Tuesday, 24 March 2009

Born to be Mild

I have written a few little anecdotes, since I started this blog, connected to my long association with motorcycles. Here’s a little travellers tale about an `organised guided tour` we took a few years ago. I hope it paints a picture for you of what can be enjoyed from the saddle of a motorcycle. But let’s get one thing straight, Steppenwolf’s “Magic Carpet Ride” was much better than “Born to be Wild”, which is so clichéd-out that I’ve immediately regretted mentioning it. I just wanted to make the point that although I’ve been a motorcyclist since before ‘Easy Rider‘ and I’m English and I ride a Harley Davidson, it doesn’t mean I get all misty-eyed when some travel programme does a motorcycle feature and uses the obligatory, ‘Born to be bloody Wild‘ as an intro, OK? In any case I also ride a BMW but these travel programmes never play that German song “The Happy Wanderer” do they. Now, where were we? Oh yes, Los Angeles. It’s E-Day. ‘E‘ is for an “Eaglerider” 2,800 mile guided motorcycle ride around the cowboy trails of the American Wild West and this is how it goes.

Starting and finishing at Eaglerider’s main base in LA, you’ll go through, temperatures from minus 2 to plus 45C and elevations of 282 below, to 10,000 nose-bleeding feet above sea level, the latter in one day. As well as entering 4 States, several cities and 2 deserts (The Nevada and Mojave) you’ll cross a time-zone, enter Death Valley alive, and come out again more so. The Joshua Tree National Park will touch your heart, Arizona’s Route 66 will take you back to a forgotten era, The Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon and Yosemite will…sorry, still can’t describe them. You’ll follow the tyre tracks of Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda into Monument Valley, cruise the Las Vegas strip, cross The Golden Gate Bridge and end your travels down The Pacific Coast Highway, with a quick coffee in Clint Eastwood’s hometown of Carmel. (He was out when we rolled in, so we couldn’t make his day). Some of the worlds finest and most dramatic scenery is thrown in for free and all this on a motorcycle that was made to ride this amazing country. You can ride the first or second 7 days or go the whole hog for 2 weeks, and if you hire one of their bikes (they’re happy for you to bring your own) a Hog is what you’ll get. The latest Harley-Davidson range is on offer and they’re all pretty damn smooth. Sportsters and Dyna’s are not too kind to long haul pillions and don’t all come with a screen or big-arse pillion seat as standard, so an Electra Glide, or Road King is highly recommended if you plan to carry a passenger. An Eaglerider guided ride means you shouldn’t need a map (although on 2 occasions rider’s were lost, but thankfully reunited). Your biker guide knows diners, bars and proper tourist spots. The support vehicle takes your luggage (yes, real suitcases) and trailer’s a spare bike! Accommodation is American 3 Star hotels, all the way. I can hear bike clubbers, muttering ‘wimps‘, but after a blat across The Nevada Desert, this cowboy and his wife appreciated a bit of comfort. This was a motorcycle ride where on some days we were covering 340 miles through some pretty tough territory, not a pussyfoot bimble down the old A30. To quote an old Harley Davidson truism, “It’s the journey, not the destination” and these days our destination has to have a real bed and a shower. For the first half there were 23 of us on 16 bikes – only 2 lady riders, one was an Australian Harley owner, so at least there were 3 of us who rode God's motorcycle at home. To our disappointment there was only 1 American biker present. Will, a 72 year old from Tallahassee, Florida was a game guy who was ‘doing what he should’ve done 20 years ago‘. After this trip he was booked on one of the last Concorde flights. All power to him though. Life savings must be spent whilst one is still alive. We were cheered to find that 4 more Americans were joining us on the 2nd half from Las Vegas. A husband, wife, daughter and son-in-law from Des Moines, Iowa, all keen bikers and, as it turned out, real good sports and great company. I am still in touch with them. Another bonus of this type of trip is meeting one’s fellow travellers and swapping life’s experiences. A welcome speech from the guides and staff was followed by a very basic riding briefing and a 10-minute van ride to complete the admin, sign our lives away and do what we’d come to do, collect the bikes. After what seemed an age, we get our motors running and head out on the highway – Doh, (personal note: Don’t mention ‘Born to be bloody Wild‘ again). It must be quite a challenge for a guide to take on a crowd of foreign bikers, on foreign roads and on bikes they’ve probably never ridden before. Our guide was a good guy and a most competent rider, but I got the distinct feeling, as you do, that we were among mixed experience here. That proved to be correct but, as people who like to focus on the positive, one makes adjustments and tries to be helpful.

