We awoke this morning in lovely Twentynine Palms, California, with the perfect motorcycling day planned – meaning we had no plan. We met for the free (yet tasty) breakfast at our Fairfield Inn and managed to grab a table for six just before a family with three young children reached it. Frankly, one of those kids had quite a bit of baby fat, so maybe skipping breakfast was a good idea for him. Then he again, he was an actual baby, so perhaps I’m too harsh.
Anyway, for us, the table was a MUST HAVE, not a NICE-TO-HAVE: we needed the extra space to spread out Butler Motorcycle Maps for Southern California and Arizona. These maps highlight all of the best motorcycling roads and are essential for touring.
It was exciting to see all of the Butler-approved choices just west of us – the mountains of Southern California are world-renowned for their incredible, curvy roads and terrific scenery.
Then we checked the weather.
Despair: cold, snow and ice everywhere in those same mountains. Almost every route that looked entertaining at all was off limits to anyone exploring on two wheels.
We decided to keep our chinstraps up, though. Even a bad day on a motorcycle beats a day doing nearly anything else. Also, Joshua Tree National Park was close by and – although nippy – the weather was clear, as were the roads. After staring at maps and apps for a good 45 minutes, we decided that we would ride through the Park and make further plans at lunch.
This is how I like to tour – with as few plans as possible. Ed remarked this evening that he’s used to tours where you pick all of your hotels in advance and stick to a pre-determined route. Perhaps if I had the self-discipline and focus of a normal person, this would work. But I’m easily distracted and often head off in various directions just because something catches my interest.
That means I hardly ever make hotel reservations until it’s well into the afternoon of a motorcycling day. I’m aware that this will likely mean I will sleep on the ground some night in the future, but I believe the dozens or even hundreds of nights I’ve opened up to opportunistic wandering will be worth it. So far, so good.
We gassed up in a dusty little town with the same name – coincidentally – as the park: Joshua Tree, CA.
As we waited for Tom to go back into the gas station for the third time (not sure why – poor hold-up technique?), I strolled out to Joshua Tree’s main drag to snap this very unusual scene – snow on the desert mountains in the background and a drug deal going down in the foreground!
Ed began to exhibit some odd behavior this morning that became a pattern: he suddenly claimed he was very interested in trying out the BMW I was riding – he’d heard good things about them, but he’d never ridden one.
So, while we were gassing up, I politely offered to switch bikes with him and he climbed aboard my rental – which has a power-adjustable windshield, heated grips, heated seat and a real suspension – and I hopped aboard Ed’s Harley Street Glide, which has no heat of any kind and just over 2” of suspension travel in the rear (real motorcycles have two or three times that). The effect of this bad design is that the shock bottoms frequently and violently, sending shocks up your spine. In Harley parlance, this is known as “character.”
I spent the next four hours riding that damn Street Glide over the rough roads of Joshua Tree National Park. It was often cold, always bumpy and not even for a moment comfortable. Ed “offered” to switch back, taking the same tone you’d hear from a kid suggesting he return his Christmas presents since the car broke down and mom and dad could use the money.
Nonetheless, Joshua Tree National Park turned out to be spectacular.
On all of my multiday motorcycle tours, I try to get a good group shot. These don’t always turn out so well, particularly if we ask a passerby to take the picture for us. I very much appreciate their willingness, enthusiasm and dedication – these strangers often take many shots, frame the photos very carefully and nonetheless produce completely unusable pictures.
This photo would have been adequate if not for the Joshua Tree sprouting from the top of my head.
At other times, these bad photos are self-inflicted.
Whoops! The self-timer started – places, everyone!
We eventually found a stranger to take an acceptable picture – this one would have worked if one of the riders (me) hadn’t thoughtlessly left a distracting pile of gear in the background.
But that’s where the magic of editing can bail you out:
In this picture, Ed is closer to the Harley than he had been in the previous two hours.
