Days 41 – 45 Sideways and Byways

San Francisco, CA – Napa, CA – San Francisco, CA

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With my motorcycle safely in the shop, Ali and I decided that we should use our bike-free time to visit our old haunts in Napa Valley and also explore some new vineyards. Napa is obviously a huge epicurean playground. It’s pretty hard to find a bad meal anywhere, and vineyards litter Route 29 with tasting rooms and cellar tours. In fact, my wife and I have probably visited Napa over 10 times in the last 10 years, and during this last trip – I had an epiphany.

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It’s not as great as it used to be.

Now hear me out. It’s still terrific, and if you haven’t gone – you should absolutely check it out. You’ll have a marvelous time and eat like you never had before. But you might have had a better time 10 years ago.

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With the exception of Chimney Rock, Ali and I visited about 6 vineyards that were all good, but not great. That would be fine, except that every vineyard in Napa Valley is now charging $20 – $40 dollars for a tasting flight. Think about that. You’re really paying $20 (or more!) for what amounts to a glass and a half of wine. At the upper end, you’re actually tasting sips of wine that would be cost prohibitive to buy an entire bottle (i.e. at $40 tastings, you’re drinking $150 – $200 bottles of wine), so I guess that’s OK.

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But bear in mind that most tastings in Napa used to be free. And on top of that, none of the wine struck me as that great (not bad, just not great) which was in direct contrast to the platitudes espoused by the tasting room employees. And again, 10 years ago you’d be having the winemaker or owner walking you through their vineyards and talking you through each of their wines. Now it’s an out-of-work actor in a Hawaiian shirt reciting a routine script written by the owner who probably lives in New York regarding the wine you’re drinking.

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Please don’t get me wrong! It’s an amazing time, and I had a ton of fun. But I sort of feel like someone’s Grandpa describing what flying was like in the 1950s on Pan Am versus being crammed onto a Spirit Airways flight to Fort Lauderdale. It’s still a miracle just to have achieved the gift of flight, but we’re sort of talking apples and oranges.

Ali and I had the pleasure of staying in the town of Napa which is located right on the Napa River which now has a lovely boardwalk – ideal to watch to 4th of July fireworks.

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After 2 days of wining and dining, we headed back to San Francisco to pick up the newly renovated Bumblebee. I think you can see in the photos that the repair work was quite an improvement. She’s now ready to finish the drive up the coast and back home to New York. I love that bike so damn much!

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Before

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After

Next stop: Up the West Coast to Portland & Seattle

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY:

The bloom is off the rose in Napa. I’ve heard numerous wine experts lament the fact that many winemakers now think they can slap a label on a bottle that says Napa Valley and automatically charge $70 a bottle, regardless of quality. The fact is, it’s hard to grow a bad grape there, but it’s starting to get a bit egregious – not that it slowed our consumption one bit.

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Days 37-40 California Dreaming

Solvang, CA – San Luis Obispo, CA – Carmel, CA – San Francisco, CA

The time had come to leave the Tyrolean oasis of Solvang and head further north up the West Coast to meet my wife Ali in San Luis Obispo. There, we would be staying at the home of her friends and colleagues, Tom and Alison Mendoza. It felt good, as it always does, to get back on the bike after a long spell.

But as I drove up the coast, some of the damage of the last few weeks started to really present itself. The biggest issue was my windshield. The BMW 1200GS Adventure comes with a more robust windshield than the stock GS motorcycle that I have clearly taken for granted. Because my windshield is now broken and lying flush down, I’m getting the full brunt of the wind as I ride. I find myself having trouble holding on past 80 or 90 miles per hour. Even going 60 mph is far more physically taxing than I realized. It’s causing my helmet to literally lift off my head as I hit higher speeds (don’t worry, chin strap prevents it from coming off but still…). I also had to re-duct tape all of my auxiliary lights to the main body of the bike. My mirrors are also pretty bent out of shape making changing lanes a bit more harrowing than usual.

Because I was looking to make some time, I rode the 101 Freeway North and stayed off the slower but more scenic U.S. 1 which hugged the coast. I met Ali at San Luis Obispo Airport where she rented a car and we went off to see the Mendozas. She was a sight for sore eyes.

I’ll be honest.  There was a little part of me that was definitely apprehensive about spending time with others after I’d been on my own for so long. But as we arrived at the Mendoza’s home, everyone wanted to see the bike (battered as she looked) and hear stories about the trip, and generally made my transition back into civilized society very painless. I found that doing some laundry helped this process along.

That night, we had a glorious dinner on the rooftop of a beautiful house in Avalia Beach where Tom grilled soy garlic shrimp while Ali made her famous spicy guacamole while we all sipped on a crisp rose wine made locally in the Santa Barbara region. Avalia Beach is a tiny beach community in central California that seems quaintly stuck in the 1950s with its boardwalk, pastel homes, and fishing wharf extending out into the Pacific. It definitely worth checking if you have kids, and still great if you don’t. It was a sublime evening, especially with Tom and I smoking my carefully transported cigars, solving the world’s problems puff by puff. And inevitably I found myself slipping into the old “you know, I could live here” trap that seems to affect me wherever I go.

