BRINGING THE BIG RIG HOME

It’s early Wednesday morning, April 12, 2017, and I’m sitting in Charlie’s Cafe, beside my motel, in Enumclaw WA. Last month I shipped my 2012 BMW R1200GS here to DMC Sidecars to mate up with its new life partner and yesterday I flew out here from my home in Kentucky to pick up the new rig. Today I’ll begin the trip back. I’ve finally finished, at great peril to my arteries, the “Grandpa John’s Special” consisting of a mountain of eggs, peppers, onions, cheese, hashbrowns (the real ones, not frozen shreds) and heaven knows what else. Excellent, but another example of how my brain, on a bike trip, reverts to thinking I’m 25 and invincible. At the next table I’m listening to the conversation between Bud and Ken, names I know because they have their own coffee cups from the selection of named mugs hanging above the counter. It’s the usual “what’s wrong with the world and politics and young people these days” until they are joined by a woman of about their age. I knew they were all older than me, which is old enough, but it narrowed down when she commented that her sister’s daughter would be 70 this week. When she joined the conversation, the topics changed to family and weather and local events, conducted in a more gentle fashion with the offering of opinions softened considerably. It brings to mind the old adage that “men without women are like bears with furniture “. Obviously, we with the Y chromosome need that distaff influence.

Breakfast over, circulation hardened and confident now that the world’s problems have been calmed by the efforts of Ken and Bud and their companion, it was time to begin.

Weather, more than expediency, controls where I’m going. The mountain roads around Mt. Rainer, heading southeast toward home, are still closed by snow and there is a strong storm brewing off the coast which eventually will drench me whichever route I choose. West it is, then, opting for the contrarian view of driving into the rain, hoping to come out the other side as it moves east. South of Tacoma, around the Fort Lewis complex, there are quiet two lane roads wending under the tree canopy of old forests, dotted by small communities where folks are just waking up to this new day. At a convenience store under the trees by a creek, I stop to pick up some water. A young man is coming out on my left as I’m removing my gloves and helmet. “Cool bike!” He says and I agree. He tells me that he and his dad are rebuilding a Kawasaki that his brother had crashed with the hope of them all riding together soon. After a few minutes discussion on the relative merits of BMW’s and their far eastern counterparts, he moves to the front of mine for a better look and exclaims “Whoa, that’s neat !” He has just noticed that there is a large white sidecar attached on the right. That of course requires more exposition of the why’s and wherefores of adding another wheel and before you can say “Sidecar Delay Factor”, my five minute water stop has stretched to half an hour and a young man has something entirely new to think about, expanding his view of the motorcycle universe.

After a few hours of driving now, I have to say that this new rig is amazing. The R1200GS is mated to a DMC Expedition sidecar, with the “automotive wheel” conversion on the rear of the bike and the sidecar, so that those two wheels use automobile tires (the same size used by VW Beetles !) and are interchangeable. The steering modification, a rebuilt triple clamp that kicks the front end out just 2 inches, reducing the trail, makes steering this huge combination ridiculously easy. The red 650 setup I had before, probably 300 pounds lighter wasn’t bad, but this is great. This time, unlike the last trip, the motorcycle is one I owned, so it feels familiar but now it has this sidecar attached and it isn’t the same thing it was the last time I saw it. Sort of like meeting that person you knew well in school years ago, but now they’ve become someone who looks like the one you knew but isn’t the same person at all. I keep reminding myself of how much wider this one is than the little red rig that I learned on. (see the previous post on “learning to drive the sidecar”) It just wouldn’t do to “take out a mailbox” with this new one so early in the journey.

In the curves, it feels much more “planted” than its smaller cousin had been. As my son, the four-wheel car person would describe it, sort of the difference between driving a small sporty car and then a larger sports sedan, going from an older Miata to a new 5-series BMW coupe. The bigger engine, more than twice the power of the 650, is relaxed at any speed I’m likely to attain, adding to its confidence-inspiring feel.

The rain catches me well south of the metro area, pushing me onto the dreaded I-5 so that I can make my one scheduled appointment for this trip, a rendezvous with old friends in Eugene, OR for the night. This storm will be here for a while.

After two days in Eugene, a favorite city, it was time to head on…but first, breakfast at the Hideaway Bakery. It is a marvelous place for lovers of pastry, breakfast and gastronomic excess with a well stocked bakery case, tables outside with heaters overhead and a cozy dining room for those not hardy enough to brave the outdoors. If you can handle a rich, buttery cinnamon roll “as big as your head”, stop in. Friend Gary and I took Steph to her job at the Law School and saw the osprey nest on the pole above the Library. It seems that a few years back an osprey built a nest on a light pole above the sidewalk outside the school. The powers that were decided it was some sort of hazard and tore down the nest. An outcry ensued from Oregonian Osprey fans. Somehow, money was found and a new pole, suitable for osprey home life, was erected on the school roof, safely away from pedestrians and sure enough, it got a tenant almost immediately. When we watched today, there were three of the big raptors circling the nest. Don’t know if the occupant invited friends over for dinner or if there’s competition for the space.

