Morning luminescence from a sun rising behind endless acres of redwoods breached the tent and squeezed open my eyelids at six o’clock in the A.M. I wanted to be packed up and out of camp before the ranger rolled through on patrol and scolded me for crashing the grounds. In my silent hustle, I planted a boot in a ripe mound of dog mess. I assume it was dog, but all-caps signage stapled to a bulletin board hinted at the possibility of bear origins.
July 18, 2010
Whoever founded the poo probably never dreamed of clinging to a bright blue rocket dashing east at the legal limit of speed on an empty Highway 36, but its progeny lived it, smeared over the foot shifter of my buzzing 250. Enough talk of poop? I agree.
Truth be told, I was motivated to an early start by more than sunlight and fear of authority. Guilt. I promised Mariel a call before I retired for the night, but cell phone reception doesn’t stretch to the center of Humboldt county. She’d concluded either I was dead or an asshole, neither of which makes me happy, so I rushed east to the nearest edge of civilization in search of signal bars.
The western bends of Highway 36 tunnel through densely packed redwood forest, just stunning, fantasy flora drenched in eye-smothering green. Winding upward, breaking through the trees and into clouds, beyond the clouds and into sky before plummeting east to Red Bluff, the highway gradually warps reality from dewy coastal jungle to blazing, arid valley. One hundred and forty miles of some of the best twists in the state, every quality of paved surface imaginable, and rarely another human soul in sight. And no phone reception ‘til the end of it. Mariel wasn’t in hysterics and she didn’t hate me. Rather, she concluded I got myself somewhere incompatible with cell phones. Well that’s reasonable.
An omelet breakfast inside an air-conditioned Red Bluff diner helped me recover from the long morning. Back on the road, escaping the heat was all that could bother my mind. I was heading for Lassen National Park and hoped for cooler weather at elevation, but didn’t consider that I might have other worries ahead.
By 2,000 feet, I’d reconciled with the sun. At 4,000 feet, the bike wasn’t pulling in top gear under 8,000 rpm. Around 5,000 feet of elevation, the carbureted Ninja 250 was blowing wet raspberry backfires on throttle closure. At the entrance of Lassen, a toll attendant warned that the road ahead contained ten miles of dirt. Uh, I require a second opinion. Inside the park’s visitor center, I found a ranger who moonlights as an FZ1-riding motorcyclist but isn’t particularly good with maps that aren’t state-issued tourist simplifications. But he did confirm that traversing Lassen would involve off-roading and routed me away from Medicine Lake further north. Concerned for Mighty’s oxygen-starved motor, I queried the elevation we could expect. The visitor center sits at roughly 6,500 feet and I already worried I’d have to push the bike. The summit thrusts upward another 2,000 feet still. Bring it on. Gulp.
I’d never been thankful for crawling traffic before, but a sedate pace through Lassen was welcome aboard a motorcycle spittling unspent fuel into the exhaust and feeling roughly 30% down on power. I shouldn’t be hurrying through scenery like this, anyway. First, past sulfur-puffing white and tan rock beds surrounded by vibrant summer greens and yellows. Winding up a racetrack-like series of bends, I could make out the popping plight of other motorcycles with carbs. Bikers without a backfire soundtrack? You fuel-injected bastards…
I didn’t expect snow in the middle of July, but plenty of the white stuff persisted atop Lassen in spite of perfectly clear, sunny conditions. The lakes were still covered in pockets of supernatural blue-glowing ice, a scene surely from another planet.
The summit brought relief. The little Ninja huffed its way to 8,511 feet above the sea; it only gets easier from there. Carving down the mountain, I kept the revs high and throttle barely cracked in an attempt to maximize oxygen flow and improve the air-fuel cocktail combusting me forward. Elevation markers counted down the free fall, and at every significant step the bike responded with more beans.
The miles of dirt passed without a breath of danger. The 250 is no dual sport, but in a pinch its upright seating removes the drama from unpaved roads. I managed an average of 20 mph through the dusty stretch, found fuel at the other side, and rejoined the pavement to continue north toward Mount Shasta.
Great mountains habitually sneak up on me. I suppose that doesn’t speak well of my situational awareness, but it’s always a humbling surprise. As the highway flattened and dense evergreens stepped aside, the white-blanketed Mount Shasta spun into view, alone under the bare summer sky like the subject of an unshaken snow globe. But way more impressive. Even with Shasta behind me, the mountain demanded my attention by filling both of my rear view mirrors all the way to the Oregon border. Before crossing state lines, I glanced down to the Ninja 250’s odometer, which had just ticked past 25,000 miles. There’s no quit in this motorcycle.