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.)

map

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.  

Sigh… I loved this thing more than humans are supposed to love things.

Sigh… I loved this thing more than humans are supposed to love things.

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.

whatever

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…

Wow, Metzeler still makes them!

Wow, Metzeler still makes them!

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.

It beats the old wigwam.

It beats the old wigwam.

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.

With no casino, it’s Scratchers in the Lake Elsinore Liquors parking lot with BB and Hot Donna.

With no casino, it’s Scratchers in the Lake Elsinore Liquors parking lot with BB and Hot Donna.

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.

  • JMDonald

    It has been a couple years since I rode Palomar. Back in the late 80’s I met a couple of local guys at the public golf course in Temecula who told me it was a great place to ride. Having just sold my CB750 I was looking to get a new bike and a shiny new CBR600 was just the ticket. Palomar was the first extended trip I took it on. Great memories. From Huntington Beach to the Ortega down to Palomar on to Borrego Springs back through Julian. What a great place. It’s still there.

  • http://canadamotoguide.com/ Kawazacky

    All the times I’ve heard about Palomar — it’s my #2 destination on the West Coast, right behind Big Sur. Someday. Might have to finish the 650 to get out there, though, the 350 would be kinda taxed on those long straights from Lubbock west.

    • DickRuble

      Watch Cycles South (1971) and see what you can do with a 250 before you complain about a 350.

    • Gungalagunga

      Do highway 36 in Norcal in the late spring. I think it’s the best road in the US. 25 mph corners for 140+ miles. Unbelievable scenery.

  • Moto Ray

    What a great read. Thanks, John, for the diversion from work this humpday.

  • Gabriel Owens

    How did the Gixxus respond to a tune JB? I’m dying to know.

    The s1000f is on my list of bikes I’m excited about.

  • Gabriel Owens

    This made me reflect on Colorado. Being from texas my yearly long ride always involves Colorado for some reason. After Obama got into office a lot of those little small towns there started to dry up. Places like Leadville. But this year I stayed in Leadville and the town looked great. WHY? Weed Economy. Small town like that now supports 3 Marijuana dispensers. Main Street never looked so nice. We should have invested Burns.

    • Kenneth

      “After Obama got into office…”
      Yes, and the South would have won the war, if Obama hadn’t issued the order for them to stand-down.

      • Gabriel Owens

        You miss the point. A lot of small mining towns were pretty much shut down because of the increase in regulations.

        • Kenneth

          I get it:
          EPA regulations = Bad!
          Trashing the environment with toxic chemicals = fine and dandy, if it makes a big profit for a few, and jobs for a few more. And if it costs 1-cent to clean up your act, close it down and move somewhere “more favorable.” I love Colorado, not the mining companies that have raped it (all over the West, actually) and moved on. I’m glad “the weed economy” is doing well.

  • Prakasit

    Palomar and The Glass Elevator are highly overrated. Pavements suck. Who knows what you may run into riding those roads! There is literally nothing to see in Julian and Santa Ysabel. And whatever you do, don’t get your hands on the hand drawn map guide to San Diego County motorcycling road that some guy did a while back. Totally worthless. Leave those poor San Dieagans ride those road to their own peril. Did I mention, Hwy 94?

    I should know, I live there.

    • Born to Ride

      Some people like roads that go into the middle of nowhere. There is a beautiful mission with some of the most soul stirring stained glass art in Santa Ysabel off of highway 79. Wonderful place to stop and reflect in between tire melting sessions. The view dropping down into Borrego on Montezuma Valley is gorgeous in late spring with clear blue sky’s and a full spectrum of color from blooming desert flowers. Also, they recently resurfaced the serpentine strip of road on Highway 78 dropping down from Julian into the desert before you get to Ocotillo, if smooth pavement is your thing. Courser Canyon road is carved into the side of a shady valley wall, and also got resurfaced recently. The list goes on and on. You would have to be jaded as f*** to think that all these beautiful twisty roads are totally worthless. But I guess some people like to talk and others like to ride.

