The lure and allure of riding motorcycles along the Pacific Coast
Prelude: This is for Road Dirt’s editor-in-chief Rob Brooks, our media guru Phil Gauthier, the Wild Rose Squad’s Tail Gunner (Trevor Alexander), Road Captain (Todd Shifflett) and anyone else who has delayed joining me along the Pacific Coast.
Give me the Pacific Ocean. You can have the rest of the country, just hand me her blue waters. Take Beartooth Pass, Tail Of The Dragon, Going To The Sun Road and Million Dollar Highway. I’ve done them all, just leave me the Pacific, a road that runs alongside her and an old motorcycle beneath me. Sailors know the Pacific’s pull, her captivating blue rollers have a way of getting under your skin like a seaman recruit’s poorly chosen tattoo. Ride her shore once and you understand.
Years of pleading eventually convinced my cousin Dave Wensveen to join me in heeding the Pacific’s call, making the annual July pilgrimage down the coast from our Washington home to Monterey, California. When he was throwing fastballs in high school he dreamt of riding along the west coast and it was my honor to be alongside as he fulfilled that dream. Over three decades is a long wait to check that box and while the ocean will always be there, always has been, always will be, we may not.
Riding Highway 101 along the Pacific Ocean doesn’t impress until Oregon so we started at Tillamook, OR and headed south, tent camping along the way and taking our time. Matched to the ageless Pacific we rode motorbikes just as ancient, at least by modern standards. Our 5th generation Honda VFR800s are relics from a previous century having no ABS, no traction control, no ride-by-wire and no engine mapping. Our keys have no chips, our phones can’t talk to our bikes and our gauges are big analog circles with sweeping red dials.
We slept in covered wagons because that just seemed right, and it reminded me of the old “Oregon Trail” computer game, without the dysentery.
If you want traction control on this bike you train your right wrist. Better braking? Modulate your fingers. A different engine map? Pick a different gear. A quarter century old is antediluvian compared to the technological match of modern bikes but a blink in time compared to the ancient Pacific. My VFR has enough miles for nearly five laps around the equator. The ocean doesn’t care.
As we trace Highway 101 south from Tillamook the road doesn’t join the shoreline until Lincoln City but when it does, life changes. It is overwhelming. Some sceneries like the Colorado Rockies impress with their majesty, the Bonneville Salt Flats impress with their emptiness, the Pacific Ocean just puts you in your place.
Dave puts it all in perspective.
You are a speck, a dot, a tiny sand flea just one tsunami away from being reminded that the Pacific Ocean is in charge of both life and death. Like a motorcycle can give life or claim it, so can the Pacific. It teems with life on its shores both human and aquatic, but they only exist because the ocean permits it. At any time her waters could take life with no sympathy and no warning. Like a highside out of nowhere we are just one huge wave from being reminded that being in charge of our lives is an illusion. Whether on the bike or in the water, we don’t control as much of our lives as we think.
At the end of the day we tent camp along the shore north of Bandon Dunes, Oregon where kite surfers use the persistent winds and small inlet to their advantage. Like herds of seagulls they are one with the wind and water, using crests of waves to go airborne, tethered to their kites, hanging there for forever, then landing only because they want to do it all over again. It is mesmerizing, romantic.
A flock of seagulls.
Both the motorcycle and the Pacific seem to be built for hopeless romantics like me. As Dave and I stand side by side staring at the kite surfers, cigar in one hand and screwdriver (the cocktail kind, not the tool) in the other, burning Pacific sunset as a backdrop to the flying circus before us I can’t help but philosophize, to consider my life, reflect on my choices good and bad, to put my tiny blip of a life in comparison to the timeless expanse of blue in front of me, her sunset sky set ablaze.
How can I be so lucky to be with my friend in this golden moment, right here, right now? What did I do to deserve this? Why am I here? Is my life pointed in the right direction? What legacy am I leaving? Why so much undrinkable water? Who drank all the vodka? Was that you Dave? Oh, you’re right, it was me.
The Pacific Ocean will do that to you.
Then, like some before me, the Pacific instructs me to write. Sipping my drink, pulling at my cigar, Dave by my side and sunset before me I start to write, not with paper and pen but in my mind, writing about our old bikes and our trip along the water. I can’t not write. The Pacific Ocean will do that to you.
Some question why I write but if they stood by me right here, right now, they would know the answer. The ocean fills me up to overflowing, so much so that writing becomes my vent, my pop-off valve, my way of getting the beauty out of my soul and into it at the same time.
One time in life where staring is good.
In vain I try to put it in words, but how can simple nouns and verbs put the Pacific Ocean in the mind of some who have never stood on her shores? I can’t, yet I try. I may never write like Ernest Hemingway or Peter Egan, but as my daughter has reminded me, I write like Ted Edwards and that just might be good enough. Kids are so smart nowadays.
In the morning everything is covered with chilled foggy mist, our tents, bikes, clothes and the empty bottle of Vodka lying horizontal on the picnic table, a dead soldier to last night’s festivities. Even in July, mornings near the beach are cold, damp and thick. We use all of our devices to combat the chill firing up our heated grips, heated jackets and closing every vent on our Klim Latitude touring gear.
On the road again, Highway 101 glistens with morning dew and is littered with freshly fallen pebbles, rocks and clogged by plodding Winnebagos with fluffy, yipping dogs in the rear window. Served alongside our morning coffee are doses of patience and focus. We remind each other that here in this moment, right now, we are the lucky ones, so we slow down and savor each mile along the Pacific Ocean like a final meal. Every inch of tarmac next to the crashing waves is a treat. Contrary to our hooligan hard-wiring, we take our time.
