“Are you scared?”
I looked at the sales guy blankly, blinked a couple of times and confidently said, “Nah.”
I wasn’t in the mood to get into it. I was here to pick up some gear for my ride across America. I had a mental checklist and just wanted to get down to brass tacks and hunt up what I needed and, if possible, mine what I assumed was this guys’s vast riding experience for insight. I didn’t feel like waxing on philosophically with him about fear, but seriously, “Am I scared?”
I explained to him my plan to ride from Pollock Pines to Boston in less than a month and, by the way, I am a pretty new rider. Am I scared? Let me put this in perspective. I am planning to solo ride on a two wheeled vehicle over 3000 miles across the country through mountains, deserts, hills, plains, prairies, woods, oceansides and all sorts of stuff in-between in possibly everything from extreme heat to the cold high country and, conceivably, although I hope not, rain, sleet, wind and tonadoes (seriously, think about Kansas) with only abrasion resistant fabric and a few pads between my skin and the world and a couple layers of polycarbonate and polystyrene between my head containing my delicate brain and the outside world. If I am NOT scared, then I am just plain stupid. Not to be dramatic, but yeah, it is a bit dramatic.
Fear is not a bad thing here, it is a matter of awareness and possibly survival. In the interest of managing my fear as best as I can, I am preparing as much as I can given the short time frame I settled on. When I came up with the idea, I didn’t even have my motorcycle license. Heck, I didn’t have a motorcycle. Now, I have both and then some and I try to spend part of everyday preparing.
In a mere 3-weeks, I put 700 miles on my brand new ride which is significantly more than I put on the ride I had in Boston. That is all good, but when I laid out a map of the country, I realized my little circle rides around the Sierras were a tiny speck on that map. Mentally, I knew this, but tactically a physically, a paper map really drills it home. Knowing I needed practice, I signed up for a intermediate riding class way back in June. It was in the Bay Area, a mere 180ish miles from Pollock Pines. It all made sense, ride there to get some distance under my belt, take the class for 8-hours the next day and then ride back for more miles. So, to prepare, I took my first destination ride this week to Sunnyvale for class and buddy riding time.
This is where give a charming recap of that ride, wax on poetically about the scenery then pepper it with anecdotes about my follys along the way. Bear with me, it is necessary of any travel type blog and for books like Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenence. That is the best I can do for a segue from gear guy conversation to long ride today. Enjoy (it is long).
I was determined to hit the road early so I could have much of said road to myself. I packed my saddlebags, trunk and backpack the night before, delighted about being able to stuff whatever in without counting every ounce as I would with backpacking. I queued up the map I made the day before which avoided highways and aimed to take a more scenic and less trafficy route even if it was 45 minutes longer. Avoiding the big slab as those in the know of moto-lingo would say. For good measure, I put a paper with “In case of emergency” in the wallet in my pocket. It had neither of my usual contacts of mom and spouse, but rather my brother’s and sister’s info. Nothing special, but it struck me.
Geared up and a bit groggy, I looked forward to stopping for a cup of coffee along the way. For the second morning in a row, a haze and the smell of smoke permeated through Pollock Pines. Smoke blowing over the Sierras from the from the Miraposa forrest fire in the Reno area. The air temp, at 50F, was at least full 40F cooler than I rode in over the last several weeks, so I left the cooling vest in a baggie and closed my helmet vents.
Getting out of the driveway of Chateau Campbell takes a bit of practice and a lot of throttle to propell myself up the steep inclined and tightly curved driveway. Unfortunately, this morning I forgot to adjust my usual launch trajectory to include the added weight of the luggage. I stalled at the steepest section of the drive. Not 20 feet from my door, I was in a pickle and then, I was on my back with the bike beside me. Yep, the infamous “first drop” of a new bike that supposedly everyone has was how I started my morning. Shit.
I scrambled up and hurriedly picked up the bike, easing it back down the hill and acting as if I might get spotted looking foolish. I am sure some little deer family snickered at me in the woods and the vast spider cartel felt pleased at the karma payback for kicking one of it’s kin out the back door the night before. On try two, I slingshotted myself up the driveway a teeny bit wildly and let out a sigh of relief as I made it to the top. To silent the mental scolding I gave myself, I tried to tame the beast by telling it the early fall was a good reminder of the added weight before I took to the neighborhood curves. Besides, the extra weightlifting and pushing and freaking out caused me to work up a sweat in the cool air to keep me alert. It was all good, right?
I spent the first ninety minutes escaping the Sierras on winding mountain roads broken by a few fast rolling hills in innerconnecting valleys. The whole time, a tinge of smoke stayed in the air. Even though that thing I am trying to put out of my mind delayed my departure, the morning was leisurely and I had several fun stretches of road to myself. As I left the last of the cragy mountains behind the loopy two-lane blacktop gave way to a long two-lane blacktop snaking up and down and up and down flanked by a rolling blanket of shimmery golden grasses broken up by a periodic live oak. This is the northern edge of the San Joaquim Valley. Unlike the East Coast where green summers lead to colorful falls, here, a lush green spring gives way to a relentless parched yellow summer.
