As I chased my little compadre Tom Roderick once again into the breech, up California’s astounding S-22, at a speed probably quite a bit above the limit, him on a brand-spanking BMW and me on a 126-horsepower KTM Adventure, I had the thought again that often pops into my head when we’re out riding, especially on this road which I have decided is my favorite: Why doesn’t somebody take this thing away from me? (It’s what James Thurber’s mom said, waggling a revolver, in his short story The Night the Bed Fell.) Everything else that feels half as crazy and exhilarating as riding a fast motorcycle up and down this cliffhanger of a mountain road is not just illegal, it’s impossible. For the average stiff, anyway. The only other things that could approach the adrenaline level this place induces might be if you were one of those guys who owns a Mig or your own racetrack or distillery or high-end women’s shoe store.
S-22, or Montezuma Grade, is one of the few roads where you can actually air out a modern superbike, give it the whip in top cog as they used to say… Okay, maybe not quite top cog, but you can get to redline in third at least, which is 120 or 130 mph, without alarming the citizens (there aren’t any) or scaring yourself too silly. I’ve learned to chill in the corners you can’t see around, since that’s how every good rider I know gets taken out when they get taken out, but there are plenty of parts of the road with wide-open sight lines where the highway engineers absolutely encourage you to try to activate the traction control (though neither of us could bring ourselves to test these bikes’ lean-sensitive ABS this ride). Up the mountain, which climbs 3500 feet in about 12 miles, is a true test of toe-to-toe horsepower that the dyno can’t quite replicate. Downhill will give your brakes a workout like few other roads.
It barely ever rains. The grippy, large-aggregate pavement is nearly always perfectly clean and mostly smooth. And the mostly constant-radius curves, of various radii, make S-22’s 12 miles feel pretty much like our own private little Nurburgring minus the trees and traffic and blind crests. Yes it’s fast, but in the hundreds of times I’ve ridden it, I’ve never seen a crash (knock on wood), though I have heard some hair-raising tales: Some things even stupid people can look at and know they should be respectful. I describe it to people as the road that must’ve inspired The Roadrunner cartoons, though maybe it’s not, since the only thing it’s missing are tunnels. You can’t have everything. I have ridden along behind an actual roadrunner (Geococcyx californianus) on it. I guess there must be even better roads somewhere in the wilds of Utah or Idaho, but the beauty of my favorite road is I can get here from the belly of the Orange County beast in two hours.
There’s a little bit of debate as to whether we should reveal our favorite roads in public, for fear they’ll be overrun by our legions of readers. As it turns out, that fear is largely ungrounded. Some of our favorite roads have lately become more clogged with traffic than they were 20 or even ten years ago, but that’s more from urban sprawl than an increase in motorcyclists. Places like Temecula, inland from San Diego, barely existed 20 years ago. Now there are McMansions as far as the eye can see. What used to be a vacant lot on the way to our favorite roads is now Pechanga Casino, the biggest one in the state, complete with 517-room hotel, etc. If you hurry, you can catch the Beach Boys tonight in the Pechanga Theater.
Pala used to be a tiny impoverished mission town full of Pala Indians just beyond the sprawl. It’s fun to watch its progress on each ride-thru as the Pechanga and Pala Indian Casinos grow and inject cash into the village: Shiny Lexi replace hubcapless sun-baked LTDs in front of new dwellings that were once trashy single-wides. Lawn statuary advances… That a scraggly band of rural poor are suddenly challenging Las Vegas is about as American a success story as it gets, which is pretty cool since what makes it possible is that their land is technically not part of the U.S. The Pechanga tribe claims to have been living in the Temecula Valley for 10,000 years. Grab fuel and a Frappucino at the casino gas station. Press on another 45 minutes or so, and you leave it all behind…
S-22 was built in 1964. It took ten years,160,000 tons of dynamite and a bunch of prisoners to hack out a million cubic yards of granite, clearing the way for the road to drop from mountains to desert floor, with beautiful vistas along the way that let you see all the way out to the Salton Sea. When it’s a damp, drizzly November in the rest of SoCal, you can almost always count on bright sun when you reach the grade. The road’s other best feature is that it deposits you in Borrego Springs, which was intended to be another Palm Springs but for various reasons is anything but. (The main one is that the highway that was supposed to cut through from the northwest and L.A. never got built.)
There’s a fantastic Mexican restaurant, three or four motels that were remodelled in the Eisenhower era, and a pretty good bar/restaurant. There’s not a fast-food or chain store in sight along the main street. When you step out of Carlee’s at night in the winter after a stress-reducing cocktail or two with the temperature in the 50s, you have to shield your eyes when the moon’s full and bouncing off the sand, and the air’s so pure you need to smoke so as not to send your lungs into shock. If you show up in the springtime, especially after a wet winter, you’ll be knocked out by all the wildflowers, which are a big reason why Anza-Borrego Desert State Park is the biggest state park in California. Juan Bautista de Anza was an explorer; borrego is a bighorn sheep. When I started going out there more than 20 years ago, you’d occasionally see the bighorns climbing around on the next mountain over from the turnout where motorcycle photographers have shot since time immemorial. I haven’t seen one in the last ten years or so, but this year’s count (I SEE EWE) tallied 265 bighorns in other parts of the park.
Personally, I love the dry desert heat — I think because I grew up where it was humid as well as hot. There’s no better feeling than slicing through that warm, dry air in some nice perforated leather with nothing on underneath but a smile, on the way to a cool drink at the bottom of the mountain. But the summertime heat is another thing that keeps most people away. In the wintertime, when it’s always 60 or 70 degrees, I don’t know what keeps them away, but I hope whatever it is keeps doing it. It’s our own little oasis just two hours away from the big city, a beautiful slice of California that’s still almost as deserted as it was 100 years ago. Our little secret, no?