Learning to drive the sidecar: Morrow Bay to Tucumcari

In March of 2015, in my late 60’s, I took a flight to Tacoma, Washington from my Kentucky home and bought a used sidecar rig. After a lifetime on motorcycles, I wanted to try something different…and these things certainly are a different conveyance. I learned to drive it on the way down the west coast.

Being March, my plan took me down the warm Pacific coast until I was far enough south for decent temperatures inland. At Morrow Bay, I turned my back on the sea and headed east, up into the hills.

The temperature goes up dramatically as soon as the shoreline is out of sight and I have to stop to shed a layer or two. The hills here are yellow, with scrub brush and the occasional avocado farm. Apparently they cut the trees down to stubs and, I assume, the new growth comes back with fruit. Seeing acres of what looks like white plaster casts of severely trimmed trees, five feet high is discordant at first, until I realize that what is going on probably is agriculture and not some kind of modern art installation. (Well, it is California, after all, so you can’t blame me for considering the possibility.)

I find the turnoff,for Rt. 58, but by now it’s after 4 and the first town is Santa Margarita. The town has taken the secular meaning of its name to heart, since there are many bars where one could sample such cocktails, but no motels in which to sleep it off. The next town is over 70 miles away, so in deference to a Friday night, I take the safer bet and go back down to San Luis Obispo. The first motels I check are full, but I locate a Travelodge within walking distance of a restaurant and a bakery, so my needs are fully met.

In the morning, I backtrack to Santa Margarita and pick up Rt. 58 East. My brother in law, Jay Smythe had recommended this road from his time stationed out here, describing it as one of his most memorable. I can see why. On a two wheel motorcycle, these endless sweeping curves and switchbacks up and down the mountains would be heavenly…and probably encourage one to go a bit too quickly to enjoy the scenery. On the sidecar rig, the curves are still engaging, but at a much slower speed which allows me to notice as the land changes from mountains to low foothills, with curious mounds that look like those sandbox mold toys kids use to make perfect cones or rounded inverted cups. Later the hills change to a series of wrinkled, eroded waves, covered in a light nap of fawn-hued vegetation. The gentle curves of the hills and their color makes me think of thoroughly rumpled bedclothes, with a thin blanket of the softest tan cashmere thrown over them.

Soon I’m on a flat plain at a high elevation which lets me look around a bit on the straight road. The ranches out here are self-contained, as they must be, since the nearest services are 30 or 40 miles away. I can’t help but think, as I often do when out here, of what it must have been like in the early days to be wandering these hills and plains on a horse, or on foot. Whatever you could see in front of you looked like all the rest around you and you’d still be seeing it tomorrow at a walking pace.

Now that I’m not so focused on a curvy road, I can think a bit about the machine I’m on which seems to be running very well, keeping a steady 60 mph on the straight bits at its “happy place” of 4,000 RPM. I love the single piston thump of the engine when it’s at lower revs and the rapid pulse of it up here at the business end of the tach. The sidecar tracks along quite happily beside the motorcycle, but sometimes wants to go its own way when that third wheel gets in a groove or deviation in the pavement. Perhaps it is a metaphor for other kinds of unions, in which two unlike creatures yoke themselves together for what is usually a happy productive endeavor, but every so often one of them wants to go where the other doesn’t.

I’m learning more about handling the rig, experimenting with weight shifts in the corners as I hang off the side. It seems to work best in the tight stuff if I move back to the rear portion of the seat to hang off and feed throttle in slowly as I exit. Yes, I can hear the experienced sidecar drivers out there saying, in unison, “Well, Duh !” but hey, I’m new at this and experimenting to learn. I think Edison said something like that about his long series of things he tried for an electric light filament: “I haven’t failed, I now know several thousand things that won’t work”. I have also learned that it’s best not to push it too hard. It doesn’t change the overall pace much and it seems to require a lot of the machine. Sort of like the old saying, “Never try to teach a pig to sing. It wastes your time and it annoys the pig”.

Route 58 comes down out of the hills eventually, near Bakersfield (home of Buck Owens, if I recall) and goes back and forth trying to decide if it’s a two lane country road or a four lane interstate. It really isn’t either one and it is unbecoming to its dignity to keep making the attempts.

