California Dreamin'

Touring California's Pacific Coast Aboard Harley-Davidson's 1997 Road King

story by Gord Mounce, Associate Editor, Photograph by Ashlee Jones and Mounce, Created Apr. 23, 2004
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"Cannery Row in Monterey in California is a poem, a stink, a grating noise, a quality of light, a tone, a habit, a nostalgia, a dream. Cannery Row is the gathered and scattered, tin and iron and rust and splintered wood, chipped pavement and weedy lots and junk heaps, sardine canneries of corrugated iron, honky tonks, restaurants and whore houses, and little crowded groceries, and laboratories and flophouses. Its inhabitants are, as the man once said, "whores, pimps, gamblers, and sons of bitches," by which he meant Everybody."

John Steinbeck, Cannery Row

By Gord Mounce, Associate Editor
Photos by Ashlee Jones and Mounce

Clearly, Steinbeck wasn't writing for Monterey's travel and tourism board when he penned those lines. Granted, the year was 1945 and the stink of fish, working men and quick money polluted the air of the coastal town. As sardine schools dwindled and canneries closed, the air began to clear and the rugged beauty and splendor of Monterey Bay once again shone through. Now, abandoned canneries have been converted to quaint shops that haul in great catches of tourists with their bait of antiques, chocolates, t-shirts and other vacation necessities.

As a touring destination, Monterey is unbeatable in California for its combination of scenery, wildlife and utter charm. Throw in an AMA Superbike National at nearby Laguna Seca Raceway, and the lure becomes just about impossible to resist. Add a gleaming 1997 Harley-Davidson Road King into the mix, and my saddlebags are packed quicker than cannery sardines.

With AAA maps and brochures scattered across our living room floor, my girlfriend Ashlee and I eagerly plan our upcoming trek. She's excited about wine-tasting tours, shopping and Monterey's aquarium, while I'm anxious to explore the myriad of twisting roads that wind their way north toward Laguna Seca. Managing Editor Tom Fortune, an experienced and knowledgeable California touring veteran, has recommended a multitude of routes that offer an attractive mix of terrific scenery and serpentine pavement. "You'll scrape some floorboards," he promises with a wry smile.

It has been said that the greatest journey begins with a single step, and unfortunately that step lands us squarely in the middle of L.A.'s freeway gridlock. Splitting lanes on the King makes for some sweaty palms, the bike's width allowing little room for error. Without this time-saving tactic though, the ride from the city would consume most of our morning.

Slowly we push our way toward State Highway 101, another multi-lane freeway, where traffic thins just enough to allow the King to use its higher gears. It's not until the choking smog of L.A. has thinned and been replaced by an ocean fog blowing across irrigated fields just outside of Oxnard is the speedo's needle allowed to climb to its higher digits.

 We press on, and eagerly turn north on Highway 33 towards Ojai Valley to escape from the crowds. Almost immediately the flat fields are replaced by large trees whose shade covers the winding two-lane road. Miles click by in total bliss as the Road King's torquey V-twin compliments the route perfectly. What few signs of civilization remain disappear completely at the entrance to Los Padres National Forest. We stop at a roadside stream to snap a few pics and enjoy the morning sun.

 As a relative newcomer to California, I'm amazed that places like Los Padres exist. To me California means congestion. But here's an area that is vast and open, with no traffic. The view is surpassed only by the road, whose twists and turns have me wearing out the tire's sidewalls faster than the center. Despite its size the King corners well, and ground clearance is much more than you would expect. However, true to Tom's word, we are indeed throwing some floorboard sparks. Cool.

One hazard of my perception of California as a never-ending populace is that I'm accustomed to seeing a gas station on every corner. Now, as the King's fuel gauge creeps ever closer to the empty mark, I nervously eye the map and discover nothing more than green open land in front of us. How ironic that for months I'd been complaining about L.A.'s congestion, and now I'd do anything to see a fuel stop around the next bend.

With nary a drop to spare, we rumble into a gas station in Maricopa. On any other day this simple looking town wouldn't warrant a second glance, but now I eagerly greet it like a Saharan traveller arriving at an oasis.

Once the King has been filled and I've been updated on the shortcomings of its passenger accomodations, we're off. Past Maricopa the road lies straight and narrow as it runs its way through a forest of oil pumps, pipes and derricks, all signatures of the huge oil fields that populate the southern tip of central California's vast San Joaquin Valley. The stench of crude is strong here. I roll on the throttle and the King pulls me out of this drudgery with authority, as if it's as eager to leave as I am.

Luckily, nearby Highway 58 offers a reprieve from this unbearable blacktop. It rolls west through green hills and frequent clusters of poplar trees. It is in the shade of one such cluster that I pull off the road for a lunch stop. We sit on the stone wall of a tiny bridge over some lazy creek to enjoy our bounty of pasta salad, vegetables with homemade dip and bagels with cream cheese that Ashlee has prepared. I've gone on many a solo tour where the lunch stop consisted of a chocolate bar in a gas station parking lot, so I savor this meal is as if prepared by the finest chefs of Europe.

