I’ve just finished Dr. Gregory W. Frazier’s latest book, Adventure Motorcyclist: Frazier Shrugged. (Order from Aerostich or Sound Rider.) The book is a collection of Frazier’s columns, many from the pages of CityBike Magazine, where Frazier was a long-term contributor, before the publication folded its tent in 2019. Although it’s likely they appeared in many others as well. Frazier is a prolific writer and regular contributor to a variety of domestic and international motorcycle magazines. Like me he’s written for BACKROADS, Motorcycle Consumer News and RoadRUNNER, but adds Motorcycle-USA.com, American Motorcyclist and Road Bike here in the States to his domestic list. His work also appears in motorcycle-oriented publications in Germany, New Zealand, Great Britian, Russia and Japan. We share reputations for solid product evaluations and compelling stories of our motorcycle journeys. We’ve both raced motorcycles, although few records exist of my middle-of-the-pack finishes, Frazier has won races on BMW and Indian Motorcycles and competed successfully on Hondas and Yamahas as well.
That is where the similarities end. When it comes to riding, Frazier is on the other end of the scale. He’s the only guy I know who has circumnavigated the globe by motorcycle six times. He’s been shot at, jailed, bitten by snakes and run over by Pamplona bulls. He’s broken down or had flat tires in more countries than I’ve ridden in. His over 1,000,000 miles on a motorcycle have taken him to Alaska, Ushuaia, Argentina, North Cape, Norway, Cape Agulhas, South Africa and New Zealand, among many, many others.
Thorough the riding stories in Frazier Shrugged, he expresses thinly veiled disgust with the erosion and broadening of the word “adventure.” I understand. He’s built a life around a series of genuine motorcycling adventures. He’s personally navigated the globe on a variety of motorcycles half a dozen times, most often alone. Having the term “adventure” applied to low-risk guided motorcycle tours lead by a GPS equipped tour professional, followed by a cradle of riders with a sweep van filled with tools and luggage going from one 5-star hotel to another, manages to get his ire up. When the term adventure is further extended to a host of motorcycles and accessories, it infuriates him even more. I get it. The dictionary definition of Adventure includes terms like risk, hazards, exciting action and uncertain outcomes. However, tolerance for risk and ambiguity varies from person to person.
Frazier’s perspective on his fellow riders reminded me of an incident a few years back in Camden, Maine. Overhearing a conversation between two obvious Maine residents, I could barely hold back a chuckle. The first one asked the other, “Where ya from?” and to the reply of “Portland,” he huffed back, “Portland! You might as well live in Massachusetts!” Now, to fully appreciate that, you’d need to add a deep Maine accent — “North Haven” becoming “Nahwth Haven” and “summertime” heard as “summahtime.” Running into the Portland resident later I asked if she’d been offended. She said, “Oh no. That’s pretty common. Anyone living in Maine who lives further south from where you personally reside is considered fair game to the criticism that where you live might as well be ‘a suburb of Massachusetts.’ In their estimation, genuine and true Maine residents only live right where they do – or further north and east.”
This same judgement is often expressed in automobile drivers: a growing frustration and mutterings of “what’s wrong with this idiot,” when following someone going slower than they wish to proceed. Of course, a few minutes later, commenting “Look at that crazy idiot,” when someone speeds by much faster than they are moving. In other words: “If you’re going slower than me, you’re an idiot and if you go faster than me, you’re an idiot.”
It’s difficult for me to criticize Frazier. We’ve shared editorial homes over the years and met a few times. I like him. When it comes to global riding, with minimal resources and support, he’s absolutely the genuine article with his million plus miles to nearly every country in the world prove that. My riding “adventures” are far lower on the risk and ambiguity scale than Frazier’s – although higher than many of those with whom I typically ride. I’ve ridden in Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Canada (does that count?), Croatia, Chile, Greece, Italy, Mexico, New Zealand, South America and Turkey and some more than once. My rides have been a mixture of solo efforts and guided tours and I’ve loved both. Readers of this newsletter can find copies of some of my stores about these trips here.
Frazier’s animosity for those lower than him on the scale of risk, danger and ambiguity is not a feeling I share. To me the point is this – no matter where you are on this competency/experience scale, there is someone higher, who could, if they wished, make snide and derisive comments about your experiences and accomplishments: “What, you slept in a flea-bag motel with a real roof which was mostly water tight? You wimp! We camped 100% of the time, even in the snow!” Or, “What, you had a 650 cc bike? We did all our trips on nothing bigger than 250 cc’s. How can you possibly consider any experience on a 650 cc bike an ‘Adventure? What kind of fraud are you?’”
