Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Shakedown Cruise, Part II

Predicted rain again failed to materialize, and the fourth day of our motorcycle trip dawned clear and crisp over Shelter Cove, CA. A thick cloud bank roiled just offshore, threatening a change of weather should we linger too long. I was excited to be going, as we would finally be riding a stretch of road I'd never driven, to a place I'd never been other than just passing through. The weather was again forcing a change in plans, this time delaying our arrival to Redding by a day. A happy side effect was the addition of today's leg down US-101 to Napa Valley.

But first we had Shelter Cove Road to pass again. I needn't have worried, for Dawn tackled it with skill that belied her fourth-day rider status. She was starting to relax and really enjoy the trip, which made it all the better for me. We were back in Redway not 40 minutes after leaving Shelter Cove, and eating breakfast at the House of Burgess in Garberville shortly thereafter. There was no threat of rain now; the sun was shining brightly through the redwoods and we could cover the 150 miles to Napa Valley in leisurely fashion, if we so chose.

In fact it went rather quickly. The section of US-101 south of Leggitt, which I'd never been on, is mostly four-lane highway, albeit the rather fun type with lots of fast sweepers through several pretty valleys. It's a split personality road, though: every once in a while it abruptly narrows to two lanes, slows down, and snakes through a dense redwood grove, or twists over a ridge, or shimmies along a cliff. Just as suddenly it opens back up and you're again cruising on an expressway hacked through the wilderness. To me this is the perfect kind of road: enough variety to keep things interesting while the miles fly right by.

South of Cloverdale the road straightened out and the terrain opened up as wine country began in earnest. We were making good time to Calistoga, our destination for the day, so we turned onto CA-128 at Geyserville to take the scenic route. It was an unexpected treat, a quiet stretch of good blacktop alongside neat vineyards hemmed by prim rows of Valley Oak. We tucked in behind a Harley with two helmeted riders festooned with Iron Butt Association regalia, and then were quickly left behind in a thunderous cannonade as they charged into a twisty section through a brookside oak-copse. Not your typical Harley riders, I thought as they disappeared around a tight right-hander in a Moto-GP lean. I kept the FZ1 at a dignified trot and soaked up the glorious afternoon sun.

After checking into the lovely Wine Way Inn in cute-as-a-button downtown Calistoga, Dawn and I continued down the valley two-up on her FZ6. St Helena, Rutherford, and Yountville proved to be equally as pleasant, with dozens of inviting wineries in between each town. I was starting to see the appeal of Napa Valley, my only previous experience with which was one hurried pass through urban Napa years ago. In the interest of staying upright and DUI-free, we limited ourselves to one wine tasting, but found a few really nice wines to take home. In Napa we turned around and completed our circuit of the valley via the Silverado Trail as the sun disappeared over the hills. Back in Calistoga, we parked the bike and walked down Lincoln Avenue for a very nice dinner - best meatloaf ever! - at the Flatiron Grill. After that we enjoyed a quiet night of reading and sipping wine back at the B&B, which felt a great deal more civilized than most motorcycle trips I've been on!

Thursday morning was fairly chilly but at least clear, and the sun had warmed the valley considerably by the time we finished breakfast, loaded the bikes, and headed north on CA-29. The route over the Mayacamas Mountains looked worse than Shelter Cove Road on the map but actually turned out to be quite easy. North of the summit, we crossed into Lake County and the road was quite good and fast. I'd seen the area around Clear Lake many times from the air but never from the ground; I didn't realize how sparsely developed the area is, particularly between Clear Lake and Williams. Failing to find an opportune gas station, we coasted down to the central valley on mere fumes. After filling up, we headed north on I-5, the first stretch of freeway we'd seen in five days and 900 miles. We covered the 100 miles to Redding astonishingly fast and still got passed with regularity. Interstate travel may be somewhat lacking in charm but it is certainly efficient.

