Thursday, April 14, 2011

Shakedown Cruise

It was Dawn's idea in the first place to take motorcycles down the west coast in the first week of April, during her Spring Break. She had a brand-new-to-her 2005 Yamaha FZ6 waiting in Portland. I bought it for our planned trip to Alaska this June, but she quite sensibly balked at the idea of riding 6000 miles through wilderness on a bike she'd never been on. A trip down the west coast would be a perfect chance for her to build experience and would serve as a "shakedown cruise" for this year's big adventure to the Last Frontier.

I said no. The Pacific Northwest weather is too fickle in April. We'd have other chances to do it before June. I'd been over the route before. I'd have to borrow a buddy's bike, the surest test of a friendship. I wanted to go to China after years of intending to visit soon. Dawn agreed; China it would be.

And then our spring break plans were once again shattered, this time by a tragedy in Dawn's family. Her aunt Becky, who we had lived with once and were pretty close to, suffered a massive stroke during a comparatively routine surgury. For a week she clung to life with friends and family in constant attendance before passing away peacefully, surrounded by her ten siblings. It was a week before we were due to leave, and obviously family came first. We canceled our China plans to attend Becky's wake and funeral and to be with Dawn's family. Oddly enough, the remainder of Dawn's Spring Break was perfect for a six-day motorcycle trip down the west coast. The weather forecast was favorable. My friend Brad loaned me his 2006 Yamaha FZ1 without a moments hesitation. For the second year in a row, our Spring Break overseas travel plans were upset but replaced with a very enjoyable domestic trip on two wheels.

We landed in Portland late on Saturday April 2 and woke the next morning to grey skies and an ominous forecast: two inches of rain on the Oregon coast on Monday. Those are ugly conditions for an experienced rider, to say nothing of a novice, so I compressed our "training day" into a few hours to depart Portland a day early, on Sunday afternoon. Dawn practiced low-speed maneuvering in a parking lot for 30 minutes, took a few spins around Brad's neighborhood, and then took a ride around Vancouver (WA). I followed on Brad's FZ1 and offered tips and encouragement over our bluetooth bike-to-bike intercom. With that we were off to the coast, me leading a very anxious Dawn through the traffic of downtown Portland and the endless stoplights of Highway 99W. Past McMinnville, we exited onto OR-18 to Lincoln City. This is the least steep and winding of the routes of through the coast range, but still has enough curves to be thoroughly enjoyable if I weren't worried about how my new rider was doing.

I needn't have worried. The FZ6 is a wonderfully nimble, responsive bike, and Dawn carved through the turns like a seasoned pro from the very start. Our riding became progressively harder over the first three days but Dawn showed herself up to the challenge. By the end of the trip, it was her leading me back into Portland.

Threatening skies held their peace as we headed south on US-101 from Lincoln City; only after we reached our destination for the day did drizzle start falling through the gathering darkness. We were a day early for our reservation at Heceta Head Lightstation Bed and Breakfast, but the innkeepers were more than accommodating - not only switching nights but also upgrading us to a room with a view of the lighthouse and the angry-looking seas beyond.

The B&B is situated in the former innkeepers' cozy house, an 1893 Queen Anne with a white picket fence surrounding a neatly trimmed yard hemmed by the towering pines of Heceta Head. After we unpacked and explored the grounds it began to rain in earnest, just in time for our ride to Florence for dinner. We ended up just picking up some groceries from Fred Meyer, so as to ride back to the lighthouse before the steep, winding, rough, and wet road was completely dark. Thankfully we were both riding on Dawn's FZ6 and she had but to hold on from the back seat.

Our evening was quiet but very pleasant: a light dinner of hot sandwiches followed by hot tea and reading and chatting with other guests around the fireplace. Once we retired to bed, I fell asleep to the sounds of crashing surf and rain pelting the windowpane as the lighthouse beam swept by our window every 10 seconds.

Despite the light dinner I was unprepared for the seven-course assault on my stomach of the next morning. Every offering was delicious but I couldn't help protesting each time the chef emerged with another dish - but I cleaned my plate every time, of course. Our fellow guests were all friendly and witty, which is good because breakfast lasted an hour and a half! It was 10am by the time we waddled out to our motorcycles.

The rain of the night had ended and although another wave was coming in, lighter skies beckoned to the south. The air was chilly but we were both pretty well bundled up. It seemed so recently that I had followed the same route south on my BMW, but in fact it was December 2009. We had a late, light lunch in Gold Beach, which I know from my days flying for Ameriflight. South of Port Orford, we paused to take photos of a dramatic stretch of coastline I'd admired on my last trip. The clouds were thinning and the day warming; I was relieved that we apparently outrode the forecast rain. Dawn was riding the curvy sections of US-101 with considerable skill and more confidence than the previous day.