Frazier isn’t a tourist, he’s a traveler. Like my cousin, John Gravley, who spent several years of his life traveling the globe, Frazier’s travels are not a holiday. He takes whatever time is needed to get from A to B, and once there, decides what point C will be and when he’ll head in that direction. He’s not there to see the sights, at least not the ones in a guidebook. He eats what locals eat, although happy to see a McDonald’s. Frazier makes an effort to learn at least some of the language of whatever country he’s passing through and, over the years, has been able to communicate capably in many of them. This is a very different approach than a typical ten-day riding vacation where you are essentially a tourist. But what he perhaps does best is capture the feelings of those experiences and pass them on to readers. As an editor of mine once told me, “Your job is to never say, ‘Well, I guess you had to be there.’ Your job is to take them there.” In this, Frazier succeeds, albeit with a shorthand sometimes only other travelers and adventure riders will hear. But as my Australian friends say, “Good on ya!”
While I don’t agree with his penchant for dissing the foibles, lack of planning and unrealistic expectations of other motorcyclists, I must admit some of his stories are pretty funny. Readers who enjoyed his columns will remember why they liked them. If you have ever thought about hopping on the back of a motorcycle and taking a really, really long multi-month ride, you owe it to yourself to read not just this book, but some of his other books as well. You can find several on Amazon.com, although I prefer to order them from Aerostich or Sound Rider, feeling he likely gets a bigger cut and these online retailers need all the support they can get. My favorite Frazier books are:
Down and Out in Patagonia, Kamchatka, and Timbuktu (also available from Sound Rider)
Motorcycle Adventurer: Carl Stearns Clancy – First Motorcyclist to Ride Around the World 1912-1913
Motorcycle Touring: Everything You Need to Know
On the Road: Successful Motorcycle Touring
His other books include: Alaska by Motorcycle, Europe by Motorcycle, New Zealand by Motorcycle, Riding South: Mexico, Central America and South America by Motorcycle, Motorcycle Sex: Freud Would Never Understand the Relationship Between Me and my Motorcycle, Motorcycle Poems by the Biker Poet, Motorcycle Cemetery, Indian Motorcycles International Directory, BMW GSing Around the World, Riding the World, Motorcycle Touring: Everything You Need to Know, On the Road: Successful Motorcycle Touring.
One of my best friends has a deep knowledge of cars and motorcycles, so we always have plenty to discuss. Recently, though, our conversation drifted to corporate life. His employer has been promoting him. From leading engineering projects, he now manages people and that includes letting people go. This is disturbing and is upsetting him. After we talked last week, I thought about lessons I’d learned being in a similar spot myself. Letting someone go or being let go, is never, ever fun.
With a near photographic memory and a passion for great engineering, it was no surprise to me a few years back when he began to get noticed and promoted. But more money and bigger titles began moving him further away from solving engineering problems, which he loves, to being closer to and dealing with people. Someone once said, “The world would be a nice place if it wasn’t for other people.” While my friend is not one to suffer fools gladly, he’s able to keep those feelings to himself, and is respected as an intelligent, thoughtful and fair leader.
However, the impact of the Coronavirus on his company’s business has forced him in the past month to lay off almost a third of his team. It has been brutal and I sensed how difficult this was for him, no matter his stoic attitude. Firing an employee is one of the most difficult and unpleasant duties a manager has to perform and most avoid it for as long as they can. “Well, we may have let ‘so-and-so’ go too soon,” said no one, ever. The number of euphemisms for this occurrence are many: sacked, canned, axed, expelled, furloughed, fired, laid-off, let go, released, down-sized, discharged, RIF’d (reduction in force), re-organized, involuntarily-separated, lost one’s job, pink-slipped, dismissed, got the boot, kicked out, retired, removed, and cut loose among others.
His experience made me think back to the fall of 1985. After leaving Open Systems, I was offered a management position at AT&T. Arriving too early on my first day at the office of my new employer, I killed time at a nearby breakfast place, grabbing a newspaper and cup of coffee. I opened the business section and the headline at the top of the page screamed, “AT&T announces 24,000 person layoff in Information Systems Division.” Humm, “That does not sound good – that’s the area that had just hired me,” I said to myself. Scanning the story I noted the announcement would impact 6% of AT&T’s total workforce, but would directly hit the 117,000 Information Systems division. Perhaps my first day will be my last, I thought, setting some sort of personal record
Entering the office suite of Area Vice President Gil Rainier at the top floor of the AT&T building, I held the newspaper up and said, “What’s going on with this?” Not expecting this sort of greeting, he hesitated and then said, “Well, it’s one of the reasons you’re here.” He went on to explain. His regional branch offices weren’t just in Mpls/St. Paul area, but included St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, and Chicago, each with 100-120 employees each. He’d been ordered to downsize those branch offices to between 25-30 people each along with taking his area staff down from 30-40 to less than 25. Gil explained, “I know most of these people personally. We’re friends. I can’t do this objectively, so I am wondering, if along with your other responsibilities, you could help us make these painful reductions?” It was my first day on the job; it was impossible to say no.
