Wow, two long motorcycle tours in one year (click here for a writeup of my earlier 2012 two-wheeled adventure)—just call me Iron Butt Paul!
American motorcyclists have been riding Gypsy Tours since 1917, and they’ve always been hard-core affairs—long distances, sleeping under the stars, campfires, canned beans, roadside engine repairs and tire changes—a style of riding I haven’t done since my early 20s. These days I travel soft, sleeping in motels or friends’ homes along the way. But a long ride is a long ride, and I think of my tours as mini-gypsy rides.
A few weeks ago my riding and motorcycle maintenance buddy Ed invited me along on a six-day round robin ride to Reno for the annual Street Vibrations motorcycle rally. Reno, that is, via the Pacific Coast Highway from LA to the Bay Area with two overnight stops along the way, then two nights in Reno and another in Las Vegas on the ride home. Ed said he had the hotels in California covered with Marriott reward points and in addition was going to get comped VIP rooms in Reno and Las Vegas, so really all we’d have to pay for would be gas. How could I refuse an offer like that? I cleared my calendar and said “two’s in.”
Naturally, that very weekend I sprained my knee running across a busy street, essentially crippling myself. I started fretting about the motorcycle trip right away, concerned I might not be able to stand long periods in the saddle with my knee bent or even be able to hold the motorcycle up with my bad leg. But the knee, while not fully recovering, gradually got a little better, and in the days leading up to the trip I took some short rides to make sure I could handle it. By the day before we were scheduled to leave I was convinced I’d be okay.
And so it came to pass.
On day one (Wednesday, September 19th) we rode the longest leg, almost 600 miles from Tucson to Ventura, just up the coast from Los Angeles, where we stayed in a hotel right on the beach. On day two we rode 300 miles up the Pacific Coast Highway to a point north of Monterey Bay, then cut inland to Palo Alto where we bedded down for the evening. Day three was 300-plus miles up the Central Valley and over the mountains to Reno, where we stayed two nights. On day five we rode 450 miles south to Las Vegas. On day six (Monday, September 24) I rode the 400 miles back to Tucson alone, about which more in a minute.
So how’d the knee do? As for riding, it got better day by day. I had to alternately straighten and flex my leg every few minutes on the first day, stretching it out ahead and resting the back of my ankle on the highway peg, but this became less and less necessary as the trip went on. By the last couple of days I felt normal. Walking around wasn’t much fun, though—I still have a hitch in my get-along, and there’ll be no hiking or biking for a couple of weeks yet. Would I be better now if I hadn’t gone? Yes, but then I’d have missed an epic ride. My motorcyclist friends (though perhaps not my doctor) will understand.
I’m not sure why, but the photo gallery insists on showing the later photos first and the early photos last. Yeah, yeah, ascending order, descending order, I’ve tried everything. Anyway, click on the thumbnails to see the full-sized photos.
Lane splitting in Los Angeles traffic. In California they made it legal for motorcycle riders to ride between lanes of cars when the freeways turn into parking lots. You’re only supposed to do it when traffic comes to a full stop, and you’re only supposed to go 10-15 mph. Naturally, California riders take it as license to zoom between lanes of cars at speeds up to 80 mph, even when traffic is moving right along, and to cut through stopped cars to get to the head of the line at stoplights. Not all cagers (car drivers) like it, and they’ll occasionally squeeze together to keep bikers from going through. When you’re riding a wide machine like the Honda Goldwing, it’s a nerve-wracking way to get through traffic. But we did it and lived to tell about it, and didn’t leave any paint scrapes on cars. That I know of.
The Pacific Coast Highway. What can I say? It’s one of the most legendary roads in the USA. We had cool sunny weather for most of our ride north, with here and there patches of coastal fog, and very little traffic (it was a Thursday, after all). Lots of curves, lots of ocean, just a gorgeous ride. We stopped for lunch in Big Sur, and as you can see above, for a photo op on the edge of a cliff overlooking the ocean. An Aussie tourist took our photo and we returned the favor for him and his wife.
