The Day I Almost Got Killed in Cleveland National Forest

View Heading South on Main Divide Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest

I’d gotten a little more than two years of motorcycling experience under my belt on two motorcycles: a Suzuki GZ250, which I got in ’08 to learn on (and still rode for “in town”), and a Yamaha Stratoliner, which I had no business riding but I couldn’t resist from the second I tried one at a rental place.

I’d done a series of camping trips, three overnighters, a four day trip to Death Valley and a Big One: nine days covering territory including Solvang, King’s Canyon, Berkeley, Bodega Bay, Russian River, Redwood Highway, Point Arenas, Sonoma Lake, Yosemite and more. On said trips, I stuck to the pavement. Partly because I’m newb and I don’t know how to ride on dirt. And partly because I’m a weakling and can’t pick up the Strat should I lay it down.

Two of my camping trips were to Desert National Parks: Joshua Tree and Death Valley. I had a great time on both (see related posts Joshua Tree and Death Valley Days) but both of these parks had a lot of dirt roads that were essentially off-limits for me. Even though I already probably had two motorcycles too many, it wasn’t long before I started thinking about a third.

When it comes to bikes, there are an unbelievable number of choices. There’s cruisers, tourers, sport bikes, touring sport bikes, super bikes, dirt bikes, racing bikes, dual-sport, adventure and many more sub-genres. One cylinder, two cylinder, four cylinder, 250cc, 1800cc, anything and everything and everything in between. American, Japanese, German, English, Austrian – bikes made all over the world are all sold here in the good old USA and, in particular, California, where we can ride them year round.

After reading a number of touring/adventure magazines, I narrowed my choices down to either a BMW of some variety (there’s a lot to choose from: F’s, G’s and R’s, GS’s and Adventures) or a KTM 990 Adventure. I ran into two guys on CA33 with a pair of KTM’s and they looked super cool and I’d been reading up on them -it seemed like a cool bike for, well, adventure!

Two days after I got back from Death Valley I decided, “It’s time to get serious.” As it happened, the KTM dealer was practically across the street from the local BMW dealer in Orange. I headed over that Monday morning for a look. The guy had one 990 on the floor, it was pumpkin orange, and it seemed like a hell of a bike. It also was lot more money than I thought – around 13K+ if I recall. Plus taxes, etc. A lot of bike but a lot of money. I looked at some of the other smaller (and cheaper) “strictly dirt” KTM’s, but they looked like something for the young and fearless, not the old and bored. I headed across the street to look at the old guy motorcycles at Irv Seaver BMW Motorcycles. They were closed. On a Monday. Perhaps this is standard, but it sort of pissed me off. If the KTM guy was open, and the Yamaha guy was open and the Honda guy was open, what’s the deal? I peered in through the window at the various F’s and G’s and R’s, but I was already mostly decided I wasn’t going to buy a pricey bike from a dealer that couldn’t be bothered to be open on a weekday.

Normally, I’m a bit of an impulse buyer. Once I get an idea that I want something, it’s usually a short while later it’s sitting in my garage. I really sort of expected to be riding a KTM Adventure home that day, but instead I slunk back to the Camry and headed home empty handed, so to speak.

I was concerned that, not really knowing whether I could ride on dirt, or if my body could handle it (I gave up riding “mountain bikes” on fire roads ten years earlier) whether I really wanted to drop $14,000 on something I might only ride once or twice before I crashed it and lost interest.

On Tuesday, I called the dealer where I bought my Strat and explained my situation. Naturally he had a lot of ideas and was sure he could find the perfect bike if I only came down right away. Which I did. And he did. He had KTM’s too, it turned out, but after he went over the plusses and minuses of the KTM he walked me over to a couple of Kawasaki’s and said, “I think this is the bike you should get.” There was a blue one and a red one – they had the high-travel dual-purpose suspension, the plasticky look, the semi-knobby tires. “This is the KLR650, one of the finest bikes ever made.” I’d heard of the KLR650. Read a lot of posts on the Internet singing their praises. I knew there was an intense rivalry with the Suzuki DR650 for best dual sport in that weight class, with the general consensus that the DR was a better crappy dirt bike and the KLR was a better crappy road bike. (When you go dual purpose, it’s a world of compromise.) Since I’m more of a roadie with only occasional dirt forays in mind, I’d probably be in the KLR camp.

Even better news: The two bikes were ’09’s and we were more than halfway through ’10. I could probably get at least a grand off the list and no bullshit fees. At the end of the day, the KLR was gonna cost me about a third of the KTM. Sold!

Due to some miscommunication and, perhaps my hurry, I rode it home later, in the pouring rain, on a high speed toll road (70mph) with no air in the tires. Both the bike and I survived, and I felt like, “Hey maybe I can ride one of these things.”

The next day, Wednesday, I rode it down to Silverado Canyon to the entrance to Cleveland National Park, down the three miles or so of the paved portion of Maple Springs Truck Trail and then, gingerly continued on… on the dirt! Yep, I was now officially a dirt rider.  And, truth be told, it was pretty gnarly dirt.  Wet, washed out, rutted, muddy, steep dirt.  I kept it in first or second and proceeded at an extremely poky pace up the side of the mountain.

Maple Springs Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest

I continued on, and as I climbed, the road got more rutted, wetter and steeper.  Just before a sharp bend that headed ever upward to a muddy, rutted hairpin, I parked my trusty plastic steed, ate a Power Bar and decided, I would not press my luck further on my inaugural run. 

Maple Springs Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest

I went out to Corona on Thursday to visit the ranger station, which for some reason is out in the middle of town, and not in the National Forest.  I talked with several of the Ranger Ladies there and loaded up on maps, and park road condition information.  Friday, I joined a group of hikers/park volunteers for a four or five miler from the Modjeska Canyon area. 

Saturday I mustered up my resolve, took a “last photo” of myself, and headed back to Maple Springs for a planned assault that would take me the full length of the forest, mostly on the appropriately named, “Main Divide Truck Trail.”

View Larger Map

I headed out late morning, up over the Peralta Hills and onto Santiago Canyon, one of the main motorcycle cruising routes in the area.  Passed through the little hamlet of Silverado, a former mining camp which traces its origins back to the late 19th century.  (Today it’s a mostly an artist colony with a couple fire stations, a general store, a restaurant and a library.)  About 3 miles further on you hit the small parking lot at the western entrance to the Cleveland National Forest, and at the opposite side, there begins the paved portion of Maple Spring Road. 

It was here where I nearly shuffled off this mortal coil.

I approached the trail head at a pretty slow speed.  I was still getting used to the bike, and I’m always super cautious in parking lots anyway.  Beyond the trailhead barrier, about a half dozen vehicles had pulled through the entrance and parked on either side of the paved trail, all pointing east into the park.   I was about 50 feet inside the park when one of said vehicles, a white pickup truck on my left, suddenly lurched out into the trail, directly cutting me off.  It happened so suddenly and was so accurately targetted, for a minute I thought it was premeditated. 

“This (effer) is trying to kill me!” I thought, standing on the brake pedal, crushing the brake lever and desperately trying to get to the right.  It was too late to avoid a collision, although the bulk of my contact was with the ground.  Had I been going two miles faster, or had he pulled out one second later, they would have been fishing my lifeless (but very smartly attired in the latest ATGATT) corpse out of the creek that runs off to the right side of the trail.

As it happened, the driver was not trying to kill me, or at least if he was, he quickly changed his mind when he missed.  He immediately got out of the truck, checked on my condition and apologized, taking full responsibility for the accident.

My bike was on the ground.  Barely 200 miles on the thing, all of four days old, and I’d already dropped it.  Mother… well, you know.  Despite the fact that I’d just escaped certain death, I still had enough presence of mind to think, “Well, now’s my chance to see if I can pick it up!”

I couldn’t.  Double motherf….!

My would be assassin helped me pick it up.  I assessed the damage.  Not too bad considering.  Tank was scratched, plastic panels were scratched,  luggage scuffed and scratched, throttle, mirror, brake lever, turn signals, the usual.  Any of you dumpers out there pretty much know the drill.  But nothing was broken, lights all worked, lenses intact, no dents.  It started up a little rough, but probably because you’re not supposed to store them laying down, even just for a few minutes.

I did not have the presence of mind to whip out my iPhone and take a picture of the accident scene, the guy, or his truck, or even write down his license plate number.  So, no real props to the old “presence of mind.”  Captain Hindsight did think of all of these things about a hlaf hour later, when the opportunity had long since past.  If he had handed me a bogus card with false information, I’d been SOL when I contacted the insurance company (fortunately, that was not the case.)

I wasn’t sure what I was going to do about the accident.  The guy that hit me was a real sweetheart and the reality was, I was probably going to dump the bike myself before too long, so he just saved me some time.  On the other hand, the thing was Brand Frigging New and, not being much of a mechanical type, I thought there could be hidden damage (cracked battery, leaky radiator, etc.) underneath the pretty blue (scratched) plastic.  Did I mention I had just bought the thing 4 days earlier? Four effing days. 

So I got his insurance info, calmed myself down, calmed him down, and then… continued my ride.  I thought about heading back home, but I figured, “What’re the odds I’m almost gonna die twice in the same day?” If I knew anything about probabilities I would have realized that the odds of biting it later on the trail were no different post-near-fatal-accident than pre, but I’m not real good with numbers either.  Plus, I figured now that the bike was dumped already, I had a free pass to dump it again, should such an occasion present itself.

