Being a truck driver, road trips are simply put, a way of life for me. I’ve been known to haul an elephant to British Columbia for a commercial photo shoot, or truck a load of motorcycles to the United States, as was the case a couple of years ago when I hauled thirteen bikes to Las Vegas with the task of dropping the bikes off for a group of guys, wait around for a week, then cart the bikes back to Canada. Fortunately for me, I was able to find just enough room to slide my ride on the back.
In short; it’s late April, I have my bike, a week to kill and the weather is better than it is back home. Oh, what to do, what to do? As it turns out, I knew a couple of the guys on the trip and they invited me to join them when they met me in the U.S. to pick up their bikes. I must admit I was looking forward to sitting at the back and letting the others lead the way, of course, that was short lived. After just one short day I was elected to lead. They picked the next stop and left the route to me.
Our first day had us heading north from Las Vegas before turning west and following State Route 375, a.k.a. The Extraterrestrial Highway, past Area 51. This highway, if you can call it that, was unbelievably straight and seemed to go on forever, the only thing that broke up the endless ribbon of asphalt were the mountains dotting the horizon. Spotting the desert landscape were cattle left to roam free as there were no fences, nor signs warning that the roaming livestock may cross the road at any time.
As we approached the foothills we observed a number of signs warning of DIPS ahead, having no idea what DIPS were, we soon discovered that runoff from the mountains had created huge washouts, 20 feet deep and about 80 feet wide, and rather than fill them in, the highway department merely cut the road to match the contour left behind providing some of the wildest roadway ever built in a straight line. It was like being on the worlds’ largest rollercoaster and you have control of the throttle.
We began to climb into the mountains finding the gentle curves a nice change. The plan was that on a daily basis we would try to be at our stop by 4 p.m. so we could take in the local atmosphere and enjoy a couple of beverages before resting up for the next day’s ride. We made our way north some 200 miles to the historic silver mining town of Tonopah, Nevada, our stop for the first night.
Day two began with a change in our original route due to snow through the pass, but after a short conference it was decided that we would head northwest towards Reno, Nevada before turning west to follow the south shore of Lake Tahoe. The day proved to be much cooler than we expected. Almost immediately after pulling over to the shoulder of the road to layer up and strap on our chaps, a passing Highway Patrol cruiser pulled over to see if we required assistance. Realizing that we had only stopped to add clothing they thoughtfully waited until we were finished, blocking us from any approaching traffic.
Snow blanketed the ground as we rode higher into the mountains. The air was crisp and the views that were offered were nothing short of magnificent. Nature had painted a beautiful landscape with tree-lined mountains, waterfalls, lakes and rich green valleys. The winding road offered a new vista with every turn.
We headed through South Lake Tahoe and continued west to the small town of Placerville, California. After a brief discussion, we decided that this would be our stop for the night. We settled in and discovered that the town had a notorious history. During the days of the California Gold Rush, Placerville had become known as Hangtown, because frontier justice was only a rope and short drop away. A bar called Hangman’s Tree now stands where the infamous hanging tree once stood.
The next morning we were unsure of where we wanted to head so we breezed into the local Harley dealer hoping to get some suggestions. One of the staff admitted that although he usually rode the Interstate, we might try California Highway 49 as it would offer us some great views and winding mountain roads. Over the years I have ridden with guys who like to sit back and cruise the wide open stretches of our highways and have also ridden with others that like finding the less travelled byways. Not sure what my riding companions preferred, but the thought of a winding mountain road had me quite excited. In the east, there is Blue Ridge Parkway and the Tail of the Dragon known for its 318 turns in 11 miles, but out here we had no idea what to expect on Highway 49.
As we started south from Placerville on Highway 49 I noticed two signs, the first, ‘No Trucks Over 40 Feet Can Use This Road’ and the second sign said ‘Be Prepared For Steep Grades And Sharp Turns’. I was not disappointed as we made our way south. There were dramatic climbs and descents, cutbacks and curves and more curves. But, you had to maintain your focus and not get too caught up in the scenic beauty because much of the road had steep drop-offs, little or no shoulders and no guardrails. Fortunately, traffic of any kind was virtually non-existent and I have to admit that this is a road I would not want to ride in unfavourable weather or at night.
