An intoxicating cocktail of fact and fantasy, motorcycling culture has been romanticized and demonized to mythic proportion. Cruising California evokes those infamous images, icons and the cinematic magic that weave this invisible spell.
Myth: Story or tale that has no proven factual basis.
In 1947 some 3,000 riders assembled for the annual hill climb in Hollister, California. Many were WWII vets, American heroes who'd bought army surplus Harleys for 50 bucks, repainted them and chopped off unnecessary parts. There were a few boisterous boys in the bunch-it ain't a party unless the cops get called. The evening newspaper read: HAVOC in HOLLISTER! "Highway Patrolmen armed with tear gas guns clamped in formal martial law on downtown Hollister in the face of several thousand riotous motorcyclists," One single image defined the American biker for decades.
San Francisco Chronicle photographer, Barney Peterson staged this notorious photo. There weren't even any bikers in town so he recruited the local drunk, piled beer bottles around a bike and took the shot. Myth is made in Hollister, birthplace of the American Biker. Alas, this annual rally for over six decades skids to a halt again in 2009. The city sites exorbitant expenditures in Law enforcement claiming security explodes. Sadly, I never made it to Hollister. I'll go next year this procrastinator proclaimed. Well... I'm going anyway, rally or not. The 2009 Triumph Rocket III Touring motorcycle crouching in the garage is restless. I'll take my time, ride leisurely north and see all the places I was always gonna go.... next year.
The Triumph Rocket III Touring bike is not for the faint of heart or frail in stature. Beginners beware, this missile launches with 2300cc's of pure adrenalin. A ground pounding 140 horses and tire-shredding 147 lb-ft of torque propel this rocket. With piston size akin to a V-10 Dodge Viper and weighing in at over 800 pounds wet, this liquid cooled in-line triple is pyrotechnic. The sheer width and breadth of this beast is awe-inspiring. Dual overhead camshafts, multi-point sequential electronic fuel injection and the Rocket III's phenomenal power plant assure a smooth, truly unforgettable ride.
Leaving L.A. resembles a massive heart attack. Its main arteries clogged with big rigs and SUV's. How drivers survive this daily coronary is a minor miracle. Once freed from the congestion, Hwy 101 north skirts the coast in San Buenaventura then, Hwy 154 splits eastward toward Lake Cachuma. Sweeping mountain curves posted at 50 mph (implying 70) allow long languid lean angles; the Rocket III is home here. Dropping into Santa Inez valley, panoramic views of Lake Cachuma emerge and you're in wine country. At the northern end is Lake Cachuma State Recreation area. If you fancy camping with a half-dozen friends Yurts are available for over night stays. Yurts are a cross between a tent and teepee and feature platform beds, lockable door, inside lighting and heating, screened windows and fabric siding. Set on the bluff with access to the lakeshore, the view is gorgeous but lacking amenities, it's no Best Western.
Highway I54 continues to Rt. 246 to Solvang. Crowned one of the 10 most beautiful small towns in the west by Sunset Magazine, dating back to 1911 when Danish-Americans traversed the plains from Iowa. They established Solvang (Sunny Fields) adjacent to the Santa Inés Mission already 100 years old then.
Danish delights abound on main street, beautiful blondes in pigtails, windmills and traditional culinary cuisine of Frikadeller and Aebleskiver, (don't ask). Solvang reminds me of master magic maker, Walt Disney. At every cobblestone corner I expect Snow White and her dancing dwarves or a faux snow capped Matterhorn. My destination here is the Solvang Motorcycle Museum. Virgil Elings, owner of the Museum, came to Santa Barbara to teach Physics at UCSB. In 1987, while on sabbatical, Elings co-founded Digital Instruments that became the world's leader in the design and manufacture of Scanning Probe Microscopes, the first scientific instrument to actually 'see' individual atoms.
Virgil has been collecting motorcycles for two decades and his museum is downright amazing. Open daily from 11-5 p.m. it houses over 130 beautifully restored motorcycles of all makes. Plan hours of gawking, gaping and glaring. Every time your eyes move an inch to the right or the left another astounding, perfectly restored relic of motorcycle history dazzles you. His collection includes a Triumph Tiger, the motorcycle Steve McQueen rode in The Great Escape.
Magic: A: Supernatural power over natural forces
A: Producing illusions
Of course McQueen didn't make the epic motorcycle jump in The Great Escape that duty fell to his close friend and stuntman Bud Ekins. He claimed that the stunt was done with a bone-stock Triumph Tiger. During the climatic motorcycle chase, director John Sturges allowed Steve McQueen to ride (in disguise) as one of the pursuing German soldiers, so that in the final sequence, through the magic of editing, Steve McQueen is actually chasing himself.
Wanting to soak up Solvang's local color and a Yurt is out of the question. This city boy will take the cozy room, Jacuzzi, continental breakfast and H.O.G discount at (you guessed it) Best Western, Copenhagen in the heart of Solvang. Tip: they will give you a 10 percent discount to the Touch Restaurant/Bar right next door. The Touch switches to a great Chinese menu after 5pm and serves drinks until 12 p.m.
