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and have made a substantial recovery. They are amazing to behold, and a lot of fun to watch on the beach. As a city guy, I have a hard time believing that such big mammals exist in the wild, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles. It's wonderful.
After too-brief a visit with the elephant seals, I point the Road Glide south again. The fog is still pretty thick over the ocean, but seems to be lifting over the land a bit. California's Central Coast is dotted with lovely little towns, like Cayucos, Morro Bay and Los Osos, and beautiful parks like Morro Bay State Park and Montana de Oro State Park. Inland, just over the hills, towns like Atascadero, Templeton and Paso Robles have completely different climates, often registering temperatures 20 degrees higher than the coastal villages. The natural variety and beauty in this area is unbelievable.
I stop in San Luis Obispo, one of my favorite cities in all of California. I've wiled away so much time with the elephant seals that it's now time for lunch. San Luis Obispo is the county seat, and a very elegant city. Thanks to the presence of California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, known to the locals as "Cal Poly SLO," there are tons of affordable eateries in town, along with cool shopping, used bookstores and great movie theaters. I've misplaced my favorite earplugs somewhere on this trip, and I've been using foam disposable plugs. I stop in to a surf shop to see if they carry Doc's ProPlugs, and I walk out with a set of medium vented plugs and a pair of Hydro-Seals, a new kind of plugs that I've never tried before. I also get a recommendation for lunch, so I head over to the Natural Cafe on Higuera Street for a turkey burger and salad.
On the way back to my bike after lunch, I stroll through downtown SLO, admiring the tree-lined streets and the creek side paths. I stop to take a few photos of the Mission San Luis Obispo de Tolosa, the 1794 building that gives the town its name. The Mission was founded by Father Junipero Serra in 1772, part of the chain of missions that the Franciscans built along the California coast in the late 18th Century. The San Luis Obispo Mission is still an active parish, with a school and regular schedule of masses. A gift shop and museum are open seven days a week.
Nearby, the San Luis Obispo Museum of Art has a great collection and hosts frequent tours, mostly specializing in contemporary works. It's not a giant museum -- a few hours is plenty of time to explore all of its public galleries -- but free admission, along with a healthy dose of interactive multimedia makes it a worthwhile stop.
Nourished and calm, I jump back on my bike and ride on. I pick up US 101 South out of town, and ride through Pismo Beach, where Bugs Bunny always wanted to vacation. I stay on the highway through Santa Maria and Guadalupe, admiring the vineyards that are starting to wake up for the spring. The Central Coast is home to more than 200 wineries, vineyards and related businesses, according to the Central Coast Wine Growers Association. Napa and Sonoma get the press, but San Luis Obispo and Santa Barbara counties are really starting to flourish. Signs for wine tastings and winery tours dot the route as I continue south.
I leave US 101 at CA-154, which will take me through the San Marcos Pass -- officially, the "Chumash Highway." I love this road, which leads past Los Olivos, through the Los Padres National Forest and Lake Cachuma, then drops back down to the coast and Santa Barbara. It can be a very busy road, and in sections is only one lane in each direction, but the scenery makes it all worthwhile for me. The twisty road changes elevation, revealing valleys, canyons and lakes and some breathtaking views. I stop at a vista point to admire the deep blue of Lake Cachuma. What a spot.
Finally, I ride down the road and coast into Santa Barbara to the BEST WESTERN PLUS Pepper Tree Inn on State Street. The Pepper Tree is lovely, a Spanish-style hotel with multiple buildings arranged around landscaped courtyards. A welcoming fountain sits in the middle of the motor court, and Spanish tiles decorate the main lobby. My room has a patio on the courtyard, and an inviting outdoor pool and hot tub are just steps away. A long soak in the hot tub soothes my aching muscles, and now it's time for dinner. When I mention to the front desk clerk that I'm looking for seafood, she recommends a place just two doors down from the hotel, praising it as a local hangout with really good food. Just my speed, and I won't even have to get back on the bike.
Chuck's of Hawaii is a Tiki-style steak and seafood place with some very fun, old-fashioned touches. Their menu is painted on red stoneware jugs, and the waiters wear Hawaiian shirts. Meals include a visit to the salad bar, and the specials vary with the seasons and with the fresh catch. I treat myself to a grilled artichoke appetizer before I dive in to a delicious halibut steak. Yum. I'm glad I asked for a recommendation at the BEST WESTERN.
Back to my room, I spend some time planning my last day on the road. Santa Barbara to Los Angeles can be a dull ride on the freeway, or it can be a delight of back roads and discoveries.
Guess which way I'm going to go.
NEXT: DAY SIX: SANTA BARBARA TO LOS ANGELES
The final push home means that I'll get to see my wife, my dogs and cats and my house this evening. I could just ride straight down US 101, and be home in 90 minutes or so. But where's the fun in that?
I have breakfast at the BEST WESTERN PLUS Pepper Tree Inn's adjacent restaurant, the Treehouse Restaurant and Lounge. The restaurant also provides room service and poolside service for the hotel, but I decide to mingle with the regular folk instead. Fueled up for the ride home, I decide to detour into downtown Santa Barbara before I leave town.