LA freeways are 8 lane vehicular nuthouses but 90% of this trip is on roads that are, by UK standards, deserted. Full leathers cook you very quickly out here, but I don’t do T-shirts so we bought ourselves Joe Rocket and Belstaff airmesh jackets. Both proved to be superb garments for the conditions, had decent armour and actually kept us cooler and less burnt than the ‘T‘ shirted. Utah is for the bareheaded brigade so there are plenty of chances to get out the bandana, but American bugs are big and don’t half hurt! Wear a helmet. Goggles are essential either way, as the helmets provided are half-dome, which I actually quite liked. As the terrain and roads get more rugged, so can the newcomers. Harley’s, despite their size, are easy rides and with that low down weight they handle really well, especially the big tourers although this didn't stop me from riding into the back of my old police buddy in Monterey, knocking him and his wife into the street - how embarrassing for two ex traffic cops! We were doing a whole 2 mph at one of those stupid American `4 Way Crossroads` where you throw dice to see who goes first. Please, somebody, re-invent the good old British roundabout. No damage, 2 bruises, one of them my ego.

The full itinery for this and other fantastic rides can be found on Eaglerider’s excellent website, but here are a few of our special moments as they tumble out of my memory:

Cruising through the magnificence of Joshua Tree National Park on dirt roads and seeing… Joshua Trees! The edge of the Mojave in the town of Twenty Nine Palms, feeling the heat of its desert heart (thank you Robert Plant, now I understand). Crossing The Mojave. Indian shacks with yards full of trucks and old V8 engines, spiralling dust devils. Rugged, wild, sweeping vistas, moonscapes and mountains on the horizon with the occasional tumbleweed bowling across the road that makes your fingers instinctively snap around the brake lever until your mind processes what your eyes have just spotted. Vast dried up salt lakes. Rumbling dehydrated, into the hamlet of Amboy, an oasis on Route 66, the big V-twin like a furnace between our legs. Drinks and fuel are expensive out here, but in the land of the parched and fuel-less, the convenience store owner is King. We paid up for the drinks with no complaints, drank, and then saw the town’s sign that made us realise our arrival had just doubled Amboy’s population. There were 23 of us. Poor old Amboy has died and been reborn again since we rolled in, so I hope the store is back in business again but that place is hotter than a snakes arse in a wagon rut. These roads allow you to sit back and feel the force of the Milwaukee V-twin that powers these motorcycles that I’ve loved since I was a teenager and which were made to cross this land. There’s precious little in that big, under-stressed engine that’s thinner than your wrist and with the distances between civilisations out here, there just ain’t no substitute for cubic capacity and big twin Harley’s are very predictable and very forgiving beasties. There are no roads in the UK to compare with Route 66, “The Mother Road”. The vast space and naked beauty of this part of Uncle Sam’s garden has a mystical, rugged quality that beggar’s description – well from this writer at least. Mile long trains shadowing us, calling out with their klaxons. Clanging bells at rail crossings. 50’s roadside diners, selling their heritage and milkshakes. The Grand Canyon is over 200 miles long and a mile deep, with weather systems all of its own. Put another way, when standing at one of the viewpoints, you are over 1,000 feet higher than the highest point in the UK. Huge thunderclouds, frightening lightning and blinding squalls greeted us as we rode into Grand Canyon resort. So this is where Americans get the word ‘awesome‘. Actually, ‘awesome‘ isn’t a big enough word for this place. Utah, beautiful Utah and for us, the most outstanding place in the whole journey, Monument Valley, homeland of the wonderful Navajo Indians and John Ford epic Western movies. I’ve mentioned Monument Valley in an earlier post but I think it’s worth another few lines. I loved the Navajo, they were just wonderful. This is where Captain America and Billy rode in at sunset on their fateful Easy Rider trip to New Orleans. It is quite a place. I slept the sleep of a happy contented man that night.

