Part III Begins at Long Last!

Winter 05/06, home with family & friends in Northern Ireland and then a spot of Contract work back at the old place in England. An April departure to start Part III was delayed until May due to work commitments and then the May departure was put off to June due to a family illness. At one point we wondered if we’d ever get back to our life on the road again and see the adventure continue. Then came 9th June, the day World Cup 2006 started in Germany and instead of being stuck at home watching footie, we were glad to be sat in a BA 747 off to Phoenix. Angie & Melody picked us up from the airport and we had a few days with them & Simon sorting the bikes and making ready for the road north. On 12th June we said our farewells to the Rebouls and set off through Phoenix with its horrendous early morning congestion on roads north & west taking us to California. For our first day we had a short ride through Joshua tree lined desert roads to Laughlin, Nevada. I love Joshua Trees – they sort of stand there and wave you on like big old friendly petrified cheerleaders, their stony branches waving dark fronds in the wind. Laughlin is the scene of a big motorcycle meet every April so we decided we’d check it out as it was on our way. Set on the Colorado River, Laughlin is really just a strip of casinos. It is ‘Vegas the B Movie’ and we wished we’d ridden the extra 50 miles up the road for the real thing. The casinos here are dark and dingy with sticky carpets to match. We stayed at the Pioneer – a Wild West themed joint and the cheapest motel we could find in North America at $27 a night and wandered through the Colorado Belle, styled after an enormous riverboat. The place seemed tired and worn out like most of its sad patrons glued to their slot machines, feeding them from their little buckets of chips.

More desert roads took us on into California, across grasslands and then upwards and onwards into the Sierra Nevada Mountains. Our first target for this leg of the trip was the giant trees in Sequoia National Park and the end of our first major days travelling found us all alone on a twisty mountain road desperately seeking somewhere to stop for the night. Trees closed in, darkening the road and dropping the temperature. We got cold and were thinking, “hey this is supposed to be California. People run around here with bronzed bodies sporting surfboards and wearing hardly any clothes.” Our Hansel and Gretel ‘getting lost in the forest’ routine didn’t quite sit well with that image. You do that sort of thing in Transylvania not California. The road went on getting twistier and slower, when suddenly we turned a corner and there right in front of us was the biggest tree I ever seen in my life! Right there, in the forest with all the other trees but right at the side of the road. We were definitely in the middle of a weird American fairytale. We got off the bikes and wandered up to the Giant Sequoia. I expected it to talk in a big deep woody voice warning us of the dangers of little leprechauns being out so alone in the woods at this time of the evening. We reached out and touched it – its bark all furry, surprisingly soft and the colour of fresh cinnamon. Looking up it went on and on up into the darkening sky with a surprisingly flattened off top. How old was it? What events had transpired in its ever-long lifetime? We said a timid farewell and rode on still seeking our shelter for the night. A few miles further down the road and twinkling lights beckoned to us through the trees. Could this be our gingerbread cottage for the night? We’d stumbled across the Ponderosa a substantial wooden building housing a gas station, grocery store but most importantly with a diner and lodgings. It was run by a lady called Mary & her two helpers, Bill & Jim and the rates were a little steep for what was on offer. They reluctantly fixed us some dinner – we were the only guests and to be fair I think they were looking to close up for the night when we arrived, so we woofed down some chilli & a few beers and retired to our wooden bedroom. We’d slept for an hour or two when we were wakened by a shuffling noise somewhere in the room. Christ almighty! Getting lost on a winding road in the woods, giant trees and now a monster under the bed! “What was that???” We ducked down into the bed pulling the covers over our heads in the traditional belief that somehow bed linen in these situations is armoured and can offer untold protection against all manner of evils. We heard it again. “Norman. Go see what it is”. As ever the gallant…“No way – you have a look. The torch is on your side of the bed”. Fumble, fumble, fumble “Here, here’s the torch, you have it now. Go see what the hell’s out there.” “Oh all right”…I scanned the room with the torch. “Look Mags…” Big ears. Enormous black eyes. He was sitting in amongst our luggage looking at me shining the torch on him. Bold and brazen as you like and definitely not afraid – he didn’t even wear a mask. A forest robber out to burgle what he could from us. He raised himself up, all two inches of him. It was a little mouse. A beautiful little forest mouse and he was having a right old mooch through our belongings. He sat on looking at me. Again I expected him to talk, to impart some precious clue as to what lay ahead on our journey or to at least ask us what we were doing in his room as on closer inspection he obviously resided here and it was we who were the intruders. I got out of bed and he sat on until I walked across the room – then he scampered. Panic over, the monster defeated and in full retreat back under the bed. Next morning we had burnt pancakes for breakfast cooked by Mary herself. We should have been worried when we heard whoops and exclamations from the kitchen. “Look! Look! I did one! I made a pancake, I made a pancake! Isn’t that great? I can do it, I can do it!” Not exactly a pupil of Gordon Ramsay then. Scrambled eggs were OK ‘though (I think Bill did those).

