As per my usual habit I awake at sunrise - or rather, I sleepily hobble out of my tent, because a sore, groggy motorcyclist extricating himself from a single-person tent at the ass crack of dawn of a cool morning is about as undignified an act as you can possibly witness - and go through my usual routine of fumbling with packing my gear into the impossibly tight confines of the stuff sacks from whence they will never again fit.
This uncivilized procedure is followed by the soothing effects of the day's first cigarette and an instant coffee prepared over a portable stove. If I'm feeling particularly thrifty I might make some instant oatmeal and skip the pleasure of a greasy breakfast, but today, on this damp morning, I'm feeling like I deserve something more substantial. Today's a day for my favourite practice of riding as long as I can stand on an empty stomach and stopping at whatever eatery happens into view when I can't suppress my hunger any longer.
I hit the road and find myself passing through a series of small harbour communities on the Pacific coast. I hadn't realized how close I was to the ocean when I stopped last night, but now I'm enjoying the pleasure of riding through idyllic seaside towns on a beautiful autumn morning.
The smell of cool, salty ocean mist is unmistakable to a Maritimer and I'm instantly transported back to my childhood on the Atlantic coast. I haven't been East during the summer months for something around 6 years, so it's a powerful moment as I breathe deeply and enjoy that familiar, clean air I haven't experienced in so long. It has a particular feel on your skin that is impossible to replicate and distinct from the mist off you'll get off freshwater; the salt slowly crystalizes on your skin and gear, leaving a grainy film over everything exposed to the elements.
The sights are similar to the coastal towns of my youth, but altered slightly. There is a bit more sophistication here, a bit more money rolling through the trendy tourist traps. The businesses here would have a hard time surviving in the more frugal economies of the Eastern provinces. It gives a sense of the uncanny valley, something perfectly familiar but not quite right.
I stop in Yachats for breakfast at the Drift Inn, one of those small-town relics of a bygone decade, with a dark interior filled with deeply stained wood. Just like any proper historic bar in a seaside town, it has a colourful history. A grumpy, hard-as-nails owner and a dive-bar reputation, cleaned up in recent years to make it a family-friendly venue for tourists like me blowing through town.
Time marches on, gentrification trims all the unpleasant edges away and upstanding folks displace the grumpy old bastards. At least on the surface. Our demons and debauchery just lurk beneath the veneer of respectability, where nobody cares to look.
The road winds along sandy beaches and rocky cliffs blasted by steady waves, bordered by lush green forests and quiet communities. As I continue south along the 101 I'm beginning to realize I chose a spectacular route, one that I should have started much further north.
My original route, based on a three week tour, would have started on the north-western tip of Washington, but my workplace denied my request to take three weeks off. They gave me grief for taking two consecutive weeks, instituting a new policy immediately afterwards stating that no employees could take more than one week off at a time.
The older I get, the more I realize that working the majority of my waking hours as a cog in an unsympathetic, soulless machine is a poor excuse for a life.
But all that is forgotten out here on the road. I've found that riding is my best medication against the looming spectre of a bleak future.
The road shifts inland, following logging routes populated by well-weathered semi trucks hauling massive trunks of old growth trees to nearby mills. The smell of sawdust and wet lumber permeates the air. The forest becomes denser, the highway snaking up and down hills. Low posted limits slow my progress through the various small towns dependent on resource industries. I don't care. This is infinitely more interesting than the grey expanse of the interstate, even if it is slow going. It's far too beautiful out here to become irritated with the slow pace.
The miles tick by and soon I find myself at the California border. A quick pass through an environmental checkpoint and I'm soon riding along a Redwood-lined highway with golden eagles circling lazily overhead. It's a stunning sight. One that is, once again, impossible to convey in static images - a frustration that I continue to revisit on this journey.
The scale of these immense sequoias is staggering to someone who has never witnessed them. I continue along the Redwood Highway route south and pause at a turnout to try and process what I am seeing. I stand beneath the dense canopy and peer skyward, unable to see the tops of the trees that surround me. I put my hand on their trunks to try and confirm what I am seeing, something so foreign to me that I can't quite believe it is real. I place my helmet at the base of one of the bigger examples and take a photo to try and convey the size. The result still doesn't do it any justice.
