I'm broke. No need to sugar coat it, the simultaneous implosion of print publishing and the motorcycle industry (thanks to the Great Recession) has left a few freelancers like myself feeling the pinch...probably not so differently than more than a few of you. Thankfully, magazines remain a very affordable luxury, right? But unlike the guys who abandon riding when their state passes a helmet law, or pull under a freeway overpass at the first sign of rain, I'm in this for life. I tour. It's part of who I am, and I'm not giving it up just for lack of funds. So the challenge is: How to pull off an epic tour on minimal dollars? Where do you skimp? Where do you not skimp? And where are we going?
That last question is best answered by your network: friends, family, relatives, work associates, and (in a pinch) random folks off of the internet. Adventure is where you find it, and, chances are, in a big beautiful country like ours, you can find somewhere to ride where you know somebody. In my case, my path led north. I knew of a ride to commemorate the opening of Chinook Pass (close to Mt. Rainier in Washington) at the end of last spring and I put together a plan to ride it.
I had crashpads (or potential crashpads) in Santa Cruz, Concord (East SF Bay), Eugene, Portland, and Auburn (SE of Seattle). There was a pretty big gap in the middle, but I was prepared to camp out if needed on this trip. At just about every one of my stops, my potential hosts asked for nothing in return but my company for a pair of meals and warm place to stay. I'll get into more logistical details in Part 2 (such as ideas for how you can pull this off yourself), but suffice it to say: it pays to not be an asshole (or so I hear).
The first leg of my trip, from LA to the sleepy surfer burg of Santa Cruz is an easy 350-ish-mile blast up either I-5, US-101, or both...but it wouldn't be much of an adventure if I stuck to the Interstates, right?
Draped across the middle of the state, starting in exactly the middle of nowhere is one of my favorite roads, CA-58. Seeing as the eastern end of it starts about 150 miles from where I live, I don't get the chance to ride it too often. With its rollercoaster curves and grades and good sight lines, 58 is one of the better places on the planet to test a bike's handling, but a pretty lousy place to crash (don't ask). I found this out over a decade ago, first running it on sport-touring bikes, and later on an early Twin Cam Ultra (back when they had a hinge in the middle). On a sportbike, the elevation and camber changes coupled with good sightlines in the hilly grassland makes for an exercise in concentration that is very rewarding.
The old Ultra (probably overloaded by me) was a different story as it wallowed through the curves, and was generally not fun. Incidentally, this is not something a modern H-D Tourer would do. So I figured what better place to test the backroad handling of the Triumph Rocket III Tour. She's a big girl, and a handful at parking lot speeds, but how would she comply in a real on-road challenge? But before I ever got there, I decided on a little exploring.
Like I said, it's a buck-fifty (ish) before I even saw the beginning of 58, so there are a lot of choices for routes, most of them boring. The most common way for LA-based twisty road enthusiasts to pull it off is to go to the top of the Tejon pass on Interstate 5, then take Frazier Park Road to Lockwood Valley Road. Having gone that way more than a few times, I decided on a slight detour via a more direct route through the town of Pine Mountain Club, wondering why more people didn't go that way. Well, long story short, it's just got a lot of houses, cops, and low speed limits for the first half of the road, before opening up in the second half to some fun riding and killer views on Cerro Noroeste. As Lockwood Valley only adds 16 fairly worry-free miles, I'm not sure I'd do that detour again.
Highway 58 and the Rocket III did not disappoint. Despite being a Saturday afternoon, the road was clear of cars and bikes for half its length; just me swooping corner to corner on the big machine. Popping out of the back roads at Paso Robles and running out of daylight, I hightailed it up the 101 and 1 to Santa Cruz to finish out my first day.
I spent the night at the downtown apartment of an old friend and travel companion. Even though I'd only spent a day on the road, I decided to kill a full day here before moving on. As a tribute to the LA neighborhood where we grew up, my friends call Santa Cruz "North Westchester" since so many from my home zip code have made lives for themselves here. So at the risk of excommunication, I needed to stay and hang with some lifelong pals before continuing my journey.
Returning to Angelee's downtown apartment over the San Lorenzo River from a breakfast date at Santa Cruz Diner (lame, skip it) with one of my high school chums, I happened to be tracing in reverse the path of Santa Cruz's Pride parade, and got a show I was not even remotely expecting. The tiny, totally walkable city, filled with cool mom and pop stores, and surrounded by killer rides had me thinking of permanently joining them up here in Northchester.