      • Robs

        Me thinks Prakasit was trying to encourage folks to stay far, far away from his turf =)

        • Born to Ride

          Ha, I just reread his post and I do believe you are right. I’m pretty terrible at picking up sarcasm on Internet posts. My apologies

      • Prakasit

        shushing sound…….. Courser Canyon Road? hmm going to have check that one out.

        • Born to Ride

          Don’t Bother. It’s not worth it ;).

  • Old MOron

    Nice one, John. Some of your tone reminds me of Fear and Loathing’s high water mark soliloquy. Of course Gonzo has got nothing on you. https://youtu.be/vUgs2O7Okqc

    • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

      Holy shit! I always forget about what a brilliant and insightful mind HST had. All the gonzo drug stuff eclipsed the fact that the man wrote nothing but truth, even when he was lying.

  • Craig Hoffman

    Ah, those were the days, back in the early 90s. Me and my riding buddy going 150 down S22 and a T38 flies down just above us, landing gear down, pacing us for a bit. The gear went up, wing waggle and the plane jetted off. Good times…

    • Kevin Duke

      Cool anecdote!

  • Andy C

    Judging by the zoo at every surf break in SD and Orange County I’d say they traded in their bikes for longboards!

  • Daniel Benjamin

    I LOVE the look of the gixxus, especially the oddball GSX-S1000F. Had I the money for more than one bike, that would be my long-distance ICBM.

  • bbtowns

    I’ve only ridden Palomar once, and while the curves were great, I was struck by how many bikes (and cars) there were, and how slow everyone was going. It’s like the tail of dragon, great road, but parade speeds due to traffic (and enforcement). I suppose if you hit it at the right time all is good, I need to find that time.

    • john burns

      we must be thinking of different Mt Palomars? Pretty sure I didn’t come up behind a single four-wheeled vehicle Sunday the whole way up.

      • bbtowns

        Probably the same one (after all San Diego area probably doesn’t have 2), I just hit it on a bad day. Other bikers were commenting it was bad that day, and there were a large group of bikers riding up in “formation” which didn’t help. I don’t live in that area so didn’t get to give it another chance. Same thing can be true of the Beartooth and other great roads. The nice thing about Oregon is it ain’t crowded, but rain does that. Always enjoy your articles John. I could imagine riding it fast at least!

        • Gungalagunga

          It ain’t crowded is an understatement! I love riding southern Oregon and Norcal. Street, enduro, dirt, mt bike, road bike. There’s not enough weekends.

  • Gary

    The answer to your question: young folk live in the Virtual World. They’ve no time for analog pursuits like hauling two-wheeled arse up mountain passes. BTW … how did the reflash work?

    • john burns

      I think a lot of them live virtually by default since we Boomers took all the money and pulled the ladder up. Let’s make college a profit center for the banking industry! The reflash story is in the works…

      • Gary

        There is some truth to what you say. But speaking as an aging boomer, I don’t recall anyone lowering a ladder for me. More like clawing up a steep embankment, with some slips and falls along the way.

        • john burns

          me too but I didn’t wind up with $30K debt.

  • Born to Ride

    Young guys still ride Palomar. Not in the hordes that used to be up there even 5 years ago however. If you show up after noon, most people have already left. I always go on Saturdays to avoid most of the squids(not the navy kind).

  • http://www.motou.info Gabe Ets-Hokin

    What does an alcoholic goat look like, anyway?

  • Gabriel Owens

    But seriously, how did it respond to tuning?

  • pcontiman

    Love both of those rides and the Borrego one might be the scarier one due to the WFO roads and the temptations that brings. When I first got here I had a nice Saturday afternoon jaunt up and down Palomar with my grey hair and happy Sportster. I pulled into that vegan hippie cafe up there with the Aprila’s and the Ducatis in the parking lot. They took a look at the old 1200 with the Colorado plates and said, “you know, the Hideout is just down the road”……. Don’t know what the Palomar scene used to be like as I wasn’t there but it still ain’t bad.

  • pennswoodsed

    The Goat got help, I heard. Shouldn’t be risking his anonymity , but hell !

  • Gungalagunga

    I, for one, am ecstatic not to have to carve through tank-topped squids on every good road around me. Matter of fact, there aren’t any riders at all under 50-ish on my favorite roads. It’s great.