Amazingly, before the reduction in force could be implemented, I’d had time and budget to hire one of my top past colleagues. Together we constructed a plan to exceed the Midwest Area’s annual quota for selling AT&T computers and equipment. Managing that effort is a story I’ll leave for another time. Just when we had moved into full execution mode on our sales plans, the layoffs began. My team continued on the plan and I put the cloak of doom over my shoulders and headed to the branch offices.
AT&T was not heartless. It cushioned the layoffs with a generous “separation package.” I don’t recall the exact details, but it was close to one month’s salary for every year you’d been with the company. So if you’d been with the company for ten years, you got almost a year’s pay in a lump sum after signing the “I won’t sue” paperwork. Plus, AT&T covered health insurance for two additional years or until you found other employment. A softened blow is still a blow and many of the meetings were full of tears and anger. Employees told me AT&T was the only placed they’d ever worked and after twenty plus years, could not imagine what they would do. They frequently wept, feeling a major part of their lives was over. Sometimes they yelled and screamed. AT&T had not only been a workplace, it was where they met and socialized with some of their best friends. They had few ideas on how they would go on and I felt ill-equipped to deal with the despair, frustration, and hopelessness they expressed.
But here is what I told my friend: For years after I left AT&T, it was impossible to attend an industry conference, trade show or event, and not be approached by at least one of these former AT&T colleagues. They’d begin by asking if I remembered firing them from AT&T. They told me how much they’d hated me and the company for doing that. But here was the surprise. Every single one said, in only slightly different words, “that was the best thing to ever happen to me,” or “that was the day my life changed for the better, and I’ve never been happier.” They all told me, in retrospect, how much they’d been stagnating at AT&T. They’d lost themselves in this behemoth company where their efforts were unseen, largely unappreciated and disconnected from what made a company successful. They told me how they were now working at a place where the impact of their contributions was obvious. They knew the value they were adding and so did those around them. This was a feeling they hadn’t had before. They were thrilled. And of course, it made me feel better, too.
I’m sure not everyone managed through it with such positive results, but I came to see things like forcing people to wake up and change to not be entirely negative. Everyone is afraid of ambiguity and the unknown. Being let go is never fun. But venturing out, whether you take the step yourself or are pushed, can sometimes turn your life around.
Epilogue: In the spring of 2020 we had a market crash and a national quarantine which precipitated the closure of many businesses and resulted in innumerable lost jobs. This take is not about hourly and day workers whose lives have been turned inside out and for whom I have the utmost sympathy and compassion. This story speaks to people who can and will bounce back. For those people, fold your damaged ego gently and put it in your pocket for later.
With my purchase of a 1969 Lotus Elan in 1971, I became the only Lotus owner in Rochester, MN. As such, I was occasionally pulled over by the police, mostly to answer questions like, “What kind of a car is this?” or “Who makes Lotus?” However, when I tried to outrun one of those cops, things changed. This is the story of how I got out of a speeding ticket written for “120 mph+.”
A first drive in the Lotus Elan had left me stunned. I’d never experienced anything like it. Rounding the curves during my test drive near Munger Imports at the far end of 4th street in Rochester, MN, the car not only seemed to hug the road, it felt like it had been launched from a slingshot as it accelerated out of each corner. I instantly realized I’d need to have a lot more time in this car to be able to drive it well, clearly a far better car than I was a driver.
Finding a buyer for my Triumph Spitfire, I bought this mysterious and wonderful vehicle, a car I still own nearly 50 years later. The night in question occurred during my first year with the car. I was returning home from a manager’s meeting at Schaak Electronics HQ in Minneapolis. It was a warm, clear summer night as I headed south on Hwy 52, a four-lane divided highway. Just south of Cannon Falls I somehow attracted the attention of a car full of guys, perhaps high school age. They made the classic male testosterone-fueled aggressive automotive gesture – pulling level with my driver’s window, moving parallel with me for a bit while revving the engine. Then they’d floor their accelerator and speed off. After a few hundred feet they’d slow down, allow me to catch and pass them, then they’d repeat the process again, while I kept my speed consistent at 60-65 mph and attempted to ignore them. This maneuver was repeated several times, sometimes with guys in the open windows facing me yelling obscenities.
