With the Pearls on the Strand ride cut short, I was left with two bothersome whispers bouncing around my brain, neither of which were, was I ever going to pass this way again. That’s an inane thought anyway, one I never entertained when I was traveling without the guillotine of an incurable lymphoma. Funny how we foist the unnecessary but dramatic narratives upon ourselves. It’s kind of embarrassing.
No, the whispers had more to do with being able to actually finish something I started, in this case, a motorcycle trip, and the other a longing to travel solo. I wouldn’t change a thing with my journey with Addie through the PNW, and my Pearls ride with Brian and Ed was a peak experience because of them. I just wanted to go wander by myself, and I had fallen in love with the Pacific Northwest. So, on July 22, I left Bountiful before sunrise and found my way to Highway 50.
Highway 50 is called the loneliest road in America, and while pre-coronavirus traverses might attest to the route’s friendly folks despite its remoteness and interstate displacement, it has certainly sunk to the lonely standard post-pandemic (if I can even say that) of being a road of ghost towns.
Day One was planned to be easy, with an early arrival at my predetermined camp spot, the Bob Scott Campground, where I was surprised by a pristine Forest Service campground with all the amenities a motorcycle camper could want, plus peace and quiet. I was tired, as I had expected to be from the toll of the recent chemo infusion, and a sunny afternoon nap was a luxury for me on a motorcycle tour, if not absolutely necessary. I pitched my tent, made some dinner, worked on the Tiger and had an exceptional night’s sleep.
In the morning I made a cup of coffee and thought I might see what the great Town of Austin might deliver for breakfast.
And it wasn’t much. The only cafe open was up for sale, and I was its only patron. Talking with the proprietor I learned that COVID-19 had dealt Austin, if not all of Highway 50, a death blow which seemed, at least for her, unrecoverable. And as I ambled out of Austin I couldn’t help but feel she was right.
My inspection of the Tiger’s rear tire the night before revealed less tread than I had assumed. Odd for me because I’m usually a stickler when it comes to pre-trip inspections and maintenance, but getting home from the Pearls trip, I didn’t take a second look at the bike until Bob Scott. The Tiger had brand new tires and an oil change at the launch of the Great Divide Ride and the math mileage in my head lead to my gross assumption about its road-worthiness.
This second day had a three hundred mile trip in store, taking me through Reno, so I checked online with local British bike shops there to see if there might be some rear rubber available. Having overestimated Reno, I was relegated to ride the most challenging tarmac and dirt of this solo adventure with a compromised rear tire. It’s why we call it adventure.
My reserved camp for that night was at the French Meadows Reservoir at the Lewis campground. I braved a bit of the heat going through Reno’s backside. That doesn’t sound right. My Nuvi routed me on I-80 out of Fernly for some reason, so I took the Veterans’ Parkway at the east end of Reno to get around the city, and hooked up on 580 which put be back on 50 before South Lake Tahoe. The temperature relented, regardless the summer rush to Tahoe’s shores, and I got to the Ice House Road by mid-afternoon, having no idea of the two-hour twisty ride that was between me and my campsite at Lewis.
It was the ride of a lifetime for me, the best ribbon of black on which I had ever pushed the Tiger Explorer to its limits, dicey tire be damned, and then not long past the Union Valley Reservoir the road summits past Uncle Tom’s Cabin on to Eleven Pines Road that turned into an apocalyptic route of destruction art directed by a recent, huge wildfire. The road was buckled and blistered and outright gone in spots that could swallow me and my ride whole. Coming down off a long switchback of 1800 feet delivered me to the Ellicot Bridge on the Rubicon River.
From that crossing the road gradually brought me out of the canyon to 4800 feet and crossed into the lush, untouched Eldorado National forest where, again, it beckoned my throttle hand to push through the slalom of new pavement that lead me to French Meadows, around the lake to Lewis.
This journey confirmed for me a number of little revelations, not that I’ve been in denial, it’s just a seeing-is-believing kind of thing, one of the greatest perks of travel.
I thought Utah had an unusual number of American flags per capita. Traversing the borders of Nevada, California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho put that into perspective. Not just the true red, white and blue representations of Old Glory, but dozens of bastardized versions, most of which hung from precariously interpreted standards, which I feel should be strictly observed, no matter prevailing opinions on leadership or willing ignorance of citizenship. I haven’t flown mine in awhile, the last time was when Addie came home from her deployment. It doesn’t feel right to me. It’s been co-opted by a tyrant and a population that screams “We the People” while simultaneously actively advocating The People’s demise.
