Before I took up road racing I was an avid street rider. I learned to ride on a Honda CB160 and my second bike was a Honda CB350. Today a 350cc motorcycle is considered a beginner bike, but back then it was a middleweight, suitable for adults. I road that little CB350 all over the west coast. Here is the story of one of those rides. I was still learning how to ride at the time. The story has been slightly edited from the version in the book, mostly to make it a bit shorter.
If you take Beegum Road west out of Red Bluff, California, there are two road signs that will get the attention of any motorcyclist. First is a sign advising trucks, RVs, and those towing trailers to select an alternative route, followed shortly by a sign warning of twisty road for the next 140 miles.
With the Internet and today’s nearly instant communications any road with these signs will not go unmentioned for long and today this road is well known among motorcyclists. A couple of years ago members of the AMA voted this road eighth out of the 15 best motorcycle roads in the U.S.A. It’s the section of California Highway 36 that runs between Red Bluff and Fortuna. That’s pretty much from no place special to nowhere in particular, and it wasn’t so well known in the pre-Internet days.
I discovered this route by chance one sunny summer day in 1970. I was planning a trip from Berkeley to visit friends in Oroville, a small town north of Sacramento. The quick route from Berkeley to Oroville is Interstate 80 to Interstate 505 to Interstate 5, then a few miles east on two-lane farm roads. I had already done that ride a couple of times and found the 170 miles or so to be very hot in summer, mostly flat, mostly straight and mostly boring. I looked at the map and decided to ride north on U.S. 101, head east at Fortuna to Red Bluff, then take Highways 99 and 70 south through Chico to Oroville, about 460 miles in all. A good summer day ride, I figured.
You might wonder why I would swap a ride of less than 200 miles, a perfectly reasonable distance on a 350cc motorcycle, for a trip of nearly 500 miles. I liked riding. There are advantages to travel by motorcycle.
On a motorcycle you are in the environment you are traveling through. You can feel the temperature rise or fall, sense changes in the direction of the wind, and detect subtle differences in the smells in the air. All these things give the trip more depth, more texture if you will, and that makes it all the more memorable. Then there’s the view. There is no way any car, even a convertible, can compete with the view from the saddle of a motorcycle. Left, right, ahead, behind, up in the sky; it’s all right there.
And sometimes the journey is just as important as the destination.
I got up before daylight that Friday morning, eager to get on the road. I showered, shaved, dressed, made and ate breakfast, packed some clothes, an apple and a sandwich into my tank bag, grabbed my riding jacket, helmet and gloves and was on the road about 20 minutes before sunrise.
While riding west over the Richmond-San Rafael Bridge the sun popped up in my mirrors and everything in front of me glowed in the morning light. The bay below was calm and Marin County looked inviting. In the early morning light the sun-dried, brown grasses on the low hillsides actually looked golden. I merged onto Highway 101 in San Rafael and headed north. Between San Rafael and Santa Rosa were a string of small towns alternating with farms and ranches. North of Santa Rosa is Sonoma wine country and the vines were pretty, dark green with glimpses of purple bunches of grapes hanging beneath. Zinfandel, cabernet sauvignon, merlot? No time to stop and taste today.
As I rode north the environment changed, becoming less dry, but so slowly it was easy to miss. Grape vines gave way to forest. After four hours or so it had become moist enough to support the giant redwood trees. They were not easy to miss. The trees are majestic and it felt like I was in a cathedral as I rode among them. I rode slower than usual, looking around and up. There was a dense understory of ferns and shrubs, the result of frequent rain and fog. The air smelled fecund, almost green.
I was nearly to Fortuna, passing through some low hills when the west hills flattened and I could smell the ocean. The Pacific not visible, but the land between was level farmland. There was a slight on-shore breeze and the air held the pungent salty odor of the sea as I rode into Fortuna to stretch my legs, eat my lunch and get gas.
