PACIFIC COAST TOUR: Southern California
by Douglas Chasar
Over two years since conception, the final details of our ride along the Pacific coast are put into place and we eagerly await the date of departure. Culminating nearly 4000 miles of Interstates and Scenic highways, our travels take us just miles away from the Mexican border to the south and the Canadian border to the north. Only weeks before Wendy and I are scheduled to leave for the Pacific coast, my bike's alternator fails nearly putting an end to the trip before it even begins. Fortunately, I am able to scramble quickly enough to replace the defective part a few days before we leave.

Day 1 - Glendale, AZ to Thousand Oaks, CA

All systems checked and ready, we load up the Valkyrie and head out. It's the beginning of the monsoon season, and heavy clouds loom in the early morning sky, obscuring the sun as it appears in the east. Leaving Glendale, Arizona, we jump on Loop 101 and head south and west to the junction with I-10, which takes us west to Buckeye, where we turn onto Highway 85 heading south to Gila bend. In Gila Bend, we make our first fuel stop before continuing west on I-8. The long road from Gila Bend to Yuma carries little traffic in the early morning. The cloud cover remains, and a few drops of rain sting as they pelt my face and arms. Opening the throttle, we make good time to Yuma where we stop for gas and put on our helmets before entering California.

The wind picks up as we travel through the Imperial Sand Dunes Recreational Area, and we are both thankful for the protection from the sand blasting our helmets provide. I-8 continues through El Centro in a rather unremarkable, straight line. As the sun climbs, clouds continue to shade us from the heat of southern California. When we reach Ocotillo, the road begins to twist and climb. Fields of huge boulders cover the landscape along the interstate. As we ride into the higher elevation the air grows cooler. Winding our way along I-8 through the Manzanita and La Posta Indian Reservations, we turn onto Highway 79 at Pine Valley and begin our trek north.

The long, mundane ride between Gila Bend and Ocotillo is immediately forgotten as Highway 79 twists and winds its way through the Cleveland National Forest. Manzanita and oak dominate the landscape, occasionally breaking to reveal shallow lakes resting in wide, open fields. The spectacular scenery and beautiful climate lift our spirits as we continue to Julian, where we stop for lunch. Farms and orchards stretch into the distance, illustrating the region's agricultural economy. We proceed to Santa Ysabel and take Highway 76 further north and west. The picturesque landscape continues as we pass Lake Henshaw, and ride casually through Pauma Valley and the La Jolla, Rincon and Pala Indian Reservations.

Highway 76 eventually intersects with I-15, and we continue north through the towns of Temecula, Murietta, and Lake Elsinore. Rolling hills carpeted bright green in January are now golden with dry grass. Traffic is light as we make our way north to I-10. I realize we could have avoided the southern detour and simply continued west on I-10 from Arizona, but then we would have missed the highway through the Cleveland National Forest. This ride is all about the scenery, so I feel the extra time in the saddle is well worth it.

Several miles south of I-10 the scenic ride comes to a halt as we enter the perimeter of Los Angeles' urban sprawl. Witnessing a thick gray-brown haze to the west, I assume drought and the heat of summer has sparked a fire. I then realize the haze is not smoke but smog, and the fire is in the internal combustion engines of millions of cars. As we return to I-10, traffic becomes heavier and heavier until we reach a standstill. For miles the stop-and-go traffic continues. Legal in California, several riders split the lanes riding between halted traffic, though I decide to remain patient. I notice an 18-wheeler in the adjacent lane, and don't give the truck a second thought, then traffic ahead of me comes to an abrupt stop. I'm filled with a sense of dread as the low whine and scrape of rubber grinding against asphalt pierces its way through my helmet. The bitter tang of pure adrenaline fills my mouth. With nowhere to go, I can only cringe and wait for the impending crunch and tinkle of broken plastic and glass. After a second stretched out to an eternity, the truck comes to a halt several feet off my right shoulder and half as much from the car in front of it. Heart pumping and the sound of blood surging in my ears, I continue, trying to keep one eye on the traffic ahead of me and another behind.

We eventually make our way to Los Angeles proper, riding through Hollywood until I-10 becomes Highway 101. Our destination for the day is Thousand Oaks just west of L.A. where we plan to spend the night with Wendy's former college roommate, Shelly, her husband, Jeff and their daughter, Isabella. Though the late afternoon is warm, the morning's cloud cover persists, keeping us from the heat of the direct sun. After 11 hours in the saddle and traveling 534 miles, we finally reach our destination taking the edge off the ride with a few cold beers. The evening settles down with good conversation and a home-cooked meal washed down with a couple glasses of rich Merlot.

Day 2 - Thousand Oaks, CA to San Francisco

We wake early the next morning prepared for another long day on the road. Skipping breakfast, we pack the bike, give our thanks for the meal and the overnight stay, and say a quick goodbye. At Jeff's suggestion, we take Highway 23 to Highway 1, the historic Pacific Coast Highway. Highway 23 is characterized by sharp, hairpin turns twisting and climbing among hilltop mansions before descending to the coast. No guardrails or barriers line the narrow road to keep motorists from plunging over the steep drop-offs along the edge. Entering a tight corner, a coyote springing from a cluster of shrubs distracts me and I nearly take the turn too wide. The mishap sets my heart racing providing a more-than-adequate substitution for my missed cup of coffee.