Between Bakersfield and Barstow is the little town of Tehachapi, (all you Linda Ronstadt fans out there sing together, “from Tehachapi to Tonapah, driven every kind of rig that’s ever been maa-aid !”) where the Tehachapi Loop is found. Apparently there are only two 360 degree train track loops, allowing a train to ascend a very steep grade, in the world, one in Japan and the other here in southern California. A long train coming around the loop will cross over itself. That’s a big deal to train buffs, I’m told. There are several people standing at the marker when I arrive, waiting for a train to come by. They’ve brought the kids, who are playing on blankets oblivious to whatever is attracting the attention of the adults. I give it fifteen minutes and go on my way, leaving the faithful behind to wait and watch.

The other attraction of this little town in the desert hills is a German bakery, again recommended by Jay, where I stop and consume more than my share of calories for the day, and take away a strudel for tomorrow morning. The place is mobbed, even at a later afternoon hour, so Jay and I must not be the only ones who appreciate it.

In Barstow I find a room at the “Route 66 Motel” with its flashing neon sign, the old cars arranged around its courtyard parking lot and a mural on the wall showing scenes from the cities along the historic route. It is kitsch, I know, but when I was a kid in Ashland, Ky, in the 50’s and early 60’s, I dreamed of someday traveling out here. It was these places, perhaps this very one, that I saw in the Life magazine articles about the west. There are few modern amenities here at this one, even now. The room is very small, and the bathroom hardly a closet. In my grad school days I once lived for 6 weeks in an 18 foot travel trailer and it had a shower stall about the same size as this one. There is a round bed in the room, one of the features the motel advertises, but at my size, I must sleep across its diameter. The walls are either badly done plaster or an attempt at recreating adobe…it’s hard to tell which. But I like it here. It fits.

Dinner is two blocks up the street at Rosita’s, which says it’s been serving Rt. 66 visitors since 1951 . A chorizo and egg burrito, rice and beans and I’m set for the night. Off to my round bed.

In the morning, as I’m packing up the rig, my neighbor from the next room comes out to get in his rental car. He’s a Londoner, with a classic Cockney accent, who tells me that he makes a trip over here at least every other year. This time he started in Chicago and drove Rt. 66 to here, and will leave for home from Los Angeles today. He has a place in Devon, he says, and recommends that the next time I come to England, I visit his area (he didn’t offer me his place, though). The pull of old 66 extends across the Atlantic.

Pointing my nose into the rising sun, Barstow doesn’t last long and soon I’m out on old Rt. 66, the Mother Road. Mom needs some maintaining however, as the pavement is rough and broken in many spots. It occurs to me that back in the day, this perhaps would have been the direction of defeat, in that folks came west for the opportunities in California and when they were headed back east on this road, it may have meant that things didn’t work out so well. Like that line from Dionne Warwick’s “Do You Know the Way to San Jose ?” ” … and all those stars, that never were, are parking cars and pumping gas.” No such angst for me, though, I’m on a sidecar rig early in the morning in California and riding on 66. That’s good enough for me.

The desert continues on, as it always does, and before long Needles California, often the hottest place in the country, appears. Brenda and I stayed here one night back in the 90’s when we were herding a rented Harley Electra-Glide (in blue, of course) around these roads. On that occasion, we took the old road up to Oatman, Arizona, a tiny town up in the mountains famous for movie star honeymoons (Clark Gable and Carole Lombard, if I recall) and free roaming wild burros. On our last visit, Gable and Lombard had long left town and the burros had done likewise, leaving only their unmistakable calling cards on the streets. I decided to go back for another look. The mountains up here are stark and dry, with rocks succumbing to gravity everywhere, decorating the flats and often the pavement. Oatman just suddenly springs up out of the dust, a collection of buildings arranged along one street, with the old mining apparatus rusting at one end. This time the burros have kept their appointment with me, standing in large groups in the middle of the road as I come into town, waiting patiently (as burros are wont to do) as I ease forward inches at a time to make my way through. Some come up to me to see if I have loaded the sidecar with burro snacks, but are disappointed (though I’m not sure how you tell a disappointed burro from a happy one, really.) This is Easter Sunday and the tourists are out in force on the street, petting and feeding the critters and leaving nowhere to park a rig if I wanted to, so I move slowly on through. On the upside of town, going into the higher mountain pass, the road is worse than I remembered. I recall wrestling the heavy Harley through these curves on a hot summer day with the melting “tar snakes” causing the tires to wiggle and slip (something of a concern when two-up on a rented bike far from home !) Today it is not nearly so hot and there’s no point in trying to avoid the snakes….the pavement seems to be composed almost entirely of the wriggly black lines, as if the Arizona DOT had given up on asphalt and decided to just paint the road like a Jackson Pollock with these instead. But, no worries on the rig, with three wheels planted on the road, it could slip all it wanted. The curves have lots of dirt and gravel in them, usually just around the blind side, which would have been seat-clenching on a two wheeler, but not a problem for the outfit. I’m going very slowly, due to the road and the altitude of the dropoffs, so I can see for miles around me. The dry mountains and precipitous valleys just go on and on as far as the end of world, it would seem. I think about what it might have been like to be a miner and his family up here in the 1800’s. Nothing but hard work and dry, dusty, rock, and the ever present worry about finding water.