About the 4th time this occurred, I’d had enough. As they dropped back again, this time when they were level with me, I dropped the gearbox from 4th to 3rd and floored the accelerator. If you know nothing about cars, let me briefly explain the concept of weight to horsepower ratio (PWR). You simply divide the power output of a vehicle by its weight. For example, in a car that weighs 2000 pounds and has 250 HP, the PWR will be as follows: 250 / 2000 = 0.125 hp for every pound of car. My memory says they were driving an older 4-door Impala. Those cars weighed in at 3,600 lbs dry. Add fluids and 4 average-sized farm guys and you’re looking at 4,500 lbs, easy. The 1960 Chevy Impala 4-door sedan was powered by a 235 cubic inch, 135 HP engine. On its best day, the Elan had only 115 HP, so the Impala out powered it by 20 HP. However, here’s the big difference. The Elan weighed only 1,550 lbs. Even with my 150 lbs, I weighed less than half what they did. With horsepower that close and weight that much different, and with both cars already moving, the term “leaving them in the dust,” came to mind as I rapidly pulled away up to about 90 mph, when I shifted into 4th and again pushed my foot to the floor and kept it there until the car was not accelerating any more. As my friend Brett Engel who owns a racing version of the Lotus Elan said, it really wasn’t much of a contest. “Even without the radical difference in weight, your Elan has far better suspension, better weight distribution and lower polar inertia, and far better aerodynamics.” (Note: The Lotus Elan is such a magic car, at the end of this story, you may wish to head over to my blog to read about it. Here is a direct link the section of my blog about the Elan, which I’ve updated for the publication of this story.)
Watching the headlights of them behind me, I gradually slowed down. But the guys in the Chevy were soon back, apparently wanting to make another run at it.
At this point, I saw the sign near Hader where Hwy 57 would take me directly south to Kasson, MN in Dodge County, were I had recently bought a house. As they raced their motor and rapidly pulled ahead of me only to quickly return level with me once again, I waited and then braked rapidly to make the exit off to the right, onto Hwy 57 south. If you think a light car like an Elan accelerates quickly, you would be correct. But it’s nothing compared to how quickly it will stop. The Elan’s 4-wheel disc brakes slowed me to an easy turn off speed while the Impala had no chance of making the turn. Although they tried to stop, their car continued straight on Hwy 52, where the next exit was at least a mile down the road. Even they knew enough to not try backing up on an Interstate highway at night.
As I drove south on Hwy 57, I saw nothing for the next 10-15 miles and gradually relaxed. No sooner had I concluded they were history, than I saw a set of headlights rapidly coming up behind me. Now I was worried. This was no longer a large, wide, forgiving Interstate but a rural, 2-lane blacktop. As the headlights approached, I sped up but kept watching behind through my rearview mirror. Sure enough, as my speed increased, so did the car behind me. Remembering my prior encounter on the Interstate and guessing now that perhaps alcohol may be involved, I decided to get out of there. I knew I had a long straight away ahead that dropped gradually down to a bridge and then an uphill stretch, also straight. I decided if I was going to lose them, now was the time. As I hit the downhill stretch and their lights dropped out of sight, went down a gear to 3rd and felt the rush of acceleration for a few seconds as I floored it, and then shifted back up to 4th. The Elan’s little twin cam engine howled with delight as I accelerated down the hill. I felt I was closer to flat out than I’d ever been. At this speed, the Elan feels almost more like an airplane wanting to lift off the ground. I kept my eyes focused straight ahead as I threaded the slight narrowing of the road and flew across the bridge. With my foot still buried to the floor, and half way up the hill on the other side, I risked a quick glance in the rear view mirror. That was when I saw the rack of lights on top of the police cruiser pursuing me. “Aw Shit,” I thought, “I’m in for it now.”
Cresting the top of the hill, I immediately utilized the Elans stopping prowess and pulled off to the side of the road. Far off the side of the road, as I had an idea of what would happen next, and it did. A police car crested the hill at high speed, saw me as he raced past and frantically applied his brakes. It still took at least 100 feet before he could stop. He backed slowly up and I watched him as he pulled his car in front of mine and got out. By this time, I’d exited the Elan and was leaning against the driver’s door.
The first words out of his mouth were, “What the hell kind of car is that?” and “Why the hell were you driving so fast?” Failing to come up with any better excuse, as calmly as I could, I related my I-52 experience and my thinking he was “one of those guys,” back to try and run me off the road. I may have left out the part of me blowing them off on the Interstate. But I explained that I feared for my life and was in a panic, attempting to get to the police station in Mantorville to seek refuge.