Back on the road, more miles are eaten up by the King, and rolling hills and vast grasslands disappear all-too-quickly into its mirrors. Highway 101 reappears like an unwanted salesman. It peddles a speedy route north, but at a premium price of monotony. I had intended to explore other more scenic and lengthy alternatives, but Ashlee's posterior is clearly hating life with the King. So I join other freeway travellers heading north through the dry, pale grass hills. I crank the King's thumb-operated throttle-lock on, allowing my right wrist a break, and motor steadily on at 80 mph.

We follow the freeway herd until Salinas, an agricultural town around 30 miles east from Monterey, and just 15 miles from Laguna Seca. This will be our base camp for our visit to the area. After supper we unwound from our day's journey with a dip in the hotel's pool and hot tub.

Morning greets us with overcast skies and a light drizzle, both of which mercifully retreat under heat of the rising sun.  Our Harley's fuel-injection brings it to life instantly and effortlessly, without the occasional warm-up cough of carburated models. We aim south on Highway 68 toward the rollercoaster that is Laguna Seca Raceway. After a short stop to look around and snag our coveted media passes, its off to Monterey.

Monterey and its surrounding towns of Pacific Grove and Carmel seem somehow immune from the maladies of populated areas. There is no graffiti, no smashed warehouse windows and no garbage littering the streets. One might argue that many small towns are without these symptoms of urban blight, but towns along the Monterey Peninsula are somehow above all others. Perhaps the ocean breeze blowing its pungent aroma across the wooden boards of Fisherman's Wharf and Cannery Row adds that special flavor to the air. Or maybe the sight of otters, seals, sea lions and whales in the bay is enough to color our helmet visors rose-colored.

 Despite the lure of bakeries, candy stores and seafood restaurants, our goal for Friday afternoon is the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Here the bay's mysterious marine life is presented in an interactive and educational manner. Don't go if you're expecting dolphins jumping through hoops, or other such carnival nonsense. Visitors learn about everything from the history and possible solutions to overfishing, to the strange world of deep-sea dwellers, to playful antics of the aquarium's adopted otters at feeding time. One of the many highlights is its million-gallon aquarium that is viewed through the largest window on Earth. We spent several hours at the aquarium - hours that passed like minutes.

 Saturday dawned clear and sunny, and we joined the many sportbikes heading out to the track. As always, Laguna rewarded its spectators with some great racing. Watching Mario Duhamel take victory in 750 Supersport after a terrific battle is really thrilling, particularly because I know his machine was a high-mileage streetbike mere days before the event. The guys at Yoshimura Northwest in Calgary deserve a lot of credit for their excellent and speedy bike preparation. Another highlight of Saturday's program was hearing several of Team Obsolete's famous bikes, including Honda's screaming 250/6, ridden by former World Champion Jim Redman. This eardrum-shattering symphony is savored by those familiar with its storied legend, while neophytes merely cover their ears. Other classics include a BSA Rocket Three ridden by Dave Aldana and a Benelli piloted by Yvon Duhamel.

 Saturday evening was spent wandering the streets of nearby Carmel. With its white sand beaches, stunning cliffside homes, and tempting restaurants, Carmel is a definite must-see. Prices can be a little high here however, as the surrounding area is rather high-brow. Despite the many BMWs, Mercedes and Land Rovers, our Road King stands above the rest as it sat parked on Ocean Street, the town's main road and tourist hot-spot. With its gleaming chrome and classic lines, it is a rolling masterpiece, and I often found myself discovering new styling touches to admire amongst its chrome passing lamps, exhaust pipes, paintwork or elsewhere. After a memorable dinner in Carmel, it's another ride back through the dark, cool hills towards Salinas, where the hot tub awaits with its life-restoring warmth.

Sunday means only one thing to me - racing. We merge into a stream of bikes bound for Laguna, and once there kick back to enjoy the day's activities. We're not disappointed. Miguel Duhamel looks great going wire to wire in his 600 Supersport win, and once again Rich Oliver is the man in 250 GP action.

The day's best racing is found in Harley's SuperTwins class, where our own Shawn Higbee swaps the lead 23 times with Eric Bostrom in just 12 laps. After such a dogfight the Superbike race is a bit processional, but still entertaining as Doug Chandler cruises away to win easily ahead of Mat Mladin and Miguel Duhamel.

Tired from the day's events but still eager to spend more time in Monterey, we cruise to Fisherman's Wharf and wander through its offerings of yet more candy shops, t-shirt vendors and boatloads of clam chowder. Watching sea lions play in the marina offers a welcome respite from the tourist fare. After dinner we ride to Monterey's southern tip to watch a sky painted with blazon hues of orange and red as the sun surrenders itself to the Pacific. We stay until the last fingers of light are erased by the encroaching darkness, not wanting to let our last evening in this magical place end.