The next day we got a late start and decided to head to Carmel, CA instead of pushing all the way to San Francisco where Bumblebee had an appointment at the BMW Motorad dealership for some badly needed repairs. Coincidentally, the Mendozas were heading to their other house in Carmel, so Ali and I ended up getting a hotel room across the street from them, and subsequently enjoying in a group feast of the best Chinese food I’ve eaten in over a year.

I like Carmel for two reasons. First, it’s a car town, primarily because of the Concurs D’Elegance that is held every year in August at Pebble Beach. To say that the premier classic car showcase in America is breathtaking, is like saying Daytona Beach Spring Break might be interesting to a teenage boy in early puberty. Even after the festival is over, it seems you can always observe a plethora of Ferraris, Lamborghinis, Aston Martins, and even the occasional Bugatti on the streets of Carmel.

Second, it was especially nice to see Ali with her co-workers, and observe how much they respect and care for her. Ali has been killing it the last few years at her job, and it’s a distinct pleasure to see someone you love be appreciated and admired for her accomplishments. I’m so proud of her, and it made being in Carmel and San Luis Obispo extra special for me.

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Next morning, we took off in the cool Carmel mist for San Francisco. For the first time since I removed it back in Virginia, I had to reinstall my jacket liner for warmth. I’ll admit I had a small case of the nerves that morning because I somehow got us a little bit lost and was nervous about being late for the appointment at San Francisco BMW. You see, my next stage of the trip was pretty much on hold until the repairs on Bumblebee could be completed. With 4th of July only a few days away and most dealerships closed on Sundays and Mondays, there was some urgency to get the bike into the shop.

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I pulled into BMW and quickly met with Carlos, an AMAZING parts rep who I’d been emailing photos of my motorcycle’s broken sections (a lot of emails). He managed to have most of the parts already ordered so that the repair time would be minimized.

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As I removed my bags off the bike, another 1200GS Adventure pulled up next to me with a husband and wife riding together. I couldn’t help but notice their bike looked like it had some miles on it.

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Them: Ah! You’re from New York! Did you ride all the way here?

Me: [puffing out my chest, cleaning my sunglasses nonchalantly] I sure did. I’ve been on the road about 40 days now. How ‘bout you guys? Where are you rolling in from?

Them: Brazil!

Me: [dropping my sunglasses on the pavement] What? Brazil? Like Soccer Brazil? Carnival Brazil?

Them: Yes. We’ve been on the road for 6 months now.

Sigh. I am such a cream puff.

With the bike now safely on the operating table, Ali and I could now have fun exploring my second favorite city in America and one of the best places to eat. Our hotel was right on the border of Chinatown so I was especially looking forward to having congee for breakfast (my total favorite) which I’d been living without for the past few weeks.

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I also discovered something completely new that sort of changed my life. Kyoto Style Ice Coffee. Oh sweet god in heaven, I have found my perfect morning beverage. Using the amazing Famous Foods web app, I discovered that Tyler Florance’s favorite coffee drink was at 66 Mint in San Francisco.

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A Kyoto Ice coffee takes about 24 hours to prepare as it is created drip by slow drip through a crazy mad scientist glass tube contraption. Because the coffee is effectively cold brewing, it only absorbs the rich nutty flavor of the coffee bean without any bitterness. As a result, 66 Mint only has about 50 cups to sell each morning until they are sold out until the following day. I’ve always been told of the faint fruit flavors that coffee aficionados are able to detect, but have sadly always alluded my taste buds.  However, in this glorious cup of Kyoto coffee I was able to pick up lots of it. No sugar or milk needed. But here’s the best part.

It is the most powerful cup of coffee you’ve ever had.

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I’m known among friends as being a little crazy with my coffee, frequently ordering 5-6 shot lattes at Starbucks. It’s not that I love coffee that much (I don’t frankly), but I really crave the caffeine and being a man of robust build (cough) it takes a lot to make the needle jump for me. Blessed Kyoto ice coffee had my head spinning within about 3 sips. Seriously, it was that strong, but not in any way bitter, chalky, or unpleasant. There was a clear lightness to each sip that made it a delight to enjoy slowly, letting the ice cubes tinkle in your cold refreshing glass.

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Above, New Orleans Ice Coffee on left, Kyoto Ice Coffee on right.

The good news is that I’m starting to see it more and more in other coffee shops now that it’s starting to become mainstream. If you see it, try it. Hoooo-Doggie!

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Next Stop: Napa Valley!

WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY:

They have great (not good, great) Chinese food in California. Mornings are getting colder. And I wish I could start every morning of my life with congee and Kyoto Ice Coffee. Also, never get cocky until you see the other guy’s license plate.

The Half-Time Report

Now that I’m officially halfway done with the trip I thought it might be a good time to sit back and take stock of the trip so far. This journey has been one of the most rewarding experiences of my entire life. There have been so many enriching experiences that taught me so much. Below I’ve listed some of the things that have gone right and wrong on the trip.

Things I Did Right

– My Packing Set Up: This was obviously something I was concerned about, owing to the fact that I’d never previously set up a motorcycle for such a long journey. The setup of having the two hard Zega Pro panniers with the soft, vulcanized rubber duffel on top has been rock solid. Its enough room for all my gear and tools, and provided me with a little bit of back rest when I would sit back in the pillion (passenger seat). I like this better than if I had a hard top case.