We arrived in Crescent City, CA, around 4pm and considered our options. The original plan was to proceed to Klamath, spend the night, and ride to Redding via Eureka the following day, tuesday. However, the forecast suggested we'd be stuck in Redding for a few days before the passes into Oregon on I-5 would be passable by motorcycle. Besides, we were a day ahead of schedule - why not take our time and explore further south? We decided to spend the night in Crescent City and ride to Shelter Cove on the Lost Coast the following day.

We were still stuffed so we skipped dinner altogether and instead explored the area on Dawn's FZ6. Crescent City itself was considerably less charming than I'd assumed, but the surroundings were beautiful. We walked to Battery Point Lighthouse and rode the first 15 miles or so of Highway 199 through breathtakingly gorgeous redwood groves. I wanted to venture further but the light was fading, so we retreated to our cheap-but-clean motel room, which disappointingly did not come with a sea view and a living room with a roaring fire and a 120-year old lighthouse faithfully showing the way just outside our bedroom window. In the words of one of my favorite movies, "We don't want to spoil the girl!"

The next day dawned bright and beautiful, with pink wispy clouds floating in from the sea and over the solemn redwoods. I was really excited about the stretch of US-101 south of Crescent City. It was one of my favorite stretches from the 2009 ride. Sadly it was less spectactular than I remembered, certainly less than the section of US-199 we rode the previous evening. Memory is a tricky thing. Fortunately I detoured onto the Newtown B. Drury Parkway through Prairie Creek Redwoods State Park and was rewarded with a road that bested the US-101 that had existed in my memory. We stopped for a hike at "The Big Tree," which lived up to its name.

We stopped in Eureka to attend to some pressing business. Brad had warned me that his FZ1's battery was having trouble holding a charge overnight, and indeed we had to push start it in the morning at Heceta Head and again in Crescent City. In Eureka we visited the local Yamaha dealer to inquire about a new battery. I was gobstopped to learn that the OEM replacement battery, indeed the only compatible battery they had in stock, was $214. I knew it shouldn't run more than $90 but the only other nearby motorcycle store was closed on Monday and not wishing to tarry in Eureka, I ponied up. I'm sure they thought "what a sucker!"

We stopped in the charming Victorian town of Ferndale for lunch and continued southward via the Avenue of the Giants. I'd done at least a portion of this ride in 2009 but don't remember it being so fantastic. Having a sunny day to send narrow beams of light piercing down through the majestic gloom certainly elevated the cathedral effect. I opened my visor, breathed deeply of crisp, piney air, and enjoyed the ride. When a series of tight curves slowed our progress a bit, my intercom came alive with a squeal of delight. "This is FUN!" Dawn exclaimed. I glanced in my mirrors for the first time in a while. She was right on my tail, leaned over hard in a tight left hand turn with her low knee slung out and her eyes out around the curve, a grin hidden behind her helmet but evident in her voice. I could have burst with pride.

At Redway we turned off for our object of the day, Shelter Cove. It is a lonely outpost of the Lost Coast, so called because even the intrepid road engineers of the 1930s deemed it too rugged to be traversed. Highway 101 veers inland to the north, and CA-1 squiggles its way back down to the sea at the southern end. Shelter Cove is in fact the only town along this stretch of coast, and the only access is either via light airplane (an airstrip forms the town's nucleus) or a winding, deteriorated narrow little strip of asphalt flung over 23 miles of mountains from Redway.

If I'd been on that road before, I'd probably have declined to do it again with a novice rider along. Very little of it was easy riding, and for the finale it climbs straight up and over the last ridge in a series of tight, steep switchbacks. On the way down, Dawn's voice made it clear that she was no longer having fun. I dropped behind her and coached her through it. Despite her anxiety, she had exactly the right idea: coast along in low gear, brake to a near halt before the tightest turns, then let go and swoop around them before gravity builds your speed back up.

Our reward for the last challenging bit of riding was a neat, quiet town with a lovely view of the ocean and stunning coastline in either direction. We rode the local roads as far as they would take us, then relaxed the evening away, sharing a bottle of wine outside our cabin as the sun sank to the sea. After sunset I built a crackling fire in the wood stove, which combined with the distant crashing of waves to lull me to sleep without even a thought that we'd have to ride the same treacherous road first thing in the morning.


Anonymous said...

Not that I have to tell you this, but Dawn is AWESOME, not many wives would be up for this kind of adventure. What a great way to spend time together and see the country.

Plus I am sure it's easier on you not having someone on the back of the bike all the time.

I'm still working on my wife to let me get a bike just to cruise around locally.

Anonymous said...

Great Read, as always...

dogbait said...

Great story as usual. Follow your blog with as much interest for the aviation as travel tales. My wife and I have travelled that part of the country albeit in 4 wheels. Even came across 2 bears crossing the 101 in Oregon.

G. F. McDowell said...

What sort of intercom do you and your wife use? Does it have some form of hearing protection? I typically wear earplugs on the motorcycle, keeps my ears from ringing from wind noise at the end of the journey, and always wondered how an intercom could be compatible with hearing protection, short of a Dave Clark fighter pilot helmet with earmuffs built in. Thoughts?