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California Dirtbag

August 23, 2017
West Coast Feature Image

West Coast pilgrimage on a shoestring budget.

Story and Photos by Claire Crimp

The best things in life are free. That’s what they say, though I’m inclined to believe that the best things in life can be had with a modicum of cash and a motorcycle licence.

Riding from Oregon to CaliforniaRiding a motorcycle on Vancouver Island comes with a unique set of blessings and challenges: On one hand, minimal snowfall means a 12-month riding season for those with a healthy sense of adventure and warm, waterproof gear. On the flip side, living costs are high and wages are low, so expendable income and time for extended trips are virtually non-existent. Case in point: I had neither. So, naturally, I was planning a solo bike trip to Southern California. It was going to have to come in under three weeks and cost less than $2,000 – virtually impossible, especially with a departure date set for the autumn storm season. This was going to be a low-budget, old-school mission: I was dirtbagging my way to Joshua Tree, California, and it was going to take some planning.

I signed in to all the motorcycle websites and Facebook pages I could find, places like advrider.com and motostays.com. I reached out to friends and friends of friends down the coast and sent messages on couchsurfing.com to potential homestays. I pulled out the camping gear, changed my oil and got ready to leave.

Departure was set for mid-October. In the week approaching the date I had set, Environment Canada started putting up dire warnings: storms, typhoons, historic rainfalls, high winds. Bulletins were posted: Baton down the hatches, scoop up pets and small children. Stay inside, and whatever you do, don’t set out on a motorcycle! Naw, I thought, I’ll just beat the system, literally. Leave a day early, beeline it south as fast as I can and stay a step ahead!

Back on Schedule

On day one, I made it off the island as far as Vancouver before my Triumph Tiger 955i died – so much for staying a step ahead. I was four hours waiting for BCAA to boost the bike; by then it was too late to break for Seattle with a dodgy battery and failing daylight. I spent the night at a cousin’s house, drifting off a mere 250 km from home to the sound of rain starting to fall. It was to be my steady companion for many days, and in the morning I limped the bike through torrential rain and ominous wind to Rising Sun Motorcycles in East Vancouver. Day two was to be another late start, but happily the guys at the shop were extremely helpful. There was a cheery blaze crackling in their woodstove, and after an hour or two at the shop, a new battery and a surprisingly modest bill, I was back in the saddle for a wet, blustery second attempt to leave the country.

On a motorcycle, the heavy traffic on I5 to Seattle is stressful and dangerous on a good day. This was not a good day. Sideways rain blinded me, spray from 120 km/h traffic reduced visibility to virtually none, and massive gusts shoved at the bike and me mercilessly. It was with profound relief that I finally pulled into Seattle and spent a warm night with dear friends, good food and stimulating conversation.

The weather, however, was not going to cut me a break, and what had hitherto been the worst day of riding weather I had ever experienced became merely a warm-up for what I would encounter over the next week. Days in the saddle were punctuated with fuel breaks where I would shake the tension out of my shoulders, field incredulous questions from disbelieving passersby, change my socks, source new bags to line my boots with, and duct-tape the cuff of my outer pants to my feet so water would at least have to try a little harder before making it through my defences. It was easily the most challenging riding I’ve ever done.

Holed Up

Sea Lions Lying on the BeachDespite the rogue weather, it felt amazing to be on the road. When I pulled over to ease the cramps in my shoulders and hands, the ocean vistas were wild, swarthy expanses of frothy waves and wind-bludgeoned trees. In Manzanita, Oregon, I narrowly missed a tornado that had touched down an hour before I passed through. Roads had just reopened, and though the 200 km/h winds had caused considerable damage to the town and buildings, fortunately, no one had been hurt. It was a humbling experience crawling through town, picking a careful line through shredded tree limbs and random detritus. The path where the tornado had crossed the road was clearly marked with trees completely smashed, power lines down, havoc and destruction everywhere. The wind was still furiously hammering the coast, everything felt raw and scary. I had never been so close to a natural disaster of that magnitude, and as soon as I could, I pulled over, took a hotel and holed up for two nights waiting out the weather.

I was thrilled to reach the northern border of California. The weather improved to merely “bad,” and there were even moments of watery, blustery sunshine. Near Eureka, I enjoyed warm hospitality from James, my first motostay. He and his daughter welcomed me into their home, allowed me to dry out my gear and myself, fed me and spoiled me rotten. It was to set the tone for the remainder of my trip, with complete strangers opening their doors and seeming to enjoy the visits as much as I was.