Riding amongst these giants is calming, the road crowded on both sides with ancient guardians that give you the sense of being both protected and dwarfed into insignificance. Sound is damped and given a warm tone, free of echoes as it is deflected by the enormous trunks and absorbed into the mossy undergrowth. The sound of nearby vehicles is delayed until they are practically in your line of sight. I can imagine that the enveloping quiet, the permanent shade, and the faint glimmers of sky through the all-enveloping canopy might cause unease in more claustrophobic people, but for me it inspires a sense of serenity.
I'm overwhelmed by the scene, giddy with emotion and smiling broadly as I place my hands on the coarse bark. I'm pretty certain the splendour is lost on the local commuters barrelling through while they choke down their lattes. Familiarity breeds complacency, which seems a damned shame when you are craning your neck to look up the trunk of a tree that is older than your civilization.
Continuing further south the road moves inland, splitting into a divided highway running through the forested hills and passing through tiny communities. I make some brisk progress along the wide, sweeping lanes, which are mostly clear of traffic and law enforcement.
Roadside attractions dedicated to Bigfoot provide a welcome diversion, and a kitschy way of satisfying another one of my childhood fascinations, albeit one that hasn't survived the internet age very well. The dearth of photographic substantiation of everyone's favourite crypto creature in the age of smartphones is probably the best evidence against the existence of an eight-foot tall hominid skulking around the forest. That and the recent spate of debunking that has taken down a lot of the traditional pieces of supposedly irrefutable proof. The discovery that the Paterson film was an admitted fraud was one of the biggest blows to my lingering sense of childhood wonder.
But I'm happy to forget logic and scepticism for a few minutes while I buy some Bigfoot tchotchkes and give one last cautious glance into the dense forest before I hop back on the bike.
I was advised to take a detour along Highway 1 from Leggett to the Mendocino coast by one of my coworkers, and I arrived at the crossroad at the tail end of a 12 hour stint on the road.
What followed was a combination of euphoric riding through some of the gnarliest twisties I'd yet encountered, tempered by the sheer terror of piloting a high-powered mutant of a sport machine on a ridiculously tight forest road while trying to maintain my concentration at a point of dangerous exhaustion. It is one of those stupid, stupid high speed jaunts that defy all good sense but leave you shaking with that pure, uncut adrenaline that you simply can't summon on any sensible ride. I feel more alive than I have in months, perhaps years, slaloming through the trees and decreasing radius bends, gently floating the front wheel out of first and second gear corners, screaming happy obscenities in my helmet as the descending sun sparkles through the canopy.
Then I emerge from the forest onto the rocky coast, just as the sun is setting over the Pacific.
I stop at a lookout point, enjoying a Marlboro while I watch the sun cast a fiery reflection across the water. This is the first time I've seen the sun setting on the ocean, being used to the opposite happening on the Atlantic coast. The afterglow of an exuberant ride washes over me, along with the realization that this is a moment that is too perfect to ever replicate. I'm slightly annoyed that there is a family in their sedan sharing the lookout with me and cluttering up my photos. This is the type of experience that could only be better if I was perfectly alone to soak in the details and savour my awe in silence.
Then I snap back to reality and realize I still have several hundred miles to go if I am going to make it to my destination.
I quickly check my map and make a mental calculation before I call Matt, my host in Calistoga. I should arrive there around midnight if I keep my stops to a minimum. Matt has been a long time supporter of the site who offered me a proper bed to sleep in for the night at his home in the heart of Napa Valley, an offer I couldn't refuse and a welcome detour off the coastal route.
But I really can’t afford to stop now and only ride a few hundred miles tomorrow; I'm aiming to be in Los Angeles in two days. The only other option is to audibly say "fuck it" and go for broke.
I've already ridden this far and pushed myself beyond my point of exhaustion. What's a few hundred more miles?
In the dark?
On unfamiliar, unlit twisty roads?
There are many reasons I choose to ride solo. Two of them are: my propensity for snap decisions, and my habit of pushing the limits of my endurance. Most riders would consider this practice foolish; the ones who wouldn't are not the kind of lunatics I enjoy riding with.
The roads along the Mendocino coast are more spectacular that the forest run I just completed, a tight ribbon of fresh asphalt winding along beaches, up and down sandy embankments overlooking a craggy coast. The speed limit is 55 MPH but in a lot of spots you are hard pressed to even keep up that pace. When the yellow signs say slow to 15 or 20, you'd better fucking listen because they are not kidding.