Soon, the scenery transitioned from arid grasses to irrigated vineyards and orchards. Despite the arid climate of the valley, it is also home to the world’s largest almond growing region. Here, the North end of the valley hosts fruit and nut orchards and vineyards bearing a “Lodi Region” pedigree. Not as famous or respected as neighboring regions northwest of here, but a respectable showing. Today, I am just passing through and don’t make the rounds of tasting rooms, but it reminds me of another reason I am happy to hit the valley early – avoiding those drivers who are doing their own rounds.
I catch a sign at the side of the road, “Click it or Ticket.” Laughing at the thought entertains me for a few miles. Being religious about buckling up, I sometimes get a funny feeling, like I forgot something, when am riding along. I don’t miss the car body around me, but not having my seat belt on leaves and itch that I can’t scratch; it’s akin to a naked in public feeling.
I pass an entrance to Highway 99 and recall a stay in Lodi some years ago. I vaguely think I drove over this exact spot before. Ready to a fill up and get coffee, I decided to ride the roadside mess of fast food restaurants in hopes of finding something a bit more neighborhoody in Stockton.
There are times when I question the logic of Google Maps. Driving straight through the heart of Stockton was one of those times. Leaving the wines of Lodi behind, I find myself in a place where there are too many iron bars on the windows, too much litter in the gutter, too much grafitti and too little road upkeep for my preference. Being a lone woman on a motorcycle in a less than favorable part of a city you feel rather exposed and vulnerable. Forget the seatbelt, you can’t sneak your finger over to the lock button to elicit the false sense of security that comes from the assuring “click” of the locks. All you can do is attempt to exude confidence and ride with purpose. No matter where I turned though, the bad neighborhood feel never slid away, but just kept on.
Wanting to redirect Google Maps, fill up some gas and give my sore ass a quick break, I pulled into a lively gas station. I am not sure if I should have opted for a less lively gas station, but I quickly realized I stood out. My “stay alert” radar was going off, and I am pretty sure a group of “gentlemen” took some interest and were openly pointing and gesturing toward me. The presence of a security guard at the station’s entrance gave me a bit of comfort. Just a bit, because, you know, the sign of a safe locale is a gas station with a security guard. When guy approached me wanting to genuinely talk about motorcycles and gear, I am pretty sure he caught my nervy vibe too and kept it short and distant.
Anyway, in that moment, feeling Stockton didn’t have a neighborhoody stop I would like, I abandoned my “Avoid Big Slab” rule and mapped a route plunging me onto one of the biggest ugliest slabs of them all – Interstate 5. Five lanes each direction of an angry and agitated hive filled big rigs, delivery trucks and commuters all driving like the mad hatter on a snort of cocaine with one objective – to get somewhere, hastily and aggressively. Shedding that leisurely, countryside feeling, I dove in.
I can’t say I found my stint on I-5 pleasant, but it served the purpose a highway is suppose to serve, it got me where I wanted (out of Stockton) fast. The whole time, I reminded myself of advice I get from MCRider, a YouTube channel offering lessons on good riding practices, which I boiled down to “stay the fuck away from every other car on the highway with extreme vigilence.”
With Stockton behind me, one geographical and one psychological obsticle laid between me and my final destination in Sunnyvale – the northern edges of the Diablo Range and Bay Area traffic.
I found what I thought would be a fun little route from through the northern edge of the Diablo Range from Tracy to Livermore along Tesla Road (named after the mad man inventor of AC electricity for high power delivery (look that shit up here) not the car). Getting to the start of the pass took me along a road with a fenced-in house farm ala Edward Scissorhands style on my right and a barbed wire restricted government facility on my left- straight outta a Sci-Fi plotline. I had a few reservations about my chosen route, but at the moment, the risk of alien abduction seemed preferable to getting back on I-5 to I-205 to I-580 to I-680 to I-880 to SH-237.
I was right, it was preferable. Well, there was not an extraterrestial encounter, but there was a lonely blacktop surrounded by desert and mountain. Just what I love. Then, in the blink of an eye, I rounded a corner and ascended on a steady, terrain hugging climb that delivered me from the east side to the west side of the range before I descended into another valley of vineyards just outside of Livermore.
At this point, there was little point in avoiding the big slab as I headed into the Bay Area. I took a stretch and breather just after getting onto I-680 to verify that and the extra hour in the saddle didn’t seem worth it – at least that is what my tailbone told me. On entering the highway again, my glove stuck to my throttle while trying to merge ahead of a truck with a big ‘ol ‘MACK’ on it’s grill. I recovered quickly, but I am pretty sure that truck decided to keep it’s distance – thankfully because I had a short-lived vision of being smacked by that ‘MACK’ and crushed like a toy under it’s many wheels.
You’re wondering, after a thought like that enters my head, how do I still consider this cross country trip a good idea? Well, I’ve made lots of mistakes and am haunted by lots of awful experiences. I guess this is just another one even if it is an intentional and avoidable one. Dust off and get back at it.
Despite the big slab, the rest of the ride was uneventful. The pace kept moving with just enough traffic to flow but not so much to make it clausterphobic with indecisive speeds. By mid-morning the mad-hatter cocaine high must have worn off the other drivers or maybe it was just a calming feeling of a entering the home stretch and reaching the endpoint of my ride and, finally, that cup of coffee.
Whichever, the fear tiger got 185 miles more tame yesterday.
Happy cooking and cruising!
Look, my ride (to be named Artemis) found friends.