Late in the morning, I headed west. I had checked out the internet “pass cam” for Willamette Pass, going southeast, and saw that it was 25 degrees and snowing. The big rig might make it up there, but I didn’t want to risk going down the other side with ice. Maintaining my contrarian ways, I pointed the sidecar in the “wrong” direction to the coast and then south till it got warmer and I could get across the mountains.

On the edge of town I stopped into BMW of Western Oregon and had a nice chat with the couple that I think own the place. It’s a small dealership, multiline with Ducati, and, unlike some modern dealers, very customer friendly, worth a stop whether you need something or not. Farther west, near Venetta, I turned south on to Rt. 38, a quiet curvy two lane, through farm country. At Drain, (yes, as many had predicted all my life, I ended up down the Drain) I learned that the road to the coast was closed for a bridge out, sending me back to the black-hole gravity of I-5. At a gas stop, the attendant told me that further south down the highway, 3-5″ inches of snow had accumulated on the ground. He suggested that I should go as far as Grant’s Pass and take the Redwood Highway over to the coast from there. I took his advice. By the time I’d reached that town, hail was coming down, peppering my faceshield and beginning to cover the pavement. I got a room for the night at the Motel 6 across the street from the Black Bear Diner and next door to a bakery. Good location, but bad timing, since I got to the bakery one minute after they closed.

As they always said I would….

Up the street is a local bar, Ric’s Corvette Lounge. I didn’t go in, since I needed dinner, not a drink, but I couldn’t help but speculate on the story behind the name.

(“So, why do you call this place “Ric’s Corvette Lounge”, ” I asked, elbows on the bar and a shot of good bourbon gently refracting the light from the gleaming old wood in front of me.

The short, grey haired guy behind the bar kept polishing a glass while he answered,” When I was 18 I started saving money for a Corvette. A red one, removable hardtop, all the stuff.” “When I was 21, I had the money in the bank, but I’d met her” ..he motioned down the bar to the slender blonde of similar age serving a customer, “and she convinced me to buy this place instead.” That was over 40 years ago. I never got the car, but we’ve put three kids through college. Our daughter bought a new ‘vette last year. I get to drive it.”)

In the morning, the weather is still nasty on the mountains to the east. Out of Grant’s Pass, the road climbs up for a while, getting colder, but without snow so far. This new rig drinks fuel at a greater rate than the old one, needing yet another gas stop at Cave Junction where the attendant is amazed that I can operate the pump and credit card reader myself. Apparently in Oregon, no one is allowed to pump their own gas and the skills have been lost. A bit farther down the road, signs confirm that I’m on the Redwood Highway, if I couldn’t already tell that by the border of incredibly tall, majestic trees closing me in.

Two years ago, when I fetched the little red rig home, I spent the night in Eureka and noticed the Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe in the downtown. It was closed when I arrived and didn’t open the next morning until after I needed to be gone, so this time I’m determined to make it to Eureka for an early lunch. I was not disappointed. This is the place, the place we all want to find on a motorcycle trip. Located on a corner, there is “motorcycle only” parking on the side street and large glass windows displaying the goodies inside. Scattered around the cafe among the tables are bikes, some for sale and some just there because. The machines include an old Italian 125, a 60’s era BSA sidecar motocrosser, and various cafe racers from different eras. There are motorcycle parts for sale, things one needs when traveling or just for a tune up. Vintage style motorcycle clothing, helmets and boots are on offer as well. There is a “helmet caddy”, a cubbyhole cabinet in the entryway. On the video screen above the counter “World’s Fastest Indian” is playing, soundlessly, and I am treated to the scene where Burt Munro (played by Anthony Hopkins) repairs his trailer by using a log strapped in place of the missing wheel. The menu is eclectic, featuring sandwiches named for motorcycle marques, including some of my favorites, Norton, Bultaco, etc. The food is very good, but honestly, I’d come back here even if it wasn’t.

As you would expect, the tables soon fill up, with mostly guys and a few women. There are only a few bikes out front, so I’m guessing the couples came in cars for a Saturday brunch at the restaurant. Four men of an age sufficient to recall these bikes in here are at the table next to me. I peruse the huge California map pinned to the wall and then walk over to ask their opinion about a proposed route east, knowing that there’s nothing guys like better than to display their knowledge of the local roads. Talking nearly all at once, they tell me that Rt. 36, below Fortuna, is “the best motorcycle road in the state” and since it is going in the direction I want, I take their advice.

It was a good call. 36 begins winding around the hills as soon as I turn away from the coast and starts a steady climb into the ridgelines. There are long up and downhill runs, very tight switchbacks, stretches of rough pavement and at the top, snow. Some of the hillsides have new spring growth of groundcover , a fluorescent looking green sort of thing, a color more common in kids toys than in nature, while others are carpeted in smooth brown velvet. Many tall trees have been cut down along the rims on the passes, as if the DOT is getting ready to widen and straighten these roads for the convenience of car traffic, rather than the entertainment of motorcycles. As it is now, it would be a fast sporty run for a long-legged adventure bike, a good ride for a sport bike though with some forearm hammering in the rough patches and a nice slow cruise for the heavyweights. On the sidecar rig, I’m probably keeping about the same pace as a cruiser, and working a bit harder in the switchbacks. Despite my relative slowness, no bikes come up behind, and only a few from the other direction. Perhaps California riders are so accustomed to perfect weather, this cool day isn’t considered suitable for riding.