I’ll say this. He listened to my tale, although I’m not sure he believed any of it. He finally wrote me a ticket for “120 mph+,” saying, “I don’t know how fast you were going, but my car’s odometer (a Ford Police cruiser) only goes to 120 mph and you were pulling away from me, so I’m saying 120+. I took the ticket and drove the rest of the way home. God, I was in trouble. The next day I called Bob Suk, the attorney who’d helped me with some real estate deals and told him my story. I asked him to represent me on this ticket as I was pretty sure they were going to throw the book at me, at the very least, a big fine or maybe, even jail time and I needed a lawyer. I had no idea or reference for this sort of thing.
And now, boys and girls: do you remember the old adage that sometimes it’s better to be lucky than smart – and to always tell the truth? When I called the Dodge County court house to plead Not Guilty and get my court appearance date, I was told they’d need to call me back. A week went by and I heard nothing. Then my attorney called the following week and said he’d set up a meeting with the judge at the Dodge County court house and gave me the date and time. On the scheduled day, I met Bob Suk in the parking lot of the Dodge County courthouse and he explained a few things. It turns out that Dodge County could not afford to have its own prosecuting attorney. As a result, they contract with Rochester’s legal community for this service. Rochester attorneys take on this typically light workload as an adjunct to their regular practice, rotating the responsibility every year to someone different, so one person wasn’t always the same one to be burdened with this task. Well, guess who’s turn it was to be Dodge County’s prosecutor that year? Ah yes, you are correct. It was my attorney, Bob Suk.
It seems he called the judge and explained that one of his clients was faced with a serious moving violation charge and, since it was his client, he’d have to recuse himself on this case, as he would be defending me and could not act as prosecutor. To prosecute me, Dodge County would have to find an interim prosecutor, contract for and pay that person. The prospect was a huge headache and a paperwork nightmare and so the judge had asked if we could meet to see if there might be some way out of this mess. Suk told me that once in the judge’s office I was to only answer the precise questions directed to me and nothing more. “Steve, I know you like to talk, but this time you need to shut up and only answer the questions.” As we entered the judge’s office, I saw the police officer who’d written the ticket sitting there, in his uniform. I thought, “Well, this can’t be good.” After introductions, the judge asked the officer to recount what had happened that night that led to him writing me a ticket for “120 mph+.” After describing the circumstances, the judge asked the officer if the defendant (me) had offered any explanation for my driving behavior. The officer recounted what I’d told him about my encounter with rowdy guys in an Impala and I had told him I’d been speeding as I wished to find a police officer in Mantorville. The judge looked at me and asked, “Is this what you told the officer?” and I replied in the affirmative. He then asked me if it was true and again, I said yes. He looked around the room for a bit, then said, “Well, Mr. Larsen, we’ve decided to let you off with a warning this time, but we don’t ever want to see any more driving behavior like this again, is that clear?” I said “Yes Sir,” and a few minutes later we left.
Before I could congratulate Mr. Bob Suk on the result, he said, “Do you know why that just happened?” I said “No, what do you mean?” Bob explained, “Last week when I spoke to the judge, I relayed the story you told me about your being pulled over. That officer just told the judge the exact same thing. When that happens, judges feel they’re getting the truth, and you get points for that with some.” I smiled. Then he said, “But I’d still watch your speed around here. They’re going to be keeping an eye on you.”
Epilogue: If you’d like to know about my Lotus Elan, a car I am approaching a 50 year ownership history with, do follow this link.
I could fill a book with stories of my interactions with cops – nearly always on my motorcycle and typically with city traffic police or highway patrol officers. In retrospect, my view of our relationship was somewhat warped. Me: A strong desire to ride at far higher speeds than the posted limits and Them: To stop my ass from doing that. I used technology (radar detectors and laser jammers), cunning, and paperwork against them. At one point, I even got a badge. This story covers one of the “with badge” incidents. Here is how it began.
I was living in Palo Alto, CA, when my good friend and riding buddy, David Ezequelle pulled out a single sheet of paper over lunch one day in March and showed me his idea for a week-long motorcycle excursion. It looked sort of like this:
The start day finally came and I hopped on my Suzuki V-Strom, fresh from its suspension upgrade from Northern California’s most reputable motorcycle suspension tuner, Phil Douglas at “After Shocks.” Our riders meet for breakfast at Buck’s, the famous launching pad for hundreds of startup companies; where PayPal got their first money and many anxious entrepreneurs outline plans for the “next Google” to jaded venture capitalists. But no plans were pitched at our table this early Monday morning and napkins remained free of diagrams. Instead, bikes were inspected, tire pressures re-checked and coffee cups drained in anticipation of a week away from the office. This would be a Monday – Friday route on some of the best of California’s motorcycle roads, from Death Valley to Sequoia National Park.