Ed – wearing his Harley gear, no less – asked for a picture on
my his BMW:
The BMW developed a strange metallic rash where Ed’s Harley jacket came into contact with it. We checked various online forums and learned we could buff it out with a soft sponge soaked in Heineken. This worked.
Our next stop was the scenic overlook at Keys View – a one-way road that ends up over at more than 5,000 feet of elevation. It was a chilly ride particularly, say, if you are stuck on a bike you didn’t rent that lacks heated grips, a heated seat and a usable windshield. But the view at the top was spectacular.
Tom impressed us by knowing that the mountain in the distance is Mt. San Jacinto, which he explained was “the tallest mountain in Southern California.
He continued, “I was on top of that mountain once,” impressing us further.
“Was it a tough climb?” Ed asked.
Tom paused. “You take a trolley up and then there’s a trail to the top,” he admitted.
Gorgeous mountain, of course, but as I like to say, there’s no natural wonder so beautiful that we can’t improve upon it by standing in front of it – as you can see:
Mt. San Jacinto, vastly beautified by us.
We saw several brave tourists (mostly young girls) standing on a rock that allowed for a great photo op, considering the spectacular background scenery.
“Hey Ed,” I said, “Climb up on that rock and I’ll take your picture!”
“I can’t,” he said. “I’m afraid of heights.”
So he sat on it instead.
I, however, stood – confident in my fuzzy green plumpness:
It was quite cold at Keys View, so we climbed back on the bikes, allowing Ed and Tom to warm up from the luxurious grips, seats and tall windshields of the BMWs while I grew colder still as I mounted the freezing Harley and felt the wind rush by, a whiff hypothermia in the air.
Before we entered the park, Amateur Botanist Tom had predicted that the recent moisture would have enabled wildflowers to sprout in the desert. He pulled over at one point so we could all enjoy the flowers and marvel at his ability to identify them by genus and species.
When Tom Petty sang, “You belong among the wildflowers,” he was speaking of Tom Gale, who even sports a matching jacket.
Tom led through this portion of our Joshua Tree National Park Tour. As you can see, the speed limit was 35MPH – a speed at which we rode repeatedly, but usually while on the way to 70MPH. Side note: the road (which, as is apparent in the picture, is quite rough), really wears you out if you happen to be on a bike you did not choose to rent because among other limitations, it has a crappy suspension.
We emerged from the park many hours later and stopped at Burger King in Coachella, CA for lunch. We wanted something better but have you had a Whopper lately? Try one when you’re starving – they’re tasty!
At this point, Ed had been on my BMW for several hours. It was obvious to him (and to me) that it was well past time to return the bike to its rightful renter. So Ed finally did the courteous thing: He turned to Tom and asked, “Hey Tom, have you ever ridden a Harley?”
“No,” Tom replied.
“Well,” Ed continued. “Feel free to try out the Street Glide. It would be a shame to rent three different bikes without having a chance to ride all of them. I’ve never ridden that model BMW.”
Tom had, in fact, rented a different model than mine. It was only natural, I suppose, for Ed to want to compare them. For scientific purposes, of course.
So, I retrieved my long-lost BMW K1600GTL, Ed climbed on the equally plush and warm R1200RT and Tom settled his long frame over the cold, rough, short Harley. We roared out of the parking lot and headed south to ride along the Salton Sea.
The history of the Salton Sea is too extensive to cover here, but it’s an interesting read. In brief, before the water became too nasty (“The California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment has developed a safe eating advisory for fish caught in the Salton Sea based on levels of mercury or PCBs found in local species,” says Wikipedia), several resorts popped up on its shores in the 1950s.
These are all gone. “The smell of the lake, combined with the stench of the decaying fish, also contributed to the decline of the tourist industry around the Salton Sea,” notes Wikipedia. “The US Geological Survey describes the smell as ‘objectionable,’ ‘noxious,’ ‘unique’ and ‘pervasive.’”
