Seattle & back, ACT I: California-1

The best road in the world is mine for the day
Published July 14, 2009
ACT I: California-1 ACT II: Oregon coast ACT III: Washington's wet ACT IV: The birthday ACT V: 101 home

Some will insist you’d have to be crazy to ride a motorcycle, and even among the initiated, others may think it slightly bonkers to tour on a 250. I’ve been called worse.

Educated by more than 10,000 miles in the saddle of my baby Ninja, the thought of riding the 250 from San Francisco to Seattle (and back) in a week’s time didn’t cause me concern. I know the bike’ll do the miles, back road or freeway, without complaint. My only doubt was to the endurance of my derriere.

And so with alarmingly minimal planning, I shirked office duty, passed the cat-feeding buck to my magnificent other, stuffed some bags with T-shirts, camera equipment, and the latest issue of Bike, and texted my Seattle-area amigos to expect me in three days.

June 17, 2009

The planned route for my first day of the trip proves that I’m an idiot: nearly 400 miles north from San Francisco, mostly along the stunning but slow-going California Highway 1. Google suggested the route might take eight and a half hours of riding, which struck my pea brain as a longish day, but doable.

I woke up early to lube the bike chain and test fit the saddlebags I didn’t have the sense to try out before embarking on a 2,000 mile-plus journey through three great American states. I’d hoped to hit the road by 9:00 AM, but didn’t find myself north of the Golden Gate until after 10:00.

Didn’t stop me thinking that things were perfect. Summer in San Francisco is a mix of fog, wind, and fog, but once outside the clutches of the city, Bay Area weather is consistently sublime. Cool ocean air soothes the stinging caress of unfettered sunlight, and that Wednesday morning in Marin epitomized such faultless qualities. Fleeing San Francisco left behind great clouds, both literal and mental.

Winding down the first stretch of CA-1, a small chain of cars slowed me before breaking up just as the curves got interesting. I’ve indulged in the glory of those turns a couple of times before, but never in conditions this flawless. Dry roads, blue skies, and a lack of mischievous gravel sneaking into the road made the descent to the ocean a bit of a religious experience. Angels were probably singing in heavenly harmonies, but I was too focused on the wiry curves to notice.

After a quick photo stop, I geared up to continue my northern trek just as a police cruiser inched in my direction. Thinking I’d prefer the cop in front of me rather than behind, I delayed a bit to let him pass before realizing that the officer was escorting a very large, very slow convoy of construction equipment that I’d just thoughtlessly let ahead of me.

The next half hour of riding didn’t see speeds above 20 mph.

It was the first of many torturous road works that’d catch me like a fly in ointment, suddenly, rudely stopping me dead from my hapless buzzing about. Quite apparently, early summer is good for road construction, an inconvenient fact that’d slow me countless times on my week-long getaway.

Further north, still on CA-1, road signs for a town called Jenner became common enough to make me wonder, “Why’ve I never heard of it?” Upon arriving in Jenner, the question was answered. Why it appears on so many road signs is beyond me. I pumped fuel into the bike and body at a local convenient store deli. The bike thought the gas was delightful, and the pastrami sandwich sated the groan in my belly.

A man working outside the convenience store deli was eager to chat. And eager to insist that normally he works “in the wine industry,” as if a bit embarrassed by his current occupation. No shame in a job, sir, it’s not like you’re in politics. I learned all sorts of things from the man from Jenner. Like that Jenner was “supposed to get a new post office today,” which sounded odd until I looked across the street to see that their current post office is a trailer. It’s scheduled to be supplanted by a nicer trailer. And I learned that I’d run into a filming crew if I was going further north. I was. And I should probably get going…

It was around this time I realized that I was behind schedule. Not that I had any idea where Jenner was in relation to my rally point in Klamath, but it was certainly too late for lunch. I bounded. Miles along CA-1 are fantastic, and it’s easy to get duped into thinking it’s fast. But it’s not fast. Hours after departing Jenner, I landed in Fort Bragg. It was getting late, and I wasn’t even close to Klamath.

Wanting to know just how not even close, I pulled out my phone for a quick Google Maps survey. A shame Fort Bragg is a primitive land and that I’m such a daft city slicker. There’s no Google Maps in Fort Bragg without a land line telephone connection, no matter what alien techno-gadgetry is smuggled in. I pick up a couple of AAA maps from a gas station and endured torturously bad directions from a well-meaning but mentally short-changed station attendant. He told me that Tillamook, “the place that makes cheese and ice cream,” was in northern Oregon. I’ll be sure to use that knowledge to get me to northern California.

I stumbled on the most magnificent stretch of asphalt my Ninja has yet seen

Desperation to reach Klamath before nightfall compelled me back on the bike. And then, some twenty miles north of Bragg, I stumbled on the most magnificent stretch of asphalt my Ninja has yet seen. Fresh, flawless pavement winds tightly and traffic-free through trees so massive sunlight breaks through in only small spotlights highlighting the lower foliage. Through those miles of perfect riding, I almost forgot how dire my schedule was.

Well that was fun. Like Mom interrupting childhood games to do homework, US-101 abruptly halted my joyful tear up the last stretch of CA-1. Back to responsibility and getting to my hostel as quickly as possible. To my utter joy in the waning hours of sunlight, 101 is much more accommodating to speed than the coastal stretches of CA-1. One hundred miles left to Eureka. Eighty miles. Seventy. I consumed miles like orange Tic-Tacs (the best ones), popping one after the other until, without realizing, half the lot were gone. Eureka, I’d made it! Pulled out the phone and Google Maps loaded. Just an hour left to Klamath, so I dashed for the redwoods.

Daylight fleeting, fog enveloping, mind racing, my morale was sapped. A quick stop for a Doubleshot gave me the juice to get to Klamath, but where’s the hostel? I didn’t expect a brightly lit Marriott sign, but something amid the tall redwoods and ubiquitous ground cover would be nice. I stopped at a Klamath gas station to ask for directions, but in my sad state could only manage, “Where’s the, uh, h-, the um…” I sputtered enough incomprehensible H-sounds that the attendant brilliantly translated my intent and pointed me to the hostel just another five miles up the highway.

Yolked with my overweight backpack, leather gear and a pair of saddlebags, I thumped to my dorm bed after 8:00 PM. I’d been on the road roughly eleven hours and wanted to sit in bed, call the future Missus, and go to sleep. But cell reception in Klamath is worse than Fort Bragg. I hoofed it across the street to the beautifully desolate beach and harnessed enough bars for a goodnight chat before crashing.