We watch countless commuters clog the highways leading into the former fruit groves of Silicon Valley, while we ride in the opposite direction, feeling as if we’re playing hooky. Our plan is to be in San Luis Obispo by nightfall so, of course, we head the other way to Patterson by way of Mt. Hamilton and a stop at the observatory perched on top. Highway 130 from San Jose to Mt. Hamilton is a fabulous road filled with tight technical corners providing plenty of opportunity to slide off the seat and push a knee toward the pavement. The narrow road hugs the contour of the land with so many switchbacks and direction changes, the compass indicator on the GPS never stops spinning. After a quick break at the observatory, we follow Hwy 130 down the back side as it becomes the Del Puerto Canyon Road and drops us into Patterson. This 100-mile section offers compressed, non-stop twisties. With endless sets of banked and off-camber turns, it is easily as interesting as the more popular westward routes from Silicon Valley up to Skyline Drive and down to the coast. But this road always has far less traffic, and on this Monday morning, we have it to ourselves.
David had figured out that with the right credentials, we could get onto the Ft. Hunter Liggett Army post and more importantly, exit out the back. We each had to show full documentation (driver’s license, bike registration and proof of insurance). We also underwent careful inspection by the guards at the gate and they had to be sure there were no live fire exercises scheduled while we would be in the area.
Ft. Hunter Liggett is interesting, not only because at 165,000 acres it is the largest US Army Reserve post anywhere, it also contains the Junipero Serra Peak and the headwaters of the Nacimiento River. We quickly pass through a small portion of the base, as our real goal is the Ft. Hunter Liggett road which turns into Forest Road 22S01 and winds thirty-five miles over the mountains to US 1. It is one of the most under-used and incredibly beautiful roads in the USA – gravel, of course. Riding through the tall trees and constant switchbacks, the smell of the distant moist ocean air quietly moving up the mountain towards us is intoxicating.
Dinner in San Luis Obispo was at the Tsurugi Japanese restaurant on Higuera Street, a short walk from our digs at the Best Western. The table is soon filled with work-of-art sushi and fresh sashimi and beer bottles. The Uni (sea urchin) draws raves from some, but the niguri and kohada sushi work for me. Everything is delicious on the tongue and beautiful to the eye.
In the morning we ride to Buttonwillow for breakfast, taking a short jaunt north on Hwy 101 and then the exquisite ride on Hwy 58 (California Canyon Highway) over the mountains and the north edge of Los Padres National Forest. This group believes in Fred Rau’s adage to “earn your breakfast,” which means riding at least an hour before pulling up a chair to the breakfast table. After eating we cruise through Bakersfield and down into Mojave, where we leave Hwy 58 and take Hwy 14 north to Death Valley.
Entering the Death Valley area, we’re near the Borax mines around Boron, CA. This is just south of Searles Valley and along the way to Furnace Creek. And this, boys and girls, is where my encounter with the local constabulary begins.
Coming into a small town, we’re stopped by an ore train of at least a hundred cars. We wait what seems like 20-30 minutes as the exceptionally slow-moving train passes and we finally see the last car. Just as that final car is within 25-30 yards of passing the crossing area, the train slows to a stop – pauses for a few minutes, and then reverses and slowly backs up a few hundred yards and stops again. It is hot. We are parched. For the next 15 minutes we wait as the train slowly reverses direction, pulls just about clear of the crossing area, stops for several minutes, and then reverses direction again. Being the somewhat impatient member of the group, the next time the final car gets almost across the road in front of us, I cross the left lane of traffic, turn onto the sidewalk and ride the sidewalk to cross the tracks right beyond where the final car of the train has stopped. Once past, I cross a grassy strip and get back onto the street. Finally I’m on the other side of this blasted train!