Off I went, to the end of the pavement, onto the dirt and to the intersection of Maple Springs, Main Divide and Harding Truck Trails, deep in the heart of the Santa Ana Range, just north of Modjeska Peak.

Terminus of Maple Springs Truck Trail, View of Chino Hills, Cleveland National Forest

Among the many things I learned that day, in addition to It’s Hard For An Old Man to Climb Onto A Dual Sport and Dirt is Slippery, was: It’s Pretty Goddamn Easy to Get Lost On Dirt Roads In The Woods.  The thing is, dirt roads aren’t paved for a reason.  They aren’t there cause they’re expecting a lot of traffic. They’re really not there for your convenience, they’re there for People Who Know What (The Eff) They Are Doing.  People like firefighters, water district managers, park rangers.  People Who Know Where They Are Going.  I was not (yet) one of those people.

The first problem is, the difference between the Official Dirt Road and Some Unimportant Offshoot That Terminates At The Edge of a Cliff, is sort of loosey-goosey.  Yeah, some dudes in a four-by drove off Maple Springs to finish off a six or two, and then some other dudes, followed them, and then it became a tradition, and the path they wore pretty much looks just like Maple Springs… but that doesn’t mean it IS Maple Springs.  And if you go barrel-assing down that offshoot, your very last thought, as you are airborne plunging to certain death in the canyon below, is probably going to have a lot of curse words in it.

The second problem is, they aren’t real big on signs.  You might find one, but odds are you won’t.  So you have to proceed with caution and, whenever you are presented with a choice, it’s best to get off the bike and do some reconnaissance before you ease on down (the wrong) road.

At the top of Maple Springs, there is a complex intersection with no less than four paths one can take, all of which look substantially similar in appearance, condition and significance.  Three of which are wrong. One’s a dead end.  Maybe literally, if you’re having a bad day.  I spent a little time studying my map, walking around and, as luck would have it, ultimately made the right choice, North Main Divide, and headed up to Santiago Peak, the highest point in the park and the location of much communication-y stuff (I’m not really good with technology either.)

Important Radio Tower Thingies On Santiago Peak, Cleveland National Forest

Real Dirt Biker Who Probably Can Pick Up His Bike By Himself If He Dumps It









I met some other adventurers on the way to Santiago Peak.  A Vin Diesel look-alike that was letting his three year old daughter pilot his four-by Tahoe whilst sitting in his lap.  “Can we go to the top, Daddy?” “Whereever, you want, baby.”  And I thought I was a cool dad cause I got my kids a Wii. 

Chatted with a gentleman in full dirt battle rattle astride a Suzuki, who was somewhat surprised I’d made it as far as I had, and chuckled a bit when I told him I was planning on traveling the length of the interior before heading home.  “Anybody from home know you’re out here?”  Thank you, Mr. Confidence Inspirer!  A Power Bar and a Diet Dr. Pepper (I may suck on dirt, but I got an “A” in provisions) and I was on my way deeper into the heart of darkness.  Ok, it was broad daylight, but you get the idea.

From Santiago Peak to the paved road that circles the campgrounds off of route 74 (the infamous Ortega Highway of frequent motorcyclist fatality fame) it’s ten to twelve miles of some pretty gnarly terrain.  Rocks, sand, ruts, steep climbs, narrow cliff huggers, hairpin turns on cliff edges – it’s pretty much got it all.  I don’t think I ever got out of second gear for more than a few seconds, and spent a surprising amount of time in first.  It’s often pretty slow going.  I had one more existential “which path do I take” moment when I hit the fork of Main Divide and Indian Truck Trail.  My instincts badly wanted to take the left, but, because I have crappy instincts, I overrode them and went right, which fortunately, was the correct choice.

Intersection of Main Divide and Indian Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest

I’d like to say from there it was a “straight shot” to the 74, but it’s anything but.  The trail snakes back and forth, up and down between the various peaks, and you really have to pay close attention every inch of the way.  The good news is that around each bend are some stunning views, alternatively of the green, wooded forest interior, and the urban valleys that surround it.   I eventually made it to the campground loop road without further incident and then hightailed it east on Ortega to Antonio Parkway and home.

I did ultimately decide to file an insurance claim and to my surprise, the dealer to which I brought the bike estimated the damages at over $4500, which was about $400 less than what I’d paid for it brand new.  I was planning on pocketing the $4500 and just taking my chances with the scratched plastic, until the dealer contacted me to let me know, “Your bike is ready!”  Uh, what?  Who told you to fix it?  “Well, you did.”  “No, I didn’t.”  “Well, it’s fixed, and we have it ready and you need to come down and sign the claim check.” 

I contacted the insurance company, and explained the situation and, they not only agreed that I had every right to pocket the settlement, but also cancelled the check they had made out to the dealer and me, and issued me (only) a check for the full amount.  Now all I had to do was get my bike back.

I had a couple of uncomfortable chats with the GM of the dealership and the service manager and, because I get all three of my bikes serviced there and I hadn’t really expected to get a windfall out of the accident, we ended up splitting the check. 

So I didn’t die after all and ended up with a Really Good Deal on my dual sport.

View of Temescal Canyon, Monument Peak from Main Divide Truck Trail, Cleveland National Forest

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Death Valley Days

State Route 127 "The Lost Highway"

Although I’ve lived in California since 1983 and have been to many, if not most, of its natural attractions, for some reason I had never made it out to Death Valley.  I’d passed the signs for it on the 15 and the 395, I think I might have even made it to one of the entrances at one point, but for some reason (perhaps the name?) I never actually set foot in there.  

Until now. 

Having gotten a handful of bike/camping adventures under my belt (to Joshua Tree, Palomar Mountain,  King’s Canyon National Park, Yosemite National Park and Sonoma County), I felt like I was ready for something a little more challenging.  I’m not fond of crowds or crowded campsites, and, fortunately, am able to tolerate heat better than most, so I decided to go on the last day of September, before the “season” kicks off in mid October.  

I packed up Wednesday night and set out Thursday morning, heading towards Las Vegas.  Pulled into Baker, home of the Bun Boy, at about 2ish and hit the Denny’s for a late breakfast and then turned away from civilization, heading down the breathtakingly ominous “gateway” to Death Valley, California Route 127, aka Death Valley Road.  The Lost Highway of David Lynch’s Lost Highway. 

Speaking of Lost, I hadn’t really studied the map very carefully prior to setting out as there really didn’t seem to be many roads involved.  The directions to Death Valley from my house are essentially, “take the 15 to Baker, turn left on 127, take a left at the sign for Furnace Creek.”  That’s it. 

View Death Valley Days in a larger map

Except there’s two lefts.  One a little sooner than the correct one. About 30 miles sooner. It’s state route 178 which crosses 127 at Shoshone.  And, the way it’s signed, and the way it goes, you can sort of take either one.  So it was a little confusing.  I actually went about a mile down 178 before I had second thoughts and circled back.  I would have still ended up in Furnace Creek, but I would have had to navigate through some pretty gnarly terrain in the dark.  As it happens, I came back out that way as part of my travels anyway. 

The Famous Crowbar Cafe and Saloon - Shoshone, CA

About a half hour later I hit Death Valley Junction and headed into the park.  It was dark when I got there, but a little fumbling around and I located a campground with a ATM like reservation system.  I think it was eleven bucks out of season for a site.  I set up at the first empty spot, ate something and took in the stars.  You can see all kinds of stuff in the night sky out there because there is very little civilization and very little light. 

The next morning I heard something outside my tent. Looked out directly into the eyes of a coyote. Well, two, wait, three… four… five coyotes. Apparently they DO hunt in packs. The coyote looked back at me, with a sort of, “yeah, that’s right, what are you going to do about it” attitude. I’ll tell you what I’m going to do about it: I’m going to take a picture! 

One of five coyotes that came through my campsite early Thursday morning.

On the agenda for Thursday was a trip to Scotty’s Castle by way of Beatty, NV on CA 374.  On the way out I saw a sign for Rhyolite. 

Rhyolite Ghost Town Nevada

A very interesting place.  A mostly abandoned mining town, featuring ruins of a bank, casino, train spur, numerous art installations and… a house made out of bottles.  If you are in the area, it’s definitely worth the mile or so detour off the 374. 

Bottle House, Rhyolite, NV

After wandering around Rhyolite for a bit I headed into Beatty for some breakfast at the Ensenada Grill. The Ensenada has good food, fast service and cheap prices. A trifecta in my book.  

Ensenada Grill, Beatty NV

After a couple of eggs over easy, toast and coffee, I headed out of town, passing the Beatty Historical museum on the right… 

Beatty Historical Museum, Beatty NV

..and about two miles later, Angel’s Ladies Brothel on the left. 

Good news, they’re open 24/7 and the parking is free.  The “entertainment” runs $150 to $2000, or so I’m told.  Hey, it’s completely legal!  Google their website – sort of funny and sad at the same time. 

Angel's Ladies Brothel - Open 24-7 365 Days Beatty, NV

From there it was on to Scotty’s Castle.  Scotty’s Castle is just one more of the many crazy places with crazy stories that you find out in the desert.  Built literally in the middle of nowhere as a retreat for Albert Johnson, a wealthy Chicago business tycoon, it is named for a local con artist, Walter “Scotty” Scott who alternatively scammed and amused the millionaire.  Scotty passed himself off as the owner with the tacit approval of Mr. Johnson who preferred his anonymity.  The thing is truly a castle – its even got a moat/pool (long since dried up.)  Mrs. Johnson died in an auto accident in 1943 when Mr. Johnson took a curve at Towne Pass a little too fast on the way back to LA. After that, Mr. Johnson couldn’t bear the trip out to the place and he died himself about five years later.

