Going Home on a Gold Wing
By Sean Smith
We're finally setting out from Portland and it's just after 5 p.m. on Friday afternoon. The spirit has shifted on our Honda Goldwing tour now that we're half done and heading towards home, instead of away from it. Both of us are expected to be in front of our computers and online at 9am Monday morning, leaving just 64 hours to fit in all the sights we want to see traveling back South on an inland route. We loosely intend to head through Shasta, hit highways 49 and 89 and ride through Yosemite on our way to Los Angeles. Clearly there's still adventure to be had, but the end is in sight. And just like always, the trip back seems to be shorter than the trip there.
This is Part 3 of Ashlee and Sean's Goldwing tour series. Read all of the articles here.
sean smith Leaving Portland at 5 pm in rush hour is actually a worst case scenario I've contemplated. And, here we are. The Goldwing is great at most things, but (as I already learned in San Francisco) there's no way around the fact that it is a physically large machine. Couple that with the illegality of lane splitting in Oregon and what we have on our hands is the perfect recipe for a bad time. Solution? I crank up the music, ignore the law and do my best to make the bike fit between the slow moving Volvos and Subarus. Unlike in the cramped streets of San Francisco, wider interstate lanes coupled with a determination to make good time makes filtering much easier (and quite a bit of fun) this time around.
ashlee goodwin Illegal? Absolutely. Reckless? Hardly. Sean saves us at least an hour an half getting out of the congested city traffic (with the bonus of not getting rear-ended) and there's hope we'll make it to his Uncle's place in Shasta at least before midnight. I smile in my helmet both because riding through traffic like you're in a motorbike race scene from a sci-fi movie is always fun and now it's also our own little pursuit of civil disobedience. Victory is sweet when you break a rule, break it well and come out ahead.
ssWhen I'm lane splitting, I see just about everything. If there are no cops, I move 10 to 25 miles per hour faster than traffic. It's a high-stakes endurance race with a few special rules. Don't be seen by the cops, don't piss anybody off, don't hit anything, never get angry and never, ever take anything personally. There are a few tricks to avoid being noticed. If I can see everything, I can anticipate what cars are going to do. And if I can do that, I can usually cruise along with the motor barely above idle.
ag I've driven the length of Interstate 5 through Oregon, both North and South, nearly every year of my life at least once. Riding it on a bike is different. What used to feel simply like a four hour string of taillights and milemarkers becomes much more interesting. Sitting higher than cars, with no roof or windshield to block my view, I admire the open landscape. Even though we're headed in the wrong cardinal direction, it seems like we're chasing the sunset, which lasts for at least two hours. We meet two backpackers at a gas station outside of Grants Pass and stand outside chatting while Sean humors one's insistence of proclaiming one Harley Davidson fact after another. We share an unspoken bond with these passers-through who seem apart from everyone else — travelers on a long journey carrying only the necessities, outside and exposed to the elements, and existing on the fringes of society. Because you find that, yes, even when you're on the most-fully featured luxury touring motorcycle, you are still a motorcyclist. And somehow, people who drive cars are oft shocked, some maybe even alarmed, that one would consider using a motorcycle as their only transportation.
ss At one point in my life, I was commuting 45 miles one way to build two stroke race engines at Thumper Racing. I rode a beat to shit Ninja 250 whose only modification was grip heaters. I didn't do this exact commute for very long, but while I did, it was in the winter time, and coming home from work at night meant riding through a mountain pass that often saw temperatures drop as low as 28 degrees. Riding on the 5 between the Oregon border and Mount Shasta is the first time since those days that I've felt exactly the excruciating cold I felt during those long, freezing commutes.
ag I've had the seat heater on nearly the whole trip just for kicks, but going through Shasta, with the time nearing midnight, my body is so devoid of heat that the seat feels like a torch. The localized warmth is nice, but it doesn't do much to sway the fact that this is the coldest I've ever been. I close my eyes and meditate — mostly wondering how exactly freezing to death feels, and how close that feeling is to the bone chilling numbness I have. I'm wearing layer upon layer and all bundled into the exceedingly warm Scorpion Fury Jacket, but I'm pretty sure this kind of cold can only be tackled with gear that plugs into an outlet. I'm talking myself through, toughing it out —the exit is coming up. Or so I think. Sean blasts past what I thought was the exit for his uncle's place, and apparently we still have 20 more miles to go. Finally we pull up outside, and I pretty much wordlessly take up residence in front of the wood burning stove.
ss Imagine if The Dude played the fiddle and looked like Ted Nuggent, and you have a pretty clear picture of my Uncle Mike, who lets us into the garage while laughing at our beet red, shivering faces. Mike calls us idiots for such a trek in cold conditions, even though he'll spend the rest of the night and the next morning telling us tails of death and danger about his bicycling adventures across Cambodia, Vietnam, and Peru or desert racing in the '70s on an XR100.
ag Sean's Aunt Kathy sees him in his white silk scarf and 'stich and says he looks like Errol Flynn. Usually when Sean gets a look-a-like comment, people tell him he looks like a hipster Billy Mays. I laugh and think her comparison to a flamboyant yet swashbuckling, mid-century actor (though I've never seen a photo of him that wasn't clean shaven) is a step up from an over-dosing informercial host. The best part about Mike and Kathy's? The round, neck deep Japanese soaking tub that Mike installed in their guest bathroom. He says it was to help his back after a long day of skiing or bicycling, but the energy healing poster displaying the seven different chakras and Jack Kerouac's Dharma Bums as bathroom reading material suggest it may just be because they're awesome hippies. Regardless, burying yourself in more than four feet of steaming water is amazing after a freezing ride over the Siskiyous.
