Posted Oct. 9, 2014
In February 1998 my WetLeather pals SSMark and Ln invited a few people to Sunfire, their home in Escondido, California, for a ride in the desert. It had been cold and rainy for weeks in Oregon’s Willamette Valley and it sounded like a great idea. I was living alone and it was easy to get away so I took a couple days off work and booked a flight to San Diego.
Ln picked me up at the San Diego airport Thursday afternoon and an hour later I was sitting on the deck at Sunfire, sipping a glass of wine. Their house is near the top of a hill on the eastern edge of town and the deck has an unobstructed view to the west. That evening, as I watched the sun set over the coastal hills, I understood why it was named Sunfire.
There were six of us in the house, our hosts SSMark and Ln and SSMark’s daughter (who wasn’t going to ride with us), Havoc and Dahlface and me. There was supposed to be the sixth rider but she had to bow out at the last minute.
SSMark can be accurately described as a “silver-haired gentleman.” He’s had lots of adventures in his life is a good storyteller. His stories usually involving something humorous happening, more often than not instigated by himself. He laughs frequently, a laugh that starts deep in his belly. Ln is smallish, dark haired and friendly but not as extroverted as her husband. I find her really easy to talk to. I didn’t know much about Havoc except that he had recently ended a long career as a Registered Nurse in the army. Dahlface had hooked up with him at that time so I figured he was an OK guy. I knew Dahlface better, a tall slender redhead with freckles and an easy smile. She was a very likeable admin assistant at a Seattle college, if I recall correctly. She and Havoc were bunked in the guest room while I had a mattress and sleeping bag on the living room floor. I didn’t mind; I’ve had worse.
We had a rather odd assortment of bikes for the five of us. SSMark and Ln each had their Honda VFRs, 4-cylinder 750cc sport touring bikes. Ln’s VFR was named Lady Midnight but I never caught the name of SSMark’s VFR. For the rest of us there was a 650cc HawkGT named Baby, a 900cc BMW R90/6 boxer twin called Herbert (pronounced “A-Bear” in the French style, probably to piss off the Germanophiles) and Armond, a Honda Ascot 500cc single.
SSMark’s plan was to ride to Lake Havasu City, Arizona, on Friday and back on Saturday, a bit ambitious but reasonable if we made an early start. Early start? Well, no. People seemed to be in no hurry that Friday morning. We finally got rolling at 11 am. I was ready to go by 9:30 and was thinking come on, folks, let’s ride! But I was a guest on this trip and I didn’t feel comfortable cracking the whip. I sipped some more coffee and practiced patience – there were interesting people and the conversation was stimulating.
SSMark led us east from Escondido through some hilly terrain for 60 miles or so; very low trafficked, curving, fun roads. I was riding second on Armond, and I discovered it had a problem – it ran find below 5,000 rpm but started cutting out at higher revs. I tried to catch SSMark to flag him down. Silly me.
If you want an exercise in frustration try catching SSMark on his 750cc 4-cylinder VFR while riding a 500cc single that’s running ratty. Forget about it. SSMark is a very smooth rider, and as Reg Pridmore will tell you, smooth equals fast. He was keeping an eye on his mirrors so he wouldn’t get too far away but I knew he wanted to go faster. I would slow to the point where the Ascot was running well and Mark would also slow. It looked like I was closer to him so I’d speed up to try to catch him, but he would speed up too and the distance would increase. I tried honking but Armond was the quiet type and he produced only a feeble bleat.
After doing this accordion act a few times I finally gave up and pulled into the parking lot of a small country store; the rest of our group followed me and a few minutes later SSMark, who had noticed the empty road behind him, joined us. I explained the problem and SSMark swapped bikes with me so he could try to diagnose the Ascot. Cool! I got to ride the VFR, a motorcycle that was at that time near or at the top of the list of Best Sports Touring Bike in the moto magazines. It was very smooth and stable but I was surprised to find it took a fair amount of muscle to make it turn quickly. I kept missing the apexes until I started putting some real pressure on the handlebars. That fixed the problem.
Our route continued a few more miles through the curvy roads, and then made a rapid plunge on the very twisty Montezuma Valley Road to the desert floor. We dropped from 4,000 feet elevation in the hills to 800 feet in the town of Borrego Springs in only 10 miles. Charging those downhill corners with the VFR was quite fun and got my heart rate up a few points.