Monday we're up early, and after packing the King's saddlebags we're off to spend our few remaining hours in Pacific Grove, a small area on Monterey's west side. Perhaps the most beautiful town in all of Monterey Bay, Pacific Grove is exceptional in its charm.  Restored houses from the turn of the century are proudly presented, and most every yard appears to be awaiting photographers from Home and Garden. Even the local shops seem as if they're caught in a time warp, including a barber shop that offers four different variations of crew cuts, as shown in their 1950's-styled caricatures.

A small coastal rain shower chases us prematurely from our Pacific Grove visit. Just a few miles down the road in Carmel the sun is shining, so we indulge ourselves with a stop in one of its many bistros for coffee and croissants before our journey home.  We had hoped to follow Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway, all the way down the coast and within 100 yards of my Redondo Beach home in Los Angeles, but found the road closed near Big Sur - probably due to the inevitable California mudslide, or earthquake, or grass fire.

Instead, we head out of Carmel on a little ribbon of road called G-16, a winding, albeit-bumpy trail that wraps its way east, often under a canopy of overhanging tree branches. We cruise past vineyards and small farms while banking the King through the road's countless twists and turns. Traffic is virtually nil along the quiet stretch, and we eagerly soak up this last piece of motorcycling heaven.

Eventually G-16 spits us back out at the 101. It's early afternoon and we have many miles ahead of us, so I run the King up to 80 mph and settle in for the long haul to L.A. Cruising at this speed is great, the large windscreen offering excellent protection. In fact the ride is so good that halfway home Ashlee dozes off and slumps against my back. A passing couple look over at her sleeping, and I see them talking to each other and smiling. I look back and bring my index finger to my helmet's chinbar to do a 'shh' sign. They break out laughing.

 Miles are quickly devoured at this pace, and soon we're within an hour and a half of home. Suddenly the King stutters twice, then dies. We coast to a stop on the shoulder, with the stranded traveller's anxiety pulsing through our veins. I have a hunch that the problem is merely a loose battery terminal wire, but the King requires a screwdriver to remove the seat, and I don't have one. I'm kicking myself for being a spoiled moto-journalist who has lost my road-survival instincts. Our Harley does have 7,000 miles on it, so I should have been prepared for simple problems. On tours I've made with my own bike, I've brought enough tools to rebuild a top end - now I'm left motionless due to a simple screw.

 Pacific Coast Highway - By Billy Bartels, Associate Editor
Last year, on our way to the U.S. round of World Superbikes, we took the opportunity to explore central California's twisties on a couple of Buells. After six hours we reached Paso Robles. It was hot, we were tired, and we faced a long stretch of freeway before getting off into more back roads. One of us had a bright idea: We could detour over to the coast route.

West on Highway 46, then straight up Rt. 1 to Monterey. Sounds good on paper - it's cooler, and my God would you look at those twisties! Bad plan, though. Unless you are on the biggest Luxo-Boat-Tourer-Wing-Glide, you will hate yourself, and there is no way to turn off.

We spent the longest hundred miles of our lives on this narrow two-lane road. Dodging huge RVs going 20 mph along with green-haired Gobert wannabes on strafing runs, and a 400 foot drop to the ocean a reward for the smallest mistake. Once in Monterey, we calculated our average speed down this stretch while soaking our wasted bones in the hotel jacuzzi.

Twenty-nine Miles Per Hour.

 

Luckily it's only a short 30 yard push to the crest of a hill. We coast down the other side, and into the parking lot of an RV dealership. I'm confident they'll be able to help. Unfortunately, the guy behind the counter says his mechanics have gone home and their toolboxes are locked. He does sell screwdrivers, though. He shows me the only style they have, a multi-head, magnetic tip screwdriver that goes for 17 bucks. I ask politely if I can borrow it to loosen just one screw, but he counters with a gruff "That's a new tool, you use it - you buy it!" Perhaps sensing that I'm about to bury the screwdriver in this weasel's skull, Ashlee steps in, cash in hand.

As expected, it was a loose battery terminal bolt, so we're quickly underway again. From here it's just a sprint down the highway to L.A. A hot Santa Ana wind is blowing desert air west, causing any exposed skin to quickly dry out and turn red. Finally, after 100 miles, a seablown breeze offers some relief, although it's too little, too late. Once home we unpack the King's saddlebags and head inside to flop wearily on the bed, exhausted from our long ride in stifling heat.

Despite the uncomfortable passenger seat and annoying loose battery terminal bolt, our Harley Road King was a welcome companion. Riding a King is different than other bikes. It overwhelms you with its character and charisma, and always gives the sensation you're riding in a parade. Its boatloads of torque carried us through steep canyons, winding country roads, past steep ocean-side cliffs and charming towns. As the last seconds of consciousness tick away to be replaced by a deep sleep bordering on hibernation, the memories from our Monterey tour flash through my mind like some virtual slide show. With all due respect to Mr Steinbeck; man, you should see the place now.

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