When I pulled into the Lewis at French Meadows campground, hanging from a flag standard was yet another iteration of the Stars and Stripes, except the star field was replaced with a peace symbol in white over the blue field. The standard was at the camp host’s site, which is USDA Forest Service ground, federal territory. My site had a perfect view of the flag through the pines, and it caught the golden hour light of the sun, winking at me while I set up my tent. It took a minute, but I found myself breathing, deep, long, almost exasperated breaths, tears welling up in my eyes. I walked the road back down to the host site where there were two women, a mother and daughter, the latter being the volunteer host. After a bit of small talk I said, “I want you to know how your flag has affected me.”
They seemed to brace for the worst.
“I haven’t been able to reconcile how I feel about the Stars and Stripes, given how this sacred symbol has been co-opted (my opinion) to advance an agenda of racism, sexism, and fascism. It took me a minute,” I said, “and I’m sure you’ve had your share of flack over flying that,” they both nodded, “but your flag made me feel hopeful and glad to be here, so I just wanted to thank you.”
And like the Old Glory of years past (like six years past), I found something in the ground, in the trees, in the streams, rivers and lakes, and in the mountains and canyons of all the national parks I was fortunate enough to visit during my dashes—Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, The Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Black Rock of the Gunnison, The Great Sand Dunes, Rocky Mountain, The Grand Teton, Yellowstone, The Redwoods, Olympic and Mount Rainier—and along the roads to each. I found America, again. I traveled with Americans on park roads and hiked with them on park trails and we all looked up in awe and down in wonder, and verbalized our saturated optic nerves in every language, in every color, in every iteration of human being. The land and water are the greatest equalizers.
And therein is the rub.
Arriving at Lewis I found my campsite in perfect conditions, minus mosquitos, just far enough away from others yet close enough to plumbed facilities. This would be my new favorite camping spot.
When I opened my eyes the next morning it felt much earlier than it actually was. I checked the time to see that sunlight should have been hitting the eastern side of my tent, but there were no highlights. Cloud cover wasn’t expected for the area, the Lake at French Meadow where I established my camp at Lewis the evening before.
This was a day off from the Tiger, a respite built into my travel schedule on this my second long motorcycle ride-slash-bucket list, on my way to the coast and then a right turn up to the Canadian border. Three days into this one and I’m already doubting whether I’ll finish, with the usual suspects of pain in my chest that betray the pulmonary embolisms lodged there. It’s a pain hard to differentiate from a muscle tear I agitate when I have to move the Tiger backwards up an incline with the power of my own two feet and my body rocking some momentum into my arms to get the big bike to move. I’ve been attributing the pain, then, to that awkward procedure. I’m breathing fine, oxygenating well, solid on feet, so it must be muscle pain. It’s not. I know it too well, but the alternative keeps me from turning around and heading home.
Unzipping my d-shaped tent door and then the fly revealed to me another reason I might consider hightailing it back; smoke infiltrated the trees, ash was falling, and the morning sun barely pressed through the atmosphere with an eerie orange glow. I put some pants on over my sleeping trousers, donned a pullover and my Keens and walked to the camp host to get some intel.
Other campers along the way were packing up and bugging out. I asked the host what she knew, her radio at the ready on her camp table. She indicated it was just smoke from a fire in [blank] and not to worry. If the fire reached [blank] they’d be sure to give enough time for a safe evacuation. I’ve seen the YouTube videos. There’s no such thing. And not being familiar with the area, I had no idea what she was talking about geographically. I knew there were two ways out of here, north and south, and I had come up the southern route from Highway 50, two-plus hours of twisties, one of the best roads I’ve been on riding a motorcycle, but was no choice for a hasty egress of the area.
Looking at a map I discovered the northern route was no better. She told me I’d be the first to know when she got more information herself. This is not a good feeling. Having been trained in WCS and being OCD, the two acronyms do their best to work my psyche into weighing options and considering action, the first step to which is gather more intel. When I asked if she knew from which direction the smoke was moving from, she said, “It’s not clear, but the air quality is very poor.”