Why would you rush this?
Both the ocean and our aged Honda VFRs defy time. While the world changes around them the ocean and the VFR age gracefully, locked in the past, holding on to ancient ways. While the Pacific Ocean is millions of years old the VFR might just as well be, having debuted in the late 90s about the time Soundgarden disbanded. Technology has made giant leaps since then and our bikes are outdated, even classics, much like “Black Hole Sun”.
Yet, like the ocean and 90’s Seattle grunge music, some things are timeless. No one ever tires of gear driven cams, an off cadence exhaust note, a single sided swingarm or sweeping tachometer needles. No one ever tires of crashing waves, blue waters or magical sunsets outside their tent. And yes, some of us never tire of grunge music.
By mid-morning the sun has burned off the foggy marine layer revealing ridiculously blue skies. Dave and I take a break, find a pullout on a grassy cliff and ditch the heated jackets for t-shirts. Staring into the horizon we notice where sky and ocean meet they are about the same color, blending together, blurring the line between liquid and atmosphere. The surreal sight etches itself in our memories. In future days, if life chokes out our joy, we will close our eyes, and this is what we will see.
Temperature on this day in our hometowns was an unbearable 117 F. At the ocean it was 65 degrees and sunny.
I could never live far from this. I fear being land locked. As much as western Montana speaks to me, it is too far from the Pacific Ocean. Wyoming? Beautiful, but farther still. Colorado? The Rockies are God’s country but headed in the wrong direction. Georgia in the fall? Love it, but next to the wrong ocean. Midwesterners, I feel sorry for you. Get out of there.
Having the ocean next to me and the VFR in my garage is my escape clause for life. When the ugly tentacles of anxiety wrap around me to pull me down in the pit of despair, I run to my bike and ride to the ocean. Here, things are put in proper perspective as giant empty waters swallow my worries whole, drowning them in blue.
My worries are trivial compared to the Pacific Ocean’s expanse.
And there is plenty of blue, the Pacific Ocean covering about one third of the earth’s surface. If you could fit every land mass on the planet together like a giant jigsaw puzzle, all of it would fit in the Pacific. It is so deep, about 13,000 feet on average, that if you could take my nearby Mt. Rainier, flip it upside down, it would sink to the base.
Big enough to swallow your meaningless problems? My worries are trivial compared to the Pacific Ocean’s expanse. Life not turning out the way I planned? I’m letting my worries disappear into the waters. Deadlines to make? I’ll get to that whenever. Don’t bother me now, I’m watching waves.
The beauty took our breath away.
South we rode until Oregon became California and Highway 101 completely abandons any attempt at following the coastline. California’s northern shore is simply too rugged for a road, or anything else, earning the name The Lost Coast. Just inland we ride though redwoods wider than the cars driving by them and tall enough to block GPS signals, cell phone reception and anything but small slivers of daylight.
When we pull over to look at them we instinctively whisper. I don’t know why. Maybe because it was so quiet we didn’t want to disturb the moment. Maybe it was out of reverence for the redwood giants. Maybe the beauty took our breath away.
Big trees. Deep breath.
Farther south, Highway 101 tag teams with California Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. The legendary PCH starts with a left cross to your jaw at Leggett with 30 miles the most banked, twisted, and narrow tree lined pavement you will ever see. Snaking narrowly through dense forest and first gear corners you fear any car coming the other direction larger than a Prius. Trucks scare you. Winnebagos are a death sentence. Log truck? Say your prayers. Nevertheless, I would do this section of the PCH over Tail Of The Dragon because, like the brilliant finale of Shawshank Redemption, it ends at the Pacific Ocean.
When I say it ends at the Pacific, I mean if you don’t turn left at the end you will be using your seat cushion as a flotation device. As we find a pullout to take a break, we could spit out our gum and it would land in the waves a hundred feet below. Diligence is required when riding here lest we fly off the roadside cliffs as some have done before.
That notch in the hills is where the PCH joins the Pacific Ocean for the first time. Run wide here and go for swim.
Off the bikes, Dave and I stare across the distant blue for the millionth time and I ponder how much better the ocean is made by riding a motorcycle. There is no better tool for exploration. Cars are masterfully engineered to insulate you from your environment. Wrong goal. We could ride a bicycle, but then there is that whole pedaling and sweating thing.
The motorcycle is perfect. While we ride sea spray is forced up our nostrils, warm sun dries our damp clothes and a tickling ocean breeze chills our faces. Blinding sun reflects off our dashboards, drying our gauges and revealing their antique sweeping red needles. Motorcycles were made for the ocean and the ocean for motorcycles.
Eventually we reached our destination of Monterey, California, but kept going south to Big Sur and beyond because we couldn’t help ourselves. If life allowed we would do this forever, spending every morning coated by the mist, every sunny day cooled by the sea breeze, riding every coastal road and their banked curves like surfers making turns on the waves and every evening a cigar, a screwdriver (not the tool) and a sunset.
Landslides have closed Highway 1 near Big Sur in recent years. As much as we try to fool ourselves, the ocean is still in charge.
Therein lies the danger. Just as the motorcycle can claim your life, so can the Pacific, not by death but by addiction to her presence. Once she is in your blood you will do anything to ride her shores, do what it takes to get back to her waters and dream of her constantly like a lover lost long ago, but never forgotten.
So you can have the rest of the country, just leave me the Pacific Ocean, because there is nothing like riding an old bike next to the sea.