Riding solo, I carried my trusty Dowco Iron Rider luggage. A favorite because it fits my laptop, cameras, clothes, and all other personal goodies. Its sturdy, easily removed and carried anywhere. With zippered side pockets it allows for more storage of gloves, maps, and food. Made from durable 1680 polyester each bag offers generous storage areas, exterior pockets, webbing, interior compartments, strong molded handles and rain covers are included!
Riding a Rocket several truths become self-evident. The first is its astounding power. Reaching freeway speeds from onramps is a rush. Glancing at the oncoming traffic, a window of opportunity appears, grabbing full throttle you become ballistic and within seconds own the fast lane at 85 mph. And, there's still head snapping acceleration left! Traversing mountains? No grade is steep enough to allow gravity to tug at this big triple. Secondly, is engine braking, the thunderous compression allows the Rocket III to literally growl down mountain descents without touching the brakes. Finally, the engine's low center of gravity makes this 800 pound bike surprisingly manageable, flipping through the twisties with relative ease. With an impressive lean angle before pavement finds the floorboards, a 150/80 R16 front tire gnaws at the curves. The Rocket III Touring actually has a smaller rear tire (180/70 R16) than the standard Rocket III (240/50 R16) creating a noticeably nimbler motorcycle.
Continuing north on the 101 to Hwy 25 I keep running the celluloid history of biker lore in my mind. Hollywood's master mythmakers released The Wild One starring Marlon Brando in 1953. Loosely based on Hollister, it indelibly branded the American biker a booze fighting, rabble-rousing outlaw. Only these outlaws were well cast, scripted and nationally distributed. Biker lore is born, or shall I say manufactured. By the way, that was a Triumph Thunderbird Marlon was riding.
Finally in Hollister, Sans 100,000 bikers, yes, there's Johnny's, and yes there are motorcyclists but the glory days of rally fever are missing this year. Reminds me of lines from another iconic motorcycle movie, Easy Rider (annotated):
Jack Nicholson: You know this used to be a helluva good country. I can't understand what's gone wrong with it.
Dennis Hopper: Man, everybody got chicken, that's what happened. Hey, we can't even get into a motel, you dig? They're scared, man.
Nicholson: They're not scared of you. They're scared of what you represent.
Hopper: Hey, man. All we represent to them, man, is somebody who needs a haircut.
Nicholson: Oh, no. What you represent to them is freedom.
Hopper: What the hell is wrong with freedom? Isn't that what it's all about?
Nicholson: That's what's it's all about, but talking about it and being it, that's two different things. I mean, it's real hard to be free when you are bought and sold in the marketplace. Oh, yeah, they're gonna talk to you, and talk to you about individual freedom but they see a free individual, it's gonna scare them.
As Hollister fades in the rear view mirrors the beautiful Old Mission in San Juan Bautista appears. This is where the final scenes of Vertigo by Alfred Hitchcock were filmed in 1958. Fictional plots capitalize on instinctive human fears to sell movie tickets. The fear of heights; fear of sharks; fear of birds? Fear of...motorcyclists? The mission offers a Vertigo bus tour with highlight of movie locations.
SR 156 leads west to mythic destinations such as Monterey, Carmel by the Sea and Big Sur, truly some of the most idyllic places on earth. Cold beer in hand, overlooking Monterey Bay I reflect. We humans have always idolized and immortalized beauty and fame. It's how actors become presidents, action heroes become governors, and directors are the mayor of Carmel. James Dean and Marilyn Monroe still live in the American collective unconscious and hey... is that that's Elvis over there?
Is the Triumph Rocket III all that and a bag of chips? The lack of cruise control is a pain in the wrist-please, this is a touring motorcycle. Boasting a 5.9-gallon gas tank I could never hit the 200 mile mark because the gauge swings to E deceptively fast. Instilled with the fear of pushing an 800 pound paperweight I couldn't get beyond this insidious gauge. Filled with trepidation I fueled up an "empty" tank repeatedly yet sometimes almost a gallon remained. I lived by the cruisers credo "never pass gas". You'll have to find the razors edge on your own. Conversely, the hard bags are spacious with easy key-lock access an extremely functional tool kit inside. The quick release windscreen and passenger backrest instantly transform this muscular master of the Hi-way into a.... muscular master of the street. Esthetically, the Rocket III is impeccably British, The grandiose Grille of a Rolls Royce and luxurious ride of a Bentley crossbred with the brute force of a Bristol Fighter-T. The Rocket III commands respect without demanding it.
When passing Santa Barbara I always enjoy traversing its rickety wooden Pier, plus we bikers have our own designated parking. Cruising home on Pacific Coast Highway, the curvaceous ribbon of concrete that cradles the California coast inspires a cinemascopic retrospect. People, places, and events all have mythic potential. There is a saying that "History is written by the winners." As media giants "win" our hearts and minds, reality and fiction blur sometimes swelling to mythic proportions. As kitschy as Solvang may be, it's not a Disneyesque facade filled with props. It's real people, with a real history and ultimately, that's what motorcycle riding and motorcycle events are about. The small town of Hollister and Johnny's bar is really just a story about us, the riders, our personal histories that we all share together and our inherent freedom to do so.
385 Walt Sanders Memorial Drive