Santa Barbara is home to about 90,000 people. Because of its mild, Mediterranean climate and geography, the city has the nickname "the American Riviera." It's really an apt nickname for the gorgeous town. The hillsides are dotted with stucco homes, each with a great view of the Pacific Ocean below. Downtown, perfectly preserved Mission-style buildings and mature trees house businesses, art galleries, designer stores and restaurants. Alleys off of the main streets hide arcades with coffee shops, galleries and fountains. Walking around downtown Santa Barbara is incredibly relaxing and full of interest in every direction. The city has a major art museum and several major educational institutions, including the University of California Santa Barbara, Antioch University and Westmont College. Like many California towns, it also has a historic mission, the Old Mission of Santa Barbara, which was founded in 1786 by Friar Fermin de Lasuen. The Mission is open for tours daily, for $5 per person with senior and student discounts available.
After walking around downtown for a little while, I climb back in the saddle for another leg of riding. As I'm mounting up, a grizzled old guy approaches me with a deep frown on his face. He's staring at my Road Glide.
"Can I help you?" I ask the old guy.
"That your bike?"
"I used to be a biker. Only time I ever rode one of those full-dressers was in Chicago one time. I was looking at this bike in the parking lot, a big full-dresser, and this guy comes out of the bar. He's wearing full leathers, and he turns around, and I see the patch. Nomads. I thought he was going to kill me."
"He looks at me, and he says, 'Do you want to ride this bike?' Well, I never rode one of those full-dressers before, and I told him that. He says, 'My old lady rides this one.' Well, that was that. I hopped on, and I rode it up and down the street. I was scared as Hell. I never rode any bike that big or that fast before. I'll never forget that day."
He breaks into a big grin. Then he sticks his hand out to me, and I grab it.
"You ride safe. Nice bike. I'm just going to stand here so I can hear it start up."
I start the engine, gun it a little for the old guy, and pull away from the curb.
Once a biker, always a biker.
I depart Santa Barbara and continue down US 101 through Montecito, the richest town in the United States. Oprah lives there, and so does film producer Ivan Reitman. And they're not even the rich ones. I roll through Carpinteria until I reach the turnoff for CA-150, and I turn toward Ojai.
Ojai is a really interesting place. It is about halfway between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, but it really is another world. It's one of the artsiest towns in Southern California, a real haven for painters, sculptors, writers and musicians. Best known for its pottery and tiles, Ojai is also a major center for glasswork.
I stop at the Ojai Valley Museum for a primer on the region's history and art. I discover that Ojai was founded in 1874 as "Nordhoff," to honor Charles Nordhoff, a travel writer. His 1873 book "California: For Health, Pleasure and Residence" was a major influence on many people, inspiring Easterners to relocate to Southern California. Nordhoff is also honored with a major avenue in the San Fernando Valley -- though few residents realize the origin of the street's name. The town of Nordhoff burned down in 1917, and was rebuilt as Ojai with the input of Edward Libbey, owner of the Libbey Glass Company.
Downtown Ojai is a charming Spanish-style street, with arcades, a pergola and a bell tower that are worth the visit for the architecture alone, not to mention the galleries and shops along its length. I buy one small bronze sculpture in a gallery called "The Human Touch," which features folk art from around the country. Very cool, and very affordable. If I were on four wheels instead of two, I might have bought something bigger. Sometimes motorcycling can save you money.
I resume my ride toward home on CA-150. The road is nearly empty today, and the fun curves and twists make for some good riding. When I reach Santa Paula, it's time to pick up CA-126. A few decades ago, this used to be a very dangerous stretch of road, with one lane in each direction and farm vehicles entering and exiting the road at irregular intervals. Now, it's a broad modern road with at least two lanes in each direction, and proper shoulders and runoffs should a farmer need to move his tractor from one field to the next. Even though I'm within shouting distance of Los Angeles, the second-largest city in the US, I'm still riding through fields and groves. It's yet another reminder of how big California is, and how diverse.
CA-126 terminates at Interstate 5 in Santa Clarita, and it's a short hop home for me from there. I pass by yet another tourist attraction on my way through the Santa Clarita Valley: Six Flags Magic Mountain. Thrill seekers love this place. I have some history there -- I worked in the park for a couple of summers while I was in college. I'm happy to drive past Magic Mountain today. It brings back a few memories of friends from long ago.
Finally, I ride into the San Fernando Valley. A few exits up the Hollywood Freeway and I'm home and in my garage again. My dogs and cats are happy to see me. Well, my dogs are overjoyed, and my cats are indifferent, but I'll just average that. My wife Robin will be home from work soon, and I hope she'll be overjoyed to see me, too.
This was one of the most diverse trips I've ever taken, from the desert below sea level to the mountains to the beaches and everywhere in between. I've been in big cities and small villages, on farmland and on elegant shopping streets. I never left the state, even though I rode for over 1,200 miles. I just skimmed the surface of the southern part of this enormous state. I could ride to the same destinations over again, barely touch the same routes, and still have a memorable week of riding. I stayed at some fantastic Best Western hotels, ate some great food, and met a bunch of interesting people wherever I went. California might be the best motorcycling destination in the country -- at least it felt that way this week.
I can't wait to explore more of California. Where should I go next?
Total Miles: 1,273
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