The road down from the mountain top into Kingman is a long, straight decline that might make a good landing strip for a 747, should that be required. It finally reaches bottom at I-40 and I must make up time now, so onto the slab I go. All good things come at a cost, and for me the cost of several extra days along the California coast, is that I have to burn some miles to get home for the work duty that calls early next week. The four-lane numbs the senses so that the land changes slowly, almost imperceptibly as I near Flagstaff, with the flat desert scrub becoming now high pine forest, without any obvious transition. Signs begin to appear warning me of elk and then bear crossings and convince me keep my eyes open. The wind is picking up, dropping in temperature and the light is beginning to fade.

Flagstaff appears, and with no trouble at all I find a Motel 6, which has an AARP connection, giving me a nice clean room with wi-fi for $43. There are some perks to being old.

Earlier today, while doing a bit of maintenance, I noticed that the rear sprocket and chain, which looked serviceable 1,400 miles ago in Washington are now looking pretty thin. In my experience, sprockets and chains, like tires and rolls of toilet paper, go much quicker toward the end. There’s a long way yet to home and pushing a rig is not, I assume, much fun so I will stop in Albuquerque for replacements.

It is cold, in the 40’s, when I leave Flagstaff just after daylight, watching the sun struggle above the snowy mountains. Fierce cross winds keep me steering to the right, only to be blocked for a moment by a hill and then it’s left pressure until the winds return in a few hundred yards. This is a good thing, keeping my arms from developing disproportionately, I tell myself.

As the sun gets higher, the mountains start to give way to high plains with the endless low sagebrush and tan prairie grasses. Only hardy animals, both two and four legged, can survive up here. Fortunately for me, since I’m not that tough anymore, if ever I was, I’m only passing through on my rig, humming along at 60 mph. The cowboys and cowgirls who lived here a hundred or so years ago would not have imagined this pace, nor this contraption that allows it. While some folks wax nostalgic for those “simpler” times, I’ll stick with the decades that include these machines. (“I see by your outfit that you have a sidecar……” Well,ok, it isn’t quite as catchy, is it?)

The warmth that comes with the drop in altitude “down” to 5,000 or so feet, brings with it even more crosswind, making steering a full-time occupation. This rig tracks wonderfully, usually requiring only modest input in a straight line, but the wind unsettles it a bit. Not just this one, however, I see tractor-trailers wobbling and correcting as well. As “Little Deuce Coupe” noted back in the 60’s, “….I get pushed out of shape and it’s hard to steer…”. I’m not a surfer dude or a hot-rodder, but the sentiment is the same. Not faulting the rig or its setup, just accepting that eventually, in any contest, Mother Nature always has the better hand.

Arizona disappears behind me and New Mexico presents itself for inspection. I explored a lot of this state, and a fair bit of Arizona back in 1984 when I lived here for three months while working for a law firm in Albuquerque. I have fond memories of weekend excursions on my old green BMW, camping in the hills and just wandering around to see what I could see. Surely nothing will have changed much in a mere 31 years ?

