When we left Mark and Jeff yesterday, they were bedding down in a cheap motel somewhere east of Palm Springs. Let’s see how they got on for the rest of the trip.
It was a shame the pool was so cold at our $65 motel last night, and the hot tub was the same temperature as the pool, and the water in both was the colour of the sandy desert. It would have been nice to have taken a swim after our hangout at the local bar, where we were frisked for guns and encouraged to cheer on the Phillies on the big screen. Jeff refused the double-shot of Jack I bought him, something to do with having “a healthy lifestyle” apparently, so after knocking back his drink right after mine, there was little else to do but strip off and get cozy under the thin, multi-coloured sheets.
This was shaping up to be a fine road trip, and I was pleased to see that Jeff and I were getting along so well.
In the morning, we went straight to a gas station and then breakfast, and then south toward the Salton Sea. The two of us had come this way once before, on a car event when we drove a Rolls-Royce Phantom VIII together from Palm Springs. On the straight and dusty roads, the Chieftain seemed like the Rolls-Royce of motorcycles. I stretched out and lowered the windscreen to let the hot desert air flow around me, while Jeff buzzed along behind.
This time, we headed farther south and finally pulled in to Bombay Beach, a pre-fab community for a couple of hundred people on the east side of the lake. I’d seen a documentary about the huge, stinking, festering, dying lake, beautiful to look at but poisonous to the touch, and Bombay Beach seemed an appropriate town on its shoreline. It’s protected from flooding by a giant muddy dyke, and most of its barren, fenced-off lots are strewn with garbage and detritus and conspiracist graffiti.
Jeff soon disappeared from my mirrors as I cruised the packed-dirt streets. I should have felt self-conscious that I could buy half-a-dozen building lots here for the price of the big Indian, but this didn’t seem like a place too bothered about money. In the last few years, with some help from L.A. investors, its hippy residents have turned it into an astonishing artistic community.
I cruised on every street in Bombay Beach, trying to take in the juxtaposition of art and ecch, then headed to the only restaurant in town for Jeff to find me. I thought he might be stuck on the beach, as tourists regularly get stuck in the soft sand with their mobile homes, so ordered some lunch at an outside table while I waited. A black cat with a ripped ear, crooked tail and brutal underbite purred at my legs as I enjoyed the warmth of the desert sun.
It’s a bit strange that a place like Bombay Beach would become a highlight of the road trip, but it’s so unlike any place I’ve experienced before, it left a big impression. Like a movie set for some post-apocalyptic zombie flick, the small town was a prime example of reality being stranger than fiction.
Riding slowly up and down the grid of dirt streets, we encountered double-wide trailers with rotting VW dune buggies and confederate flags next to bohemian museums and strange, but fantastic, art exhibits like the bright blue Opera House and the Bombay Beach Drive-In.
There’s an ironic dyke surrounding much of the town, obscuring the view of the Salton Sea for the residents, and protecting them from the smelly, but dramatically receding water. Riding atop the mud wall, I was afforded the unique perspective of looking out over the failed master-planned resort community on one side, and a still-beautiful desert oasis shoreline on the other, littered with the remnants of various large art installments.
I caught up with Mark and a local feline freakshow at the Ski Inn, which claims to be the lowest bar in the western hemisphere. We had a quick bite and marvelled at the surreal nature of the town before hitting the road once more.
Having grown weary of Mark repeatedly asking to switch bikes, I finally relented, figuring the straight, open roads provided few opportunities for my riding companion to get himself into trouble with the quicker bike.
Within minutes of getting the big Indian up to cruising speed I realized how spoiled Mark had been all this trip. The Chieftain’s 116 cubic inch V-twin is rich with character, yet more refined than the Harley lumps I’ve experienced, and the well of torque is addictive. With a classic rock radio station scaring away any wayward wild life, I relished covering vast open spaces in shocking comfort while we travelled south into the agricultural lands along the bottom of the Salton Sea.
Soon the FTR’s fuel tank ran low yet again and Mark found a gas station. He parked and demanded back his still two-thirds-full Chieftain while I refilled the flat tracker.
After the Indio motel, it was agreed that we’d each have veto power over the choice of tonight’s accommodations. Our Borrego Springs lodgings suited Mark’s desire to stay in a classic motel, and my desire to avoid bedbugs. The quaint (and clean!) Hacienda del Sol was run by a quick-witted hockey fan named Mike who recommended a fantastic Mexican restaurant a short walk away that served excellent food and margaritas.
The morning sun shone brightly, but the temperature was still a bit brisk as we set out for the journey west back to Costa Mesa. Montezuma Valley Road winds up into the desert mountains and reminded me of some of the incredible riding roads I experienced a few years ago in Jordan.
Managing to get past a slow-moving pick-up truck, I tore off up the twisties, soon losing sight of Mark in my mirrors. After passing the local Sheriff’s deputy in the oncoming lane and remembering that despite the minimal traffic, I wasn’t riding my own private road, I pulled over and waited for Mark to catch up.
