The King of Every Kingdom Around the world on a very small motorcycle
With J. Peter “The Bear” Thoeming
I received some sage advice at this point in my journey, “Just because you reach the Pacific coast doesn’t mean you’ve seen America, boy!”
My new-found friend Larry thought that story was very funny when I told him in the bar that night. Larry was an extremely laid-back ex Marine, whose wife owned one of the three bars in town. He explained to me why he was happy with his life. “You know the story about the perfect wife being a deaf and dumb nymphomaniac who owns a bar? Well, look, my wife may not be deaf and dumb, but she owns this place, and as far as the rest is concerned…”
On down the coast, and past the gloomy but impressive hulk of Humburg Mountain, a block of stone between the road and the sea. I was in the redwood forests by now, which presented a problem in photography. Even with the widest lens I carried, I had to put the camera up quite a distance from the tree if I wanted to get both the top and bottom in, as well as myself standing at the base. So I’d put the camera on the tripod, set the self-timer and run like hell to get to the tree before the shutter went off. I succeeded most of the time.
Maybe it was the majesty of the trees, but I started to do some rather serious thinking about what this trip had taught me, and how I had changed in the last two and a half years. I could come up with very little, except that I missed Annie badly. It’s probably not so much that there’s little to learn on this kind of trip… it’s more that I’m incorrigible. After all, I’d coped pretty well with all the different cultures… hadn’t I?
I had looked forward to discussing all this with Ted Simon, who had written a marvellous book called Jupiter’s Travels about his own circumnavigation of the globe. Ted now lived in San Francisco, and mutual acquaintances had given me his address and telephone number. But when I rang, it was to discover that he had just become a father – and swapping ideas about bike travel was the farthest thing from his mind. I could hardly blame him!
When I got out of the phone box, the bike refused to start again. The poor little 250 XL had been mistreated for so long that it was finally rebelling. Even pushing wouldn’t do it. As it happened, the phone box was outside the Municipal Offices for the small town I was in, so I went in there looking for pushers. The Sheriff, Deputy Sheriff and the Fire Chief all lent a hand, and the bike – out of respect, I guess – fired straight away.
Through the coastal fog, I rode the last few miles into San Francisco. The fog was eerie, somehow – I had the constant feeling that there was an enormous eye, just above the fog, looking for me. California was beginning to affect me, I guess. They do say that the place has more religious nuts than any other place on Earth. Maybe it’s catching. Once in the city, having crossed a Golden Gate Bridge whose upper beams were invisible in the same fog, I started looking for a bike shop to service the XL.
The Honda dealer’s service manager was dubious. She indicated her crew of mechanics and said: ‘These prima donnas only like to put new bits on new bikes,’ something that the XL definitely wasn’t. But she sent me down to Cycle Source, a small service shop run by the inimitable Jack Delmas.
Jack is an ex-cop, and one of the friendliest, most helpful blokes I’ve ever met. His staff aren’t far behind, either – Chris, on the spares counter, and Eddie, in the workshop, both helped me out. The shop was like a little home away from home. Eddie also got the bike running – and starting – beautifully. All at very reasonable rates. I celebrated by doing (more or less involuntary) wheelies up the steep streets of San Francisco, racing the cable cars.
SF is one of those rare cities that just feels good. Fishermen’s Wharf is a tourist trap, but North Beach is full of great bars, with good music and imported beer. Although why they bother importing Bass is beyond me… Then it was time to turn east again, over the Bay Bridge and through Oakland and all the little valley towns to Yosemite National Park.
If Yellowstone is beautiful, Yosemite is exquisite. The soaring cliffs, yellow meadows and dark pine forests set each other off so well that the place hardly looks real. All development has been done carefully, and presents a low profile. The park is like a natural garden, from the delicacy of Bridal Veil Falls to the brute mass of Half Dome.
Despite the lateness of the season, the campgrounds in the valley were full, so I camped in one of the free sites up in the hills. Smoky Jack campground was very pleasant in the half-dark, with campfires and stars both twinkling away. Despite the cold night, I slept well – no doubt partly due to the good offices of Mr James Beam.
Mono Lake was a little disappointing; its strange rock formations didn’t really live up to the publicity. But I was thoroughly enchanted with an extremely attractive ‘flagperson’ with one of the road repair gangs I met on the way south. Women are now a common sight in road gangs in America, but they seem mostly to do the less strenuous work. That’s changing too, though. I saw a number of female tractor drivers.
At Lone Pine I turned onto the roller-coaster that passes for a road down to Death Valley. From 5000 ft it goes nearly to sea level, then back to 5000, down to two, back to nearly five, and then down to Furnace Creek, 178 ft below sea level. True to form, it was hot – over 37 degrees C – and it didn’t cool down much at night.
There were some German travelers camped next to me, and although I got some sleep on top of a picnic table in my underpants, they tossed and turned all night. Australian conditioning finally comes in handy!
I had a strong headwind the next day, and was nearly blown off Zabriskie Point lookout. But when I turned left at the ghost town of Death Valley Junction the wind was at my back and helped me along. The whole area is very impressive for its total desolation – over square mile after square mile not a blade of grass grows. It must have been a tough life working in the mines here.
Las Vegas spreads its rather unattractive tentacles far out into the desert. Housing developments go up on the flat, windy plain and some attempt is made to civilize it all by pouring great quantities of water into the ground to grow a bit of anemic lawn. I much prefer the desert itself. The town, however, is fun with its amazing architecture, combination loan offices/motels/wedding chapels/divorce offices, acres of neon and extremely single-minded people.
Something seemed odd to me about all the casinos, and it took a while before I’d worked out what it was. Unlike the equivalents in Europe, Las Vegas casinos were not styled like palaces or upper-class residences. Here, they were styled in Ultimate Suburban – their exteriors like a hamburger joint gone mad, their interiors like a suburban tract house owned by a suburban millionaire. Lots of flash, but no taste. Tremendous fun, all of it.
In the bizarre, broken-down little town of Chloride, I asked the elderly, toothless petrol-pump attendant where the campsite was. He pointed to the top of a distinctly bare hill off in the distance, and I decided to push on to Kingman instead.
I followed one of the few remaining stretches of Route 66 in the morning, and rode through Coconino County, the home of Krazy Kat in the famous thirties comic strip of the same name. Meanwhile, dozens of grasshoppers hit my legs as I rode along – it was almost like riding through gravel as they rattled against my shins. There seemed to be quite a plague of them.
Still in beautiful sunshine, I rode up to the Grand Canyon.
Well, all good (and other) things have to come to an end. That’s what this story does next week. About time, eh?
After years spent faffing around with old Harleys, The Bear rode a Honda XL250 around the world and then decided he might as well keep writing about bikes. Three books and endless magazines later he now spends his time looking for those special bike roads.
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