Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Best of Backmarker: California Dreamin'

Mother Nature has dumped two late-season blizzards on Kansas City in the last week. Wintery conditions here have coincided with emails from Mary, who spent the week in Big Sur, where it was 70 degrees. That reminded me of a story I wrote for Hugo Wilson, then the editor of Classic Bike five or six years ago...

I blame Hugo.

“All we want you to do is go and ride a few classic Southern California roads on your BMW, and tell us about it,” he wrote. “The weather’s still crap here, but you’re out in the warm sun. I’m calling your story ‘California Beemin’, but I’m sure between the two of us we’ll come up with a better title before it goes to press.”

Thanks to Hugo, that Mamas and the Papas’ song is stuck in my head, so it had better be the title of this story–if only to provide me with a little closure–or I’ll be humming it until summer.

The truth is, the BMW (like just about everything I own) may well have to be sold as part of my divorce settlement. I’ve been a little out of sorts over it, and needed a kick in the ass to get out riding anyway. I can’t go too far without hitting snow in the mountains, or torrential rain up the coast, but I can think of three or four roadhouses the /5 and I can hit for old times’ sake.

First stop: Mother’s Kitchen, Mount Palomar, San Diego County

From where I live, in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, I wind through orange and avocado groves, and past a couple of big Indian casinos. (We took their land and forced them onto reserves–almost always land white settlers imagined would never be of any use. Now, they’re ripping us off. Fair’s fair.)

There are two roads up to Palomar’s summit. The South Grade makes the 3,000-foot climb in seven miles of linked hairpins; the East Grade is longer, faster and bumpier. I used to road-test contemporary bikes up there on one of my old jobs; it was like having a target on my back. That’s one of the nice things about riding the BMW–I’m not compelled to have a death match with every 20 year-old on a ’blade.

All the leaves are brown gone/and the sky is grey trees are black

The recent wildfires burned right over the mountain, and subsequent heavy rains have left a few patches dirty. I roll slowly past two guys who are standing over a crashed Yamaha. They don’t need my help.

As I climb towards 5,000 feet, I feel the power soften, but I’m in the mood to flow anyway, not race between corners. I feel the limits of the old bike’s suspension, and wonder if I’ll ever get around to updating the shocks and revalving the fork. It sags and wallows, though there’s plenty of leverage in the wide handlebar to bring it back under control.

At the top, there’s a pretty good café, Mother’s Kitchen, though it’s vegetarian–how California is that? I park up beside a GSX-R1000 painted in U.S. flag colors. The rider’s about the size of a bantam rooster, but when he tells me he’s from Oceanside, I know he’s a Marine based down there at Camp Pendleton. It’s the home of the First Marine Expeditionary Force (1MEF), which has been doing most of the heavy lifting in Iraq. A second glance, and I can see that despite his size, he’s capable of pulling his weight.

Second stop: Cook’s Corners, Live Oak Canyon Road, Orange County

‘The OC’ used to be orchards and ranches, although since WWII it’s been malled, walled, and turned into Los Angeles’ sprawling bedroom. There are still a few good roads in the hills, though. Live Oak Canyon Road is one of them. When I get there, a squall has just passed over, and the overhanging trees and glistening pavement put me in the mind of Leyzare Parish, on the Isle of Man. That impression is reinforced when I find a roadside memorial to four or five bikers.

My next stop, the roadhouse at Cook’s Corners, puts me right back in the U.S. Thanks to the rain, there’s only one other bike in the parking lot when I pull in for lunch, but on a sunny Saturday, there’d be 200 or more Harleys out front.

Cook’s has been a roadhouse since the ’20s. Originally, the customers were local farmers, but it was gradually taken over by a pretty rough crowd. For a while, in fact, the air force squadron that leant its name to the Hells’ Angels was based an easy ride away, in Fontana. 

The food’s pretty good, especially if you’re a cardiologist. Despite the lack of hogs in the parking lot, just about all the customers have ZZ Top beards and order beer by the pitcher. I can’t tell whether the guys grumpily leaning on the pool table are still waking up, or already passing out. Then Jeff ‘Meatball’ Tulinius, a semi-legendary mechanic wanders in. He, at least, gives me someone to talk to. He tells me that he’s just been the subject of a documentary film, Brittown, about L.A.’s britbike culture, and invites me to the premiere in a couple of weeks. Cool.

Third stop: The Rock Store, Mulholland Highway, Los Angeles County

I’d be safe, and warm/If I was in L.A

Or, maybe not. My third roadhouse, Newcomb’s Ranch, is up on the Angeles Crest Highway, which is one of the best roads out of the Los Angeles basin. Unfortunately, the 7,000-foot San Gabriel Mountains that overshadow Pasadena are deep in snow for the first time in years. 

So I cut over to Highway 101, along the coast. In Santa Monica, I meet up with Paul and Becca Livingston, of Falkner-Livingston Racing. They’re two-up on Ducati Hypermotard. I let them choose a route to the Rock Store on Mulholland Highway. Of the classic SoCal roadhouses, it’s the closest to Hollywood, and one of the places stars go, when their publicists tell them it’d boost their image to seem like bikers.

Since the Livingstons are on a Hypermo’, they choose a particularly winding back route into the hills, up Latigo Canyon.  Malibu was recently burned over, too, and winter rains have washed a lot of mud over the road, again. Downshifting to first for the countless hairpins reminds me that matching revs is not just a matter of blipping the throttle for this big old twin. I need to take an extra moment to really let the engine get up to speed and even then it’s still a BMW tranny. I’m sure they can hear the clunk back there on their Ducati.

It’s funny; L.A. riders think they have winter, too. So the crowd’s much sparser than it would be. Still, there are vintage café racers, modern crotch rockets and supermotards, as well as the usual cruisers and choppers. Rock Store’s a sort of demilitarized zone, where they all get along. The Livingstons and I go into the café for burgers, and they tell me about their plans to run Malcolm Smith in the vintage class at Pikes Peak this summer.

The bikes in the parking lot all made the beemer seem pretty dowdy. Since splitting with my wife, I’ve been staying with a friend a few blocks from the beach, where the salt’s taken a toll. The ally’s growing white fur, the beautiful wide handlebar is shedding its chrome, and the seat’s developed a deep crack. As I ride back south, I wonder if I’ll ever get around to fixing any of that stuff, or just sell it and split the money, since there’s no way I can buy out her half.

Stopped into a church/I passed along the way. 

Well, I parked in front of one anyhow. I just needed a coffee. There’s an old mission in San Juan Capistrano that dates from the time when this was all Mexico. It occurs to me that the bike’s running fine, despite showing its age. So maybe I could just keep going south, and cross the border into Baja. Her lawyer would never find me there.

If I didn’t tell her/I could leave today
Oh California dreamin’/On such a winter’s day

UPDATE: I did, in the end, have to give the BMW to my ex-wife. She left it parked outside, a mile from the ocean, for several years before telling me that if I wanted it, she guessed I could take it. By that time I'd married the correct wife, but didn't have the resources to resurrect the bike. I traded it to my friend Jim Carns, who drove out to California from Kansas City to collect it. He's since restored the machine and Mary and I have since moved to Kansas City, so I suppose I have visiting rights to it.

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