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– Picked Two Hotel Brands and Stuck with Them: So far, I’ve been going 50 / 50 between camping and staying in hotels. I made the decision to stick with Holiday Inn and La Quinta because both were running the best specials during the summer in terms of generating loyalty points. I now have several free nights in each that could get me most of the way home if I really wanted. I’m glad I didn’t just stay in random spots.

– Turning Back South from Colorado: My original plan was to head due west after crossing the Colorado border. But ultimately the lure of 10,000 Waves Spa, green & red chilies, and solpapilas pulled me back south to Santa Fe. So glad I went back down through Taos, New Mexico and Albuquerque. Not only is Santa Fe one of my top three favorite cities, but it forced me through Arizona which got me to the Grand Canyon.

– Hitting the Blue Ridge Parkway at Dawn: I know I’ve already written about this, but it really was breathtaking and something I’ll keep close to me for the rest of my life.

– Not riding at night: I just feel so much safer, and its nice to be done riding before the sun goes down.

Things I Would Do Differently

– More Research: I probably could have done more homework in terms of knowing what’s around me. I know I missed out on a lot of attractions, but this way I can always look forward to doing it again.

– Make it down to L.A. and Southern CA: Meeting up with friends has been such a terrific part of my journey and I feel like I neglected a lot of people I care for in that area.

– Brought a chair: I’m a little on the fence with this one because I’m not entirely sure where I would put a folding chair on my bike. But most of the campsites have not had picnic tables, and those that did, were not always comfortable after sitting in the saddle for 6 hours. It be nice to have my chair to sit in while watching the sun go down.

– Have some business cards made for my blog to give out to people I meet.
Best Meal of the Trip (Fancy)

Coyote Café (New Mexico)

Best Meal of the Trip (Casual)

Tie: YaYa’s (Alabama) / City Market BBQ (Texas)

Best Camping Meal

Backpacker’s Pantry – Pad See You with Chicken

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Worst Meal

Tie – Waffle House / King Fu’s Chinese Restaurant (Louisana)

Best View of the Trip

3-way tie – Blue Ridge Parkway / Grand Canyon / Lighthouse Point just South of Fort Bragg

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Most Random Thing That Happened

Deciding to stop at The Biltmore in Asheville, NC and then spending the night at the hotel, followed by clay shooting in the morning. Who woulda thunk?

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Equipment That Rocked

JetBoil: This thing rocked! Boiling hot water in 90 seconds.

Twisted Throttle Electrified Tank Bag: Having my tank bag hooked directly to the battery of my motorcycle, allowed me to keep my iPhone and iPad fully charged most of the time.

Mountain Hardware Monkey Man Fleece: Not only did this jacket keep me warm during some of the cool coastal nights, but the jacket was soft enough to be used as my pillow every night I camped.

BMW Rallye 3 Suit: Remember, this is the jacket and pants I’m wearing every day, rain or shine, hot and cold for 50+ days straight (yeah, I washed it). First of all, the suit did its job protecting me from the crashes I had while driving off road during Shadow of the Rockies. Second, the suit did a great job keeping me warm during some of the early mornings and high altitude passes. I will admit that the suit did get toasty when driving slowly along the Gulf States, but I think that would have been true of any riding suit. I felt good ventilation as soon as I got above 30 mph. Great pockets, good comfort. This suit will go with me to the ends of the Earth. Love it.

– Famous Food Web App: Every traveller MUST bookmark this! The address is http://www.famousfood.us/. This site cross references your location with all the destinations on the Travel Channel and Food Network. I’ve used it as my main dining guide in unknown places.

Equipment That Let Me Down

Big Agnes Seedhouse SL 2 Tent: There were a few things I didn’t love about my tent. Being 6’4, I found the tent a bit cramped and found myself usually sleeping in a slight ‘J’ shape diagonally inside. This obviously made turning over a bit cumbersome. The tent pegs that came with the kit were also a bit lackluster and I find myself doing much better with aftermarket tent pegs that I picked up in Boone, NC. Setting up the tent was generally pretty quick (once I had the right pegs) and the size was perfect, fitting right into my pannier. But I sort of feel like I should have kissed a few more frogs before committing to this tent.

Shoei Helmet Pinshield: This will only be of interest to motorcycle people, but before I left I installed a pinshield on the inside of my visor. Let me be clear that my Shoei Multitec Flip Up helmet has been AWESOME – I’m just talking about the visor here. Pinshields are an extra layer installed on the inside of the motorcycle visor to eliminate fog. But in this case, I found my vision getting really distracted between what I could see through the pinshield and what was through the visor. I ended up taking it out after a few days and have never looked back.

BMW Electronic Tire Gauge: What a piece of crap! I could never get a straight reading off this overpriced piece of farkle. I bought a $10 analog gauge at AutoZone in Louisiana that worked just fine.

Best Night’s Sleep

10,000 Waves Spa (New Mexico)

Worst Night’s Sleep

Lake Ute State Park (New Mexico)

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Best Road

Skyline Drive (Virginia)

Worst Road

Capitan Gap (New Mexico)

Best Travel Tip I Figured Out

Picking up little “airline” bottles of booze to enjoy while camping. They take up very little space and are the perfect serving size (when you drink three).

If I left out any categories or lists, you’d like to see – please feel free to email any questions of comments.

One lap cross-country down, one to go.

