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Riding Forth on the Fourth

Good idea, a Fourth of July ride. Otherwise I would be home in desultory conversation with family and friends, probably drinking too much, and certainly catching a fireworks show celebrating what we Americans hold most dear. War is not a bad thing. Nothing comes from nothing, but from war comes good things like freedom. Think of how free you are. 

On second thought, let’s not go to the disturbing. Check the tire pressure, the oil level in the Goldwing, pack the bags and the trunk, and heed the woman’s desire to ride 400 miles from Bieber, California, to Gold Beach, Oregon, where her family and friends are gathering to yell over each other in meandering conversation and just absolutely gorge on youngest brother Lonnie’s barbecued ribs. Lonnie has his problems (legal, personal, and otherwise) but his rib recipe isn’t one of them. Everyone likes Lonnie and he sells insurance. It sounds like an oxymoron but it’s true.

We take off at 6 in the morning of July 3rd. By the time we gas up and ride out of Ashland, the woman is moody. She is hungry and not happy with my desire to find an interesting place for breakfast in Phoenix, a nondescript little burg just north of Ashland. I have nothing against Ashland, famous for its Shakespeare Festival, but there’s something wonderful these days about anonymous and nondescript. And it turns out Sissy’s Cafe in Phoenix is a home-cooking dream from another age. The waitress, her name is Capprice, has a huge coffee stain across the front of her blouse, a slash of tan that only accentuates her formidable bosom. Given my favorite threadbare t-shirts, I feel towards her a powerful kinship. And the omelets and the homemade pea soup are incredible. The woman says, “You were right, glad we discovered this place.” Ah, these few moments of victory we cherish.

I ask a local in Sissy’s about the old logging road I want to ride through the Wild Rogue Wilderness from Grants Pass to Gold Beach. “Shouldn’t be a problem,” he says. Well, it is a problem because just west of Galice the narrow strip of asphalt terminated at a landslide roughly the size of the county in which I live. An alternate route was posted but it involved many miles of gravel and god knows what else no good for my thousand pound, pavement-loving Wing. As I turn the machine around for the return trip to 1-5, the engine suddenly begins to miss and ping. I freak. “Omigod!,” I think, “not here, not in one of the wildest, loneliest places left in North America?” It’s like I TRUST this Honda motorcycle; I depend upon it, and it’s letting me down? But no, not completely. It seems to run fine beyond the initial pull in first gear, and so we are able to make it back to 1-5, and then flee north to Roseburg where I pray there is a Honda dealer to offer aid.

Answered prayers at Roseburg Power Sports. Service manager Frank Evans blips the throttle a few times and suspects what I suspect: A tank of bad fuel, octane not up to advertised, or worse, water in it. “Try Gumout,” Frank says, “it might do the trick, then again it might not. If it doesn’t improve we’ll have to put it on the rack to see exactly what gives. Could take hours. Have you got the time?” 

Sure I’ve got the time, but I also like to dream. My dream is Gumout will work its magic, and so, with an optimistic flourish, we wish Frank a happy holiday and head down the road. And what a road. Highway 42 carves the green serpentine corridor of the Coquille River all the way to the coast for nearly a hundred miles. It does what all river roads in the mountains do, which is to say it makes me very happy I’m riding a motorcycle in fresh summer pine scent instead of doing what most of my fellow men seem to be doing, driving something top heavy on four wheels with the air conditioning on and all the windows rolled up. What a country.

When we reach the coast at Bandon, the ocean air is exhilarating, and so is the notion that Gumout has helped. The Wing’s low-end pull has improved, not completely, but enough so I know we’ll be ok to ride home after bonding with the whole damn family in Gold Beach. The woman’s sister, Lynda, and her husband, Bruce, live in Gold Beach. They are hosting the woman and I, her son Jimmy and his wife Kimmy, and brother Loonie, whoops, I mean Lonnie, and Lynda’s son, Calvin, and his wife, Leslie, and their young son, Bryson, and of course Aunt Tootsie, too. Also invited to share the cheer are Harold and Karen Clifton, local friends of Bruce and Lynda. Harold, everyone calls him Cliff, is a retired LAPD hero, and I mean that in the real sense, his men gifted him with the equivalent of the Medal of Honor when he closeted his uniform, a mint Thompson submachine gun which he allowed Lonnie and me the honor of firing up in the hills one afternoon. Cliff was a motorcycle cop. He tells moto stories that singe the cilia in your ears. We eat, we drink, we talk, we go ocean fishing one morning, catch a load of bottom fish, including three hefty lingcod that put to shame every salmon that ever lived.