I went back to my tent, cleaned up, changed clothes and emerged no less vigilant when I got to my picnic table and notice the ash settling in on its cover and contents. I made some coffee and breakfast and watched a dozen or so other campers pack up and leave. The site to the south of me overflowed with a fifth-wheel trailer the size of a semi-truck trailer, and I thought if they bugged out, I could wrap up my campsite in a quarter the time and get out ahead of them. I could imagine how that vessel would clog any escape artery out of here. I cleared my breakfast wrapper, Mountain House scrambled eggs with bacon, and an empty propane can and took them to the bear-resistant garbage receiver when a State Park employee pulled into the campsite, up to the bins and hopped out of his official truck. “Hey, can you tell me-“ I began. He smiled, and said, “It’s smoke blown in from a fire in Yosemite,” he said, earbud in place from his attached radio. Two sources, both agreeing. I’ll stay for the day, see how it plays out. Yosemite is fifty miles away. No big deal.
I filled my Kriega motorcycle hydration pack and set off, poor air quality being the only breathable air, to explore what I came to discover as a naked and disturbing indication of the time in which we live. I followed the road from the Lewis Campground along what used to be the shoreline of the French Meadow Lake. I was on the river-feed end of the body of water, flanked by thick pines offering a shuttered view of the lakebed.
I turned into a day-use area that hadn’t been used for seasons and then made my way down to the receding shoreline. Yosemite’s second-hand smoke was at its thickest, settling into the horizontal mirror of the water’s surface, the air so still its pressure evaporated. This was a man-made lake, dammed and seemingly damned. The low water level revealed the gigantic stumps of redwoods that were cleared from the basin to prohibit a prop busting or a tangled lure.
This valley’s stubble was refusing to be hidden anymore. With the smoke on the water, moving down through the trees on the hillsides, I saw the future of climate change. I saw the current of climate change. I spent most of the morning photographing it. I walked the lake’s edge north to rock outcroppings and stepped shorelines showing the water’s receding levels like rings of a tree trunk, but in reverse.
I’ve been awed innumerable times by ocean coves and great canyons, waterfalls and desert dunes, mountains that bite at the sky and incredible rivers, but this was the first time I was truly shamed by nature. And in her seeming notion to assuage me, as I walked over a stone ridge to the lake’s feed, I found a lush, green meadow and startled two large mallards that took flight that I captured in a shutter release, showing me, once again, that life goes on.
I walked back to my camp and sat down in a blue shady spot adjacent the orange glow on the ground and started writing this, during which three C-130 transports flew overhead, smoke jumpers I reckon. I’m not sure I feel better or worse.
The feeling I had that morning wasn’t one of alarm. It was a bit more familiar, like the way nausea feels, or like the way being in remission feels. During the pause, I wondered in the wait; do I pack up and bug out? Do I relax and wait for more information? Should I have done the autonomous stem-cell transplant? Do I engage the bucket list? Do I sit at home and wait?
Had I gone the ASCT route, I’d just be wrapping up my recovery had I survived it to begin with. In that interim, I’ve done more living, had more authentic connections, dove into deep conversational waters infested with parenthetical sharks, and took up fly fishing. I was battling mosquitos (I have Deet wipes, just hate the stuff), digesting my fourth freeze-dried meal, pining after an Arnold Palmer with lots of ice, and getting ready to settle in for the night into my tent and comfy sleep system. Two thoughts intruded my attempt to fall asleep; will we campers be evacuated during the night, and the usual one, am I still in remission. Pleasant dreams.
I woke early the next morning, unevacuated, packed up camp back onto the Tiger and made my way down the Sierra foothills to Auburn.
The plan for the day was to kick around Auburn, maybe on the off-chance of finding a tire, get some breakfast and look at Google Maps to see if there were any cool rides in the area. There was a Triumph repair shop nearby the Starbucks where I had a cup of Pike’s and was able to have enough bars to call Mindy and update her on the last three days. While at Lewis I was only able to update via satellite and even then couldn’t confirm whether messages were sent on either of my devices. Yes, I have two, redundancy for this very reason. It was comforting to hear her unshaken voice.
Zero for two in my attempts at shoeing my iron horse, so I bugged out of Auburn to Cool for a photo-op that I did not take – not much to see in Cool other than the uber-touristy thing of a selfie by the town’s sign and I wasn’t going to do that, not even for this post. I rode on the very pleasant Highway 49 to Placerville where I indulged at Mel’s for lunch.
The establishment claimed it was the original Mel’s in American Graffiti, a bold-face lie since everyone knows Lucas shot at the one on Van Ness in San Francisco.
My stop for that evening was at the home of a high school friend in Folsom, but I had some time to kill that afternoon, so I rode the back way to Folsom Lake Park, found a shady spot to shed my compression stockings and watched some Americans frolic in the lake’s low water.
I met up with my friend and her husband in their beautiful home where I was treated to a wonderful dinner, even better company, an overdue shower and a comfortable bed. When I left them the next morning I killed the Tiger no less than four times trying to make egress out of their cul-de-sac. Impressions are overrated.