Days 31 – 36 The Glamorous Life

130 miles
Santa Barbara, CA – Solvang, CA

I’m now half way done with my trip. Wow. It feels very odd to write this, yet also an accomplishment.

I spent the weekend in Santa Barbara with Jonathan doing some hiking, tasting some Central Valley wines and generally recuperating from the 4,500 miles I’d ridden so far. There were apparently over 7 weddings being held at the hotel during our stay and frustratingly, none of my exciting tales of harrowing cliff side riding or camping in the rough wilderness of KOA campgrounds elicited even the slightest of favorable responses from the forlorn bridesmaids that occupied the hotel bar. Sigh. Time to get back on the road.

In the meantime, some real world responsibilities were beginning to pile up in my absence, and I needed to find someplace to hang out for a few days while I did some writing work and also waited for my wife to join me for a few days in California.

I left Santa Barbara in the late afternoon and rode north with no particular destination in mind. Around 7 p.m., I figured it high time to find some shelter. I’d been been staying in Holiday Inn Express hotels when I haven’t been camping so I started my search by looking at the two closest ones to my location. There were two that were equidistant; one in Lompoc and the other in Solvang.

I pulled over to a rest stop and figured it was a good idea to give each hotel a call to check on availability as well as get a feel for each location. The woman manning the front desk at Lompoc indicated that they were located at the regional airport with the town center being a short drive away. Here’s my conversation with the lady at Solvang:

Me: Hi! Do you have any availability for tonight?

Chipper Lady At Solvang Holiday Inn: We sure do! Come on over.

Me: Umm…wow, thanks. I might just do that, but first is there anything to do right around the hotel?

Chipper Lady At Solvang Hotel: Our hotel is located in the middle of Solvang. All we do here is shop, eat and drink a lot of wine.

Me: Done! I’ll be there in 7 minutes,

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Solvang, it turns out, is this totally delightful little town that is modeled after a small Danish village. As you can see the entire place looks like a cross between Disneyland and Oktoberfest. Even riding into the town I got a good feeling as I passed an ostrich farm (my favorite meat in the world – shut up if you haven’t tried it) as well as The Hitching Post, the famous restaurant in Sideways where Paul Giamatti shouts, “I will not drink Merlot!”

Clearly, I needed to have my first dinner at The Hitching Post.  In addition to enjoying a delectable filet, I was presented with my first roasted artichoke which required detailed instructions kindly provided by the young lady sitting next to me at the bar. Turns out, I like artichokes!

The next few days were spent at my keyboard at one of the countless coffee shops and bakeries in town. I had so many Danish cookies, fruit berry turnovers, and chocolate croissants that I have come to resemble Augustus Gloop from Willy Wonka. But the weather has been perfect, and the town conducive to writing so I really can’t complain.

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As an added bonus, my friend Randall who was kind enough to host me in Houston was passing through California and he and I and his whole family got to enjoy lunch together, feasting on Danish meatballs and herring (the kids said no f-ing way and ordered spaghetti and red sauce).

The Danes who settled Solvang did so because it was reputed to have some of the best weather in all of California. All I can say is that getting a few days out of the saddle in their wonderful (albeit slightly touristy) town has been a little slice of heaven and a very pleasant discovery.

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WHAT I LEARNED / DISCOVERED TODAY: Driving without a plan continues to offer great results and memorable surprises. I loved walking around Solvang and feeling like I was suspended in a little pocket of Europe while I contemplated the trip past and going forward. Loved stumbling on this fun little town. Also, I need to lay off the pastries. I only have one riding suit and Velcro has a breaking point.

Days 28-30 Westward Ho!

Kingman, AZ – Santa Barbara, CA

610 miles

Leaving Kingman this morning, I had a spring in my step and giddy anticipation in my heart. Today, I would cross the border into California! Even though I had plans to head north to Oregon and Washington, there is something symbolic about reaching California and being able to finally lay eyes on the Pacific Ocean.

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After crossing the border, it dawned on me how unbelievably WIDE California is. We all have a good sense of how long it is. But as I headed west, I was discouraged to have my GPS tell me that my long awaited West Coast margarita would still be another 5 hours away.

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The impressive Mojave Desert dominated the landscape as I rode towards Barstow, CA. It was also one of the first times that I got a little worried about my fuel supply. In an effort to cover distance, I was really trying to limit my stops once I got moving. But as I blew by one exit with a Shell Station, I saw the next sign indicating fuel wouldn’t be available for another 60 miles! I had a range of about 80 miles left so it wasn’t life or death, but if I made wrong turn somewhere (admittedly pretty hard to do on an Interstate, but still) things could get pretty spicy in the desert.

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The normal way to the coast would have been looping far South to the 101 Highway, and taking that North to Santa Barbara. But at this point, I’d had my fill with long stretches of I-40 and was looking forward to kicking it hard on the tight twisties. Instead, I decided to head straight for the coast (literally) and traverse the Los Padres National Forest.

To get there, I still had to cross straight across Death Valley, and saw endless miles of oil country and remote industry. So much of our collective imagery of California is limited to the narrow coastal regions. The interior of the state is simply massive, dusty and sparse (at least in the southern part).