The place fell into disrepair after the Gospel Foundation, to whom Mr. Johnson left the castle and the remainder of his fortune, could no longer afford to keep it up.  In 1970 it was purchased by the National Park Service and they conduct tours there year round.  Scotty died in 1954 and is buried high on a hill behind the property… next to his dog.  I swear I’m not making any of this up.  I walked a mile up a dirt road to see his grave.  He and the dog both have pretty impressive grave stones.  

Scotty's Castle

Scotty's Castle

I didn’t hang around for the tour, ate some of my camp foodstuffs out on the park-like front lawn and then headed back down CA 267, returning to the Furnace Creek Campsite.  The Furnace Creek Inn, a short one mile walk east, offers a shower pass for $5 that also gives you access to the pool.  (Took advantage of that every afternoon.)  After a nice shower and a dip in the pool, I headed up 190 a bit to the turnoff where they have the ruins of one the original Borax processing plants.  There’s not a lot left of it, but you can get the basic gist if you read the plaques and look at the pictures.  What they do have is a pretty well preserved specimen of the original Borax wagons and water tanks that were pulled by the Twenty Mule Team down to Barstow.

Water Tank and Borax Wagons of Twenty Mule Team Fame

Water Tank and Borax Wagons of Twenty Mule Team Fame

Friday morning I headed out early down Badwater Road to Badwater Basin.  This is the remainder of what was once a giant lake that filled most of the Valley.  All that’s left is a half acre of brackish water filled with very strange creatures and geologic structures.  They don’t want you to go in the water, but you can walk out onto the dried lake bed.  I got there relatively early in the morning and had the place to myself. 

Badwater Basin

From there, I continued down to the end of Badwater Road and headed east on Jubilee Pass Rd, also known as CA 178.  This was the road I almost entered the park from two days earlier.  I followed it out of the park in the opposite direction and had breakfast at the “Famous” Crowbar Cafe.  There’s a makeshift dinosaur museum next door, but the dinosaur could have been a steer for all I know. The cafe is nice and it had a piano which I played for a bit before I headed back up to Death Valley Junction. 

The Famous Crowbar Cafe and Saloon, Shoshone, CA

Near Death Valley junction is the Amargosa Opera House.  Did I mention there is a lot of crazy shit out in the desert?  Marta Becket, an actress (born in 1924) put together a one woman show and was on her way to a performance thereof in 1967 when she got a flat at Death Valley Junction.  She happened to breakdown next to an abandoned theater that was part of a mothballed company town.  She liked it, rented it and has been performing her show there ever since.  She painted murals on the walls to be her audience (cause, I guess, sometimes they are her only audience?) and she briefly stopped performing in ’09, but last I heard she’s still at it.  She’s got to be 87 or so.  Don’t believe it? You can look it up. It’s real.  Really nuts.

Amargosa Opera House, Death Valley

I was retracing my path a little from my trip out the first night, but I took a 12 mile detour from the park entrance road to ride up the twisty roller coaster-like access road to Dante’s View.  I suppose this is an allusion to The Inferno, and from Dante’s View you can see damn near all of Death Valley.  It’s a particularly spectacular vista.  When I got up there I struck up a conversation with a couple of old guys. One was on a big ass Yamaha (like me) and the other had a Goldwing the size of a mini-van.  The Honda was pulling a trailer.  They were touring camping, same as me.  One guy was 72, the other had just turned 74.  Told me they were gonna keep coming out there every year until their “wives wouldn’t let ’em.” 

72 and 74 at the top of Dante's View

From Dante’s I headed back down into the valley, had a bite to eat and then headed back down Badwater road to take in the Artists Drive and Palette.  This is a narrow, one-way loop carved along the mountain range and snakes its way up and down, in and out of the foothills.  Good riding, good views, great road.

Artists Drive and Palette

Saturday I broke camp, packed up my stuff and headed off for Stovepipe Wells. I thought there was going to be a nice restaurant or something there, but it’s basically one building and a gas station. Both were closed when I happened by.

Stovepipe Wells General Store

Shell Station, Country Store and Air Pump, Panamint Springs

I climbed back aboard and headed off to the west to Panamint Springs. Never saw much of anything in the way of food. Or gas, or provisions for that matter. Ended up dining at a Shell Station in Panamint Springs.

From there, it was a relatively straight shot back down through the Western part of Death Valley on Panamint Valley Road to Trona Road, past Trona (more weirdness.  A whole entire weird town.  So weird I was too freaked out to stop to take a picture.  Google it.  It’s weird.  Don’t move there.)  I took a shortcut over the hills to Red Mountain and from there connected to US 395, one of the main north/south state arteries.

Leaving Death Valley, Panamint Valley Road

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Joshua Tree NP and Palms to Pines Highway

A Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park is relatively close by. I’d been out there once before on a day trip, but this time I wanted to get in a couple of hikes/walks, stay overnight and test out some of my desert camping gear/abilities. I left at dawn Friday morning, heading opposite the commuter traffic on the 91 to the 10 freeway and hammered it until I got to CA 62, aka Twenty Nine Palms Highway. Stopped for gas and then set out to find the perfect campsite.

As is often the case with me, if things are not clearly marked, (sometimes even when they are) I follow my instincts, and, more often than not, they lead me astray. The first campground signs I encountered were for Black Rock Campground. I headed 4 miles up a somewhat decrepit access road (Campground Road!) to the campsite, found a closed Nature Center, and no signs of life except a couple of equally confused German tourists who had spent the night previously. Fortunately, Black Rock is still close enough to civilization that my iPhone had service, and some research on the Internet and a few calls later and I was back on  CA 62 for another 20 miles or so. Apparently Black Rock is an overflow site, it’s not really officially open in the summer, and, I’m not even sure it’s actually in the Park.

View Joshua Tree in a larger map

To add to my confusion, there are two northern entrances to the park. One is called The Joshua Tree Visitor Center. The other is also called the Joshua Tree Visitor Center (Oasis). So you can see it is easy to tell them apart.

North Entrance to Joshua Tree National Park

I just stopped at the first one and asked where I’d be able to get a campsite on a Friday with no reservation. Seeing as it was still technically summer and temperatures were over 100F, they gave me kind of a bemused look and said, “Wherever you want. There’s practically nobody out there.” Sounded good to me.

I decided on Jumbo Rock as it semed to have some hikes near it and it was one of the closer available.

Jumbo Rock Campground

I tooled around a bit,  picked out a shady-ish site near the entrance, but within minutes grew irritated at the comings, goings, shoutings, beer openings, gruntings and other annoyances emanating from a couple of camper/drinkers setup nearby.  So off I went to the extreme end of the thing, deciding #77 gave me my best chance of solitude, and took care of the eight bucks, the forms and the envelope drop. 

Campsite 77 Jumbo Rock Campground

It still being relatively early I decided to cruise on into town. Not being overly familiar with Twenty-Nine Palms, I wandered a ways down what seemed to be a superbly paved road through the desert until I found myself approaching The World’s Largest Guard Shack, which was surrounded by some scary signs… “No Unauthorized Vehicles”, “Visitors Must Show ID”, “No Photography” and “We Shoot Dumbass Motorcyle Campers on Sight.” Okay, I made that last one up, but that’s the sort of vibe I was getting. Apparently I had wandered onto the Marine Corps Air and Ground Base. I did a U-turn before the guard shack and hoped they didn’t pick me off as I headed back to Twenty-Nine Palms proper.

I’d like to tell you I discovered some amazing sites and hangouts in Twenty-Nine Palms, but most of the places I went by looked a little skeevy and not being from those parts, I went the safe route and ended up at McDonald’s.

“Oui Monsieur, le quartair poundair avec les pomme frites! Tres bien.” No, they did not speak French. I’m not sure they spoke English either. I didn’t care. It was air conditioned inside and I spent a long time sucking down one of those ridiculously large iced coffee shake drinks with the whipped cream and the chocolate sauce.

Afterwards, picked up some ice and food from a Valero mini-mart where a couple of toothless cougars checked out me and my bike. They thought it was a Harley and I didn’t argue. They thought I was an idiot and I didn’t argue that either. They they told me I’d probably get bit by a rattlesnake, “but it probably won’t kill ya!” They they both laughed real hard til they started coughing. I think one of them was about to hack up a lung when I pulled out and headed back to camp.

I was kind of sleepy when I returned and attempted a nap. It was probably 103 outside my tent. I don’t know how hot it was inside, but even laying down naked on ice it was too hot. I gave up and decided to go for a hike. Fortunately, there was a trail head pretty close by. Skull Rock. Black Rock, Jumbo Rock, and now Skull Rock. I was starting to see a pattern in the place naming convention.

To Skull Rock Trail

It was still kind of hot, but I had my trusty REI desert wear, my Teva “adventure” sandals, and a pretty awesome CamelBak type thing with ice water in it, so I was relatively comfortable as I set out. It was a modest 3 mile loop, dotted with little informative signs about Desert Stuff along the way.

Cotton in the Desert

I read the first one or two, but, really, who is that interested in the names of the scrawny underbrush?  I wanted to see the world famous Skull Rock!  (It reminded me of A Hardy Boy’s Adventure title… The Mystery at Skull Rock or somesuch.) 

For the next two miles I saw lots of big rocks that sort of resembled a skull.  I dutifully took pictures of them, somewhat disappointed in their appearance, but not wanting to have missed the photo op should it turn out, They were It.  Fortunately, They were not It.