ss Ashlee was interested in energy healing before we spent the night in Mt. Shasta, but now I think she might sell everything she owns and pursue it full time. Mike waxes nostalgic with tales of growing up in Whittier and racing his XR100 with AMA District 37. I race an XR100 too, so I'm intimately familiar with just how slow they are. Sure, mine was built in 2001 and his was a relic from the '60s, but the bikes aren't all that different. I've ridden on modern bikes where he used to race back in the day, and I can't believe people raced bikes like that on that terrain. I spend some time looking at the huge printed maps of California in our guestroom and decide that if I had it all to do over again, I would not only spend more time looking at printed maps before leaving, I would have also taken some with me.
ag Google maps and GPS will get you where you need to go with minimal hassle, and a high degree of accuracy. But the large printed maps Sean and I pore over show roads that are often hidden on digital map applications, unless you zoom in to nearly unusable level which removes useful reference points.
ssWe take off from Shasta after breakfast, and I've never felt older in my whole fucking life than when I was riding from Northern California to Reno, Nevada, while wearing an Aerostitch RoadCrafter on a Honda Goldwing. The ride itself is the kind of thing you'd expect someone of such distinguishing characteristics would enjoy: picturesque scenery, but pretty much a straight highway. Not much challenge, and certainly not very sporty, but I maintain a high average speed.
ag I think about how these roads, and most of the 2,000 miles we've traveled in the days before, were built within my grandparents' lifetime. I think about nearly 200,000 years of Homo sapiens. And then I think about well less than 100 years of human beings flying alongside these perfectly manicured yellow lines on a motorcycle, covering hundreds of miles a day, while the entire landmass of the world serves a scale model to conquer.
ss It's that same time of day again when we keep picking hotels. We stop and eat something, finish eating, look up at the sky, and say, "Fuck, it's getting dark." Soon it will be cold, making it time to figure out just how far we're going to make it today, and make sure there's somewhere to sleep when we're ready to stop. Sitting in a Trader Joe's parking lot in Reno, we pick the Madderhorn Motel in South Lake Tahoe from the cheap 4-star Yelp listings. I've never been to Lake Tahoe before, and I've never really known much about Lake Tahoe. In my mind, Lake Tahoe is something like a much nicer Lake Arrowhead, which would mean ultra rich people, nice architecture, successful local small businesses catering to upscale clientel, and peace and quiet at night.
ag I'm sure parts of Lake Tahoe are like Sean's fantasy. South Lake Tahoe is not. Cram the seedier slices of old Vegas lakeside, add motels full of migrant workers in town for tree pruning, and double the number of sex shops all about, and you have a picturesque view of the evening we roll into town. But there's a comfortable enough bed, a warm shower, and Yosemite on the horizon for tomorrow.
ss Leaving Tahoe to go to Yosemite is not quite what I thought it would be. We see every Harley Davidson within a 100 mile radius, and there are a lot of them. We also see a lot of sportbikes. Everyone looks happy because the weather has produced one of those kind of days where there's nothing better to do than ride a motorcycle. Even though the road is cold, it's totally smooth and grip is still amazing. I do some of my fastest riding the entire trip during this leg.
agHeaded for Yosemite, I take more pictures than I can count from the back of the bike—obsessed with golden yellows and bright blues, the curves of road switchbacking down the mountain and into the valley, and the ever-changing slant of the horizon line as we make our way through the curves quickly on a motorcycle. We head through the gates into Yosemite and I feel like I remember feeling as a kid going to places like Diseyland — you know you're going somewhere special, but you've never been there so you're not really sure why. I've been a little bit worried all day that by the time we got to Yosemite, there won't be much daylight left to enjoy it, but I'm wrong. Not 15 minutes into the park, I'm ready to set up camp next to a burbling stream and stay there for the rest of forever, but Sean drags me off to see the rest of amazing vistas that he remembers. We make our way from the East side all the way across and out the West side during the best hours of the day.
ss I've been to Yosemite before and backpacked much of the park, but it was always a very planned and constructed kind of experience. Places to go, things to see. In that type of situation it's very hard to actually appreciate nature and natural beauty. Going with parents, family and/or large hiking groups just isn't the same. Being with Ashlee on a motorcycle is different. There's no arguing about where we'll stop, what we'll look at or where we need to get to. I ride the bike and we stop to look at interesting things. Simple as that.
ag It's nearly dark when we get to the view of Yosemite Valley from outside the tunnel, and we head off towards Los Angeles with a starry sky above us. We're so close to home, driving through Bakersfield, when we pull up alongside a shiny tanker truck for a moment. I see our reflection when moving for the first time during the trip and realize that, as I'd been sitting back here worrying about being pulled over by cops, we've been riding around looking like cops. Or something damn close. Turns out we look pretty official in head-to-toe black weather gear on this black motorbike. And even if the two-up riding and lack of lights and police livery tipped one off that we weren't police, we just look like two respectable sunset seeking retirees, speed or not. And now, even though we know the Goldwing far surpasses its limiting stereotypes, I'm thankful for the Honda-bego stigma that's made us invisible as we sped through the Western states for days on end.