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Finally, I arrived at Frazier Park and stared up at the mountain and its switchbacks that lay ahead of me. The goal was to cross over the summit pass and follow Route 33 to drop into Ojai. At the time, I had no idea how high I would be riding (6,500 feet – starting from less than 1,000 feet) and how radical the road would be. It was really aggressive motorcycling nirvana, and it was fun to push the envelope a bit getting the bike to lean way over in the turns.

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However, as you can see in the photos, the steep drop off discouraged any Evil Kenevil fantasies I might have harbored. Fun, but sincerely scary at parts.

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But what struck me most was the intense greenery. After being in the desert so long, it was so cathartic to cross over the top of Pine Ridge near Ojai and drop into an entirely new micro-climate. The temperature instantly dropped about 15 degrees as I felt the full blast of cool Pacific chilled air, unfettered by any mountain ranges.

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The foliage and semi-tropical flora lined the winding roads making me feel like I was riding through a garden. It just felt plain luxurious to be motorcycling amongst palm trees and cypress after all the barren dusty roads.

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Everything felt different and new.

Ironically, after passing through Ojai to hook up with the 101 North for the last 20 miles to Santa Barbara, I received my very first glimpse of the flashing sea of the Pacific Ocean. Ten seconds later, I was stuck in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Welcome to California.

But it felt like a huge accomplishment to be riding alongside the ocean for the last few miles. The span of distance I’d travelled was starting to hit home for me.

I did it. I crossed the country by motorcycle.

The blue Pacific and its sumptuous white beaches felt like a reward for making it halfway through my journey. The bike has taken some hits, and there have been some highs and lows, but the trip overall has been glorious and nourishing. I’m so happy to be here in California and spend the next few days with one of my closest friends.

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Now, where’s that margarita…?

Another Great Motorcycle Journey

Many of the gentle readers of my humble blog have expressed to me their heartfelt admiration for the scope and spirit of my wonderful trip. Others have said I’m just batshit crazy. Either way, it does not hold the slightest candle to the incredible odyssey undertaken by Simon and Lisa Thomas back in 2003 (and still going on currently!!).

The husband and wife team decided to embrace the road less travelled and sold their home, and set out on two motorcycles (BMW, of course) to ride all seven continents and hit 122 countries (they’re currently at 70, I think). They’ve faced every sort of break down, calamity and injury you can think of. They now hold the Guinness Record for the Longest Continual Motorcycle Expedition. Just amazing stuff and really inspiring.

If you want to read more about epic motorcycle journeys, you should check out their blog, www.2ridetheworld.com.

Day 27 – The Grand Canyon

Holbrook, AZ – Kingman, AZ

460 miles

The rising sunlight always wakes you up early when you’re camping, so I was able to get a good start on my westward journey to meet my friend Jonathan in Santa Barbara. Because of the distance and timing involved, I made the decision to veer off my mission to explore small roads (after Shadow of the Rockies in New Mexico, I’d had my fill of dusty desert) and headed onto I-40 to get some fast miles under my belt.

As I mentioned, at this point the desert was beginning to get a bit monotonous. Obviously, driving on a big interstate makes it more so, but after a few hours, a beautiful oasis appeared in the distance.

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Flagstaff.

A giant mountain erupted out of the desert far off in the distance, and as I looked at my GPS, I could see my elevation steadily climbing. What makes Flagstaff so wonderful is that it sits at 6,900 feet. Not only does that provide a welcome cooling effect, but it also gives rise to extraordinary pine forests which create illustrious carpets of green that contrast off the red clay of the desert I’ve been staring at for weeks now.

I pulled into Flagstaff around lunchtime and was looking for a bite to eat. I whipped out my new favorite handy-dandy web app called famousfoods.us which was recommended to me by someone on the Adventure Rider Motorcycle Forum. What it does is cross reference your current location with all the dining spots mentioned on the Food Network and Travel Channel. So awesome! All the places from Diner, Drive-Ins & Dives and Best Thing I Ever Ate are all featured in this app.

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The app told me that there was a place a half-mile away called Salsa Brava that sounded like a bad strip joint in Tijuana, but was actually a well-regarded restaurant known for its fresh salsa bar. Lunch was delicious and the salsa bar had 9 different blends with varying ranges of heat (I went for the pineapple-habanero). You could pretty much spend all day there drinking beer and eating chips. But sadly, I had to push on to make some miles. But before I left, I spent sometime looking at my map that showed me I was really only 2 hours away from the Grand Canyon. The Grand Frickin’ Canyon!!

Miles be damned, I knew I had to see this iconic American natural monument. After all, when else was I going to be back in this neck of the woods again? I drove due north of Flagstaff and soon began to see signs for the National Park.

The weird thing is…the Grand Canyon is a big hole, right? So as you approach from the road, your visible horizon rises above the Canyon itself. Bottom line, I’m getting within 10 miles of this massive, spanning natural wonder and I still don’t see squat! I’m figuring I got hookie-dooked by the Park Service and that song America, The Beautiful, and just lost 5 hours of driving time. But as you get really close to the Park, your breath is stolen from you by the intense, otherworldly majesty of the Grand Canyon.

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Once you enter the Park proper, the road quality instantly improves to that beautiful crystal smooth blacktop asphalt that motorcyclists dream of when they sleep. I was technically travelling on the South Rim Road, but was told my Park Entrance fee would cover me for all entrances to the Park of which there were countless spread out over its thousand miles perimeter.