About a mile and a half in, I came across what was most definitely the the Likely Specimen.  Not only did it kind of look like a skull, there were signs pointing to it from several directions clearly labeled “Skull Rock”, which removed any potentially lingering doubt.

Skull Rock

I hung out a bit, got some photos of me in the nose, me picking the nose, etc. and then headed off down the remainder of the trail. 

Got back to the campsite and cooked up a steak, baked potato and a couple ears of corn – good camping staples if you like to eat well and may be limited to an open fire.  As it happened, all the sites were equipped with brand new grills.  Clean as a whistle!  No water, of course.  Or flush toilets.  Or showers.  But still.  A nice clean grill is nothing to sneeze at.  My food attracted all manned of winged creatures, most significantly bees and wasps.   Apparently there’s not much water in the desert, so they swarm around anything that isn’t all dried out.  I put one of my eaten corn cobs at the opposite end of my pic-a-nic table and it was soon covered in sting-y thing-ys.  While I judicously chowed down on my filet mignon (again with the French!  Seriously, it was a filet mignon – they’re delicious…) a half dozen bees drowned themsleves after they discovered it’s a lot easier to crawl into a 12oz can of Diet Dr. Pepper than it is to crawl out.  I shall assume they at least perished with their thirst slaked, albeit calorie free.

I wrapped up my sumptuous repast, disposed of corn husks, entrapped bees and other detritus and soon it was nightfall.

Jumbo at Dusk

The next morning I got up as soon as the sun peeked over the horizon.  I planned on doing a 14 mile out and back hike at a southern point in the park and wanted to get to it before the temperature climbed too much.

Jumbo at Dawn

Packed up my stuff and headed down Pinto Basin Also Known As Eldorado Mine Road. Most of the roads in the Park have two or three names just to keep the navigation interesting. “You want to take The Loop” “Which Loop?” “Why, the Big Loop, of course!” Naturally.

Pinto Basin/El Dorado Mine Rd

The good news is that all of the roads are superbly paved and there’s practically nobody on ’em. Snaky sweepers that stretch out for miles on end, no stop signs, no traffic lights, nearly no cops. So of, course, one strictly obeys the posted 35 mile an hour limit. (Ahem.)

Ennyhoo, got down to Cottonwood Springs about 10:30ish, stopped at the Ranger Station, asked the two guys on duty about the relative foolhardiness of a man my age and condition hiking 7 miles out into the desert. “Others your age have made it… some haven’t. We’ve had to rescue a few, and occasionally things can go wrong out there…” I didn’t ask what that meant. The two dentally-challenged meth heads back at the Valero had already given me the news bulletin on the snakes.

“Park your bike where we can see it, and check in with us when you get back so we don’t have to go looking for you.” Well, there’s a vote of confidence! On to the Lost Palms Oasis!

Lost Palms Oasis "You Are Here"

As it happened, I was feeling relatively spry and, maybe because I was concerned about being out there during peak heat, I hustled along at a pretty good clip. The guys told me it would probably take about 4 hours or so to do the 14 miles, but I didn’t want to be out there past 2pm. There was also the matter of running out of water. I had my CamelBak thingy, and, it allegedly held the prescribed amount, but I was drinking it near constantly and there’s no gauge on the thing. When you’re out, you’re out. I didn’t want to find out how far I could hike in 107 degrees with no water.

About half way there I encounter what I dubbed “Baked Potato Rock” because, well… you’ll see…

Baked Potato Rock

Yep, kind of resembled one of my food groups from the night before.  Also ran into a lot of these poky things.  They might be Desert Sage, but I’m no naturalist. I can tell you that they are very sharp and will penetrate a boot (and from there, your epidermis…)

Might be Desert Sage, Might Not


Eventually I made it to the Promised Land, or rather, Loat Palm Oasis.  Had a quick bite, drank up some more of my precious water and high tailed it back to the ranger station.

Lost Palms Oasis

I’d made pretty good time, I was back before 1. No cold drinks back at Ranger Town, so I hopped on the Strat, headed out of the park, and went a couple miles east to a Chevron station that had a Foster’s Freeze inside. Downed a large Dr. P, a dog, and a few refills to rehydrate and then mapped out my route back to Anaheim.

Having still a good deal of daylight, I decided to hit the Palms to Pines highway, one of the most spectacular motorcycle roads anywhere, and see if I could handle the snaky CA243 turnoff, which I’d passed by once, but never actually rode. It looks scary right on the map. It’s so scary, Google refuses to save a map that includes that segment. (Try it!)

Sweepers, Palms to Pines Highway, CA 74, Palm Desert

Climbed up out of the desert valley into the hills and hung a left at Mountain Center heading up into Idyllwild. Stopped at a place called the Mile High Cafe. Had some sushi and played a little on their piano. Yes, they had sushi and yes they had a piano. I was surprised too!

She likes "Linus and Lucy"


There was a little girl there with her family and as luck would have it, the one song she requested, happened to be in my lifetime repertoire of about three (Linus and Lucy from “Peanuts.”)  For about 3 minutes I was a rock star.

After sushi, I headed back out onto CA243.  Awesome road.  Any one with two wheels that lives with in 400 miles of Banning needs to ride this road at least once.  As it happened, I got a job playing the piano at Mile High for Christmas and rode the bike out there a few times to practice and to perform.   There’s a nice view/rest stop called Indian Point about halfway between Idyllwild and Banning where you can look out over the entire LA Basin.  I stopped there to stretch my legs before I got back on the 10 and headed home.

Indian Vista Point CA 243 near Banning CA

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Motorcycle Camping Gear

Thermarest Pro-Lite Plus

I recently returned from a 9 day, 2000 mile motorcycle camping trip covering the middle two thirds of California. A good deal of the fun in planning an adventure of this sort is the acquisition of all the toys… I mean gear that you want to (play with) on your trip.

For me, it’s often more fun than the adventure itself!  

Part of the sense of discovery is not only finding the amazing, snaky, hairpin mountain crossing, but also seeing if the Jetboil Flash Cooking system really can boil water in under two minutes, if your Mountain Hardware UltraLamina sleeping bag actually will keep you warm in sub zero temps and if that Space Pen really can write on Mars. Upside down. Under water. 

I’m happy to report being pretty satisfied with my planning and and the performance of the gear I ended up selecting for this trip. Prior to setting out, I did a couple “dry-run” overnighters (you can read about them in First Motorcycle Camping Trip)

Before setting out on my first trip, I read a number of motorcycle camping books, consulted with my expert daughter (she’s somewhat of a backpacking expert having taken actual college courses in it!) and cruised the aisles of my local REI store. One of my buddies strongly recommended a Thermarest air mattress to improve my chances of getting in my beauty rest on the ground. (The Prolite Plus is what I got and it was unbelievably comfortable for such a thin and light piece of equipment.)

I did bring some things that I didn’t use. Rope, for instance. And my Jetboil frying pan. But I ended up using nearly everything else at least once.

There were a few questionable items that could maybe have been scratched to save weight and space, among them my Kermit chair, the aforementioned JetBoil Flash Cooking System and my swim trunks. – but when I had a use for them, they came in handy and performed well.

It’s hard to plan for everything. Camping in a National Park can be very different from camping at an RV park.

Here are a few items that really performed well for me:

1) Thermarest Prolite Plus sleeping pad. Awesome. (see photo above, it’s about the size of a small watermelon.)

REI Half Dome 2 Plus Tent

2) REI Half Dome 2 Plus tent. Up in 5 minutes, down and packed in 10. Amazingly clever design. Packs down really small, bungee’d it under my sissy rack along with the Kermit chair. Very lightweight but held up well in wind. One drawback I had was getting it staked down where the ground was hard. I packed a half dozen Really Large Nails as backup to the stakes.

3) Mountain Hardware Ultra Lamina 32 sleeping bag. Light, warm, a little too short – go for the long if you get one and you are over 5’10”.

Scorpion Exo VenTech Mesh Jacket

5) Scorpion Exo VenTech mesh jacket. Fantastic. Good for hot, not so bad (with liner in) for normal temps. Add TourMaster Sentinel Rain Jacket for outer shell, add or subtract underlayers as needed and you can handle anything. I use the Scorpion nearly year round, my ICON Motorhead leather jacket mostly hangs in my closet. (note, the Motorhead provides better protection, but it probably weighs twice as much and is a lot hotter on hot days.)

6) Lowa Renegade GTX Hiking Boots. Good for riding, good for hiking. Kills two birds with one shoe. I didn’t want to pack a pair of riding boots and hiking boots, and these were the perfect combination. Not too heavy for hiking, but substantial enough for highway riding. Come up above the ankle. Waterproof. Very comfortable right out of the box – virtually no break-in.

7) Teva sandals – good for everything else, even easy to moderate hiking, especially in rivers/wading. The Lowas and the Tevas were my sole (get it?) footwear for the nine days.

8 ) Ex Officio polypropylene underwear or whatever it is made out of. What do they say? “17 countries. 6 weeks. One pair of underwear. Okay, maybe two.” It’s true. I have five pair. What can I say, I’m an ex-Boy Scout. Boxer briefs if you must know. Can’t commit to anything.

9) REI Sahara convertible pants Yes, somewhat dorky, but they work as advertised.

