I don’t remember the first time I rode a motorcycle up Mt. Palomar down there in beautiful San Diego County, but I do remember it being one of the top three “you have GOT-to-be kidding me” moments I experienced when I moved to the left coast. Wiki says there are “over 20 hairpin turns over the distance of less than seven miles” as the road climbs 6000 feet to the world-famous observatory, but I’m pretty sure it’s more like 200 hairpin turns, sharp lefts, quick rights, increasing-radius sweepers both left and right and a few series of S-bends you can straightline while practicing your rebel yell inside your Shoei. Do they ever run the Isle of Man backwards? Abusing the front tire going back down the South Grade is just as fun, or there’s the East Grade option to the bottom of the mountain too, just as hairball and faster, with a lovely vertigo-inducing view of Lake Henshaw. (There it is in the lead photo.)
Some of Palomar is private property, but most of it is state park, and there are very few cross streets and driveways. Critically, very few people want to see the Hale Telescope when they could see Baby Shamu, the San Diego Zoo or the Pacific Ocean; hence there are very few cars. I was just about 30 years old when I got here – no wife, child or chattel – and there weren’t many weekends that didn’t find me tearing up that road on some new bike or other, including the first Ducati 851 in the country, an RC30, a Raymond Roche 888, ZX-7R, you name it.
Also GSX-R1100s and things; at the time I still thought big horsepower was the answer to every motorcycle question, an idea dispelled by a ponytailed guy on an `86 Ninja 600 whose name escapes me now. His Ninja was already well used, but it was light and sharp and his Metzeler Lasers were always fresh, even though you could only tell they were Metzeler Lasers in the middle of the tread; the sides were slicks after a few weekends of use.
Ninja man ruled the roost, he never slowed down. Some guys on old BMW Boxers went really quick too, and one guy in the San Diego BMW Club was determined to prove the new K75S was the greatest sportbike of all time. In fact he proved the opposite, riding off into the weeds more than once, luckily with little serious damage to his person. Good times…
Then I grew up and quit riding streetbikes on the weekends so much. Before the Great Recession, Mt. Palomar was crawling with new riders on new motorcycles and it seemed like kind of a safer alternative to ride dirt bikes with the kid instead. We MOites still ride Palomar whenever we get a chance in the course of normal weekday business; it’s also really close to another fantastic favorite road, the one that drops down the side of a mountain into Borrego Springs. Palomar’s tight as a frog’s intestines, and the road to Borrego is WFO; it makes for a great test loop.
But when Rad Brad says let’s ride, you ride even if it is the Sabbath. I finally got a new KTM Super Adventure into my clutches, but now that it’s August, Death Valley is right out, ditto the Mojave Trail. So let’s just ride to Palomar, then, what the heck – Brad on his trusty Burgman and me on the Suzuki GSX-S1000 whose ECU I just reflashed and need to “test” anyway.
I no longer hate to sound like the old guy who remembers when, so I remember when there was nothing on the road to Palomar except the Pala Indian Reservation, which was like a trip through a bad part of Calcutta even at speed: babies crawling in the dirt, flies buzzing, alcoholic-looking goats leaning on rusty LTDs on blocks…
Then they built the Pechanga Casino on tribal land in 2000, which was adding another wing when we stopped for gas at the casino gas station last Sunday (where gas is cheap and there’s no vapor recovery deal on the pump either). The tribe owns the casino, which pours its profits (part of them anyway) right back into the community. Now those same houses are either torn down and replaced with bigger newer ones, or expanded, remodelled and freshly painted. Crappy dirt yards are now neatly kept lawns sprouting all sorts of ornaments and flora, everybody has a shiny new car, and the crusty babies now are teenagers with a brand new athletic center and skate park that look like they belong in an upscale suburb. Somebody just planted a new date palm grove, which is not cheap.
What’s this got to do with motorcycles? For me, I haven’t really embraced the helmet communicator or even a sound system because riding along with earplugs in is about the only time I ever just sit and think, and riding motorcycles involves going places. Riding through Pala a few times a year for 26 years makes me think maybe some groups of people who are disparaged for being lazy and poor really aren’t all that lazy and poor after all: They were just poor. They just needed some goldang money! Hats off to the Pala people and the state of California for letting people do their own thing on their own land – and most of all to those who contribute to the cause by gambling. I’d rather see a formerly impoverished Indian tribe get it than Las Vegas.
Meanwhile, another town we always roll through is on the southern bank of beautiful Lake Elsinore. Lake Elsinore itself had a median household income of $62,436 in 2010. This wrong-side-of-the-lake town, though, what the Census Bureau calls a “census-designated place,” has a median family income of $36,528. It’s no garden spot, but it actually was once upon a time, since it’s right on the shore of SoCal’s biggest natural lake. It was an actual palm-tree-lined resort decades ago, where movie stars came to hang out. Now it’s a dusty backwater where a couple of barbershops, a furniture store and a few carnicerias and restaurants manage to stay above water, but just barely from the looks of things. (You’re a fool if you pay $8 for a haircut at the northern edge of town; ride a few miles south and the price is $4.)
There’s tons of motorcycle traffic, but the lone biker bar that opens under new management every year is tits-up again within six months. What went wrong? What keeps going wrong? I know not, but after witnessing the Pala Reservation Rejuvenation, it seems like it would be easy enough to fix with money. Where did it all go? Who took it? On Sunday morning, there are plenty of shiny new cars in the big church parking lot. Why not take a page from Pala and add on a casino? Lake Elsinore Casino on the other side of the lake seems to be doing fine.
On top of Mt. Palomar, where there used to be 50 or 75 Ninjas and SV650s and CBR600s on any given weekend day, this Sunday there was one Buell 1190SX (good choice!) and a smattering of other gray-haired and/or successful-looking types with expensive Ducatis and Aprilias. Also a handful of also-adult riders on new adventure-tourers. Where’d everybody else go? What happened to the 20- and 30-somethings who used to make the mountaintop an anthill of motorcycles, a large chunk of which were Marines and squids (the Navy kind)? Are they all deployed, paying off student debt or capturing Pokemons now?
It was a great ride for me anyway, because I was with Rad Brad and Hot Donna and I had a nice new Suzuki to ride. But something’s missing, something’s not as good as it used to be. What I decided is that Mt. Palomar is my land, all the nuts who ride motorcycles up there are my tribe, and I won’t be happy until we have our youth back, our numbers restored and our coffers refilled by whatever jerks made off with all the money.
That, or we open the MO Casino up there. There’s room by the telescope. It’s a win/win.