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Every few miles or so, there would be another stunning turn off where you could park your vehicle and soak in the view. In some ways, this was similar to the Blue Ridge Parkway but you really can’t compare the two. Where Blue Ridge was picturesque and romantic with its rolling, misty hills covered in lush foliage, the Grand Canyon is more awe inspiring, forcing you to feel insignificant in size against its magnificent stature.

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Your mind can’t help but imagine what the first American settlers thought when they crossed the desert and were confronted with the grandeur of this incredible display of nature spanning as far as the eye can see.

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Of course, I wanted to hike down to the bottom to the Colorado River which was truly a squint worthy distance away. But for the life of me, I could not discern even a remotely approachable pathway to take a person from the top to the bottom. The Grand Canyon looks unconquerable at first glance and I think that’s what makes people’s soul stir when they see it for the first time.

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I was skeptical, but this is truly one of America’s greatest treasures, and is absolutely worth the trip. Go there. See it. It makes you want to eat apple pie, shed a tear when someone drops a piece of garbage, and shoot a rifle in the sky for no discernable reason. Seriously, try to see it if you remotely can.

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The one side story to my Grand Canyon adventure occurred as I approached the National Park Entrance, I saw many signs beforehand for scenic overlooks. Bear in mind, I’ve never been to this area or this Park before. So when I see these signs for overlooks, I think they are the OFFICIAL overlooks. As I pulled into the first one, I am confronted by a Havasupai Indian sitting in a tiny booth demanding $2.00 to park my bike at the overlook. Guess this isn’t the National Park, I thought. But I didn’t want to risk a vengeful spirit hex on my motorcycle by telling this guy to piss off and turn my bike around. So I pay the $2.00 and park in the designated lot. The viewing area of the Canyon is 100 yards away, but to get to that area, visitors are forced to walk through a series of vending stalls of Indian jewelry (some quite beautiful) and cheap tourist trinkets.

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And then, when you actually get to the viewing area, it looks…nice. Not amazing, take-your-breath-away amazing, but, very very nice.

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After this, I keep driving and realize that I haven’t entered the formal Park yet, and when I do, I am utterly spellbound. But here’s my beef:

After seeing it all, it was abundant clear that the U.S. kept all the “good views” for itself, and gave the Indian tribes all the lesser and secondary locations. Pretty crappy deal.

But on the other hand, I thought it was really pushy the way the tribe turned a natural exhibit of beauty into a gaudy commercial opportunity that didn’t really deliver very much or give you a sense of the Grand Canyon.

But then again, the tribe has every right to make whatever money they can given how terrible our government has treated them historically, and it’s their land to do as they please. No one forced me to pay a very modest fee and enter their land.

Just feeling a little weird about the whole thing.

The good news is I spent so much time admiring the view and detouring from Flagstaff that the sun was now setting over the Canyon. I can’t even begin to describe the colors and  beauty that sun’s long rays cast over the Canyon. I know I only grazed the surface of the Grand Canyon, but it was really a once in a lifetime experience. Again, another unexpected detour on the trip that rewarded me with a glorious bit of serendipity.

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As the sun went down, I was confronted by the fact that I still had a lot of miles to cover, and I would have to do some riding at night which was something I’ve really been trying to avoid this trip. The relatively flat topography of the desert west of Flagstaff allowed residual slivers of daylight to extend dusk until a bit after 9pm.

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After driving in the dark for an hour, I pulled into the town of Kingman, AZ that seemed to be pretty big, although I have no idea why. I found a Holiday Inn Express and didn’t argue when they told me the last room left was smoking. I still slept like a log that night.

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Quick Update

Hey Everyone!

I just wanted to drop a quick post and say that I’m OK, and currently heading up the coast of California. Things have been a bit hectic so I haven’t been able to post, but look for some new updates in a few days that will bring you back up to speed with the Great American Motorcycle Trip. Thanks for all the support!

Day 25 – 26 Meeting New Friends

Santa Fe, NM – Holbrook, AZ

310 miles

I’m taking a rest day in Santa Fe before making my way over towards Santa Barbara to meet one of my closest friends, Jonathan. It’s such a pleasure to walk around the streets of Santa Fe, touristy as they are, and see the jewelry shops, the Indian markets, and the art galleries. Of course, what Santa Fe also has are chiles. Lots and lots of wonderful green, red, hatch, and poblano chiles. As I said before, this might be my favorite city in America to eat, and I haven’t been doing much eating over the last few days.

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As many of friends know, one of the banes of my existence is breakfast. I generally don’t like American breakfasts. I don’t much care for eggs.  Pancakes feel like a dessert.  And cereal with milk leaves me feeling not-so-fresh feeling. I much prefer Vietnamese pho (clear beef noodle soup) to start the day, or a Japanese breakfast of sticky rice, poached salmon and pickled vegetables. However, when you add green and red chile to the mix, a Southwestern breakfast might be the best thing a guy like me can find in the States. Did I mention how much I love eating in Santa Fe?

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I did my first breakfast at Café Pasqual’s on Don Gaspar Avenue and my second at Tia Sophia’s, a local joint on San Francisco Street. One of the nice treats at breakfast are fresh sopoppias, which are puffy Native American fry bread usually served with fresh honey. So tasty with good chicory coffee.