I zipped across the San Joaquin Valley into the cooler climes of the Bay Area and arrived at my walk-on friends’ home in Menlo Park (see Pearls on the Strand).
It was here I was able to rectify any traction issues with the rear tire. In the shade of Brian’s garage and the weather bliss that is Menlo Park, I tore the Tiger explorer down to her body. Besides the rear rubber, it needed new brake pads up front as well.
Rear rim in hand (watch it) we set off to find a suitable replacement which was at a Triumph dealer near San Jose. Before we landed there, though, we checked with Brian’s favorite shop where I found a reasonable facsimile to Mindy’s Sporty.
I sent her this pic by text, setting the lure, but she wasn’t biting. You can’t blame me for trying.
I got the Tiger Explorer back together, reaching zen along the way. There are few better feelings that form from mechanical maintenance than a few hours one’s bum by a motorcycle. To ride knowing everything is torqued, pressurized and maintained by my hand is almost the most satisfying feeling around.
When Brain and I did the Pearls on the Strand, there was a Mark-shaped hole in our riding formation, since our fourth rider was held back from joining us for the last half of the ride. We made made up for a few miles of that with a ride to the coast, the three of us, to Pigeon Point Lighthouse along the PCH.
Most caged folks don’t understand what happens to people when they ride motorcycles together.
It’s more than a brotherhood, and transcends gender as well. France’s national motto comes close; liberté, égalité, fraternité, no matter the make of the motorcycle, save for maybe BMW. Je blague.
No trip over La Honda is complete without lunch at Alice’s Restaurant. La Honda Road always makes me with I had my Honda Blackbird.
I love Alice’s. It’s the least off-putting motorcycle hangout in California, except for maybe Neptune’s Net. But don’t tell anybody.
When I left Menlo Park and the incredible hospitality, warmth and friendship under that roof, I pointed the Tiger to San Francisco, to the H. Dana Powers Vista Point of the great Golden Gate Bridge, where Mark met me on his pristine Harley to join me for the ride to Manchester Beach and camp.
This was an incredible, unexpected and welcome opportunity to get better acquainted with Mark beyond social media parameters. We had comms that allowed us an ongoing conversation as we slalomed up Highway One past Muir Woods to Stinson Beach and up the coast, stopping at Nick’s Cove for lunch, Fort Ross to try to see an old friend, and on to Point Arena Lighthouse for a photo-op.
I love this picture. What a couple of really nice bad-asses. Brian’s a bad-ass, too, he just had a shift at REI.
Not long after we landed at Manchester Beach, and after checking out the origin point for the Internet’s back bone to the rest of the world, all points west, we found our campsite at the Manchester, KOA. No pics, not a lot to write home about, but we enjoyed some whiskey and a reasonable dinner in the gathering fog of the campground. It was truly great to spend that time with Mark, and I was humbled he took the time to ride with me and camp. Can’t wait to do it again.
There’s a bit of a frustrating conundrum here. I have really good male friends, solid, honest, sensitive, considerate, even vulnerable. And I met a few, several even, over the course of my career. But I know far more females (and males for that matter), who’ve been damaged, abused, even tortured by males of a different cloth, and it kills me. I want to point to my guys and say in no uncertain terms, “See? There ARE good men out there!” But then some unspeakable thing happens to some unwitting, innocent victim(s) and hits all the media and we all shake our heads, and I’m embarrassed for the gender and heartbroken for everyone else. No wonder gender is becoming less an identifier. And good men usually don’t make headlines.
The next morning I packed up my wet camp, said goodbye to Mark and motored out of camp, mounting the PCH north.
Zen, again. There are few places I feel the simplest joy and escape the most serious concerns like this stretch of the Pacific Coast Highway.
Almost four hundred miles to another undiscovered country for me, Sunset Bay State Park near Coos Bay, Oregon.
The camp loops were pristine, the campers quiet and respectful, but active, with well-behaved kids doing classic camping stuff. I felt like I pulled into a 1960s Coleman camping ad. This was a long ride for me and I was happy to find my little space, the only ADV camper in the park, and the Tiger Explorer drew her usual attention.
Drying out a tent was futile in the mist, but the interior was still relatively dry, and my sleep system was dry – part of the Hierarchy of Camping is to be sure that regardless the conditions, pack out the sleep system in protected space like a tent and stow it in water tight panniers or dry bags or both.