At the very moment when I’d begun to congratulate my ingenuity and creativity I saw the police officer leaning against his patrol car, motioning at me to join him. Oh Shit! (Or, as we learned in another story, Oh Shoot!) Damn! I pulled my bike to the front of his car and dismounted. I was in no hurry, as my riding buddies were still trapped on the other side of the train and oblivious. They couldn’t see me any better than I could see the police car waiting for me when I’d made the move to circumvent the train by riding on the sidewalk. Approaching me, he waits until my helmet is off and lets me reach for my wallet, with a smirk on his face. Opening my wallet and going for my driver’s license, I make sure he sees the prominently displayed AZ Highway Patrol challenge coin shaped like a police officer’s badge. “Ah, Damn, let me see that,” he says and I hand him my wallet. He looks at it for a few seconds and hands my wallet back saying, “Sheesh, we just paved that sidewalk bit a week ago and I’ve been out here just waiting for some idiot to use it to drive around the train so I could ticket them. And then the first guy around it has to be a god damn cop.”
I hastily explained that no I wasn’t an officer or even a former officer, but had gone through police moto officer training in Arizona and had many friends who were officers. I continued that I’d greatly appreciate it if he extended me the courtesy of a warning, but the letter of the unwritten rule (cops don’t ticket other cops) really wouldn’t apply. It was his call. He smiled and said, “Yeah, yeah, okay, I get it, but I’m still not giving you a ticket.” We talked for another ten minutes or so. He was a super nice guy. Finally he says, “Well, knowing this train’s pattern, your friends should be coming past here in about 3 minutes if you want to get suited back up and on your way.”
Then I had an idea. “Hey, want to have some fun with these guys?” He looked at me quizzically as if to say ‘What have you got in mind?” I explained: “How about when they drive by, you have me bent over the front of your hood in cuffs, and you give them the hairy eye ball, angry cop look?” He loved the idea, “OK, this is better than getting to write you a ticket.” So, I assumed the position, he got his cuffs out and we were posed that way as Jon, David, Ron and Kevin rode by. You’ve never seen 4 guys ride past a police officer more sober than this group. From my vantage point splayed across the patrol car hood, I couldn’t see them very well, but when they’d driven past, my new officer pal told me their eyes were riveted down the road, far in the distance, never once even glancing at him or me.
After they were well down the road, we had a good laugh, shook hands and I was back on the V-Strom and riding off. Several miles down the road I saw my friends, pulled over and waiting by the side of the road. I slowed down, but kept my eyes focused straight ahead and rode past them without looking at them or stopping. They quickly pulled in behind me. As we headed for Furnace Creek I invented different ways to craft my story for them, before planning to eventually tell them the truth.
We arrived at our hotel in the aptly-named Furnace Creek with plenty of time to soak in the spring-fed pool where I related the details of my faux arrest. My story fell far short of the ones they’d imagined when they saw me laying across the hood of the patrol car.
Death Valley is hot. While everyone knows of Death Valley’s heat, it is hard to appreciate just how hot Furnace Creek can get. Back in 1913, it recorded the second-highest temperature ever recorded in the world of 134°F. But that is only the half of it. The ground temperature can be much warmer – as much as 80°F hotter than the air. A ground temperature of 201°F was once recorded. On average, the valley floor is 40 percent hotter than the surrounding air temperature. You don’t want to be walking to the pool barefoot! Thankfully, it is April and still less than 95°F.
Why so hot? Death Valley is a long, narrow basin up to 280 feet below sea level and walled by high, steep mountain ranges. With clear, dry air and virtually no plant cover, sunlight heats the surface of the desert relentlessly. The heat radiates and becomes trapped in the depth of the valley. While hot air does rise, this hot air is trapped by the high valley walls.
But the result is far from boring. The landscape in Death Valley is spectacular, with some of the most surreal topography on the globe – including sand dunes that go on for hundreds of miles, white salt flats that are blinding even behind extra-dark sun glasses, sculptured hills and badlands laced with rushing water, and multi-hued canyon walls.
On our first day we seek out the healing waters of the hot springs in Tecopa. Half of the group stays for a long soak while the rest of us head to the date farm at China Ranch. Reaching the date farm is a bit of a challenge the first time. Heading south from the hot springs at Tecopa, you stay left (east) on the unmarked Old Spanish Trail Hwy for about 2 miles. Spanish Trail Highway heads off to the left, but you’ll want to stay right on Furnace Creek Road until you see the sign for China Ranch. Jim Hyde of RawHyde Adventures, who rides a lot in this area, provided me with the best tip, the GPS coordinates, which got me right there (35° 48.00.36’N, 116° 11.42.45’W).
Part of what amazes first time visitors to China Ranch is the contrast of traveling for hundreds of miles without seeing anything green, and then dropping down into this amazingly lush oasis in the middle of the desert. While open and welcoming to visitors (they have a gift shop with local art, honey and, of course, dates in a multitude of varietals, date bread, date cookies, date bars, date shakes and date cakes), this is a working date farm. The date grove was planted in the early 1920’s. Half the trees are male and produce only pollen, with the female date trees producing 100-300 pounds of dates each per season. Even without the delicious date shakes made fresh to order with thick vanilla ice cream, China Ranch is worth a visit.