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For dinner, I went to Coyote Café for what might be my best formal meal of the trip. I sat at the counter in front of the stoves and ovens and got to rap a bit with the chefs. They steered me in the right direction. I had this amazing crab and seared tuna salad to start, followed by grilled shrimp with sweet corn polenta and creamy poblano sauce. Ridiculously amazing.

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I took off the next morning heading towards Albuquerque. The going was a little tougher as my windshield now completely collapsed at 30 mph forcing me to hold on a little tighter as the bike gets up to speed. One of the nice things about being off the trail is meeting people again. As I headed towards Arizona, I stopped at a Shell Station to do some long awaited maintenance. As I topped the bike off with fuel and oil, a young man named Robert approached me and asked if he could polish my windshield for a little spare change. I said yes without thinking too much about it, and soon he was asking me about my trip and the places I’d been. We started conversing and he explained that he and his wife were trying to get back up to Patterson in the northern part of the state. Their car broke down and they had used the last of their funds getting it fixed. Now, he was washing windows to make gas money.

I really don’t know why, but there was something about him that touched me. He was a young kid, down on his luck. We talked a little bit more about my life, and he admitted that he wished he made some better choices in his own life. I gave him some small career advice and also wrote down some websites that he might look at to gain some better employment opportunities. Finally, I decided to give him $20 which I think got him most of the gas he needed (before you jump on me, I watched him fill his car up – the $20 wasn’t used for meth) and he was so grateful that he washed the rest of my bike for me. He seemed so appreciative for the little bit of help I gave him. But most importantly, I felt like he really just wanted to be heard. We all need to be heard once in a while.

I pushed on from Albuquerque crossing the Arizona border at about 5pm in the evening (I thought it was 6pm but I crossed into PST) and started looking for shelter. I found a KOA Campsite right off the main highway at Holbrook which looked perfect to me. Being sand and moth free, I was eager to get camping again.

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Dinner that night…

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A little less gourmet, but no less good!

The best part was I met Jean-Jacque and his charming wife Eve who were camping two sites down from me. They were both French citizens who were driving historic Route 66 from Los Angeles to Chicago in a rented minvan. What a cool trip!

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Jean-Jacque first approached me to ask about my motorcycle. It turns out that he owns a BMW R1200GS of his own and loves his bike the same way I love mine. He and his wife really wanted to tour the US on motorcycle but the rental fees for motorcycles in the states are astronomical. We ended up having breakfast together where he explained that he worked for Paribas Bank in their offshore division and is currently stationed on the Caribbean island of Guadeloupe. We talked for a while about the joys of motorcycling and how it forces you to see the places you travel in three dimensions, as opposed to being behind the two dimensional windshield of an automobile. After several rounds of pancakes and my insisting on them eating at Gibson’s Steakhouse in Chicago, they generously invited me to come down to Guadeloupe stay with him in December.

As Bill Murray said in Caddyshack, “so now I have that going for me”.

Day 24 – Shadow of the Rockies, Part 4

Logan, NM – Santa Fe, NM

380 miles

Last night, the most wicked windstorm you could ever image swept through Lake Ute State Park, tearing up everything in its path and uprooting 3 of my tent stakes that I had literally hammered into the ground.  The storm could have easily given both Dorothy and Toto post-traumatic stress disorder.  But I hunkered down in my tent which really isn’t all that brave because I figured that my fat ass was the only thing keeping it anchored to the ground.  The storm rattled on until about 4:00am.  I was finally able to get a little sleep, but when I awoke, I found a one-inch layer of fine sand covering the inside of my tent, sleeping bag, makeshift pillow, and…me.  Seriously, I looked The Mummy.

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It usually takes me 45 min – 1 hour to pack everything up and load it onto my bike.  Things took a bit longer this morning as I shook all the sand out of my tent and the rest of my gear.  It got everywhere.  When it comes to packing up, there’s a lot of shoving, pulling and pushing to get all my gear for 10 weeks to fit into the limited space I have.  Because of this, I usually put my heavy riding suit on at the end of this arduous process.  The little bonus I got this morning was finding a nest of brown moths that had sought refuge from the windstorm in my jacket and pants.  Of course, I didn’t see them until I was putting my pants on, and lo and behold, panicked insects started flying out of my crotch.  Needless to say, when my heart dropped back down to 120 beats per minute, I spent the next hour shaking my clothing out as if my life depended on it.  A rather auspicious start to my last day on The Shadow Of The Rockies Trail.

I headed out NW from Logan on mostly ranching roads which were hard packed dirt and easy (relatively) to ride on.  I did notice that I was steadily gaining altitude, which made sense as I inched closer to the Colorado border.  The scrub brush of the ranching plains slowly became more arid until soon I noticed small sand banks accumulating on the sides of the trail.

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This unnerved me.

The only obstacle I really had major difficulty with at BMW School was the sand pit.  It’s just plain hard to keep a 700-lb bike on track in fine sand.  It was too easy to drop the bike and even easier to get stuck while trying to get out.  I just kept telling myself that I only had 70 miles to go, and to keep my head high and power through.

Finally, I came around a sharp bend and the entire trail was buried in several feet of sand.  I immediately tried to get on the throttle but it was too late.  As soon as the front tire hit the sand, the bike slowed down dramatically.  The slower you are in the sand, the stronger the wobbles get.  Before I knew it, the front end had washed out and I was over the handlebars again.