The space shuttle. I’d written off any hope of seeing it. On the morning of the third day, as we were getting ready to leave the hotel in Palo Alto we saw on the lobby TV that it was scheduled to fly over the Bay Area that morning. We didn’t think our timing or route would allow us to see it, though—we were riding over to the East Bay and then up to Oakland before turning north toward Sacramento and Reno. But then Ed, who was leading, followed a spurious GPS input and turned us south from Oakland onto the Bay Bridge into San Francisco. At the toll plaza I told him we could get off the bridge mid-way at Treasure Island and turn around, which we did. By the time we were turned back north toward Sacramento, we’d wasted 30 minutes. And then, an hour later as we were rolling into Sacramento, there was the Endeavor on the back of its 747, with an F-15 in chase, slowly flying overhead. Just before this I’d begun to notice crowds of people standing on freeway overpasses, but didn’t make the connection until I actually saw the shuttle. If it hadn’t been for that wrong turn we’d have missed seeing it entirely!
Reno. We stayed downtown at the El Dorado, right by the famous “Biggest Little City in the West” sign. Ed’s on the casino’s high-roller list, so we had a comped penthouse suite with a huge living room and two separate bedrooms. The first night Ed had veal while I opted for the fresh catch, ahi tuna prepared almost raw, like sashimi. That turned out to be a mistake and I spent Saturday, our one day off, in the room feeling sick while Ed gambled and walked the biker-infested streets. After taking a pill I felt well enough to visit some biker t-shirt stalls, but that was all I could stand and it was back to the room for me. Even up on the 26th floor I could hear the rumble of motorcycles and police sirens all night long. Room service was kind enough to make me a bowl of chicken noodle soup, and by Sunday morning I was recovered and ready to ride south to Las Vegas.
Las Vegas. We stayed at the Golden Nugget on Fremont Street in the old part of Las Vegas. Ed, once again, was a guest of the house and we had a VIP suite similar to the one we had in Reno: a large and opulent common area with separate bedrooms and bathrooms on either side. Dinner was to be comped, so Ed invited my son Gregory, daughter in law Beth, and grandson Quentin to join us. After dinner I gave the kids the biker t-shirts I picked up in Reno and we turned Quentin loose on the candy the hotel had left in the suite—he filled a laundry bag full of chocolate. I had a great visit with the kids, as always.
Riding home alone. After dinner with the kids in Las Vegas Sunday night, Ed planned to bag some sleep and then get up to gamble in the wee hours. We worked out that we’d leave for Tucson at 8:30 Monday morning. Ed said he’d pack and leave his bags by the front door of the suite; I was to pack my own stuff and call for a bellhop at 8:15, then call Ed to meet me in the valet parking garage where we’d left the bikes. But when I emerged from my bedroom at 8:00, I saw that Ed had left a note: “Let’s not leave until 9:30.” I called for a bellhop at 9:15 and then called Ed, who said I should ride home without him. My guess is that he was down and trying to get at least some of his money back—of course it could have been he was on a streak and didn’t want to quit before it broke, but I’m betting on the former. I tried to convince him to ride home with me but nothing doing, so I took off by myself, feeling as if I was letting my friend down. But we had talked about just this eventuality before we left, and this is what we’d agreed to do. He’s a gambler; I am not. What we both are is grown up. Still, insert sad face here:
Overheating Goldwing. Leaving Las Vegas Monday morning I noticed the coolant temperature climbing well above its normal range. I took an exit and poured some of my drinking water into the reservoir, then rode in a very old-ladyish manner to Boulder City where I’d planned to stop for gas before the long haul to Kingman and points south, watching the still-high temperature gauge all the way. I called Ed from the gas stop to see if he had any idea what might be going on, but only after I’d checked everything over myself—water and coolant in the reservoir, radiator fans working, no road debris clogging the cooling vents behind the forks—but Ed, still at the tables in the Golden Nugget, didn’t have any ideas either. As I rode out of Boulder City the gauge started climbing again and I almost turned around for my son’s house, where I thought I might leave the bike and catch a flight home, but once I hit the long downhill stretch toward Lake Mead the gauge settled back to normal. I rode the next 200 miles with one eye on the gauge, not pressing the engine, but the temperature stayed normal and I finally went back to my normal speed limit plus five (okay, ten) style of riding. I got home at 5:30 Monday afternoon.
Just as I was about to click the publish button, I got a text message from Ed. He got home at 2:30 today, just over two hours ago. He added this: “I am quitting gambling.” Looks like my earlier speculation was on the mark. I wish I’d been able to drag him out of that casino by the ear. But he wouldn’t have come, and it might have sprained our friendship. I’ll settle for just having a sprained knee.
What a great ride! I have to do more of this, and soon.
© 2012, Paul Woodford. All rights reserved.