Eventually he blasted past, a crazed look of determination (or fear?) on his face as the Chieftain came within a millimeter or two of sending sparks flying from the floorboards and tailpipes as he leaned the Indian hard in every corner.
I caught up and it was a sensational ride, until we continued to climb into the mountains where the temperature continued to drop. Earlier with the morning chill, I had layered up, zipped the liner into my leather jacket and figured I’d be fine. But it wasn’t long before I began to lose feeling in my fingers, and I wondered if the shape of the Chieftain’s enormous fairing would be a suitable snowplough if things got any colder.
After yesterday’s brief ride on the FTR through the flat, irrigated fields of the Imperial Valley, I suggested to Jeff that I ride the flat tracker again this morning on the way out of town. I showed him some short stretches of straight highway on Google Maps and offered to let him cruise them in comfort on the Chieftain.
Yes, there was a twisting length of highway up into the mountains, but it would only last 20 minutes or so. And besides, I’ve travelled that highway before, and both times, there was a police cruiser on it, out to ticket speeders. I hoped my kind offer would give Jeff an opportunity to experience the surprising agility of the big cruiser on curving roads, as well as perhaps protect him from the expense and ignominy of a speeding fine.
But no, my offer was rejected. I stuck with the Chieftain as Jeff fired up the FTR1200 S and we headed for the mountains out of town.
The road climbed quickly and the temperature began to cool, so I pressed the button on the handlebar to raise the windscreen as protection from the chill. When we passed a scenic lookout over the valley, I paused for a photo and Jeff disappeared ahead. Later, he told me that he’d seen a police cruiser but, without me behind him to try to impress, he was probably riding even slower than yesterday and well within the road’s acceptable limits.
I was disappointed to not ride the FTR on some challenging highway because it had seemed a very capable motorcycle during yesterday’s short ride. It’s a tall bike with a long reach to the ground, which made it a surprising choice for the vertically-challenged Jeff, but once your feet are up on the pegs, everything’s nicely tucked in and ready to go.
There’s no wind protection on the FTR though, and when I got back on the Chieftain and continued to climb, I was happy for the large fairing and adjustable screen. It was great fun on the winding road and the big cruiser felt as confident at a full lean as it did straight-up. I thought about switching on the heated grips but remembered that they’re a $500 option and weren’t fitted to this California test bike; similarly, the heated seat is another $1,200 or so. For a machine that costs more than $42,000, that was a surprise.
I caught up with Jeff pretty quickly and it didn’t take long to reach a plateau around 4,000 feet – quite the rise from the desert, which is below sea level. The temperature had dropped here to 10 degrees and Jeff pulled alongside at a stop sign to ask to swap bikes, as I’d suggested back in Borrego Springs. I may not have had his youthful performance with the FTR but I had far more endurance on the big Chieftain. He was rubbing his hands together and looked cold, while I was comfortable now for the ride through to the coast. Screw that idea.
The temperature seemed to rise a degree for every 10 feet of elevation we descended toward the Pacific, raising my enjoyment level exponentially along the way.
By the time we reached the coast, we were both ready for a break and found the Nautical Bean Coffee Company at the Oceanside harbour. We sat sipping the delicious brew with a view of the yachts on one side and our bikes on the other, while festive decorations and Christmas music seemed oddly out of place. I hoped having such a late season ride would help our Canadian winter feel a little more tolerable this year.
I also wondered how many people saw us and our fancy bikes, and assumed I was a young executive, taking time out of my busy schedule to kindly take a road trip with my aging, needy father.
It was kinda weird to coffee-up on the coast listening to Christmas music. “Oh, the weather outside is frightful,” sang the outdoor speakers as people walked by in shorts and the boats clunked gently at their docks.
But coffee up we did, and gas up too, and the last ride north to return the bikes to Costa Mesa was straightforward, back on the interstate. I stayed on the Chieftain, with Jeff buzzing along as usual on the FTR, like an annoying mosquito, relying on me to lead the way. There’s really no alternative road here, since much of the area is Camp Pendleton, with No Entry signs and sentry boxes everywhere. This is America, after all.
At Costa Mesa, we gassed up for the billionth time, returned the bikes and thought about a return visit to the taco joint. Jeff seemed to have finally thawed out – the guy has no meat on him for insulation, but the sun was warm in the blue sky and there was no threat of rain. There was an Uber on the way, though, and when it arrived, we climbed in and stuffed our gear onto our laps and said goodbye to motorcycles for the next few months.
It seemed right to have made this journey on American bikes. This was a road trip through Western Americana, with desert and mountains, poverty and wealth, guns and art, so the best way to experience it was with big V-twins pounding between our legs. In the Uber, we covered distance just as quickly but now it was only transportation. On the bikes, it was discovery.
The two Indians did their job, offering fun and reliable transport during our multi-day adventure and I was sad to give them up. But having the freedom to make our journey what we wanted, with a lot of laughs along the way, was a refreshing break from our typically hectic lives. For me, it reinforced what great therapy a good bike trip can be, especially if you don’t come home with bed bugs.