Riding buddy Dan Martin strikes a pose next to my T-bag mounted on my Yamaha Stratoliner

10) Super T with Top Roll and Net from T-bag Super T. Easy on, easy off, holds an S-load of stuff, rock solid at 90mph plus a 30mph headwind. Occasional 60 mph side gusts no prob. Lots of straps to hold other stuff if so inclined. Optional Roll Top add-on for two up campers. I took the Roll Top on my Dry Run, but found with more judicious packing, I didn’t need it. When motorcycle camping, less is almost always more.

Asparagus in the JetBoil

11) Starbucks Via instant coffee. Had the JetBoil coffee press – but this is way easier and tastes nearly the same.

Surefire Saint Minimus Headlamp

12) SureFire Saint Minimus LED Headlamp. Pricey, but really increases your options once it gets dark.

Surefire 6P

13) Surefire 6P LED Flashlight. You could find your keys in deep grass on the Dark Side Of the Moon with this baby. (BTW, the batteries they came with lasted the entire week and are still going strong.)

The REI Picnic Cooler fits nicely on the pillion...

14) REI Picnic Cooler. Big enough to hold a bag of ice, an eight-pack, a steak and kitchen stuff. Small enough to sit on the pillion seat. Kept my Diet Doctor Pepper and Red Bulls icey cold in all-day 100 degree plus desert riding.

Black Kermit chair

15) Kermit chair. This one is iffy. If you want to sit next to your fire, you want this chair. If you don’t have a fire or don’t care to sit near it, it’s a big packing price to pay. It is small, lightweight, well made and assembles and disassembles in under 2 mins. But it is the third largest piece of gear after my tent and cooler.

16) REI Quick dry towels. Small one as a washcloth, bigger one to dry off. Stay clean, dry quick and don’t get mildewy if packed damp.

TOOB Travel Toothbrush

17) Toob Travel toothbrush. Nothing special, but compact, stores your own brand of toothpaste in the handle, good size.

Fully Packed in Redwood National Forest

I took and used a lot of other stuff, including a nifty camping knife, a small hatchet, leather gloves, water bottles, a waist pack, hiking shirts, camp shirts, rain gear, etc. but those are all pretty standard. The stuff in the list made me forget I was living outside for 9 days.

Camp gear has come along way since I was a Boy Scout (Think leaky canvas tents that weighed 1000 pounds and set up with 2 by 2’s… and Spam.)

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Motorcycle Camping Lessons Learned

The Open Road

I recently returned from a 9 day, 2000 mile ride crisscrossing central and northern  California.

Although I am only a recent convert to motorcycle camping I’ve “roughed it” before. When I was a kid, I was in the Boy Scouts and earned all the major merit badges.  More recently, I’ve done many weekend and weeklong camping trips with my kids. I’ve done solo backwoods hiking in Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Tetons, Rocky, etc. I have also done a few weeklong (and a couple of months-long) RV trips, which, are more akin to driving than camping, but uses a lot of the same natural resources.

Nonetheless, venturing out with just two wheels and all the crap you can pack on therewith is a somewhat different animal.  I did a couple of short test runs to iron out the major gear wrinkles, but the 9 days gave me an better opportunity to learn some overall “do’s and don’ts.” 

1) Develop and practice a consistent technique for riding twisties. Approach, throttle control, etc.
2) At campsites, eat stuff that doesn’t require dishes, pots, pans, utensils (or cleanup.)
3) Gas up at a half tank in the Boonies. Trust me.
4) Avoid riding on Fridays, especially Friday afternoon and evening.
5) Keep your “layers” in a handy spot (top of saddlebag is good.)
6) Adventure riding is pointless, but if you go places you’ve never been and ride challenging roads, it is more interesting.
7) Riding is not the same as driving.  Your mileage may vary.
8 ) 30 miles of twisty = 90 miles of highway.
9) Plan 2-4 “sessions” of riding per day with breaks/meals.non-riding diversions in between. Don’t ride all day. Pick interesting roads for “sessions”.
10) Some days are mostly fun days, some days are mostly “getting there” days. Try to maximize the first.
11) If you really hammer you can do 600 miles in one day. Don’t plan on doing it more than once if you are over 50.
12) Tires are expensive and they don’t last long.
13) Always check that your saddlebags are really closed.
14) Key in ignition, then jacket, then earplugs, then gator, then helmet, then glasses, then gloves.
15) Don’t read books about mass murderers loose in the National Park at night in your tent in the middle of nowhere.
16) Bears are cute, and can run very fast.
17) Eat where the locals eat, but don’t piss them off. The food and service is better and cheaper. Tip well.
18) Park your bike where you can see it.
19) Look for places where you can recharge your phone. Turn your phone off – (not on standby) when not in use.
20) Riding is more fun than camping. Plan accordingly.

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No Zen, No Maintenance, No Art – Just Motorcycling


The "Big One" California Motorcycle Camping Trip

Recently returned from a 9-day semi-planned motorcycle/camping trip.  I’ll be filling this post in with photos and details as time permits, but I wanted to get some of the details recorded before my memory fades.  The route pictured above is a general approximation of my itinerary – the software used will only accept 25 stops, so some abbreviations were made.  

I’m not a huge fan of camping and riding for hours on end on a superslab is not my idea of a fun time.  

So, the question arises, “Why bother?”  

It’s a fair question, and one that anyone contemplating a trip like this should ask before they set out.  

To be honest, in my case, I didn’t think about it too much. My inspiration was actually the opening of the movie Resident Evil 3 where you see Milla Jovovich cruising around the Mojave on a BMW tourer, looking for survivors and dispatching zombies with a variety of firearms.  I thought, “That looks like fun!  Let’s see, all I need is a motorcycle, a couple of .45s, a Mossberg Compact Cruiser and… a tent.” 

Fast forward a few years and I have the bike and the tent, but I never found a pair of thigh holsters or a shotgun scabbard I was comfy with.  No matter, I think zombies are out of season this time of year anyway. 

I’m happy to report that despite having nearly no idea of what I was getting into, I managed to enjoy both the journey and many of the destinations.  With the aid of Clement Salvadori’s Motorcycle Journeys Through California and Baja I was able to locate some of the world’s most exhilarating motorcycle roads.   

Here are ten of them that I remember in the order of awesomeness:  

Uphill Hairpin on narrow trail - 5MPH!

1) Armstrong Woods – about 6 feet wide with impossible grade hairpins, loose gravel and eventually dirt. After I completed this one without dumping, I declared myself a newb no longer.  

Stewarts Point Road - Winding, Narrow, Not recommended... Fun!

2) Stewarts Point Road. Runs from the Coast to Healdsburg. 47 miles of twisty, sometimes super twisty, only saw 4 cars, none in my direction. Lake Sonoma towards the civilized end. 

Mountain View - Seconds before a Lifted Truck rounded the bend and missed me by inches!

3) Joy Road, Mountain View Road, River Road, Bodega Highway – all in Sonoma County. Joy was well named – like Space Mountain on a motorcycle. Almost got killed taking a picture on Mountain View when a guy rounded a hairpin and barely missed me. No more pictures on that road. 

Ozena Station, Los Padres National Park

4) California 33 through lower Los Padres. Super twisty, steep, etc,  

The Rock Store - Iconic Motorcyclist Hangout, Malibu, CA.

5) Kanan Dume and Mulholland, Malibu. 

Route 180 to Road's End, King's Canyon National Forest

6) Route 180 to “Road’s End” in Kings Canyon National Park. Stunning. Twisty. Gorgeous. 

Tioga Pass - Yosemite National Park

7) Route 120 over Tioga Pass (Yosemite National Park)

Route 128 (Redwood Highway)

8 ) Route 128 from Cloverdale to Albion (Redwood highway). Passes through Booneville and Philo.

Highway 1, outside of Elk, CA

9) California 1 – still hard to beat, especially above San Fran.
10) Rte 395 – Not a nice road but hotter than hell and windy as hell and if it doesn’t kill you will make you stronger (and sore.)

Other than King’s Canyon, at which I had planned to camp with my riding buddy, Dan Martin (he ultimately was only able to ride out with me on the first day due to work complications), I hadn’t really mapped out any destinations beforehand.   I settled for a few places I wouldn’t exactly call vacation slide worthy (Flying Flags RV Park in Buellton, Casa De Fruta in Hollister) but I also had some great improvisational finds.  Here’s a few:

Campsite #1, Paul Dimmock Campground, Redwood Highway, CA

1) Paul Dimmick Campground, Redwood Highway.  Just happened to be driving past this place.  It seemed familiar – might have been here before on an RV trip.  Pretty much abandoned Thursday, although many people had left stuff to secure a site for the weekend.  Small creek running through the back of the campsite.  One drawback was Rt 128 truck traffic going past but this dropped off considerably after dark. 

Canoers On Russian River, Guerneville, CA

2) Guerneville, CA on the Russian River.  Watched the canoers go by from my campsite.  A really great area if you are looking to escape suburbia but still want to eat in a nice restaurant.

St. Teresa's, Bodega, CA - Featured in "The Birds"

3) Bodega Bay and Bodega.  This area is one of the most picturesque and laid back areas I have ever seen.  When I came through town there were dozens of artists with easels set up everywhere, each painting some aspect of Bodega.  Very authentically beautiful and seemingly immune from the franchisification of America.  Liked it so much I went back again in September!

General Grant Tree, Grants Grove, King's Canyon National Park

4) Grant’s Grove, King’s Canyon National Park.  There’s a short circular hike through the grove I had all to myself early Tuesday morning.  One of the largest Seqouias, biggest stump, Tree As Mess Hall, early logging cabins.  Stunning views of gigantic trees and some great on-the-ground history.