Next day, the 340 mile ride across Utah from Medicine Hat, across the Goosenecks to Bryce Canyon, rates as the best day I have ever spent on a motorcycle and, frustratingly for Mrs Hogday, the day when her cold was so bad she had to take to the support vehicle which wasn’t quite the same, but does mean she will have to come and do it again! The group chose to split up for a while, with the blessing of the guide. We'd just crossed Lake Powell and this was the only road leading to lunch in Hanksville, so no one was getting lost. I left a five-minute gap and set off, riding alone at 60mph for 25 miles without seeing another human being. Eagles soared, tumbleweed tumbled, mountains graced the horizon all around me and with that engine rumbling as only a Harley V-twin can, I fired up the cd player with some CCR and tried to out sing John Fogerty (He was the undisputed King of Glastonbury 2007, by the way - so says my daughter who followed Dad's explicit instructions to see him at all costs).

I stopped at a garage and diner to fuel up, wondering where I was. I met the guy who I think stacked the shelves in the little supermarket, or maybe he was his assistant. He asked me where I was from. “England” I replied. He gave me a very blank look. “Where ya headed?” “Hanksville”. His expression changed to one of confusion. “Well THIS is Hanksville”. “Great, I’ve arrived”. He seemed even more confused. “You didn’t KNOW you was in Hanksville??” “No I didn't”. I smiled at him. He repeated, but more slowly, “You didn’t know you was in Hanksville? Where d’ya say you was from?”. I think he was considering pulling a gun on me, but by now the rest of the group rolled in and I joined them for lunch. The diner had the most beautiful young girl serving. Could this be Neil Young's `Unknown Legend`? One of our comrades sidled up to me, nodded towards the lovely young lady and said to me, “You know what she has definitely got to do?” I couldn’t imagine what he was getting at so I said, “No, what?” Without taking his eyes off her he sighed and said, “She’s got to get out of Hanksville, that’s what”.

Bryce Canyon was jaw dropping, gob-smacking, bizarre and beautiful. Next day, after another hot and dusty ride we rolled in to Las Vegas and dismounted at out hotel, a typically glitzy palace of a place – The Imperial Palace to be precise. We stood there in the lobby with a thousand light bulbs and watched as nicely dressed tourists eyed us suspiciously. Well there were 18 Harley Davidsons propped up, with their riders and passengers covered in dust and bandanas picking flies out of their teeth so I guess we looked like The Wild Bunch. I felt we needed to set the good folks minds at rest, so soon as I had the chance I said, in my best, loudest posh English accent, “Is it possible to order a pot of tea and some digestive biscuits?” I swear there was an audible collective sigh of relief from the retirees of middle America who were, moments earlier, re-considering their chosen accommodation.

2 days ‘rest‘ in Las Vegas, with a large night out along ‘The Strip‘ with the bikes. Handsome big eats at The Harley-Davidson Café and then a cruise through the neon, past the ‘Little Chapels of Lurv‘ (‘Roll up, roll up, Minister performs service dressed as Elvis for an extra $30‘) to the original Downtown Vegas, you know, where the big neon cowboy is? He’s now under cover and part of a massive light and sound show every night. The Who never sounded so good. Las Vegas is outrageous, ostentatious, magnificent and tacky and it does all of the aforementioned so very well. We loved it, but then I'm from Essex.

Death Valley. The lowest, hottest place on the planet. What a place for your starter motor to pack up. Thankfully there were plenty of us to push-start it into life. (2 days later and Eaglerider at San Francisco sorted us out with a brand new Road King). First port of call on leaving the ‘Valley‘, was a roadside diner for food and fuel and herein lies another travellers tale. An Aussie couple on their way back (to Australia, of course) saw the line of bikes and stopped their Electra Glide to join us. They’d come diagonally across the entire Country from the Harley 100th celebrations in Milwaukee. Having a soft spot for Aussie’s, I leave this little extract from the animated conversation we had with them, as a sort of example of this particular Australian male of the species: “So would you bloody believe it, Elton bloody John appears on stage as the surprise star guest and I swear that 5000 people turned and walked off. Well we joined ‘em. We hadn’t ridden 12,000 flaming miles to listen to a Pommie Pooftah”. (Don’t shoot me, that's exactly what he said).