As we pulled into a roadside deli for lunch Armond the ratty running Ascot quit. A little roadside diagnosis showed he had fouled his spark plug, but at least he had the good grace to stop after we arrived at the lunch stop. We ordered sandwiches and dined al fresco in sunshine and 70°F temperature. The desert can be pleasant in February.
After lunch SSMark rode off and found an auto parts store and bought a few extra plugs. He suspected a weak coil on Armond but the bike continued to run so as long as we had spark plugs we pressed on.
The town seemed empty. What I could see of Borrego Springs had the look and feel of a planned community; small commercial or residential clusters surrounded by lots of empty desert. It was very clean, very new, almost sterile. Even the wooden picnic table where we ate looked brand new: unstained, unmarred, smooth planks with the cut edges still sharp.
The desert roads weren’t as twisty as the mountain roads near Escondido, more gentle curves and shallow ups and downs. The scenery made up for it though; it had rained earlier in the week and the desert was much greener than usual with wildflowers everywhere. Springtime doesn’t last long in the desert so we were lucky to see it. Normally this area of the Mohave is tan and sage, tan for the sandy ground and sage for the shrubbery: sagebrush and scrubby little plants the desert racers call puckerbushes.
Our route took us south of the Salton Sea and through the heavily farmed Imperial Valley. From Borrego Springs to the Imperial Valley is about an hour of mostly straight, flat pavement, so I looked at the flowers, shrubs and sand. As my wheels thrummed against the asphalt I found myself humming the Byrd’s song “Wasn’t Born to Follow” from the Easy Rider soundtrack. It has a nice rolling rhythm that goes well with riding.
The Imperial Valley is heavily irrigated farmland laid out in a grid system – straight roads and 90 degree turns for a few miles until we left the valley and swung northerly and back into desert. The desert east of the Imperial Valley was sparser, dryer and the bushes were spaced farther apart. It’s also hillier and we rode though some ranges of barren low hills rising from the desert floor.
Three hours and 150 miles from Borrego Springs the sun set and it was getting very cold so we stopped for the night in Blythe, California, about 90 miles short of our original goal.
We did a little better getting started on Sunday, on the road at 10:15am. Our route took us past the desert intaglios and we stopped to take a look. They are odd pre-historic artworks made by humans many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years ago, by scraping and moving the darker stones of the desert floor to expose a lighter toned substrate. If you Google “blythe intaglios” you’ll find some images of them. They don’t look like much from the ground but from an aerial view they are quite interesting; long-legged men, four-legged critters with long tails. It’s unlikely the creators had any way of seeing them from the air, so for whom (or what) were these images made? It’s mysterious.
We then motored on to Lake Havasu City, getting there around 2:00 pm. I was in the lead on Herbert, looking for a lunch place. I was following the traffic when we rode across a narrow bridge over a river. There was a likely looking casual restaurant just past the bridge so I pulled into the parking lot, dismounted and took a look back.
I’ll be darned! We had just ridden across the London Bridge. This was the actual falling down London Bridge of nursery rhyme fame. The developers of Lake Havasu City bought the bridge from the city of London, took it apart stone by stone, carefully labeling each stone as it came off the bridge, shipped the whole thing to Arizona and re-assembled it over a narrow side branch of the Colorado River. The chalked codes were still visible on some of the stones. The bridge itself is a five-arch structure a bit less than a quarter mile long. I learned later that the Arizona London Bridge has the exterior stones from the original London Bridge covering a new, modern concrete core. It’s not falling down anymore.
The route back to Escondido took us to Parker, Arizona, then to Desert Center along California highways 62 and 177. It took about 1:15 to travel those 85 miles. The Mohave Desert is basin and range geography in this area. We would ride along a flat area (basin) then go through a pass in a set of hills (range) where the road would gently rise and fall as it wended its way through, and then back into a flat basin. We hit this stretch at the perfect time to catch the desert sunset. I have long maintained there is no view as good as the view from the saddle of a motorcycle, and this ride re-established that fact.
