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The original plan was to be in Calico to shoot the wrap video for last week’s “Bagger Brawl” four-bike comparo tour (which should get posted next week, maybe…), but you know what they say about best-laid plans. That goes double for MOron plans. Instead of being an hour-and-a-half from the barn, we wound up running low on daylight and needing to roll tape while we were still in Death Valley, four hours north. Motorcycles tend to make you think things are a lot closer than they are, even if you were just there last year. By the time the cameras were packed back up and the Harley Street Glide, Victory Magnum, Moto Guzzi MGX-21 and Indian Chieftain were ready to roll, the sun was setting and the “mega moon” was rising over one of the most desolately beautiful places in North America.
I didn’t see a single man-made object as we climbed from 260 feet below sea level, at Badwater, and up over Jubilee Pass on the way out of there, as a golden/pink desert sunset was gradually replaced by the lights of the bikes ahead of me – the lead one on high beam and the rest on low, scything left and right, up and down through the blackness as the road twisted left and right. We may have passed three cars in the hour or so before we reached the “main road” toward Baker which, was almost as deserted but thankfully not nearly as curvy at this late stage of the game.
Rain was never a concern but temperature began to be. In November in the des, the mercury seems to be attached to the sun, which drags it down immediately, and moreso with elevation.
At Shoshone, at 1585 feet and an hour after dark, we’d dropped 20 degrees into the low 60s. Not cold yet, but I was glad I had on long johns, and when we stopped for a construction zone (naturally), I zipped the liner into my Vanson jacket, which, as I’ve gained a few pounds lately, also acts as an excellent kidney belt. (Complaint: All these are $20K-plus motorcycles and none of them come with heated grips.)
When Evans’ speed in the lead dropped a bit ($20 says he’s talking to his kids via Bluetooth), I took the lead on the Guzzi and set the cruise at about 80, thankful for the reflectors evenly spaced on both sides of the road and wondering what sort of animals live out in this treeless blackness? None bigger than a jackalope, I hoped, as we traded speed for lower elevation and warmer air toward Baker, keeping a wary eyeball out for Highway 127’s occasional curveball.
Eventually the World’s Tallest Thermometer hove into view far below, followed by the lights of Baker, things I can’t remember ever being happier to see, like a pilot in the old days spotting Hawaii after flying halfway across the Pacific. Twenty minutes later we’re in the Mad Greek noshing pretty good gyros and falafels but drinking tepid coffee.
For the remaining slog to SoCal, a couple more hours at least, I was back on the Street Glide and not at all sorry about that – though none of these four bikes are anything like punishment. My kid had told me the USB cord to my iPhone is only for charging, but when I plugged it into the Harley’s excellent padded slot to charge it up, my favorite old standards began wafting from the ’Glide’s speakers, amazingly tuneful even at 80. (Then I remembered that in my 20-year-old car, the USB plugs into the cigarette lighter, which would explain why no music comes out. I’m a little slow with the tech.) Those powerful sound waves even seemed to cancel out most of the low screen’s buffeting.
Rolling south on I-15 with the cruise set at 80 mph and 3500 rpm really is the Harley’s sweet spot; its classic round soft-lit instruments, flanked by analog ammeter and fuel gauge, really do remind me of some vintage airplane (and it would be even better if I knew how to dial back the “infotainment system” lighting). All four of these bikes have great motors (I think I like the Guzzi’s 90-degree one best), but the Harley’s new 107 does the best imitation of Charles Lindbergh droning solo across the Atlantic. Dropping into the lights of Victorville from the even-higher high desert feels like finding Ireland, but much better lit. The temperature’s not a problem anymore, my 6-gallon tank was filled up in Baker, and I’m not stoppin’.
Sometimes the freeway drone is a bummer, sometimes it’s Zen meditation, especially in the wild West, especially on a bike with cruise control which lets your mind forget about everything else except steering around the other vehicles. Snug in my leather Vanson papoose, I let an arm or leg at a time feather along in the breeze. The moon, closer to the earth than it’s been since 1933 or something like that, is right over my left shoulder every time I glance back; I can’t seem to outrun it.
Now would probably be a good time to think deeply about my life, to Dr. Phil my personal bugs – it’s just that right now I haven’t got any, I’m actually content and don’t feel like I need to be doing anything except sitting here riding this Harley. What else can you do? It’s an enforced meditation, an’ please don’t throw me in that Bluetooth patch whatever you do. I keep coming back to flying old airplanes over open water, the irony of crashing your B-29 into Lake Mead…
In the morning, we’d passed a woman riding her bicycle through Death Valley. I’m down with that, but it occurred to me that on our baggers, we’ll cover in an hour what she might be able to do in a day if she’s got strong legs. Physical exercise builds your body, but motorcycling stimulates your brain; we’ll compress a hundred times more Death Valley into our heads in the same time span. In Death Valley, there are no flowers to stop and smell.
When I posted that lead photo of the Harley and Indian and Troy to my Facebook page last week, my old superbike-racing friend Dennis Smith responded – Harleys?? Where’s the superbikes these days?
Ah, well they’re still around of course and more intense than ever. But lately, when it comes to a choice between doing 2.5-mile laps around a racetrack or 500-mile ones around the desert, I think I’m leaning a bit more toward “b.” Not only were our four “baggers” amazingly comfortable, they even go around corners shockingly well now, and stop, and accelerate. What they do best, though, is just plain cruise. When I got home about 10 pm that night, mega moon still high in the sky, I could’ve kept going.