A local in a BMW X5 comes up from behind and thunders past me at full throttle, wobbling and careening across the undulating pavement before disappearing around a corner. I make no attempt to reel him in. Drivers around here mean business and I'm just trying to maintain my focus on staying out of the ditch.
I'm beginning to understand why most magazines base their operations in SoCal, not that I didn't really get it in the first place. Aside from the weather and longstanding vehicle culture that’s developed down here, they are surrounded by picture-perfect roads that can really push your machine to its limits and instantly reveal the qualities and flaws that might elude you riding anywhere else. I knew the suspension on the Tuono was on the soft side, but on most roads it's adequate; out here it feels like I'm riding a hundred-horsepower pogostick that is constantly trying to find new ways to pitch me into the weeds. I'm focussing more on keeping it reigned in than actually enjoying the road. The fork is bottoming out and wallowing into tight corners while the rear feels vague. The brakes are adequate but could use more initial bite. The steering damper is too light to keep the front in check and the steering is hair-trigger sensitive as a result, made worse by the amount of weight I've got strapped to the back. I'm making a mental checklist of things I need to do when I get home, chief among which is check the tightness of the steering head and order an adjustable damper.
Darkness falls and I stop for gas in Fort Bragg, quickly checking my map to figure out the best route to Calistoga. Route 128 looks to be the most interesting, though in hindsight if I was in a hurry and riding in the dead of night I would have probably been better served by the Interstate. Of course, that would not have been nearly as memorable.
The moon rises and casts an eerie pallor over the landscape, the grey light filtered through the canopy of old-growth trees that arch over the road. There are no streetlights outside of the small towns that dot the route, and I'm forced to rely on the catseyes in the road to see where I'm going. I quietly thank Aprilia for installing effective lighting on the Tuono, and shudder at the thought of attempting this sort of jaunt aboard my 916 with its feeble excuses for headlights.
Even at a slower pace it is absolutely nerve wracking as I navigate blind turns, crests and decreasing radius hairpins. I usually avoid riding at night due to my poor night vision, and every time I encounter an oncoming car I'm completely blinded. My active imagination keeps flashing images of deer darting out of the trees into my path, sending me over the bars and spewing my luggage out across the road in a cloud of clothing and camping gear. I slow down a bit more whenever that thought occurs.
I discover that Route 128 closes nightly and I'm forced to take a detour along the 253. This proves to be a beautiful but equally treacherous path snaking through rolling hills dotted with vineyards and million-dollar properties. If it was anything other than darkness, this would be a spectacular route with stunning scenery attempting to distract you from the perfect ribbon of inky black asphalt twisting through the landscape.
But it is darkness, and I'm sweating bullets trying to anticipate the corners and dodging the occasional tipsy driver leaving a late-night wine tasting session.
I still have many more miles to go. My exhaustion has passed and been replaced by a third wind fuelled by adrenaline, my lingering fear of painful death, and far exceeding the day's recommended dosage of Red Bulls.
Rejoining the 128 on the other side of the 101 reveals still more beautiful riding and more idyllic wine country. I roll through small towns that clearly have some money flowing through them, with trendy shops and eateries that would be out of place in most one-stoplight localities. I was looking forward to riding through Napa Valley and it's just as I expected, if not better. A beautiful region dotted with picturesque little settlements with a functioning local economy to sustain it.
I finally roll into Calistoga and arrive at Matt's place just before midnight. I've ridden more than 600 miles on nothing but twisty roads and repeatedly risked my ass to get here; I'm nearly delirious from the strain and vow I will never repeat this kind of ride, but I'm happy I did do it at least once and survived to tell the story.
There are probably a lot of Iron Butt riders who would mock my candy-assed attempt at reckless adventure. No matter how far you ride or how hard you push yourself, there is always some deranged rider out there who has ridden much further, in far worse conditions, with far less suitable equipment. Or at least there will always be that guy who will make you feel like a wimp when you share the tale later, as per the traditional rules of motorcyclist one-upmanship and dick-wavery.
But today was nothing if not memorable, an epic ride that will consume my memories for a long time. There is even some small inkling in the back of my head that I should do something to top this, something even more daring and irresponsible to push my limits a little farther. Sitting on Matt's front porch inhaling the umpteenth cigarette of the day and buzzing from an overload of nicotine, caffeine and endorphins makes it seem almost worth risking my life for the memories.
But not on this trip. I've already used up all my luck and I still have a long damn way to go. I like to tempt fate to keep things interesting, but I'd also like to get home with both wheels on the pavement.