Damn, it’s cold. The handlebar thermometer reads a hair below 60 at this roadside halt, but my shaking knees say otherwise. Riding too long into the day with too little insulation has me chilled to the bone. I’m not alone in this shivering world – my buddy Kail is rummaging through his panniers for another layer, too. I vibrate as I dig in my bag, a blend of excitement and cold topped with a touch of irritation over a late start. It’s an hour later than we’d planned; still light, but not for long. Our late spring ride through the Santa Ynez Valley feels more like winter right now, and I’m anxious to get to our ridge top campsite in California’s Sierra Madre. Gazing down the narrow road, I take a long breath to relax – what the hell, it won’t be the first time we’ve arrived in the dark, or the last.
Puffed up like Michelin men from extra clothing, Kail and I ride on in our new-found warmth, weaving our KLR650s into the lush tapestry of Foxen Canyon. Heavy winter rains have supercharged the grasses and turned the pastures a fine Irish green that glows like neon in the late afternoon sun. The road slips beneath us as we motor down the long straights and downshift for the right angle bends. I take the lead, racing the daylight and watching for the hidden turnoff. There! I see it just in time to fight the sketchy traction on the brakes and make the hairpin turn. Kail knows enough to stay a good ways behind me; he clicks down two gears and turns in without the drama. Vineyards line the road after we cross a dry riverbed and climb to the sloping mesa. Long rows of grapevines whip past in a kaleidoscopic blur as I pop it into to fifth.
Miles later, we leave the grapes behind and dive into an oak-shrouded canyon. The road narrows, the sun slides towards the horizon and long shadows stretch across the tarmac as the gorge closes in. Visibility drops to dim monotones in this dusky world and I relax my wrist while scanning for cattle and deer. The road tosses us through turn after turn while the final glow of daylight fades to nighttime black. My headlight burns brighter in the gloaming, taking some of my deer worries with it. At least now their big, dumb eyes will shine in my high beam like reflectors on a paddle marker – or so I hope.
Cresting the divide, we begin a sinuous decent. The smell of rain-damp compost rises from forest floor, slipping under my helmet into my nostrils. The oaky perfume fans embers of memories long banked in my subconscious, kindling a blaze of recollection. A lifetime of rides with lifelong friends plays out as one highlight after another flashes through my mind – the bikes, the camaraderie, the fun. The reverie breaks with a mental jolt and I’m back in the present, still riding, still in control, and a little shaken that I’ve been daydreaming through this dark canyon; somehow I’ve ushered the KLR through several corners on autopilot and lived to tell about it.
A hundred turns later the adrenaline rush is gone. I’ve passed three deer without incident, and not a single cow has challenged my right of way. The ride from the mouth of the canyon to the highway is a meandering farm road that feels like a milk run compared to the mountainside of tight downhill bends behind us. We loaf along in fourth, savoring the relaxed pace and the syncopated thudding of our one-lung pack mules. At the highway junction Kail and I exchange thumbs up, turn right and join a thin stream of cars flashing past on the country thoroughfare.
Revving the KLR up to highway speeds, the wind and engine noise shake me to a new awareness, a prickly feeling of tension and irritation. Deer and cattle are forgotten, 18-wheelers and Taurus-ensconced salesmen on cell phones are the new threats. I watch in the mirror as approaching headlights become an F-250 pulling a trailer of ATVs and going 80+ while passing on a curve. I back off a bit, hoping to not be a part of someone else’s wreck. Just a little farther, I tell myself, just a little more of this madness. More cars fly by before we find our own space on the two-lane, then the drone sets in and the miles slip by in a blur before I see the forest service sign and ease off the pavement into the calm embrace of the mountains. Three turns later, out of sight of the highway, we stop. It’s ten more miles to camp, but we need to stand awhile in the darkness and let the world go by without us while the mountains infiltrate our consciousness and our brains settle into new, unhurried rhythms. We don’t talk, just stand by the bikes and clean our helmets as our mental gear selectors downshift into ratios more in harmony with the peaceful forest. By the time we re-mount, the highway’s vibrations have vanished into the night.
Moving again: mud ruts dried brick hard grab the front wheel and give it a shake. I react with a twist of the throttle and the KLR takes charge of the road. The street/dirt transition is always difficult, trading the sit-shift-and-steer of the pavement cruise for a more intimate bond with the machine. Now I’m preoccupied with weight transfer, throttle control and traction, and doing my best to stay upright on the loose surface. I gain confidence in every corner, but the bike’s high beam doesn’t show me enough of the road for comfort. My control mantra – look ahead, look ahead – circulates in my head, helping me find the groove of seeing, planning, executing.
Kail hangs back out of my dust, safe from the distraction of my bobbing taillight. In a smooth corner I give in to mountain madness and pitch the KLR sideways, then straighten it out and spin the tire to the next bend. A laugh bubbles up inside my helmet. The pool of anxiety filled by a late start and the company of cars drains away, satisfaction and joy flooding in to fill the void. I slide through a couple more corners, leaving a plume of dust in my wake, Kail’s headlight casting an eerie glow through the haze several turns back. I take pity on him and stop the hijinks. A half-hour later we feel our way up a side road to the camp – tired, hungry, elated. Feet hit the ground, helmets come off, and two friends trade grins of contentment as their motorcycles clink and pop in the cool mountain breeze.
The arrival is complete when I feel my heart slow to the pace of the rocks we stand on.