Fueled and fed I turned my back to the ocean and rode east. The air soon lost its salty tang. Highway 36 went east through the Van Duzen river valley for several miles. The river meanders through a wide, flat valley and the road meanders with it; nice lazy flowing curves. My speed was moderate and I was practicing the classic turning technique I had read about: start near the outside edge, slow as necessary, lean into the turn trying to touch the road’s centerline at the exact middle (the apex) of the curve, then return to upright while accelerating gently, ending up near the outside again at the end of the curve. When I got it right it was a very smooth flowing process, quite satisfying. When I got it wrong, mid-course corrections were needed. These adjustments in the middle of the turn spoiled the smoothness and made me feel klutzy. I was dancing, really, dancing with the road. With the large-radius turns and my moderate speeds it became a kind of waltz. I could be very graceful, making smooth, swooping paths along the pavement, or I could figuratively trip on my own feet. Like any other dance it takes practice.
The valley was getting narrower and the road was starting its climb into the foothills, but it still followed the river and we were still waltzing. About then my dance practice was rudely interrupted. I was leaning into a left turn with my Honda’s wheels on my own side of the road and my head about even with the center line. The trees blocked my view around the corner and as I rounded the turn I found myself staring directly into the grill of a logging truck that was straddling the road’s center line. Yow! Instinctively I jerked the bike upright, missed the truck and found myself hurtling through gravel, desperately struggling for control at 45 mph. After a couple of scary near falls I was able to stop just before the gravel ended and the shoulder reverted to trees and shrubs.
I was shaking so hard I had trouble getting the bike’s side-stand out. The shot of adrenaline I got when I saw that truck was starting to fade and my legs felt like jelly. I finally got the side-stand out and slid off the bike to sit on the ground. I felt a short moment of relief, quickly replaced by anger. That damn truck driver ran me off the road! For a moment I considered chasing him down and giving him a piece of my mind, but sanity prevailed. He was in a loaded logging truck and I was on a motorcycle. What could I do to him?
As the anger faded it was replaced by a sense of astonishment as I reflected on what had happened. By pulling the bike upright to keep from becoming a Peterbilt hood ornament I had missed the truck, but it meant I was going straight while the road continued to turn left. I ran off the right edge of the pavement. There was a rare graveled pull-out at this turn; if not I would have been dodging trees and brush instead of struggling for control in the gravel. I definitely preferred the gravel.
In a period of approximately five minutes I went from panic to terror to relief to anger to astonishment and finally back to relief, with all dials pegged to their max. Until my heart rate returned to normal I sat staring at my tire and boot tracks in the gravel and thinking how lucky I was. I’d been in exciting situations before, but this was likely my first full adrenaline rush: the first hit was free. Who knew then I would eventually become fully addicted?
Some have suggested that I was being reckless by riding with my head near the center line. In my defense I point out that there would have been no problem if the truck had been on its own side of the road. It would have taken a small adjustment to avoid it. That being said, I did change my riding style to avoid any recurrence of that type of problem. For the rest of the dance I stayed on the outside part of my lane until I could see all the way through the corner, and then aimed for the apex while opening the throttle. I found out later that this technique is called “late apex” or “late entry.” Doing this on the blind turns allowed me to finish my trip safely, and I was able to re-focus on the aspects of travel by motorcycle that makes it so pleasant.
In a few more miles the valley narrowed and the river became hemmed in by the foothills, no longer meandering. The curves were slightly tighter and more frequent, and the waltz became more like a foxtrot. Just past the village of Bridgeville the road started a steep climb. Highway 36 was no longer a river road but a steep mountain road and I needed to stop admiring the beauty of the forest and focus fiercely on the pavement. We weren’t foxtrotting anymore; it was more like a quick two-step. The road climbed up the side of a mountain using linked hairpin turns (switchbacks) to gain elevation rapidly. The first few were tight, marked at 10 or 20 mph. The following curves were not so tight, but there were many of them in quick succession and still steeply uphill. After climbing from 800 to 2,400 feet in just a few miles the road leveled somewhat and stopped throwing curves at me in such rapid succession; I could relax, catch my breath and look around. The forest had changed during the rapid ascent. The deciduous trees had faded away leaving a dense coniferous forest, mostly firs.