Eventually, it’s time to go. The woman could use more time to talk, or as she puts it, to visit. I think, wait a minute, this woman has talked the chatty equivalent of Proust’s 2400 pages of Remembrances for four days, and she needs more time to talk? These are moments, men, when I know we shall never, ever understand.

I need the ocean in my face again. Gratification is instant as we ride south through the surf-mist. The air smells like refrigerated kelp and the grand seascape of the south Oregon coast is awesome proof the sea is winning its battle with the land. Waves explode against successions of rocks the size of medieval cathedrals, the remnants of a mountain range where now only sea creatures rule. Then we cross the California border and turn left on Highway 199 at Crescent City. I’ve experienced the ascent through the redwood forest of Jedediah Smith State Park on several occasions, but I never get over the ancient trees in streaming light, the great trees that soar up toward heaven bigger around than my garage, the trees that were very old when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade in that fatal year of 1096.

I’m not in the mood to experience any more dead ends on this tour, but there’s a lonely road that juts 40 miles due south from a wide spot on Highway 199 known as O’Brien, Oregon. The map shows it connects with Highway 96 at the remote logging hamlet of Happy Camp, and thus seems to offer a shortcut, albeit circuitous, to southbound 1-5, and a road never ridden, a thing that always tugs, right? 

Fueling in O’Brien, I ask the attendant about it. It’s a beautiful ride, paved all the way, he says, just watch the gravel in the corners. Of course I do just that and the reward is deep immersion into the true green wilderness that still exists in these parts of the Siskiyous. Then, after a pit stop in Happy Camp, we roll westward on Highway 96, another river road, the route of the Klamath, and to ride the course of the river is to feel like you’re riding the true path, the one you long for most on perfect summer afternoons.

The girl in the store in Happy Camp told me she lived in St. Louis the previous ten years and she was so glad to be back where the air and the water aren’t poisonous and where she and her husband can hop on their motorcycle and, she put it just this way, ride the rivers.

At Hamburg on the river, 30 miles or so west of 1-5, I see a small road not much wider than a wagon path that indicates the direction of Scott Valley, a route that I can tell by the map is the long way to Yreka, but I know from priors the green fields of this verdant valley undulating in the wind in the shadows of the Marble Mountains. An impulse turns out to be 40 miles or so of riding beneath the boughs of magnificent oaks, and just missing blazes of wildflowers overgrowing the road shoulder, another road never ridden but which definitely will be ridden again. I don’t know the Scott Valley township of Etna, but from the quiet dreamy look of it, oh yeah, we will be back.

Last stop is an Italian restaurant I’ve wanted to try for dinner in McCloud, just a few miles south of Mt. Shasta on Highway 89. Entering the historic wooden building that houses the restaurant in this once booming log town, I notice a For Sale sign on the wall. Not a good sign, right? Right. The food was like a sad, careless version of Pizza Hut, but we were hungrier than hell after a long day in the saddle. We wolfed it down, rubbery vongole and all. And you know what? We enjoyed it. There’s a life lesson in every motorcycle tour I’ve ever taken, and this one was as clear as the morning sun on river stone: Quit your complaining, no one else gives a shit.

Finally, a postscript on the motorcycle problem. Turned out to be something unusual, unprecedented actually, and rather brilliantly diagnosed by service manager, Tim Fleig, and his staff at Lee’s Honda, my dealer in Redding. It was a tough one, Tim told me, but after many hours of trial, the dyno and the peak voltage tester and an open coil test told the tale of a defective middle coil. It was promptly replaced on warranty.

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