Book Review: Adventure Motorcyclist: Frazier Shrugged

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.

First speeding ticket in my Lotus

 

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.

Dodge County Courthouse

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.

Death Valley Days: I fought the law and we both won

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:

Notes, April 2 to April 6, with locations

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.

The observatory at the top of Mt. Hamilton, east of San Jose

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!

AZ Highway Patrol Challenge coin. Never leave home without it.

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.

Death Valley landscape is incredible.

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).

China Ranch is a working date farm in the middle of a vast desert.

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.

These ore hauling wagons were massive.

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.

At over 7,500 ft elevation in Sequoia National Park. (L to R: Route planner David Ezequelle, his brother Jon, Sam Huey and Steve Larsen. (Photographer Kevin Berkholtz)

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.

Note: There are more pictures and maps in my original post.

A response to “One Bike to Rule them All”

Kaz, on the left, on a ride in Turkey. Andy Forrester and his BMW RT on the right.

After publishing my newsletter about on “One Bike to Rule Them All,” I got emails from fellow riders on their experiences owning multiple motorcycles. Kaz Uzunoglu, a very good friend and global motorcycle tour guide extraordinaire sent me a rationale for the six bikes in his garage. It is so good, I’ve decided to share it with all of you. Readers that ride will find this fascinating, the rest of you, maybe not so much.


Hi Steve,

Thanks for the mention in your article and forwarding it to me. I surely enjoyed reading the article, just like I always enjoy reading the other pieces you write in your blog.

I am suffering from the MBD (Larsen: Multiple Bike Disorder) as well and it’s always an ongoing debate in my mind and also with my wife. Don’t get me wrong, my wife has no objections against multiple bikes, she even enjoys seeing them in the garage. But the debate is a philosophical one.

These are the motorcycles I currently own:

  • 2017 KTM 1290 Adventure R
  • 2010 KTM 690 SMC
  • 2019 Yamaha Xmax 250
  • 2014 Vespa Primavera 150
  • 1998 Ducati 916SPS
  • 1952 BMW R51/3

My friends, especially non-motorcycling friends, gulp when they see 6 bikes in the garage and ask the inevitable questions. Why? Can you ride them all? My answer is usually a silly one to the why question. Sometimes I say it is an art exhibition named “how to spend your money uselessly”, sometimes I use the typical “why not” answer. Obviously non-motorcycle people can make no sense out of this disorder but if a good biker friend is interested in finding more about the motorcycles, we engage in a delightful conversation about what each bike means and can do to increase my utility.

I do believe that each bike has a separate intangible value that increases my utility in different aspects, ways and sensations. After all, we buy goods and services to retrieve as much utility as we can from that purchase. So I will try to delve into the utility I derive from my motorcycles.

The KTM 1290 is my work horse. I lead my tours riding this bike so it always has to be in good condition, reliable and safe. As you know, I used to own a KTM 990 Adventure for about 10 years. Even though I loved riding that motorcycle as well, it actually reached the end of its useful life for me in terms of an asset that I use while leading tours. It had clocked more than 80,000 miles and it started giving me the unexplainable feeling that it could go wrong at any point in time. Last thing I would want to do on a tour is to deal with my own bike’s problems. So I sold the 990 with no feelings attached and upgraded to the 1290 which proved to be many light years ahead of the 990 in terms of technology, reliability and safety. The best words that would describe the 1290 is solid and trustworthy. The engine can crank out 160HP and it comes with all the technological gizmos that help the rider understand how to treat this power turbine. In short, it is my perfect motorcycle for long distance riding and enjoying the scenery while riding and leading a group.