After yet another visit with friends I made it only 80 miles of freeway hell that day to my riding buddy Bill Sanders' house in Concord in the East Bay. The plan going forward was to spend two days riding with Bill, camping out at a location to be determined somewhere in the far north of California. So after two days in a little spare bed space in Downtown Hippieville (with the bike in a Santa Cruz public garage), my third night was couch crashing at Bill's large spread in Suburbia, complete with chickens and garage space for the Rocket.
The next day we set out for the northern stretch of CA-1, the Shoreline Highway. Big Sur and Malibu to the south are the two sections of the famed route that get the most attention, and that was fine by us, as this stretch of lonely coast is blissfully uncrowded. We left on a Monday to hopefully miss the motorhomes that might otherwise dampen our spirited ride, and it worked like a charm.
How different is the Northern California coast than SoCal? Barrier beaches and cliffs, miles-long inlets and bays, dairy cows wandering the cool windswept greenery stands in sharp contrast to our flat, sandy expanses and palm trees to the south. The transition from the bustle of Marin County to what looks like the middle of nowhere is abrupt thanks to the Golden Gate National Recreation Area that hugs the urban Bay Area. From dodging Monday morning commuters to slaloming along CA-1 to the coast was a welcome change, and we soon arrived at out breakfast stop: Point Reyes Station and the Station House Café. The sleepy little town and mostly empty café felt nothing like a place just 35 miles from the middle of downtown San Francisco, though the gourmet food and fairly high prices might give that impression.
After the Station there's a feeling of riding away from the ocean along the long Tomales Bay. Looking across the narrow bay to the mountains of Point Reyes helps the illusion. In fact, the long, calm bay runs parallel to the ocean, perfect for oyster farming and watersports, as a number of boat launches and seafood restaurants will attest. From there, a pattern starts to develop: the road wanders inland for a few miles, then back out to the coast through small towns and dairy farms, across some tall cliffs and back inland again. In the cliffside portions there are several old bridges spanning the deep gorges cut by rivers, and some (like the Albion Bridge) are scheduled for replacement soon, so catch them while you can.
Overall, Shoreline Highway is an always-interesting mix of styles from breathtaking views to cozy forest trails. I could go on for pages on this stretch of road, but I'd rather leave more room for pictures. At the north end the cliffs seem to get bigger and bigger until at last turning into the thick redwood forest in defeat. The switch from wide-open sky and cliffside road to a tunnel through redwoods is even more jarring than the switch from city to open road is at the south end. If you're wearing shades or a tinted shield it would be good to stop and remove them, as the darkness in the trees is blinding, and just because you're off the cliff doesn't mean the twisties stop there. The road winds up and down switchbacks in near darkness, occasionally coming blindingly out onto a bare hillside with a view of nothing but miles of more of the same rolling, redwood-covered nothingness. The road pops out onto US-101 near Leggett, where we took an obligatory trip through the giant drive-thru redwood tree.
We did it all in a day, but if you're vacationing up there, I'd suggest leaving at least two days to give yourself a chance to stop at some beautiful secluded beaches, coves, and side roads and fully explore what's called the Redwood Empire of the North Coast. But being low-budget means I was on a schedule, especially when there's nobody's house to crash at.
Cruising down the still-scenic US-101 four-laner was a good wind down at the end of a long day of riding. It was only about 250 miles so far, but much of that was either at slow in-town speeds or focusing on the many curves of the road, or in my case, looking for the next photo op. So while the 101 has trucks, steep grades, and higher speeds, it was still less taxing than the coast road was. After a decent meal in Garberville at the Sentry Market Deli, we asked the girl behind the counter for a good place to camp out, which brought us to Benbow Lake State Recreation Area. It was a wonderful place to have a relaxing camp-out for the night, but a word of warning: with California's current budget crisis, camping out (at state facilities) should not be thought of as a way to save money. To stave off the closure of a slew of state parks, the parks were forced to become self-supporting, so camping for just one night is roughly the same price as a night in a Motel 6. Between firewood, the camping fee and the extra vehicle fee (despite the fact that bikes take up very little space), it was about $50 for the night. Thankfully my benefactor Bill paid the fee. We only had a short ride the next day (or so I thought), so we stayed up late drinking beer and smoking cigars, looking forward for more Redwood Empire adventures in the morning.
Benbow Lake State Recreation Area
(707) 923-3238, Summer
(707) 247-3318, Winter
Golden Gate National Recreation Area