King's River, King's Canyon National Park

5) King’s River, Cedar Grove, King’s Canyon National Park.   Rode down from Grant’s Grove in the early morning.  Managed to catch the sun peeking over a hilltop.  The water is crystal clear and was moving at a pretty good clip.  Did a seven and a half mile loop in from here where I encountered a firelady (watching an in progress inferno on the mountain opposite) and my first backcountry bear (smallish, cute, fast.)

Sonoma Lake, CA

6) Sonoma Lake.  This is at the terminus of an exhilarating ride in from the Pacific Coast over (mostly) Stewart’s Point Road.  It was pretty damn hot there, I took advantage of a nicely situated rest area/vista point to reassemble my wits and plan my next stop.

Half Dome, Yosemite National Park

7) Half Dome, Yosemite.  Not much I can add to what has already been written about Yosemite.  This is a view from Olmsted Point on the eastern side of Tioga Pass (CA 120.) 

Point Arenas Lighthouse, Point Arenas, CA

8) Point Arenas.  I rode out to the lighthouse.  If I remember correctly, this is the western most point in the continental United States.  There are signs that said something to the effect, “Next stop, Honolulu.”  As with many of my side adventures, I was alone on the access road and the sole visitor to the lighthouse that morning.

Inyo National Forest, Lee Vining, CA

9) Inyo National Forest – this is at the Eastern gate to Yosemite.  As you can see, some very nice views and a superb road to enjoy them from.

Healdsburg, CA

10) Healdsburg – touristy, yes, but not too touristy.  In the middle of Sonoma Wine Country and an excellent hub for many super-scenic rides.

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First Motorcycle Camping Trip: Los Padres and Mount Palomar

I’ve been riding my motorcycles for about two years now, the bigger one for 18 months. I originally got re-inspired to get on two wheels after seeing Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil 3, wandering around the Mojave on a BMW K1200R with no particular place to go, aiding survivors and dispatching zombies with equal aplomb.

The movie was released in 2007. I got my first bike in 2008 (not a BMW, sadly.) In August 2009 I did my first overnight trip: a 770 mile two and a half-day affair from Anaheim to Salinas by way of CA 1. I stayed at cheapish hotels in Camarillo and Salinas and packed little more than a change of clothes and a handful of Power Bars. Although the ride up the coast was pretty scenic, the trip became mostly about “getting there”, and once there… “getting back.”

Six hours of hammering on US101 and Interstate 5 is actually not that much fun. I wondered if I was really that interested in bike touring after all. 

Pacific Ocean View from Ragged Point

I thought perhaps the appeal of the Resident Evil fantasy lay in the fact that Alice (Milla) had no particular destination and probably was not paying for lodging. Cheap as the hotels were that I hit on my tour, they were still in the neighborhood of $100 a night. A week or two of that and you are talking serious money for a frivolous distraction. 

So I looked into motorcycle camping. I’ve done car camping, RV camping, even Boy Scout camping and, to a great extent, had decided that camping was no longer fun. I’m not completely tethered to the grid. I enjoy a nice walk in the woods. And it can be fun playing with camping gadgets, especially ones that allow you to be a sort of Outdoor James Bond. But, schlepping all your stuff from place to place, doing without modern plumbing and sleeping on the ground, well, that all pretty much fits my definition of Things That Suck.

On top of that, I generally loathe other “campers.” Campgrounds are often set up so you are right on top of your neighbor, and your neighbor is often communing with nature whilst playing his favorite shitty music at full blast while he sucks down a couple of cases with a dozen other asshats around the fire.

So over the years, my level of enthusiasm for subjecting myself to the Great Outdoors has been dampened considerably. 

Nonethless, I figured I’d give it one more try. Maybe I could get to places on the bike that weren’t crowded. Maybe I could even camp where there were no “places.” (Yeah, right!) And, of course I’d have to update all of my gear to the most lightweight, compact and ultra high tech stuff available.

That part alone was enough to close the deal. 

So I set about inventorying my existing camping crap (I had accumulated several storage racks worth over the years) and evaluating its suitability for motorcycle camping.  WalMart Dome tent, flannel sleeping bag, Coleman propane stove…  After a few minutes of careful analysis, I decided I’d have to replace everything but my Gerber knife.

A few visits to and I was ready to re aquaint myself with nylon based housing and ultra thin inflatable mattresses.  I’ve detailed some of my gear elsewhere ( but to summarize:

I bought A Whole Lot of Cool Stuff For A Lot More Than I Planned On Spending. 

I also acquired a fancy “Super-T” motorcycle travel bag with a Roll-Top option from T-bags to carry it all in.  

Now I needed to try it out. 

I’d read a few motorcycle camping books, notably Lightweight Camping for Motorcycle Travel by Frazier Douglas and Motorcycle Camping Made Easy by Bob Woofter, and they, along with other touring experts, advised doing a couple overnight loops that begin and end at one’s house, with a night under the stars in between, to see if one (and one’s equipment) is up for it. 

I decided I’d link two of these trips together, with my own bed in between, for a three night, four day trial run. 

As it happened, my daughter was living in Santa Maria for the summer, working for the Pacific Conservatory for the Performing Arts (PCPA).  They were in the midst of a run of West Side Story at the Solvang PCPA Theaterfest venue.  I figured I could camp somewhere in the vicinity and pop over that night to catch the show.  Karen recommended the Santa Ynez recreation area in the Los Padres National Forest.  For my second destination, I picked Doane Valley Campground, rated one of the Ten Best Campgrounds in California, and about 150 miles from my house in the opposite direction from Los Padres. 

View LosPadresPalomar in a larger map

I packed up all of my stuff and loaded it on my bike and headed out extra early on Friday morning so as to beat the weekend crowds to the campground. 

Packing Config Closeup

I arrived at about 10:30 at the Lower Santa Ynez, confident that my early departure had put me in a good position to snag a primo spot to pitch my tent.  My assurance faded a bit as I passed campground after campground with “Full”, “Completely Full” and “Don’t Even THINK About Camping Here” signs prominently displayed at their entrances.  I eventually came upon a ranger station and thought, “Well, time to play the money card.”  I figured the Park Service is always up for a little extra cash and, if properly invested, I should be able to buy my way onto a little piece of paradise, ideally one that was equipped with flush toilets. 

The lone Ranger (well, there was just the one!) initially was pretty optimistic about my chances, it being all of 11am by that point, but after several calls, radio hailings and other manner of rustic communication, she told me that it appeared that every single campsite in the entire region was occupied and I was SOL.  I was about to head out to Solvang and look for a hotel when she went on, “Yeah, all we have left is one group campsite at Sage Flats.” 

Group Camp Site?  Do tell… “Well, you don’t want that, it’s 90 bucks for one thing.”  “I’ll decide if I want it… how big does the group have to be?”  “There’s a maximum of 25 people, but I don’t think there’s any minimum.”  Say hello to My Leetle Group of One.  

Sage Hill Group Campground, Lower Santa Ynez Recreation Area

I had to head over there right away as it was a first come, first serve sort of deal, and fork my $90 over to “Billy”, the ancient but spry, camp host.  I saddled up and motored across a shallow Santa Ynez, and met up with the camp caretaker at the gate.   My site at Sage Hill had spots for at least six or seven camps, its own circular drive with its own access gate and parking lot and, yes, Sweet Jesus, flush toilets!  I had inadvertently discovered the secret to douchebag-free camping:  Rent the entire effing campground! 

Billy questioned my sanity when I explained I was renting the entire group site for myself.  I told him I’d just “spent about $2500 on this crap” and I was damned if I didn’t get to play with some of it this weekend. He got a little concerned as he thought I said,  “$2500 on this crack“… which I suppose, could also have served as a good explanation.

I set up my stuff, had a snack and then looked into the local hiking possibilities. 

As luck would have it, about five minutes from my site was Aliso Canyon Trail, a nice 4.5 loop with a moderate climb, offering great views of the surrounding area.  Off I went in my REI safari outfit, loaded with a propylene bladder of water, energy bars and my cell phone.  The climb up was a tad strenuous but I took it slow and managed to hit the summit without provoking a stroke or being attacked by my heart. 

View of the Santa Ynez River from Aliso Canyon Trail

I rounded the top of the loop headed back down into camp and then set off for Solvang to rendezvous with Karen for dinner and some vintage American musical theater.

For those of you that have never been,  Solvang is sort of an odd town.  It traces its history back to its nineteenth century founding as an enclave of enterprising Danish immigrants.  Originally, the village looked no different than any of the others that dotted the Santa Ynez Valley, but in 1947, after a visit back home, Federic Sorensen constructed the first of what would eventually be 4 windmills, in the Danish Colonial style.  After a feature in the Saturday Evening Post gushed over the enticements of the “The Danish Capital of America”, tourists began to flock to the town to help celebrate “Danish Days”, soak up the imported culture and sample the delights of the local bakeries. (These folks did invent the Danish, after all.)   Local architect Earl Petersen got behind the the stylized look, designing many new buildings and remodeling the originals to look like old Denmark.  Streets were renamed, Hans Christian Andersen park installed and the whole town was transformed into a living diorama of nineteeth century Denmark.

Solvang "Windmill"

Mr. Petersen became very active in boosting the town’s development as a tourist destination and, among many of his contributions, was a driving force behind the establishment of the PCPA Theaterfest, an outdoor theatre installation near the center of town.  Every summer they feature a selection of musical and dramatic pieces produced and performed by the staff, students and actors associated with the Pacific Conservatory, located up 30 miles up the 101 in Santa Maria.