We rode on through more forest highlands and reached the little town of Three Rivers at the gateway to Sequoia National Park and our home for the next 4 nights under canvas in the excellent campsite there. Sequoia was a truly magical experience. We had 2 days in the park exploring the canyon drives around King’s Canyon with mountain overlooks and of course looking at the big trees including the General Sherman; the largest & oldest living thing on the planet. The statistics are awesome. 2,200+ years old. 102 feet (31m) in circumference at its base and a height of 275 feet (84m). To put this in some context, the General Sherman is taller than both the Statue of Liberty and the Space Shuttle as it sits on its launch pad. It grows at such a rate that each year it is estimated it grows enough new wood to make a 60-foot tall tree of normal proportions. In the past year, one of the lower branches fell off the tree due to its sheer weight and it was estimated there was enough wood in the branch to make a house! We looked around for giant pinecones but amazingly the cones of the Giant Sequoia are only the size of a small egg and they were scattered everywhere. The trees are found in groves between 5,000 & 7,000 feet in elevation on the western slope of the Sierra Nevada in California. They grow from saplings into spire-topped trees, i.e. with a normal elongated triangle, Xmas tree profile, but then as they get older the trunk thickens to the point where it cannot draw enough nutrients and water to the higher reaches, so the tops flatten off (they are called Monarch trees) as we saw on our monster in the woods a few evenings ago. Imagine living so long that you are guaranteed to be struck by lightning! The giant trees live in an area where there is a lot of lightning. In fact at the visitor centre, in amongst all the bear warnings there was special advice on what to do in the event of a lightning storm – basically stay away from high places and get away from the giant trees. Last year 9 people were killed in the park. In every case the weather was a major factor with most succumbing to hypothermia or drowning as they tried to traverse raging rivers once a storm got up. 2 were caught out on open ground in high places and were killed by lightning strikes. As we wandered deeper into the Sequoia groves, we saw trees that had been hit by lightning. Most are big enough to withstand quite severe strikes but still the evidence of millions of volts instantly vaporising the tree sap was clear to see. The forest floor is littered deep with pine needles & cones making it a veritable tinderbox and for years men fought the resulting forest fires until they realised that the Giant Sequoias were not propagating as they had done. Research found that the trees actually need the fires as they burn off the litter exposing bare floor area where the seeds can then take root. Now the trees are back propagating as nature intended. On the way back through the forest to our bikes, we glimpsed our first bear of the trip – a little black bear looking curiously at us from several hundred feet into the forest. We saw brightly coloured woodpeckers, stunning electric coloured bluebirds and back at our campsite we had dusky visitations from a beautiful huge white owl hunting amongst the trees. This menagerie made us realise we were not in an American Fairytale but we had actually crossed into a Disney cartoon. We pondered on whether Disney’s animators may have spent some time in these parts as the inspirations for animations like Song of the Wild / Brer Rabbit were clear to see.

From Sequoia we hopped to the next National Park on our route north – Yosemite. What an utterly stunning place and not for the first time on this trip I find myself totally without words or ability to describe the breathtaking views and vistas that make up the splendid beauty that is Yosemite. The road up to Glacier Point meandered for 20-odd miles and suddenly ended at this precipice of a view with the whole grandeur of Yosemite laid before us on a vast platter – a feast for the eyes indeed. We didn’t know where to look to pick out the best bit – Up Tenaya Canyon? – a glacier dredged chasm flanked by Half Dome on one side and North Dome on the other. Or what about the huge waterfalls – Nevada & Vernal Cascades? A flatter snow splattered, pine covered plains view led the eye to Mount Starr King and on across the High Sierra. Wander up to the edge of the Chasm and look down into Yosemite Valley itself, the snaking river winding through pine forest and pleasant meadow. Yosemite was easy on the eye. No need to think too much, just laze around and take in all that beauty. It really was a highlight of the whole trip. One slight unpleasantness must be mentioned and that was our introduction to Dune Bugs or as we dubbed them, ‘Baked Bean’ Flies. Riding through peaceful river valleys enjoying yet more splendid views of waterlands, spectacular waterfalls and so forth we spied a light cloudiness up ahead. Then they started hitting the bike and our helmets with a suitable wet splat. When we stopped it looked like someone had been ladling baked beans over us as we’d been riding along – we were covered in an orangey sticky muck of hundreds of dead Dune Bugs their entrails and innards splattered all over our bikes & helmets.

