Snow and sand with a Harley-Davidson Road Glide

It must be soooo boring to be a meteorologist in San Diego. It’s never too cold or too hot, and it’s sunny every day.

“Here’s Becky with the weather.” “Thanks Ron! It’s going to be another sunny day with a high of 80 degrees Fahrenheit. Same for tomorrow. And the next day. And all weekend.” It never changes.

Unless, of course, I’ve planned a motorcycle trip there.

Dustin never did get to go swimming.

Prior to my January visit, there were such heavy droughts that the Water Police were called in; as soon as I arrived, there was so much rain that a guy made the news riding a Seadoo down his street. Neither the drains nor the soil could handle this. Perfect timing. I’d been planning a motorcycle trip to the area for months. None of the reservations were refundable, so I figured the weather would at least be better there than at home in wintry Toronto.

I just wanted to visit a place where I could ride without my face freezing like a bad batch of Botox.

What were you riding?

I’d arranged a Harley-Davidson Road Glide through the local Eagle Rider rental store. It was two years old and had seen better days, but then again, I’m no spring chicken either. It may have been around the block a few times but it seemed in otherwise decent working order. It cost about $120 US a day, so after I paid for insurance, taxes, and all the other add-ons, the total cost for five days was around $1,200 Cdn. And yes, I paid for it myself.

It was finally sunny a couple of days later, and I rode east out of the city on Highway 8, happy to be back on two wheels. The 103 motor bellowed as the road curved tighter and higher, but the mercury dropped into the single digits, starting to sting the body parts that weren’t covered. I hadn’t checked Becky’s weather forecast, but back in frigid Toronto, I’d been smart enough to pack long underwear and a few extra layers. It wasn’t long before I was wearing every item of clothing I’d packed for the trip and was still shivering.

Becky! What’s happened to the weather?

The Harley-Davidson Road Glide, in fetching black beside a vista across the landscape. But what’s that beside the road?

January is not yet the high season for visitors, which means reduced rates and tourist traffic, but apparently the weather can be a gamble. Now they tell me. Approaching Cuyamaca Rancho State Park on Highway 79, just an hour outside the city but already 1,300 metres above the coast, the first signs of winter appeared. The road was clear where the midday sun had melted the snow away, but the same couldn’t be said for the stretches blocked by trees or hills, and the dampness remained on the ground. I flew to southern California specifically to avoid snow and here I was riding straight into it.

Uh-oh. At least the road is clear of snow. This is what Southern Californians call “a savage winter.”

I potato-potatoed past a snow-covered hill where children were tobogganing. Tobogganing! I’m not sure who was more in disbelief, me or them. They looked at me like I was certifiably nuts, and they were probably right. Being Canadian, I stayed calm and carried on toward the town of Julian, cursing the entire way for not planning better.

Some history. What is this, school?

Julian is a mining town in the Cuyamaca Mountains, named after the miner who struck gold there in 1869. Its main street is all quaint Victorian and Old West architecture, with general stores, restaurants, craft, antique and coffee shops. If it wasn’t for the cars on the street, and my rented Road Glide, you might think you were in the 1800s.

At Julian, the local Uber fleet clearly needs some updating.

I survived the time warp to wake the next day to bright blue skies. It was still cold, with single-digit temps and some icy patches on the road to Borrego Springs, but they melted away as the desert approached. If you happen to travel through the area in the off-season I recommend packing layers. And checking the forecast. Even Becky’s.

At the edge of the mountain range, there are miles and miles of smooth, uninhabited highway where each turn is different from the last. The Road Glide leaned happily through one to the next to the next. Dropping to 700 metres, there was a pull-off with a view clear across the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park, all the way to the Salton Sea 45 kilometres away, that must be experienced to comprehend its grandeur. As the road snaked down into the desert, the temperature rose and the last of the snow dissipated. Feeling returned to my extremities, and I could smell the scent of desert fauna and wildflowers wafting through my helmet.

Ah – more Dustin’s style at the RV Resort. A welcome place to lie beside the pool in chaps and a black leather vest.

I’d booked a room at the Palm Canyon Hotel and RV Resort. The term ‘RV Resort’ might scare you off, but I’d recommend the place to anyone. Visitors can stay in modern (tasteful) western-themed hotel rooms, hook up their own RV or sleep in a classic refurbished Airstream trailer under the clear desert sky. Surrounded by the state park’s desert, Borrego Springs is the only certified Dark Sky Community in California and was designated by USA Today as one of the Top 10 stargazing locations in the country.

Small World

Checking into the hotel, the guy in front of me was wearing a Harley-Davidson T-shirt; when he noticed my riding jacket, he asked where I was coming from. I told him I’d ridden from San Diego but live in Toronto. He said he and his partner were from Calgary, and then she turned to ask, “Are you Dustin Woods?”

It was Diane Wild, former owner of Calgary Harley-Davidson, from whom I’d rented a Street Glide for a ride through the Rockies the previous summer.

Dustin, Diane and Wayne by the head of the 350-foot Chinese dragon in the desert. Why? Good question…

As it turns out, Wayne and Diane had trailered their Harleys down behind their RV for a week of rest, relaxation and riding. It also turns out that we had the same agenda for the following day, exploring the area and tracking down the various pieces of Galleta Meadows’ Sky Art, a series of giant metallic sculptures in the desert. I wouldn’t consider myself an art aficionado, or even someone who understands the point of such sculptures, but they gave us somewhere to ride, so they must be good. The massive and incredibly detailed dinosaurs, raptors, mammoths, elephants, camels, wild stallions and even a 350-foot Chinese dragon provide something of a scavenger hunt through the area.

Four wheels? That’s two wheels too many for a CMG story, but at least it got Dustin safely through the Badlands.

That afternoon, I parked the bike and took a tour of the Anza-Borrego State Park with California Overland Desert Excursions. They have a number of Jeeps and eclectic army vehicles capable of driving the thankless local terrain known as The Badlands, where there is no obvious water, food, or shade. We explored mud caves and a scenic lookout called Vista del Malpais, which overlooks one of the most prolific prehistoric sites in the world. Thanks to the ocean receding hundreds of millions of years ago, countless dinosaurs, mastodons and prehistoric animals have been uncovered here.

The Badlands. They don’t look too hospitable from here, and probably not too friendly to Harley Road Glides.

Being the only Canadian on the tour, I spent most of the time fielding questions about education, healthcare and gun laws to a group of Americans who repeatedly apologized on behalf of their country for their current administration.

The final limp

Setting off back to San Diego the next morning, the shifter on the Road Glide promptly stopped working, leaving me with only first gear. A known issue with the first year of Rushmore Touring bikes, Harley allegedly decided it would be more cost effective to take the “wait and see” approach instead of issuing a recall. I doubled back to the RV resort to throw myself at the mercy of Wayne, who had the tools and the know-how to quickly diagnose and temporarily fix the issue.

Now limping back to return the beaten-up rental bike, the experience gave me plenty of time to reflect. It made me even more thankful to run into a couple of friendly Canadians while traveling solo through secluded, unforgiving landscapes. Without Wayne jerry-rigging the shifter to give me the top four gears to get me on my way, I might still be there now, listening to Becky, who’s back to having the most boring job on the planet.

Just imagine Dustin somewhere on a desert highway, riding a Harley-Davidson, long blond hair flyin’ in the wind. In first gear.


  1. Thanks for the nice writeup! Another idea for a winter trip next year. Maybe not on a road glide though.

    btw, archaeologists study human history. Paleontologists study fossils and the like.


    • Thanks for the definitions, Jim, and the copy’s fixed. I should know – my sister’s an archeologist …

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