You might notice on the LH pannier of the Tiger is a full dromedary bag. This is my AC. Travel inland in post century temps requires a way to use the passing air over saturated do-rags and neckerchiefs, bringing amazingly effective relief.
With camp set up, I broke out the hardware for dinner, another scrumptious freeze-dried dinner/colon cement, and made some good crappy coffee. I used my new Matador pocket blanket as a table covering, making a clean, somewhat drier spot to dine. Good kit, this.
The next morning I spent some time walking Sunset Bay, then packed up and hit the 101 up Oregon’s epic coastline.
I turned right at Pacific City and made the inland trek to a suburb of Portland, Milwaukee, where the boys live. My data display indicated 103f degrees, and the saturated rags were paying off, though I didn’t want to make a habit out of it.
Jake and Dylan recently moved to Milwaukee from Los Angeles. It’s an old neighborhood with small homes and shotgun houses modestly gentrified in Oregon’s way. Dylan makes a flying commute to LA and Jake is continuing his study of agriculture and maintains a large garden rivaling only his mother’s.
It was good, a solid good to land there for the evening and night where Dylan roasted vegetables and made fantastic grilled veggie sandwiches.
Everyone should eat this well and good. It’s taken a hot minute, but I’ve learned to bask in being cooked for and served, an informal gratitude in allowing my ego/obligation to be checked and let loved ones take care of me, and these two do it well. It’s been amazing watching them hit their relational stride over the years, maintaining their own pathways while supporting each other in each of theirs. I love these good men. Jacob is my step-son, but I consider both he and his partner, Dylan, to be my own.
Almost twenty years ago while we were trying to blend our families, this though came to mind.
it has since coined a tone derogatory
to anyone found behind its description
a modifier of confusing relation
instead of mounting a new path
and it has attached to you
not unlike the siliceous slipper
that remained on temporary princess foot
the other lost to all but one who didn’t care
that it was once warmed by subordinate flesh
but within its DNA comprised of licit relation
is a meaning since made clearer
by the way you wear it well as my kin
not by blood, that cellular genealogy
though I’d spill mine in your defense
it is by love instead I’ll call you mine
and raise the tone and connotation
of this little word that describes what happens
first before one learns to run
I left Milwaukee early the next morning, got to a northern view of Portland, and seemingly took my life in my own hands to get a shot back at the city.
I’ve done some sketchy stuff in my travels, but felt more at risk here than anywhere else I’ve been.
On to Puyallup, Washington where my daughter Adde and her husband Bryan make a home and their careers, both in the armed forces. Bryan was still on deployment at the time. Addie and I visited hard like we do. I recounted the parts of my journey north along the coast, retracing what she and I did two summers previous on our Pacific Northwest Tour, before my diagnosis. Riding through the corners and the vistas I was reminded of her dogged determination, riding the entire route along with me without a windshield. Her Tiger had a mishap, taking out the stock windscreen, and a new one arrived after our departure.
I had the great fortune of her presence when she was down our way for drill at Camp Williams. I picked her up after, and on our way back stopped by a grocery store, she still in her ACUs. As we walked through the parking lot a I watched a young girl stop in her tracks, her mouth drop open and then smile as she watched this soldier with a blond ponytail walk by. She affected a few more young women in the store, always waving when she caught their eyes.
Addie and Bryan’s townhome became my base camp for a couple of days while I ventured out to add a couple more National Park stickers to my pannier. First stop, Olympic National Park.
The return to Puyallup via Olympia was dogged by construction on the 101 with hours’ delay, exacerbating my pain and weakness, and by the time I pulled into Addie and Bryan’s cul-de-sac, I had decided to hit Mount Rainier on my way home the next day.
The plan was to ride Mount Rainier on the Paradise side, then over Stevens Canyon Road and pick up Highway 12 to Yakima and take I-82. to 84, and stop in Caldwell Idaho. It’d be a long day, almost five hundred miles, but an easy ride.
Paradise did not disappoint. I arrived at the park gate early enough to be mostly traffic-free on my way up, losing my breath from time to time.
When I tried to pick up Stevens Canyon I came across road closure signs and at the switchback at Bench Lake I could see why.
A landslide took out the road on the other side of the canyon. This translated into a three-hour detour back through the park to Elbe, picking up Highway 7 to 12. The ride was just as beautiful. I made it as far as La Grande, a stop I wouldn’t recommend to people I like, and from there rode the remaining five hundred miles home to Bountiful.
Three thousand miles, ten days. That seems to be my limit. And that’s okay, because I finished what I started and adequately wandered on my own, at least for the time being.