The next morning, we decide to ride two hours for breakfast — something you only do on vacation and then, probably, only in places like Death Valley. Our early morning trek south on Hwy 178 from Furnace Creek to Shoshone was uneventful. Riding along with the Black Mountains in the distance, the morning sun causes the brilliant white salt in Badwater Basin to shimmer. It is easy to imagine it full of water. Reaching Shoshone, we’re hungry, and everything at the Crowbar Café is delicious.
After breakfast we head toward Zabriskie Point, before aiming the bikes back to our hotel for more pool time and dinner at the Wrangler Buffet. We take a spin up the nine-mile Artist’s Drive. This spectacular loop is 15 miles south of Furnace Creek on Hwy 178. When the sun strikes the rocks, the minerals reveal yellows, oranges, deep reds and even greens. Not far away is an overlook providing a view of the Devil’s Golf Course, 200 square miles of salt residue from Death Valley’s last significant lake which evaporated 2,000 years ago. Even the off-road tires of Kevin’s BMW 1200GS on this ride would do poorly amongst the gnarly salt clumps and spires, even if it were allowed, which it’s not.
To many people, nothing symbolizes Death Valley better than its Twenty Mule Teams, used to pull massive wagons hauling borax from the Harmony Borax Works mine near Furnace Creek to the railhead near Mojave. This was a brutal 65 mile, ten day trip across dirt, barely improved, primitive roads. The teams only ran for six years, from 1883 to 1889, but they’ve come to symbolize the Old West. Part of this came about because of an advertising campaign promoting 20-Mule-Team Borax Soap along with the Death Valley Days radio shows and later, the television program. There is one of these remaining wagons in front of the Furnace Creek Ranch and another one is located at Harmony Borax Works. These 20-mule teams were a massive technical improvement. Teamster Ed Stiles was credited with first hooking up an additional six mules to the head of a 12-mule string, with two draft horses as “wheelers,” allowing an extra wagon to be added and giving birth to what would become famous, the “20-mule team.”
In those days, a wagon cost $900 to build and had 7-foot-high rear wheels and 5-foot-wheels in front. The bed was 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Empty, they weighed just under 4 tons, but full, the two loaded wagons plus a 500 gallon water tank made a payload of 73,200 lbs or 36 ½ tons. Operating this “mule train” were a driver with a 20-foot long whip with a six foot handle and the teamster who harnessed and managed the mules, rode the horses and handled the brake of the lead wagon. A third team member was a “swamper,” who rode on the rear wagon and operated its brake on downgrades and also filled in as the cook and dishwasher. Dishes were washed with sand, as water was too precious to use for cleaning.
Each 20-mule team and two oak wagons completed the 130-mile round-trip between the works and the railhead at Mojave, Calif., in about 20 days. A team left the works every four days. At the top of the market, they would ship about 2 million pounds of borax a year from the two facilities, Harmony and Amargosa. The wagons went away when the narrow-gauge Borate & Daggett Railroad was completed in 1898. Today, Rio Tinto’s open pit U.S. Borax mine at Boron mines over 12,000 tons of industrial borates every day, half of the world’s total supply.
There’s no better way to conclude a trip to Death Valley than to experience the extreme opposite of hot and flat – the snow and peaks of Sequoia National Park. We leave early and stop for breakfast in Ridgecrest, then head over Walker Pass up to Isabella Lake and a bit of coffee. A variety of winding mountain roads brings us to our stop for the night in Three Rivers, about ten miles below the entrance to Sequoia National Park.
Our final stretch of good riding on this trip is into the park on Hwy 198. We climb over 6,500 feet and see snow on distant peaks. Passing the mighty sequoia forest and soaring Sierra peaks, we head for the crown jewel of the park and stop for lunch at Waksachi Lodge. In the parking lot we get pictures of the bikes against the snow and throw snowballs at each other. After lunch, we give a mother black bear and her cub a wide berth and point the bikes down to Squaw Valley. Sequoia is such a vast and wonderful park, it deserves it’s own separate newsletter. Skirting south of Fresno to avoid the traffic, we cut cross the central valley. In Hollister I stop at custom motorcycle seat manufacturer, Corbin. While we have lunch in their cafeteria, they install a new seat on the V-Strom. It takes a bit of caffeine, but we make it safely back to the bay area and home. All-in-all, a great way to spend a week and I’ll say it sure beat work.