San Francisco next, where we had agreed to take up a very kind offer of hospitality from Derek Jackson and Aline Menezes. Way back in early 2004 when we started this trip, I had an email out of the blue from Derek who had been following our progress through the Website. Originally from Barrow-in-Furness, he is a professional photographer and a keen motorcyclist, riding a 1200 Bandit and dabbling with a motorcycle race shop down on Oklahoma. His life too had been touched by cancer when he was asked to take some photographs of Aline, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. Derek and Aline produced a book – “I Can Still Dance the Merengue” to capture the lives and stories of 18 women including Aline herself and how they had dealt with and fought through their individual battles with the disease. The objective of the book was to show others that breast cancer is not the end of the world and that it is possible to fight it and win, to come through and still live a rich and fulfilling life. The perfect example of this was Aline herself, our hostess for our stay in San Francisco, a feisty lady, a bundle of energy & laughs who can still dance the Merengue. Derek arranged to meet us some way out of the urban sprawl of the greater San Francisco metropolis and lead us back to Aline’s place where a fantastic BBQ awaited cooked by Aline’s partner, Ron. We spent the next few days mooching around the city – crossing the Golden Gate Bridge and having the great fortune to see it in its full glory, unshrouded by the fog that can plague these parts. Marilyn, Derek’s girlfriend took us on a tour of the Waterfront and Chinatown areas. Usually when we go somewhere new we spend ages reading up on it, trying to determine where to go and what to do. It was such a change for us to take a back seat and let someone else show us the sights and at the end of our short stay with these lovely people we were completely relaxed and ready to tackle the roads north and whatever they might bring.

Whilst in San Francisco, Derek introduced us to a peculiar traffic hazard in the area known as “Driving whilst Asian”. This is not meant to be offensive or racist in anyway – it is merely the statement of a very real and serious danger to motorcyclists on the roads in the San Francisco area. I already possess an archive of particular road hazards from my own experiences of 30 years of motorcycling. These include: People wearing hats in cars – can be flat caps, baseball caps (especially dangerous if worn backwards when it is scientifically known to reduce the wearers IQ by 75%) or any sort of head covering; People with sticky out ears – look at the profile of the car driver in that slow wreck in front of you. If he/she looks like an elephant is driving the car, watch out! And of course there are Volvo drivers but everybody knows about them. The “Asians” in particular are very small Chinese and Japanese women. They can barely see over the steering wheel and can be spotted very clearly by the fact that they nearly always wear hats (ties in with my existing warning) and sport little white gloves that can be clearly seen atop the steering wheel. They drive Lexus or Toyotas and again another danger sign is that any chrome badges on their vehicles have been replaced by gold plated items in an obvious but tacky show of status. On the day we were leaving San Francisco, we were caught in a 4-lane traffic crawl; 10 – 15mph, when I had he uncomfortable sensation of the car in the lane beside me suddenly encroaching slowly but inevitably and forcibly into my lane, no indicators or anything to show intention. It was a gold Lexus. Shit…with gold badges. Looking now inside the car, two Japanese ladies, the driver sporting the obligatory hat and white gloves, made up lips pursed tight as she peered through horn-rimmed glasses over the top of the steering wheel with piggy eyes. I put my horn on and started shouting at her to get away from my bike. A flicker of her eyes told me she’d seen me, but her car was a Toyota Camry and she owned the road. I was just on a silly motorbike. I was caught between her car and the steel barrier marking the centre of the road. She wanted in my lane. I would simply have to get out of the way but I had nowhere to go. Behind me, Mags was minking her horn (the horns on our bikes are pathetic), flashing her lights and screaming warnings and obscenities but still the car came on. Fortunately the car in front moved on and I just squeezed ahead as she closed the lane. I turned as much as I could and shook my fist at the stupid cow firing of a barrage of spit and fume that was probably just as well she couldn’t hear. Her reaction? Nothing. No indication of what she’d just done. No apologetic wave or even abusive two-fingered response. In the end I had to swallow my fury and resign myself to the fact that she was simply “Driving Whilst Asian”. I had been warned!

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