It is, however, quite beautiful – and enormous, albeit in a tragic setting due to the widespread poverty apparent in the area. It’s the largest lake in California and goes on for many miles.
And some people camp there. The bearded gentleman in the center below is Andrew from Seattle, and he agreed to shoot a picture for us, even though he was peacefully relaxing in a t-shirt and boxers next to his RV when we roared up for yet another group photo.
Note: Trains run constantly. The entire Salton Sea area is either industrialized, impoverished or ecologically damaged. In this particular situation, the three seem to be interrelated. Somewhat paradoxically, there are also vast agricultural tracts.
Andrew, it turned out, knew how to handle a camera – lack of pants notwithstanding.
This is the first group photo in which Ed is not standing by the Harley, thus giving up the any pretense that he likes it, wants to be associated with it or intends to ride it any further.
Ed, whom I should mention, spent much of his career in sales, told Tom that he should get a picture sitting on the Harley, with the train in the background. “It’s like Americana,” he stressed. Helpfully, he “loaned” Tom his Harley Davidson motorcycle jacket, which he obviously no longer needs.
A train passes next to the Salton Sea – likely moving goods from Mexico northward.
We got back on the bikes and Tom (on the Harley) led us to Salvation Mountain. The late Leonard Knight, a local resident and devout Christian, decided to construct a “mountain” that could exhibit Bible verses, with a focus on the Lord’s Prayer. His first structure collapsed, which most would take as a sign that perhaps they should find a new hobby. Knight took it as a warning from God that his structure was unsafe (a safe assumption), so he rebuilt it with better construction techniques.
Salvation Mountain has been featured in various music videos and movies and has attracted a large, eclectic but apparently universally-impoverished group of campers, some of whom live there permanently.
We passed up the opportunity to get a “Spirit Reading” for $5, which could come back to haunt us. We did not pass up the chance to take a selfie in front of the sign.
As we prepared to depart Salvation Mountain, I paused to take a picture of God’s actual handiwork as the sun set, creating a spectacular red sky, which I hope was not so colorful thanks to the ruined atmosphere of Los Angeles or the Salton Sea. In any case, it was mesmerizing to me, although not to Tom, who can be seen here checking text messages.
This photo is completely unretouched.
We checked into the Best Western in El Centro, 15 minutes from the border with Mexico and asked the clerk where we could get good Mexican food.
“Mexico,” she volunteered.
“Oh yeah,” Ed said. “I bet they have great Mexican food in Mexico.”
“Or ‘food’ as they call it there,” I replied.
Our rental contracts forbid us from riding the bikes into Mexico, so we went to the Los Cabos Seafood & Grill in scenic downtown El Centro for what turned out to be an outstanding meal. Ed actually rode the Harley there and back (it’s 1.7 miles from our hotel), so I suppose it will be his turn to ride one of the BMWs again in the morning.
While we were at dinner, Ed said, “If I were to rank all of my days on a motorcycle, this would be one of the top three.”
I thought, “It’s also the only day you’ve ever spent on a motorcycle that wasn’t a Harley Davidson.”
Tom said, “I haven’t ridden that many full days on a motorcycle, but me, too.”
Truthfully, it was a spectacular day of motorcycling. That’s surprising, given that we started the day thinking we had to settle for second and third choices of roads due to cold and snow along our preferred route. Instead, we rode through beautiful scenery, saw amazing, one-of-a-kind sights while we laughed, posed for pictures, made fun of each other and met a wide variety of nice people who were mostly not very good photographers.
I don’t think I can “rank” my best and worst days on a motorcycle. I’ve had so many wonderful experiences, but the company, the scenery, the riding and often even the bikes are so different that comparing them is not just difficult – it seems unfair to diminish some memories in favor of others.
But I can certainly grade my days on motorcycles. And today’s ride earned an A+. And that’s saying something, considering I spent much of it on a Harley Davidson Street Glide.
Vaya con Dios and adios from El Centro, California. Thanks for reading and I’ll post the third update from this trip tomorrow night.