 

The 690 SMC is basically a hooligan’s bike. For a long time, it sported the most powerful mass produced single cylinder engine in a very light and nimble body. My experience is that this bike brings out the dark hooligan side that I believe exists in every motorcyclist. I know that I possess that mindset when I ride this bike. The sound of the engine and the aftermarket Wings exhaust indistinctly tell me to do wheelies and stoppies and ride down a set of public stairs or break every law there is. I will not go into details not to be embarrassed but I have to confess it makes me do things that cause me to question my identity and personality! Riding this bike feels like a constant battle between “should” and “can”. The utility I get out of this bike is that it vibrates my soul and flushes my hormones in the most immeasurable way all around my existence.

 

The Xmax is an errand runner. In my opinion, it is the perfect balance of engine, brakes, wind protection, efficiency, comfort, practicability, etc with the greatest price/performance ratio. I live in the suburbs now so every now and then I have to ride on the highway along with the fast traffic and trucks to reach the busy and narrow streets of my city Istanbul. The Xmax is extremely smooth and confidence–inspiring on the busy highways and yet when I reach downtown Istanbul, it is very agile, easy to park and ride around. I even do our supermarket shopping with this bike, thanks to its plenty of storage space under the seat. It may not be the best looking bike out there but obviously this bike is very utilitarian and the utility I get out of it relates mostly to the degree of ease and efficiency of serving my needs.

 

The Vespa is more for shorter rides within smaller radiuses in our community. Its unmistakably Italian styling makes it very desirable and the 150 cc engine is very smooth and down-to-earth. Yet its 11-inch wheels are not the best when you are riding/braking on wet streets or when you are cornering or riding over a pothole. But this small Italian bee means a lot to me because I have been able to ride it with my daughter since she was 4 years old (now 7) while she is standing in front of me, in the space between the seat and dashboard. She is growing taller now so this riding method will not be possible soon but for the time being the pleasure she and I get on the Vespa means maximum utility for me.

 

It’s hard to explain the utility of the Ducati. It is a collector’s bike, #457 of the 1,058 manufactured in 1998. The SPS stands for Sport Production Special and the primary reason behind this bike being built was to homologate the new 996cc engine for Superbike competition but fortunately, the installation of the 996 engine into the 916 setup produced a bike that was described as “legendary”, “astonishingly good” and “a true superbike”. This motorcycle is very often included in the “best motorcycle ever” lists compiled by magazines or other authorities. If I were to pick one word to describe this motorcycle, I think I would go for “sexy”. Stunning looks aside, riding this motorcycle feels like the ultimate sensation of being one – merging with the motorcycle that we always talk about when riding motorcycles. The motorcycle feels like it reads your mind before you even put it into action so leaning and going around curves give the rider a totally unprecedented feeling of oneness. Add on top the unparalleled symphonic sound of the engine, dry clutch and the Termignoni pipes as the icing on the cake and the unique utility from this motorcycle can only be explained as a delightful attack on all the senses.

 

The 68-year old BMW is another story in itself. I believe the biggest utility comes from the plain fact that the bike can still run and stop, well, with careful planning about how to stop and when to stop. It inevitably evokes a feeling of respect for the old and pure technology and its creators who were passionate about motorcycles. In addition, the classic puritan looks of the BMW give it a timeless esthetic. Sometimes I don’t even need to ride this black beauty. Looking at the motorcycle and listening to the engine and its mechanical overtures after a few kicks on the kick-start is enough to get the maximum yield from my utility curve over this one. I hope to increase my utility from this motorcycle by learning how to do basic maintenance work on its engine and hopefully carburetors in the near future.

Kaz and Burt Richmond on a tour in Turkey.

Therefore, I still cannot boil my list down to “The One Bike to Rule Them All.” It also feels as if I don’t yet have hands and eyes on such a bike and I can’t be sure if I ever will. I have ridden many different motorcycles and I have to confess I have liked them all despite their differences. So instead of one bike to rule them all, I guess I need to talk about the transcendental feelings that rule all feelings when we are riding: the sensation of freedom, feeling of satisfaction and the rational awareness of the physical parts that come together to evoke these feelings.

Best regards and wishes to you and Maggie,

Kaz