Riding up Tioga Pass into the Sierra Nevada Mountains, home of Yosemite National Park, saw us cruising at just under 10,000 feet above sea level. The bike wasn’t the only one gasping for breath in the thin air. The granite magnificence of Glacier Point and the views, like Grand Canyon, have to be seen to be fully absorbed. A road that had the Softails scraping their boards, led to the Point through thousands of huge scented pines, with the occasional silver fox appearing at the roadside before retreating in the wake of a dozen thumping Hogs. The road home was out of San Francisco, our second 2-night stopover. Through those streets where Steve McQueen's `Bullitt`chased that Dodge Charger. Onto The Pacific Coast Highway and South into California’s beach and surf territory. For us, this was a bit tame after the natural magnificence we had ridden through, but an experience all the same. A final ride through LA and our guide gave us a bonus tour of the Hollywood Hills, Sunset Strip, Rodeo Drive and he even included the toilets where a geezer called George Michael got arrested for talking to a cop. Well that’s what he told us, but I don’t know the bloke he was talking about or why he was nicked. Would we go again? Yes, no hesitation, in fact we must. Although I don’t know if I’d go in a group again. I have always preferred riding alone or with a small group of trusted riders, as we like to know who it is we're following into a bend - it's personal, just a biker thing - but hey we can do this thing with a small group as well. Was it worth every hard earned penny? Oh yes, even if you aren’t really born to be wild.


Blue Eyes said...


Sounds like the kind of trip I would love to go on - except I don't ride a bike...

powdergirl said...

Sounds like a fantastic time, thanks for the morning read!
45 degrees though? whew ! That would take some getting used to.

Evil Twin's Wife said...

Sounds like quite an adventure. You should next visit the East Coast. :-)

Anonymous said...

You ride like we ride............. It is awesome isnt it.... I am in agreement with the above poster, you need to go up the coast of the norteast........... Maine is absolutely gorgeous and has wonderful road to ride, cheap lobster and is so very scenic, we try and do that trip every year. Best time to do it is in Sept. no tourist!!!!

Anonymous said...

Reminds me of why I love riding so much. I've ridden those places and they're gorgeous.

Let us know next time you want to ride in the US. Mrs. Long Rider and I will take you through the Shenandoah Valley and down the Blueridge Parkway. Maybe a quick ride on a stretch of road here called Tail of the Dragon, 318 curves in 11 1/2 miles.

Vetnurse said...

Sounds fantastic. Wish l was still into riding bikes not that l ever did the big ones just a c70 and a 100cc thingy l never much liked it was just sort of gloopy.

Bryce canyon is amazing mind you so much of America out of the city's is lovely.

Bitches In Blue said...

Beautiful Pics !!!
I have heard how gr8 it is to ride but I have seen so many police officers killed on there bikes off duty its scary.

Dark Side said...

It looks and sounds absolutely amazing...

Annette said...

Pictures are great and it sounds like you had a fab time.

Hogday said...

For those who don't ride: Just find someone who does and split the cost!

PG: Believe it or not, the heat was so dry you didn't even perspire - instant evapouration = creeping dehydration. We were cooler wearing our airmesh jackets!

ETW: Yes, Its on the list. Maybe via Nova Scotia and across to Ann Arbor when we next hop the pond.

CPDc: Ahh, the great Pine Tree State!

Vetnurse: The bigger they are, the easier it gets! (Until you have to pick it up)

B's in B: Ride steady, live long ;)

Darkside: Therapy, that's what it is.

Annette: Very do'able. Where there's Will (with a bike) there's a way.

Daisy said...

I'd never get on a motorcycle again, but it sounds like a blast.

And the pictures are fantastic. :)

Be safe out there.