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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