A light haze fills the crisp morning air, concealing the Pacific Ocean as we descend and meet Highway 1. Once at sea level we get our first glimpse of the Pacific Ocean, and as we continue, wide, sweeping curves trace the coastline. I begin to think I can handle a road like this for the next 10 hours. Unfortunately, the highway along the coast doesn't last. Instead, Highway 1 turns inland and intersects with Highway 101. We cruise along Highway 101 through Santa Barbara until it meets up again with Highway 1 near Gaviota. Desiring to see as much of the coast as possible, I return to Highway 1 rather than continuing on the 101. Unfortunately, the PCH strays from the coast, though the winding mountain road holds its own unique scenery; a series of wide sweeping roads rolling through grass-covered hills. We stop in Lompoc for breakfast before passing through alternating industrial compounds and agricultural farmland. Endless fields of strawberries and cherries add a sweet fragrance to the air. The highway passes through a number of small towns slowing our progress along the coast, so at the next chance I decide to hop onto Highway 101 to make up for lost time.

This decision turns out to be both a mistake and a blessing. On one hand, Highway 101 begins to veer further and further from the coast. On the other, it gives me a chance to find a route back to the PCH. We stop for gas and consult our atlas, all the while making comments about how hot the day has grown. We discover only backtracking twenty miles or so, we can reach Highway 46, which takes us back to the coast. Along this route we experience another beautiful stretch of highway sweeping back and forth in wide arcs through the Santa Lucia Range. As we approach the coast, the air chills, and I'm fascinated by the dramatic climate change just thirty miles inland.

Along the coast, the next hundred miles are nothing less than spectacular. Highway 1 traces the coast in a series of twists, turns, hairpins, arcs and a few long, straight stretches providing an endless view of the blue horizon where ocean meets sky. The occasional RV hinders our progress, but most drivers oblige by pulling off to the side of the road allowing us to safely pass. A number of touring bikes and cruisers rumble by in the opposite direction, the riders throwing a wave in the universal greeting. A few sport bikes speed past, racing up hills and whipping around corners and tight turns with great agility. Meanwhile my helmet conceals an ear-to-ear grin splitting my face as I get lost in the rhythmic motion leaning my bike in and out of turns. The coastal scenery disappears as we enter the Los Padres National Forest, but the ride remains magnificent.

At slow speeds, hours pass before we need to refuel. By this time Wendy and I are both saddle worn and agree to take a leg-stretching break when we reach Big Sur. Removing our helmets, we pace around the bike, nursing a Mountain Dew while sharing our memories of the past few hours. We pull out the atlas trying to determine how much longer it will be before we reach today's destination, San Francisco. I estimate 3-4 hours, but so far my calculations have been off.

We settle back on the bike and continue our adventure. Reaching Monterey, traffic increases and the speed limit drops, throwing my calculations further off. As we ride along the shores of Monterey Bay, the sun begins to drift toward the western horizon. The coastal air chills in the dwindling sunlight. Though I am wearing a heated vest, it is malfunctioning for some reason. I steel myself against the cold and carry on. We've seen the best of what today's ride has to offer and now we are simply eager to make it to San Francisco. A few hours later we make one last fuel stop. After checking the atlas, we realize we've hit a milestone: We have finally traveled beyond what our atlas calls southern California. Now we can turn to the northern California page, but San Francisco is still an hour away.

The time passes rather quickly, and before we know it, we need to dig out the map locating our hotel in downtown San Francisco. The directions seem simple enough: Follow Highway 1 to Geary Boulevard, head east to Powell Street and we can't miss the hotel. However, things are rarely as simple as they seem, and we end up passing the hotel and getting lost in a labyrinth of one-way streets and 45-degree intersections in the heart of downtown San Francisco. To make matters worse, we have arrived early Saturday night, and the streets are beginning to pulse with nighttime activity. Pedestrians wander everywhere, crossing the narrow streets and halting traffic. Taxicabs stop whenever and wherever in an attempt to pick up the next fare. Traffic lights cause an insane gridlock one has to wonder whether or not will ever get untangled. After nearly an hour of frustration trying to pinpoint our hotel, I take advantage of my bike's maneuverability and weave in and out of stationary vehicles, likely breaking half a dozen traffic laws.

I finally spot our hotel, but have to circle the block twice to find the actual entrance. A sense of relief overcomes me when Wendy hops off the bike to verify our room reservation. I take the opportunity to stretch my legs and ask the doorman where I can park. He directs me to a public garage a few blocks away. Wendy returns with a hotel key, and my relief deepens. I unload the luggage from the bike, then get back in the saddle to park it for the evening. I wonder how safe my bike will be in the public facility, but shrug off the worry and make my way back to the hotel.

After unpacking and washing off a day's worth of road grime, we head to the bar downstairs for a nerve-settling drink. The bartender informs us the best of San Francisco's nightlife is just a short cab ride away. Today we have covered 484 miles, and, after 12 hours in the saddle, traveling is the last thing on our minds. We settle for a second round, discussing our favorite experiences of the ride, then return to our room for a quiet night alone.

The next day will see us along more beautiful coastline, and another unintended detour providing more spectacular scenery. We travel along the PCH through Fort Bragg, Eureka and the Redwood National Forest before reaching our destination, Brookings, Oregon, where we'll spend a day recuperating in the small coastal community in preparation for the last leg of our trek north along the Pacific coast.

Ride safe, ride often...hell, just ride! - dpc

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