In one of the passes, as I’m working the rig around the turns, suddenly a huge shadow crosses the road in front of me. I look up, as best I can without tumbling off into the canyon, and there, descending into the valley in front of my path, is the biggest freaking bird I’ve ever seen. I’m looking at it from the rear, so I can’t see its head, but if it isn’t a California Condor, then it’s the love child of a fling between a large buzzard and a medium sized airplane. It banks into the canyon, following the same road as me, but eventually veers off to follow a thermal somewhere else.

The road straightens out as it comes down from the hills onto the flatlands and ends at Red Bluff. It is getting late so I opt for the first thing with a vacancy which is a Comfort Inn. I’m an old-style motel sort of guy, but on a Saturday night of a holiday weekend, I’m not going to be picky. They assign me a huge room with a separate area for sitting, and a bed suitable for me and six of my closest friends. But it doesn’t stink of smoke, there are restaurants nearby and the rig is sitting under the office canopy, thanks to the young lady, Chelsea, behind the desk, so I’m happy.

Only one of the restaurants is not a “chain”, so I select the Rockin’ R to sample something local. The perky waitress, ” a big ole friendly girl” as the late Harry Chapin would have described her, seems incredibly happy at her job, bubbling as if this is the best possible place to be and the only thing she ever wanted to do. My tiredness from the road has to give way to her good humor and I quickly notice that all of her colleagues seem similarly ecstatic. One sounds much like the comedian Sarah Silverman, only without the profanity, an east coast accent that seems exotic here. Supper is a grilled chicken salad for virtue and caramel apple pie a la mode for decadence, a well balanced meal.

On Easter Sunday I”m up early again to check the internet CalTrans maps and weather channel. Looks like I will abandon my mountain route…still snow in passes and part of Rt. 89 is closed where I want to go. I’m realizing my lack of foresight in that I failed to get the DMC Snowplow Option, with Track Vehicle Conversion. Given that omission, I’ll take the direct route down to Chico and over to Tahoe.

It’s a long straight ride through the Central Valley, with nothing but orchards on either side. This is where all that fruit comes from that we take for granted now in the winter months, out there in the cold parts of the country. Peaceful, in the early morning with little sign of the swarm of people it must take to tend these thousands of trees. Changing course to the southeast, I started to gain altitude, out of the warm low places until soon the snow walls were in some places 10 feet high or more on the sides of the road. As I made my way up to the iconic Donner Pass, there were two story buildings completely covered in snow, with only the end of a roof showing. Curiosity sent me up the two-lane Donner Pass Road for a bit, but I wasn’t sure of the weather or if the smaller road went all the way through, so I made my way back to the cleared Interstate. I stopped at three restaurants, because I wanted to eat, rather than be eaten, in Donner Pass, but all were closed for the season. It occurs to me that If some of these restaurants up here had just been open back then, the whole Donner Party thing might have turned out differently.

Still bordered by snow, the road makes its way down to Lake Tahoe. As I meandered along the west shore, past Squaw Valley, there were lighted signs warning of the high “lake winds” sweeping across the highway, as if the hard steer to the left wasn’t sufficient notice for me. Since I was unsuccessful at feeding up on the pass, I opted for lunch at Rosie’s, where I watched my waitress engage in an elaborate, spontaneous role play with the little girl at the next table. If she’s not a really good actress, waiting tables between gigs, she should be.

Heading south, the road rose higher, with more snow along the sides. The high winds off the lake breached the walls here and there, depositing wide patches of the slippery stuff on the road. It is good to have three wheels. Near Emerald Bay the road briefly climbs up on a narrow “bridge” high above the trees, with steep slopes down either side, before plunging into a series of switchbacks. The continuing wind pushes the rig around alarmingly and I speculate on the danger of trying this today on a two wheeled machine. At an overlook near the south end of the lake, snow everywhere, I met an English lady, about my age or a bit more and her husband. She said she had noticed my “lovely sidecar” in the parking area and told me, in her charming accent, about growing up in England right after the War, near London, with only a sidecar rig for family transport. She described family holidays in the countryside, with Dad driving the rig in overcoat and mittens, with Mom, two children and all their provisions for the week in the sidecar. “It was just what you did back then”, she said. “We loved it.”

There she is, on the bench looking over the lake

By the time I reach the community of South Lake Tahoe, I can see that another huge storm is on its way, driving me into a motel for the night. Better to batten down the hatches and let it pass over. Fortunately, there is the “LewMarNel”restaurant (terrible name, but excellent food, perhaps on the old “Smuckers” theory) next door, with some grilled salmon on offer, finished off with a fine apple pie. Ah, the hardships of the long distance traveller !

Tomorrow, when the weather has cleared a bit, I will hook up with Rt. 50 across Nevada, “The Loneliest Road in America”.

To Be Continued.

About johngrice

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