My sister Rachel was still in classes when we arrived in town so we headed to the nearest Cycle Gear store, drooled over many things, and purchased a few things I deemed necessary for the subfreezing temperatures expected over the passes on Friday - namely insulated gloves and riding pants for Dawn. After meeting up with Rachel, we were convoying to her apartment when Dawn accidently killed her bike in the left-turn lane of a busy intersection. When she attempted to restart it, the battery slowly turned the engine over for a few seconds and gave up. I parked the FZ1 and ran out into the street to pushstart the Fz6, and then rode it around for 20 minutes in low gear in an attempt to charge the battery back up. No luck, it was still quite dead when I got back. Back we went to Cycle Gear to purchase our second motorcycle battery in three days. Once I swapped it out, my "test drive" conveniently included a fast ride up Shasta Dam Road with my sister on the back in time to catch the sunset over the Trinity Alps.

I spent the night with an anxious eye on the Caltrans and ODOT webcams at Black Butte Summit and Siskiyou Pass. At 3900' and 4300' respectively, these were the highest points on our trip and had been receiving quite a bit of winter weather, our reason for delaying this leg by a day. Friday was forecast to be clear before snow moved in again on Saturday, but subfreezing temperatures were expected overnight and I was concerned about melting snow freezing on the roadway. I've had a few experiences with ice on motorcycles and while they did not result in crashes, I have no desire to repeat them nor to expose Dawn to similar situations. The temperature at Siskiyou Summit was 22 degrees when we woke up on Friday morning.

To compensate, we left Redding a little on the late side, which I'd rather not have done since we were hoping to make it all 430 miles back to Vancouver WA on Friday. I hadn't really looked at the map, I didn't realize that it was an hour's ride from Redding to Black Butte Summit, and thus the sun had warmed the air to a balmy 28 degrees by the time we crossed it at 11am. There were a few patches of snow around but no ice on the roadway, so I felt alot better about Siskiyou Pass when we stopped for brunch in Yreka. There was actually no trace of snow at the summit, and we cruised down the north side into Medford OR luxuriating in the nice warm, 50 degree air.

We only stopped twice after breakfast, both times to refuel. I kept asking Dawn (via intercom) whether she would like to stop to rest, and she always replied that she felt good. The FZ6 turned out to be a better cross-country machine than I hoped, with a comfortable stock saddle that minimized monkey-butt and an upright riding position with very little pressure on the wrists. Dawn did complain of a stiff neck throughout the trip due to excessive wind striking her helmet with the stock short windscreen, so we ordered a taller model when we got home.

I let Dawn lead pretty much all day. After six straight days of riding, it was amazing to see the giant strides she had made in confidence and ability. Back on the Sunday we started out, we stopped at our old favorite bagel shop for coffee and bagels before our training sessions, and she had confessed that she was pretty terrified of getting on the bike. It had been 9 months since she last rode a little Virago 250 in the MSF class, and she had dropped that twice on the first day. I reassured her but privately wondered if I was pushing her to bite off more than she could chew. Now, I followed her over a winding section of I-5, admiring her riding style. She consistently chose good lines through the turns, used the brakes and throttle judiciously, and showed keen awareness in dealing with other traffic.

That said, she wasn't exactly always the model student. On one 45mph-rated curve, she slowed to a sensible 55 mph, leaned hard left, kicked her inboard knee out, and pinned the throttle. The howl of her 97-horsepower inline-4 reached inside my helmet and I found her pulling away from my 147-hp FZ1 rather rapidly. "Uhh, Dawn...?" I activated the intercom as she came out of the turn, mild concern in my voice.

"What's a matter?" she responded innocently.

"Check your speed." I was showing a bit over 80mph.

"Ooh! I didn't realize I was going that fast!"

Yep, I'm gonna have to keep an eye on this one....

Our arrival was considerably slower, as we spent the last 20 miles in stop-and-go rush hour traffic. Finally, a bit before 6pm, we pulled into Brad's driveway, 1440 miles after we left the previous Sunday. I shook Dawn's hand rather officiously, then gave her a hug and a "well done." Brad and his neighbors invited us to a BBQ they were kicking off as we pulled up. A few beers and burgers and a soak in the hot tub later, the 430 miles of the day were but an abstraction of memory. That will be a pretty average ride our Alaska trip, for days on end, on slower and rougher roads than I-5. I can't wait, and now neither can Dawn.