It was full daylight at Parker, with a blue sky and a few fluffy white clouds. As dusk approached the clouds turned light pink shifting to orange. The sun dropped below the horizon and the sky went through countless colors, shades of blue from sky blue through lilac to an amazing deep purple just before turning black, with billions of bright white pin-pricks of stars. The stars in particular were a sight; with the clean desert air and no nearby sources of light the Milky Way was splashed across the sky in a way one never sees in a city or town. Amazing, beautiful, stunning. It was awesome in the true sense of the word, not like “awesome fires, dude.” Those 75 or so minutes of the ride made the trip extra special.
By the time we hit Desert Center and Interstate 10 it was full dark and the temperature was dropping. We conferred and decided to take the interstate, the fastest route, the rest of the way home, stopping for dinner in Banning. SSMark and Ln took the lead and set the pace, followed by me on Herbert, Dahlface on Armond, then Havoc on Baby. At Palm Springs we ran into a very strong and cold headwind. It was hard on us on the three borrowed bikes as none had any wind protection.
Before we got to Banning the Ascot quit. In my mirror I saw Dahlface pull over and I pulled to the shoulder, parked and walked back. Havoc stopped too, of course. The lead two missed the fuss and kept going. When I reached Dahlface she was pressing the starter button; the motor was turning over but it would not fire.
“Wait a minute. What happened?” I asked. From the way Dahlface described the motor’s failure it didn’t sound like a fouled plug. She said it sputtered and coughed a bit before quitting. It sounded to me like Armond ran out of gas, but the trip meter read only 72 miles. All during this trip the Ascot had reliably traveled over 90 miles before needing fuel.
“Let’s turn the gas to reserve and see what happens.” She turned the fuel petcock dial to the R setting, waited 10 seconds then thumbed the started button. It fired right up. Whew. “This headwind must be killing our mileage,” I said. “I think we’re only a few miles from Banning, let’s get gas there.”
We had another problem – we had no working speedometer. It wasn’t an issue with SSMark setting the pace, but he was somewhere miles ahead of us. Herbert’s instruments worked but the instrument’s lights didn’t, Baby’s tachometer light worked but the speedometer light didn’t. The Ascot’s speedometer was readable but the speedo needle swung back and forth between 40 to 70 mph. I took the lead on Baby because I had a HawkGT of my own and knew what rpm it ran in 5th gear at about 60-65 mph, so we used the tachometer to set our speed.
At the Banning exit SSMark was at the side of the freeway watching for us. We went straight to the restaurant to get warm. After we told our story Havoc announced that he had hit a wall. Dahlface was standing, almost vibrating from tension, or maybe shivering from being cold. I suggested she sit down and relax for a while and she answered in clipped single syllable words, “Nope. Can’t.” The cold, the headwind and the bike quitting on her had hit her pretty hard. She didn’t want to ride anymore that day.
Havoc said he and Dahlface would find a motel and stay in Banning for the night. It was only another 90 minutes or so of freeway to Sunfire so I was willing and able to continue. Actually I didn’t have a choice, I needed to catch a flight home on Sunday. After dinner we said goodbye to Havoc and Dahlface and saddled up. I rode Baby the rest of the way to Sunfire. The wind had blown in some clouds and we departed Banning in a damp mist. The rest of the trip was freeway in the dark, and we arrived at Sunfire at 11:30. I had a glass of wine and fell asleep.
The next morning it was raining hard so SSMark took their truck to rescue our two pals and the bikes. SSMark’s daughter noticed the missing couple and asked about them. I told her we ditched them because they couldn’t keep up, and she stared at me, open mouthed astonished, until she realized I was kidding.
Ln drove me to the airport and as we waited for my flight I chatted with her about potentially available women we knew. Sadly all the names that came up lived hundreds of miles away from me, but Ln had some useful observations. Did I mention she’s easy to talk to?
Because of the late start we ended up doing about 200 miles on Friday and a bit over 400 on Saturday. In spite of the difficult final 90 minutes I’m not sorry I went, not for one minute. I can still close my eyes and see that deep purple sky.
SSMark and me in Fryer Martin’s garage at the Fish Fry in 2003. Knowing SSMark he’s probably saying, “No shit, there I was…” It’s been years since we’ve been together but I always figured I’d see him again. Goodbye my friend.