Northern California’s Pacific Coast Highway might be the best use of asphalt anywhere. From expansive ocean views to the west, to often fog-shrouded hilltops to the east, this north coast section of the roadway splits coastal prairies, tunnels through cypress groves, twists into stream gullies and, around turns, repeatedly prompts an involuntary “Oh, my!” no matter how many times I’ve ridden it.
This day, I’m heading south from Point Arena astride a 1986 BMW R80RT I’d just inherited. My brother had injured his throttle hand in an industrial accident and his bike needed a home. I volunteered. That’s what brothers do.
I’d been smitten with this model since 1983 when I was offered use of the brand-new RT for the day while my year-old bike was in the shop. I remember an irrepressible grin as I sampled a curvy road just out of town. I liked the slightly taller saddle, roomier accommodations, breeze protection and space-age look. Not available 12 months earlier, I remember thinking, “Why couldn’t I have just waited a year and gotten one of these?”
Fast forward 35 years, and one falls into my lap.
The first order of business for this new-to-me old bike was a visit to Point Arena’s Zen House, the place for “the art of motorcycle maintenance,” for a professional service and safety once-over. While I viewed some of the classic restorations in and about the shop, owner David Harris checked out the RT and explained how he would sort my new possession, addressing seals, gaskets and busted parts and even replacing roundels on the tank. “Let’s do it!” I said.
A couple of weeks later, I’m back listening as David walks me through the care and feeding of the old R80 much as a dealer would for a customer about to head out on something shiny and new. His final comment? “You know, you could take this bike around the world if you wanted.”
Around the world wasn’t on today’s agenda but the day is lovely, and I am already out on the Pacific Coast Highway.
Moments after leaving Point Arena, I’m immersed in mist and splashes of sunlight and the aroma of sea spray and pasture. The ragged fence lines, aging barns, sweeping curves and tantalizing crests of this familiar road are a good kind of different on the vintage machine. Perhaps it’s the rustic thrum of the old boxer’s engine.
Gualala offers fuel and food and, across the river, a fine county park to explore, where I pause. A paved path leads to bluffs and the siren’s song of surf and sea lions prompts me to take it. Remnants of cables and concrete remind me that redwood from these parts, transported on dog hole schooners, built San Francisco. Twice.
The Sea Ranch, an enclave of mostly second homes, rests on the bench south of the Gualala River. The highway is wide and well maintained, though damp where shaded. Views of the ocean are infrequent. There is some cross traffic from residents and renters, so perhaps it’s good not to be distracted by the sea.
At Stewarts Point a small country store offers freshly baked breads, a deli producing delectable sandwiches, hot coffee for those days of foggy rides and cold beverages for when the sun shines, along with local wines, sweets and knickknacks. Entering the building I can hear century-old footsteps from when the mercantile was frequented by area ranchers and nearby mill workers. I’m told there’s a dance hall upstairs.
Winding south, I pass through villages and vacation rentals, viewpoints and trailheads. I should stop for a picture of a breaking wave or the roadway slipping around a curve and disappearing into a copse of coastal evergreens, but riding an iconic airhead on this iconic highway is magical—the grin from 30 years ago has returned—and I don’t want to stop.
Fort Ross and its farm fields once served as the grocery store for Russian fur trappers working the Aleutians. Here, I take a break. A handsome visitors center introduces me to those lost pieces of history I often whiz right past and later curse myself for missing. The original wall was repurposed by John Sutter after the Russians departed. The hewn lumber of the old stockade was shipped to where Sutter was building his own fort in what would become Sacramento. Highway 1 once passed right through the parade grounds but has been rerouted and the stockade rebuilt.
South from here, Highway 1 climbs and dives over disintegrating cliffs and benches that were once sea floor. I am tracing the scarp of the notorious San Andreas Fault for quite a distance. Along this windy stretch, two forces are engaged in an epic battle: plate tectonics and erosion versus highway maintenance workers. Pavement in this section slumps and cracks, but the old bike feels solid and surefooted.
Clear day views stretch forever. I stop at a favored spot with a breathtaking view of the Pacific and snap a picture of my new possession. The photo will join the collection of a half-dozen other bikes I’ve owned whose portraits have been taken here.
Late autumn dusk settles early, and I head inland at Jenner. Winding along the Russian River, I reflect on how perfectly the old Beemer handled today’s first ride. The engine purred in harmony with the sea. The skinny tires devoured the curves. The low center of gravity made handling second nature. And the windscreen and heated grips—quite the innovations for bikes of that era—made the chilly ride comfortable.
It turns out that not having purchased this model three decades ago had an upside. It allowed me to better appreciate the delight that now carried me—make that us—home.