Lunchtime finds me near Gallup, so I cruise in and drive the main street which is also Old 66. There I find Glenns Bakery which provides me with a green chile breakfast burrito for lunch and wonderful apple stick pastries and an almond-paste filled bear claw for dessert. I take more apple sticks for tomorrow’s pre-breakfast snack.

In the late afternoon, the highway crests a rise and suddenly there is Albuquerque spread out below, looking to my eyes as if she may have put on some girth in the years since I saw her last. Not criticizing, mind you, I have too. I was young then, 35, and had no qualms about exploring all of this area in the Southwest without any navigation tools other than a paper map. It was the days before all the technical bike gear we have now, so I rode in jeans and a t-shirt, a thin leather jacket (the same one I’d had since I was a teenager) and boots and a helmet. I had a rain suit, but often in the parched summer air, I just let myself get wet, knowing that I’d be dry again in minutes. Now in the age of ATGATT, I’m layered up, much safer but not as “free”. I camped everywhere then, but now I need a bed and a shower.

There is another Motel 6 at a convenient exit, next to a restaurant and again offering the geezer discount. It occurs to me that such old-age benefits weren’t on my radar in 1984.

By happy chance, since I don’t really recognize much here now, this motel is within blocks of my old apartment and the street names begin to come back to me. A short stroll around the area stirs the sleeping neurons where such memories are stored and makes me smile.

By 8:00 AM on Tuesday I’ve parked in front Sandia BMW, in Albuquerque for, I hope, a sprocket and chain replacement. The old dealer, in 1984, was a “mom & pop” traditional style shop, that handled only the motorcycles and was on a street in town. This new one is a part of the BMW car and Mini dealership, and located in a huge facility out by the freeway. The staff is very professional and friendly….the service writer is, like many out west, a recent transplant from back east. They have only the rear sprocket in stock, and can source the chain. Then on disassembly, the rear sprocket bolts are found to be bent, so replacements must also be sourced. One of the staff takes me to a nearby restaurant, LePeeps, for an excellent breakfast.

By three o’clock, the bike seems to be done and ready for the service manager to take it for a test ride. He is far braver than I as he flys the car high going around the corner of the building.

I leave Albuquerque at about 4, headed for Tucumcari. While waiting for the service it occurred to me to reserve a room at the Blue Swallow Motel,in my humble opinion the most classic of Rt. 66 lodges. I’ve passed this place by before in years past and thought I would be doing so again, just as a matter of timing, but when this opportunity presented itself, I wasn’t going to let it go.

As the sun begins to drop behind the hills behind me, the light softens on the plains in front of my bike and the wind, no longer driven by the heat, calms down. Between Albuquerque and Tucumcari the bluffs on either side of the highway are the classic striated red and white faces one sees on postcards and magazine covers. High plains extend forever in the fading daylight. Critters that have waited patiently for the sun to go down are beginning to stir for their nightly routines. I can see my shadow out in front, leading the way, its outline the timeless picture of the sidecar,

I pull into the Swallow at dusk, tired and hungry (no lunch today) and immediately am made to feel welcome and at home. I’m ushered into my own garage for the bike, adjoining my room.

Kevin and Nancy are the owners and Bessie the golden retriever is the supervisor, or so it seemed when she sat down and offered me a paw for as long as I would sit and pet her. These folks were corporate executives who chucked the high pressure life to purchase a classic motel in the desert. One reads these stories of people who had the courage to make such changes and it is a pleasure to meet them in person.

The Blue Swallow is the perfect Rt 66 motel, exactly as I had pictured it to be. My room is small by modern hotel standards, but just what its era expected. The decor is wonderful and authentic to the heyday of the Mother Road, even down to the working 1939 style heavy black dial telephone on the desk. The bed is high, with a period-correct chenille spread on top that makes the “home” feel complete. Yet there is the aura of adventure and travel everywhere within these walls. I can picture Bogart and Bacall coming into this room on their way out of LA, both of them hot and tired from the road, the huge engine in the drop-top Caddy ticking slowly as it cools in the garage next door. Just inside, Bacall drops her bag on the floor and turns to Bogart, that look, that look that only she can do, in her eyes….. (OK, got to stop there. My keyboard is smoldering and this is a non-smoking room.)

(To be continued…)

About johngrice

Retired small town lawyer, lifelong motorcyclist, traveler and old guy sitting around thinking.
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