Passing over San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge truly felt as though I had crossed a threshold into “California.” The overcast lifted dramatically like a curtain and I easily slipped through the city. A friendly local surfer with a board considerably longer than his tiny car guided me quickly and safely out onto the Cabrillo Highway, beautiful Route 1. This was what I’d been waiting for. I opened the throttle along perfect, nearly empty twisties, between palm trees and sand dunes, under a bright blue California sky. The ocean had changed moods, and now winked and sparkled at me like a cheeky friend. I luxuriated for an evening in posh Carmel, where a fellow adventurer put me up, and we swapped stories all evening. Big Sur took the highway, lifted it into the sky and folded it back on itself over and over in tight, technical, empty switchbacks. I revelled in the warm, comfortable breeze as it tickled my nose with the scent of eucalyptus while my Tiger purred happily along. I was in heaven.

Burnt Rubber

Around this point, I realized that the long kilometres and extra weight had worn my tires much quicker than I had expected, and alarmingly, a little patch of steel belt was showing on my rear wheel. I called ahead to a shop in San Luis Obispo that could take me in in the morning and that had a decent selection of rubber in stock. The boys at CoastRiders Powersports traded me roughly half of my remaining budget for a set of Metzelers and several new lifelong friends. They then suggested that I detour from Route 1 and head inland to a much lesser-used route – 33 – which would spit me out at my next planned stop, Ojai. It may have been the single best piece of advice I’ve ever followed.

California State Route 33 started with a quick pit stop for stretches, a pee, a cold iced tea and easily the best pistachios I’ve ever eaten: organically grown, freshly roasted, and tossed with garlic or chili lime or just plain sea salt. There’s a short period of 40 km or so where it warms you up on a series of quick, gentle twisties and broad, grin-inducing sweepers. Then you make one final curve to the summit and everything you’ve ever loved about motorcycles suddenly comes together in one joyful, never-ending afternoon of absolutely primal delight. The pavement felt freshly laid; there wasn’t a crack or a piece of gravel to be seen. No cars or other traffic appeared ahead of me, the sun was hot and the wind highly scented with pitchy, spicy chaparral, pine and herbs.

My brand-new tires never once rode their centreline that afternoon as I pushed the loaded bike deep, deep into countless twists and turns and corkscrews and exhilarating plunges down steep canyons, through tunnels and past stunning vistas. It never seemed to end, and when it finally spit me out into gorgeous Ojai, I was exhausted, dusty and happier than I ever remember feeling in my adult life.

Devil in the Desert

The Twisting Road of Route 33The remainder of the road to Joshua Tree was a fast, windy highway, and I made good time through straight stretches of desert. I shunned the bigger routes and instead took the smaller, more direct route via Victorville, approaching Joshua Tree from due west. In Victorville, I lost the highway for a bit and finally had to pull over for directions. A strongly built, swarthy man at a tattoo parlour looked somewhat surprised when I pulled in. He had huge forearms, neck tattoos and a strong Hispanic accent, and when I asked how to get to the Lucerne Valley, he replied, “No, man, you don’ wanna go there. I been there, man, there ain’t nuthin’! The Devil, he went there, too. He screamed for two days and no one heard him!”

He did, however, point me in the right direction, and still chuckling about a place so desolate that it could make the Devil scream for two days, I finished the last of the road south. The event I was attending in Joshua Tree was dusty, hot and as much fun as you’d expect a gathering of 1,600 or so women on motorcycles. Many rides, drinks, hugs, meals, new friends and good times later, I reluctantly pointed my front tire north and headed for home.

I now had new friends to visit along the way: girls from the event, the guys from the shop in San Luis Obispo. A host in Santa Cruz met me in Big Sur and led me through a series of back roads that, even on a fully loaded bike, were tight and fun enough to have me laughing out loud as we snaked up impossibly tight and steep canyon walls. Often I could see my guide 12 to 15 metres directly above me on the road, and the bike rarely made it out of first and second gear for nearly an hour. Another friendly, generous host and another evening of superb company and storytelling.

Trick or Treat?

The rain met me shortly after San Francisco and kept me company all the way home to Vancouver Island. I rolled into my own garage on Halloween night, wet, tired, happy, fully 100 per cent over budget, and ready to hit the road again in the morning. My first big solo mission was a complete, utter success and had lit the fires of inspiration for more trips in the future.

The saying about packing for a trip is true: Lay out all of your gear and all of your money before a trip. Then take half the gear and twice the money. My motto, through all the weather and adventure and crazy loneliness and beauty, became “Do or don’t.” Despite a grievous financial situation and no real ability to take time off work, I had chosen “Do.” And as always, it was the best decision of my life…

4 Comment

  1. Claire meeting you in person was every bit as thrilling as reading your beautiful words!!! Your writing is spectacular!!!

  2. Beautifully written! Loved hearing about your adventure! There’s nothing like adversity on a trip to flash out the steel in our souls. Ride on sister!

  3. Clair love this piece 👍

    Captures all I love about big solo rides into the unknown P

  4. Very well written article its inspiring. I will add State Route 33 to my bucket list. Im also a big fan of Triumph glad to see a fellow rider enjoying the brand. Thanks Claire

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