Home of PCPA Theaterfest









I met up with Karen at about 5pm, we had a nice meal in town and then they headed off to do the pre-show preparation for West Side Story. An hour or so later it was curtain time and I sat back and listened to the familiar Sondheim score and was reminded of the unusual choreography.

Just before West Side Story









I stayed for the first act, but by intermission, it was cold, dark and foggy and I decided to head back to Sage Hill before Maria got the bad news about Bernardo.

The next morning Karen drove down and we went swimming in the Santa Ynez – it’s a very slow moving “river” and quite pleasant to cool off in.  We hiked upstream to a pool-like area about 2 miles east of my campsite and spent about an hour relaxing before headed back and broke camp.

Swimming in the Santa Ynez

The road out of the campsite actually goes under the Santa Ynez. I don’t mean as in a tunnel, I mean, the road is there and and water just flows right over the top of it.  There’s a lot of algae and it’s quite slippery.  Plus there is a steep hill you have to climb on the opposite side.  All in all, sort of a dicey situation considering I’m a relative newb riding a 850 pound motorcycle packed with probably another 50 pounds of crap.  But I made it over to the other side without incident.

The Santa Ynez flows over the Sage Hill Access Road







We headed south on the CA 154 a few miles to a cutoff that took me down Stagecoach Road – a pretty snaky, built- for-motorcyclists deal, to Cold Springs Tavern.  In addition to offering cold drinks and hot food, the Tavern was apparently a longtime biker hangout.  I parked my Yamaha next to an assortment of other Japanese, American and German hardware and went inside for an obscenely portioned Buffalo Burger, Extremely Large Fries and a Coke. 

Got to fuel up more than just the motorcycle, don’t you know.

The Cold Spring Tavern

After lunch I headed back home and spent the night enjoying the comforts of The Great Indoors.  Air conditioning, internet access, showers… you know, that sort of thing.  Early the next morning I headed out to locate Doane Valley Campground.  My directions called for a sprint out to US15 and then after about an hour southbound, a left turn on CA76.   About 30 miles or so down CA76 I saw a sign for the campground pointing to the left and I headed up.

The road was typical of California mountain access, lots of switchbacks, tight curves strung together and a 35 mile an hour speed limit on the curves. About two minutes in, I was passed at considerably more than 35 mph by a guy in full racing battle rattle.  Judging by the way his knee grazed the asphalt, I’d say he was doing 90 easily.  A few seconds, later another brightly colored blur of plastic flashed by, and I started to think, “maybe I should go a little faster?”  “Nah,  not with all this crap.”

I rounded a corner and saw a phalanx of photographers.  The professional looking kind, with Big Ass Telephoto Lenses and Various Sized Tripods. 

They all took my picture. 

“Hey that’s nice,” I thought, until I saw them collectively frown, shrug and, if my instincts serve me, unceremoniously delete my lumbering digital image.  Apparently I had stumbled upon Moto Photo Shoot Weekend at Really Curvy Road. 

As it turns out, there were about seventy curves in seven miles to the top of what I later found out was the infamous “South Grade Road” or more officially S6.  It took me close to a half hour to do the climb to the top.  The guys on the sport bikes were doing it in about five minutes and going up and down all day.

Top of South Grade (S6)

At the top is the Mt. Palomar General Store.  They have food, camping supplies and a whole lot of bikers hanging out in the parking lot.

Palomar Mountain General Store

Vintage Bikes at General Store

The Doane campground is actually located in Palomar Mountain State Park, the gateway to which was about 3 miles down S7. I had to retrieve my bike registration to complete my camp reservation, as I had so much crap piled on the bike, my license plate was not visible.

“How long you staying?” “Just tonight.” “And you need all that?” “Eff you!” (I said that last bit with my inside voice.)

I was there early (10ish) and checkout wasn’t until noon. I pulled into a parking lot, changed out of my tour stuff and did a two mile or so hike up the Doane Valley Nature Trail.  By the time I finished it was close enough to noon to go check out my property.

Doane Valley Nature Trail

I had site 25, an excellent site if I might say so myself, and better yet, the occupants of site 26 were leaving early, even though they had it reserved for Sunday night. Score! Two campsites for the price of one, and no neighbors.

I put some of my less valuable junk on the site 26 picnic table to discourage any would be squatters.

Site 25, Doane Valley Campground

Unpacked, set up camp and ate lunch. Used my handy Jetboil Frying pan to heat up a No Refrigeration needed Tuna Steak. It looked a lot better on the package than it tasted.

Tuna Steak

After lunch, I squared away my stuff and headed off in search of another hike.

This time I tackled French Valley Trail, another two mile loop out to French Creek and back by way of Lower Doane. Not sure of the history but it’s a very nice walk in the woods with only a handful of other hikers passing by.

Trail Marker Palomar Mountain State Park

French Valley Trail

After the hike I took some time to wander around the campground a bit.  There was a nice shower and bathroom setup and the camp host had firewood for sale, a bundle or two of which I availed myself.  After sufficient exploration I settled down to preparing and eating my dinner.

Camp Dinner

The next morning I set out early, heading further east on S7 in the direction of Lake Henshaw. I stopped a couple times to snap some photos of the spectacular views from the roadside. My final stop was at an overlook of Lake Henshaw, afterwards which I turned back westward, heading back up CA76 to US15 and Anaheim Hills.

View of Cleveland National Forest From State Park Road S7

Panorama of Cleveland National Forest CA76Lake Henshaw

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My Summer of Hair

Original Hair Producer Michael Butler with Chance cast, band and crew

In the past I have droned on about various out-of-living-room musical experiences at The Chance Theater and, in an homage to beaten dead horses everywhere, this year’s Christmas post shall be more of the same. My grand adventure this summer had its roots in an eccentric and self-indulgent party I threw for myself last year. Having a house full of instruments and no one to play with, I decided to put propriety and dignity aside and for one afternoon hire a houseful of people to pose as my friends and spontaneously decide to engage in a sort of Actual Rock Band jam.

Although the ick factor of such an arrangement would seem to be so high as to be insurmountable, it actually worked out about as well as I had hoped. The Chance music director was happy to rediscover his joy of bass playing, a longtime company member re-lived some of his high school glory days astride my Roland e-drums and all of the aspiring front men and women got a chance to belt out their favorite tunes.

Fast forward to this spring: The Chance gets the regional rights to Hair: The American Tribal Love Rock Musical, which by itself is A Big Deal, but is made even bigger when the producers decide to revive it on Broadway as well. Bill Strongin, the aforementioned music director, has to assemble an ensemble at minimal cost. Typically, Bill plays piano by himself, which keeps the budget low, but, for Hair, a tinny spinet was probably not going to be up to the task. So Bill suggested we sort of “get the band back together” from the previous summer.

My first reaction was “Are you insane?” I had volunteered as a backup-backup rehearsal pianist for some shows previously and they had been very difficult experiences for all involved. It’s one thing to plink away in your living room, at whatever tempo feels comfy, stopping and starting at will, skipping the difficult passages. It’s a whole other thing to have to hang with professional singer/dancers/choreographers, in a dimly lit theater, with a barely scrutable heavily marked up score. Bottom line, I had been there, and knew I couldn’t do it. Plus I have a job that often requires me to be out of town during the week.

But the lure of having some people to play with was pretty tempting. With the poopy economy, my business travel had been sharply curtailed. And, given the funds available, it was quite possible if I didn’t want to play, that Bill would have to go with Plan B: playing the spinet by himself.

I told Bill I’d give it a try as long as he agreed to certain conditions. I had to be able to miss any performances where I had a business travel conflict. We had to rehearse as much as possible before the shows. And, if I sucked, he had to fire me. Bill was fine with that.

I got the score sometime in April. To my chagrin, there were over 50 songs! Some of them weren’t very long, but I was pretty sure at this point that I was doomed. I once spent an entire year learning three Christmas songs and I was pretty shaky on those come go time. This was FIFTY SONGS and the show was opening July 15th.

Having no better plan, I set about learning the score as best I could. I divided the pieces up into “Easy”, “Tricky”, “Ugh!” and “Forget about it…” There were three or four easy ones, I knocked out the first day. For the rest, I had my work cut out for me.

I practiced 5 hours or more every day during the week and even more on the weekends. When I wasn’t practicing, I’d go for a walk around the reservoir and listen to the London cast recording. I’d like to describe some sort of “Rocky” montage that starts with me hopelessly overwhelmed, and then, perhaps after downing a dozen raw eggs, ends with me doing the musical equivalent of the Stallone happy dance at the top of the Philadelphia Library steps. Unfortunately, real life is not like the movies. In eight weeks, I made some decent progress on some, less on others, and none at all on quite a few. I was pretty sure I was going to be canned at the first band rehearsal, and, to be honest, I was thinking it would be nice not to have practice so much afterwards.

Sometime in June, we got three of the four of us together for our first run through. As it turns out, my fellow bandmates hadn’t done much practicing yet (there was an issue getting the individual instrument scores), so for a little while, I was actually more familiar with the music. Even better, I soon realized that I had been practicing the songs as if I would be playing the piano by myself. Once I let the bass player play the bass line, the guitarist play the chords, and the singer sing the melody, well, frankly, there wasn’t much I really had to do. I suppose Bill knew this all along, but it was quite the revelation to me. For the first time, I began to think maybe I really was going to be playing in the Hair band (so to speak.)