This requirement for sudden intense focus is not scary or unpleasant; quite the contrary. When the road requires attention in this way, everything else is driven from my mind – there is only my bike, the pavement, and me. Problems at work? Gone. Trouble with my girlfriend? Vanished. The nagging ache between my shoulder blades? What ache? Worries about running out of gas? Forgotten. It is almost a form of meditation.
Highway 36 gained and lost elevation, swinging left and right as it wandered eastward through the heavily forested mountains. After entering the Trinity National Forest the road crossed a ridge, dropped into the Mad River valley, and then climbed steadily to over 4,000 feet, dropped back down to around 2,000 feet before it climbed again, gradually this time, back to over 4,000 feet.
The trees were breathtaking. They were densely packed and I could not see very deeply into the forest, just a thin strip along the roadside. I could easily imagine Bigfoot being able to hide out in the many miles of forested mountains that had very little human presence.
The road curved back and forth while dipping up and down, but stayed above 4,000 feet for miles, passing through some very rugged terrain. These were mostly large-radius curves, a few tighter ones marked for 45 mph, connected by short straights. The road and I were waltzing again, with a little bit of quick rhythm thrown in here and there.
After about an hour at this lofty elevation the road turned left and figuratively dropped off a cliff. I was rapidly losing elevation, facing switchbacks with yawning drop-offs on the outside of the curves. Again my focus snapped sharply onto the road. In a few miles the descent became more gradual and I could pay some attention to the surroundings. The land was now dryer, the air warmer, the shrubbery more sparse and pines had replaced firs as the dominant tree. The smell of pitch was in the air. I had passed the peak of the Coast Range and was now in its rain shadow. Manzanita and sagebrush began to appear among grasses in the open spaces between the less densely packed pines.
Around 3 p.m. I reached the small town of Platina, where there were a few buildings and a general store/restaurant/gas station. I had been on the road about seven hours total by this time and the break was welcome. I had pie and coffee and my bike got a fill of fuel.
Refreshed with caffeine, sugar, and a full fuel tank I continued east and the road soon had another rapid elevation loss, descending quickly out of the pine forest and into the oak grasslands of the Coast Range’s eastern foothills. The terrain was now gently rolling hills instead of rugged mountains; think of an ocean with swells of 10 to 20 feet. When this part of the highway was made the pavement was poured directly onto the ground; the builders wasted no energy in cutting and filling to level this road. The narrow band of tarmac rolled down into the troughs and up over the peaks, running left and right while bearing mostly east.
I was traveling in four directions now, working rapidly–left, right, up, shifting my weight in the saddle, down, left again, pressing down on the outside foot peg, up, then down and right at the same time, levering the handlebars to force the bike to change direction quickly. This was no waltz, it was a jitterbug and my partner was an expert, throwing new and different steps at me to see how I would respond. I hustled to keep up, and it went on like that for nearly an hour. I was having the most fun of the whole trip, yet I had been on the road for more than 8 hours. My arms were sore, my butt was hot and my legs were aching but all that faded away as I danced the quick dance of the road. My mind was sparkling.
My shadow stretched long in front of me, disappearing and reappearing as the road swung back and forth; I chased it not expecting to catch up. I was almost to Red Bluff when the sun set behind me and the air started to cool, but not evenly. I felt the coolness, almost a chill, at the bottom of the dips and the day’s lingering heat at the peaks.
I stopped in Red Bluff for a late dinner as darkness fell. The remaining one hour or so to Oroville was on mostly straight roads and I was enjoying the afterglow of a great ride. I rode rather sedately, following my headlight beam as it pierced the darkness.