We passed through several small towns, each with its own bit of history and unique character and like Placerville, they all seemed to be tied to the days of the California Gold Rush. About three hours later and still on Highway 49, we made our way to Mariposa, about 135 miles south, and I had just enjoyed one of the most exceptional riding experiences of my life. While I have never actually ridden the Blue Ridge or the Tail of the Dragon, I can’t imagine any better road and I’d have to believe that Highway 49 is equal if not better than its famous eastern brethren.
From Mariposa, we headed west toward the Pacific Coast Highway just north of Monterey. By the time we rolled through Merced the roads had flattened out and nestled in this vast valley, until we reached the Coast Mountains, were hundreds of produce and livestock farms.
By mid-afternoon we had made our way over the Coast Mountains revealing our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean. The surf was pounding the beach off in the distance and the smell of the ocean was unmistakable. We rode along the coast until we arrived in Monterey, our day’s destination. After checking into a hotel, we decided to tour around the city before heading down to the waterfront for some dinner at the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company. The restaurant, inspired by the movie, Forrest Gump, is located on the water and while we dined we could see a couple of dolphins playing just off shore. The food was excellent and it was a perfect way to finish off a great day.
The next morning, the plan was to follow the Coast Highway to Santa Barbara, then head east before calling it a day in Barstow, California. It wasn’t long before the road began to rise high above the jagged shoreline. Although the Coast Highway follows the winding shoreline, it is not nearly as intense as California Highway 49 that we rode the day before, therefore we found that we had more time to take in the pristine views as we rode or used the many pullouts.
This was a day to sit back and cruise, so much so, that I took advantage of the odd straightaway to snap some pictures of my buds as we rode with the Pacific Ocean in the background (I do not recommend that you try this as it may cause injury or death). I had a UPS guy following us wondering what I was doing as I would accelerate up alongside, take the picture then fall back. He had a laugh when I finally took a picture of myself. Although this stretch of highway took us about four hours to complete, our ride along the coast highway seemed to end almost as quickly as it started as we rolled into Santa Barbara.
Turning back toward the foothills, we wanted to stay away from the crazy traffic hassles of Las Angeles. For the rest of the day we rode off the beaten track and were not disappointed. It was a change of pace from the more aggressive riding earlier in the week and after the laid back morning along the coast it was easy just to kick back and enjoy a leisurely ride. The miles, towns and views drifted by. The temperature was beginning to rise as we hit the desert again before we made our way into Barstow. One of the Harleys was demanding a little attention so taking advantage of the early arrival in Barstow, a stop at the local Harley dealer was in order. The staff were great as they pushed the bike to the front of the line and we were back on the road in no time. His bike purred like a kitten (hard to do for a Harley).
The following day, after experiencing the desert heat the previous day, we got an early morning start. It was already quite warm with the long flat Interstate stretching out in front of us. It wasn’t long though before the heat started to take its toll and we found ourselves stopping regularly for rest and water breaks.
It was just before one of these stops that we came across thousands of Monarch butterflies. I had one of these juicy little guys squished under my hand and then no sooner had that happened, another one caught me in the corner of my mouth squirting yellow guts down the side of my face. I couldn’t wipe it away because my hand was covered from the first butterfly attack. The next few miles were pretty tough to take, but not as hard as the guys laughing at me. The heat of the day proved relentless and we were all ready for some cold ones when we hit Kingman, Arizona.
Our week of riding was quickly coming to a close and wanting to make the most of it, we jumped on legendary Route 66, the only Trans-American Highway before the Interstate system was built and the subject of folklore and more songs than you could shake a stick at. We followed it through old deserted towns and passed ghosts of gas stations and hotels from an era long ago. As we made our way along this historic road into the past we came upon the sleepy little town of Oatman, Arizona, a mining town that still survives and with the Laughlin River Run just up the highway, it’s also a haven for bikers. At only 10 a.m., the police were stationed at both ends of town to make sure the party didn’t get out of hand. As we continued to ride on to Laughlin to take in their Bike Week festivities, we passed hundreds of bikes making their way to Oatman, thus explaining the police presence.
With Laughlin Bike Week in full swing, the town was buzzing with people and bikes, manufacturers showing off their latest models and the models showing off their stuff as well. What I liked most was that the venders were close together and you could see everything in just a couple of hours, which was what we did. Climbing on our bikes for the last push into Las Vegas, we were sad, knowing that our week was coming to an end.
In the morning, I loaded the bikes back into the trailer for the long journey home. I hope that some day I might be able to ride the west again and relive old memories, and create new ones.
To Big T, Don Meeker and Bob Panko, I thank you guys for the friendship and the memories of our trip west. MMM