As if by magic, some of the songs I hadn’t bothered to learn were actually cut (I found out later that few productions of Hair are done the same way with the same songs.) To make up for it, we repeated a couple for the curtain call and the exit music.

As the opening approached, I was asked to stand in for Bill for some evening and Saturday rehearsals (he teaches) and, for these, I did have to play everything by myself. It didn’t go that well musically, but it did help me get a sense of the actual flow of the show. There’s an infamous nude scene in the show (which was a source of some consternation to the cast) that I never actually saw as I always had my eyes desperately glued to the score lest I miss a note.

As the show came together, there were about seven or eight songs of the fifty that were mostly me, about three of which were practically only me. I made sure I focused a lot of my practice on those. Fortunately, they were all relatively easy. In addition, since Bill was playing the bass lines, I was able to use both of my hands to play what was normally the sole responsibility of the right hand. This allowed me to do a pretty decent job of even the “tricky” right handed parts.

Nonetheless, on opening night, I was a nervous wreck. I had made some pretty obvious flubs during the dress rehearsals and being anxious only served to undermine my confidence even more. Reading nearly fifty songs in a row from a three quarter inch thick score, in a dark, hot band attic requires calm stoic focus. Unbridled terror, a racing pulse and voices urging one to flee do not comprise the ideal state of mind for a quality musical performance. Still, I tried as best as I could to swallow my fear (and a little Xanax) and soldier on with the festivities.

Once I made it through the three opening weekend performances my fear level dropped considerably and by the third weekend, I was actually enjoying myself (which, for normal people I guess, is the whole point.) For various reasons, the number of performances per week was not consistent for the entire run. For three weekends of the original six week run, we had to do six performances, one each on Thursday and Friday and two on Saturday and Sunday. I came to dread the back to back two-a-days, especially the second day. Fortunately, I had severely cut back my caffeine intake at the start of the run (coffee is basically a nice warm cup of stage fright) so climbing back on the brown train on Sundays helped me get through.

The show was a huge hit. Every single performance of the entire run was completely sold out. They added six more shows and all of those sold out too. The original producer of the ’60’s version, Michael Butler, drove out from Tucson to see us. Cast members from various Hair revivals showed up. Local publications The OC Weekly and the Orange County Register as well as the LA Times, and Variety sent reviewers. Hair groupies (yes, there is such a thing) travelled from far and wide and showed up in full costume. Most were older than me – I guess dreams die hard.

I ended up playing 36 shows to full houses. Mistakes? I made a few. But far fewer than I thought and I don’t think anyone outside of the production noticed any of them.

It was a pretty exhilarating and exhausting experience. While I was grateful that the one show I ever played in was the biggest in the eleven year history of the theater, I was also very happy when it was finally over.

Given my age and modest abilities, I have pretty limited upside performance potential at this point, but, I think I did get a teensy bit better. The pressure to learn so many pieces in such a relatively short time forced me to focus my practicing, concentrating on my weaknesses and tackling shaky measures head-on, one note at a time. I don’t think there is any question that playing in front of a paying audience brings an inherent heightened level of concentration and the sheer number of hours of performing certainly didn’t hurt either.

I’m going to dust off the Christmas carols for a short stint in a Solvang hotel in early December.

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My First Nine Miles…

Parked at the Motorcycle Safety Course

As my 50th approaches, I have decided to embrace the cliche-ness of it, mainly owing to having no better ideas. Decline and death await and I can think of no better way to respond than by behaving irresponsibly. Take that mortality! I will show you… sort of.

In that vein, I recently purchased my first motorcycle.

Originally, my thought was to take a ride on some sort of touring bike up the coast, visit Karen in Buellton, and maybe sleep under the stars at one of the State Parks she patrols. When I discovered a Gold Wing weighs slightly more than an adult elephant and can easily crush human bone into a fine powder, I realized that there were a few bugs in my plan. The things also cost more than I paid for my last car, so I was a bit concerned about depreciation should I find it less than fun.

So I scaled back and shopped around for a little “starter” bike to get my feet wet (hopefully, not with the blood spurting out of my severed femoral artery.)

As it turns out, what with the gas thing going on (have you heard? It’s like almost five bucks now!) practically every male inhabitant of Southern California was looking for the same bike, albeit for different reasons.

I visited some local dealers. “We don’t have any 250’s, and we won’t get any more until the 2009 models come out and we don’t know when we’ll be getting those. Why don’t you buy a “real” bike instead?”

Well, sir, because I’m a major pussy for starters.

I expanded my search radius out to fifty miles and eventually found a Suzuki GZ250 at a dealer in San Juan Capistrano. An hour drive, two hours of crapping around with paperwork, half hearted negotiations (hard to negotiate when there is a guy standing behind you saying, “Uh, I’ll take it if he don’t want it.”) followed by the usual plethora of signing one’s name, and I had overpaid for something I didn’t really need and everyone I had talked to about had assured me I would kill myself on. Woo-hoo!

I had to have them deliver it to my house – I wasn’t about to hop on it, and hit the freeway for forty miles on day one. In the meantime, I picked up a helmet, some gloves and a ten pound leather jacket with body armor sewn into the shoulders and forearms.

The guy dropped the bike off on Sunday and I rolled it into the garage. I found I could buy insurance online, and later in the day went off to Boot Barn to find some suitable footwear. (Warning, if you haven’t been, do NOT park your Prius at Boot Barn with your Obama ’08 bumper sticker. And try not to make fun of the cowboy hats they’re all wearing indoors. They will not hesitate to kick your ass. And they all wear special boots designed just for that purpose.) I ended up with some metal-reinforced, non-slip, above-the-ankles certified as appropriate for clamoring over heavy machinery.

If you ask anyone involved in motorcycling how to go about learning how to drive one, 9 out of 10 people will tell you to go to a Motorcycle Safety Foundation Class first. (The tenth guy will tell you it’s for pussies, which, in my case, pretty much makes it unanimous.) Unfortunately, given the surge in motorcycle popularity, and the ridiculously low cost of the course (it’s only $150 for fifteen hours, and that includes the motorcycle and the helmet) the classes are sold out for months. (I’m signed up for September 19th.)

So here I sit, with the jeans, and the gloves, and the jacket, and the helmet, and the steel toed boots, and the motorcycle permit, and the temporary registration and the shiny new motorcycle, but I’ve never ridden one and I won’t be learning how for seven more weeks.

I took a picture of it and posted it on my MySpace.

After about a half day of frustration, I figure, “I’m legally entitled to ride the damn thing on the street, so by dammit, that’s what I’m going to do.”

I did some research online first. Okay, a lot of research. I can’t say it helped build my confidence. Pretty much every other sentence about learning to ride a motorcycle ends with something to the effect of, “…and you will probably kill yourself.” The sentences in between regale you with fun anecdotes about perfectly preserved heads in helmets no longer attached to their owners and interesting facts enumerating how many feet of sliding it takes to scrape off your lower torso (not much, actually.) Not exactly the sort of information to put your mind at ease for that first taste of sweet freedom.

Eventually I was able to gather enough data to put together the theory of riding. It’s actually pretty complicated. You have balancing issues, turning, defensive driving, mirror scans, dealing with the helmet, road hazards, pre-ride mechanical inspections – and that’s before you even get to the clutch, gear shift, brakes and throttle. I limited my first day to locating all the controls and switches, turning it on in my driveway, and slowly easing it, in first gear, back into the garage. Mission Accomplished!

After twelve hours of resisting the urge, I threw caution to the wind. Or at least put it temporarily aside, neatly folded, in the back of my sock drawer. I put on all my riding shit (takes about ten minutes, lots of straps, snaps and zippers), pointed the thing towards the street, started it up, let out the clutch and off I went.

I stalled out once or twice on my first trip around the block, but I got it into second gear about halfway down the street. Some of my stops were a bit ugly and my clutch work was not winning any prizes, but I was doing what was required to make it go, and it was, in fact, going. In a few minutes, I was roughly circumnavigating my block and the one behind it. Did about five or six laps, even encountered a little traffic in front and behind, and drove it back into the garage.

After dark, I got up my nerve and drove it about a mile uphill on the main road to an elementary school parking lot. You’re supposed to get in 10-15 hours of parking lot practice before you venture out on the public streets. The parking lot was mostly empty and I did about 20-30 studious laps around it, practicing taking off, shifting into second and third and back down to a stop. Sounds pretty simple, but you get bored with it before you get good at it. Plus the shifter on the Suzuki is a little balky and sometimes isn’t in the gear you think it’s in (or any gear at all!) I gave it about 30-40 minutes before I headed home. On the way back down the hill I got all the way up to 4th gear (doing nearly 30 miles an hour!) before I put it away. The odometer was just clicking over from 8.9 miles.

I still have trouble getting into second, I’ve only used the pedal brake about twice and, on occasion, I will attempt to take off in neutral. But, mentally, I’ve already outgrown the 250. I know I’ve gone all of nine miles. But…

…I’m gonna need a bigger bike.

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Ten Biggest Lies…

The prevalence of fanciful idealism in public discourse and modern life in general got me thinking about all of the myths we like to pretend are true.  With apologies to Mr. Letterman, here’s my Top Ten List of Wishful Thinking:

10. All you need is love
9.  The best things in life are free
8.  You’re not getting older, you’re getting better
7.  There are no stupid questions
6.  You may already be a winner
5.  Size does not matter
4.  Monogamy
3.  Everything happens for a reason
2.  All men are created equal
1.  Life after Death

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