I picked the bike up again (the only good part about sand is that is usually doesn’t cause damage to the bike when dropped) and tried to get it moving.  But the more throttle I gave, the deeper my rear tire sank into the sand.  I was SO close, and all I could do was pray to the Desert Gods to please not let my journey end here.  I ended up getting off the bike and throttled it while standing beside it, rocking it back and forth.  Finally, the bike leapt out of its rut allowing me to hop on and ride her to safety.

I surprised myself by speaking aloud, “thank you, thank you, thank you…” over and over again.  I don’t know who I was taking to, but it really just hit me how lucky I’ve been so far on the trail, despite a few crashes.  I guess the impact of ending this epic trail ride was beginning to hit me.

Shadow of the Rockies was an incredible adventure.  Really one of the greatest of my life.  Not because the roads were so epically tough or the navigation was so challenging.  Rather, it meant so much because I was alone and had to rely on myself to solve problems like gates, how to move a dropped bike, or making distance.  I’ll absolutely do this trail again, and would love to finish it all the way in Wyoming.

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But it will never be like the first time.  It will never have the same sense of discovery and wonder that it did when I saw all civilization drop away in the distance outside El Paso, and I realized it was just me, my bike and New Mexico.  Again, I say aloud, thank you.

But I wasn’t through woods yet.  After bearing through another bout of deep sand, I finally ended up back on country roads.  For most of the trip, I’ve heard locals complaining about the drought conditions.  In fact, throughout my entire trip, I haven’t felt a single raindrop yet (knock on wood).  But now, big storm clouds could be seen rolling into the Great Plains. I overheard a farmer at a gas station in Corona say they were expecting rain on Tuesday or Wednesday.  This is only Monday but it looked like rain was on early delivery.  The reason this sucked for me was these benign country roads of hard and loose-packed dirt could easily become massively treacherous if rain struck turning them into deep mud.  I’m still riding on dual sport tires that wouldn’t give me much traction in those conditions.

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So I leaned on the throttle a little harder.

And then, like I hit a wall, the temperature dropped almost 40 degrees.  I’m not kidding or exaggerating.   I started the day in the mid to high 90s and now my gauge read 57 degrees.  I knew all my complaining about the heat would turn ironic at some point, but I figured it would be near Vancouver not while still in New Mexico.  I still had all the cooling vents open in my riding suit which I quickly pulled over to close.  Nonetheless, I still found myself shivering from the high, chilled winds that kept pushing me left to right in the final miles of the trail.

Before I knew it, I was within 10 miles of the Colorado border.  When I crossed the state line, I was a little choked up.  For all lot of off road riders (most probably), this really wouldn’t have been that big a deal.  But it was for me.  I did it by myself, kept the bike together, stayed on track, and finished what I started.

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The word ‘adventure’ gets thrown around far too often in society now.  It’s used far too ubiquitously by marketing executives and travel companies.  I have only two qualifications to define something as an adventure.

  1. It contains an aspect of risk that legitimately concerns or scares you.
  2. You want to quit at some point.

The Shadow of the Rockies Trail had both for me, and that’s why it was my adventure that I’ll always treasure.

From Colorado, I dipped back into New Mexico on the pavement.   The easy monotony of highway traffic felt strangely welcoming as I headed west on Route 72.  I was originally going to head over to Utah and hit Moab and Monument National Park.  But I changed my mind and instead felt Santa Fe calling out to me.

I generally consider Santa Fe to be my third favorite city in America (behind New York and San Francisco).  But it might be my second favorite city in which to eat.  Vietnamese and Southwestern cuisine are my dream meals, and authentic versions of either are hard to come by.  I decided to steer Bumblebee towards Taos and then cut south to Santa Fe.  After a few gracious phone calls by my fantastic wife, I was able to get a room at 10,000 Waves – a magnificent spa right outside of town.  This day was going to end well.

But I didn’t even know how well.  As I passed Raton, NM, the cold front eased and I found myself riding in the glorious sweet zone of the high 70s.  The High Plains of New Mexico faded behind me, and in front, I could slowly see giants rising out of the horizon.  After travelling through the dusty flatlands and mesa deserts in the east, it was glorious to see the gargantuan Rocky Mountains in the distance.

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I travelled through the deliciously shady Cimerron Canyon, carving through the twisty mountain roads leading to Taos.  High granite walls of the mountain flanked me on either side as I passed fly fishermen wading into the stream that paralleled the road.  It was the most beautiful non-park drive I’d experienced thus far in the trip.

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Soon I hit Taos and it was time to head back south.  As I got closer to Santa Fe, I started seeing familiar places that I’ve visited in previous trips.  I only get to Santa Fe infrequently so I treasure the memories and special spots that I know there.  A smile crept across my face as I saw more of the architecture of the adobe style homes that people usually think of when they imagine the Southwest.  I had discovered a whole new side of New Mexico over the past week, but this was the New Mexico I know and love.

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I pulled into 10,000 Waves just an hour before sunset, allowing me to throw my gear into the room, change, and hit the communal hot tub while the sun sank below the tips of the San Juan Mountains.

I’m smiling as I write – this was a good day.