I suppose the trip started way back in September of 2004. That’s when my elder son, David, and I started talking about my dream of riding the Pacific Coast Highway from Los Angeles to San Francisco and across the Golden Gate Bridge. I don’t know where the idea had come from, but it was a journey that I had dreamed of for quite some time. Anyway, we got talking about it, egging each other on, until it gained a momentum of its own.
The first plan was just the Los Angeles–San Francisco/Golden Gate Bridge–Los Angeles roundtrip, with a side trip to Yosemite thrown in. But then my sister said that she had been thinking about spending some time in Wyoming, near Yellowstone Park, and that got us thinking about extending the trip. Then a friend, Luigi, sent me a link to a Web page with photos of Dubai, but when I browsed around a bit on the site I found photos of Bryce Canyon, in southern Utah, and somehow that got added to the map.
In March I booked us flights in June from Rome to Los Angeles and from Jackson Hole, Wyoming, to Los Angeles and then back to Rome. I hired a Harley Davidson Heritage Softtail (it had to be a Harley!) from Eagle Rider, to be picked up in Los Angeles and dropped off in Jackson Hole. We had a hotel booked for the first two nights in Los Angeles; after that we were on our own.
Packing was an interesting challenge. The bike had two panniers about the size of a small overnight bag (or airline carry-on luggage). And we were going for two weeks, on a motorcycle, with weather ranging from Mediterranean on the coast through high mountains (Yosemite), desert and high plains (Wyoming). Temperatures could range from 30°C or more in the desert to close to zero in the mountains and on the high plains—with the risk of snow thrown in! And on top of it all, since we were doing a one-way trip on the bike, we had to carry our ‘luggage’ with us all the way.
David had a clear idea of what luggage we should be looking for—little canvas rucksacks. We tracked down a couple in a local shopping centre, and then had to work out what we needed to take and what would fit in the rucksacks.
In the end, we each packed a pair of thermal longjohns and a long-sleeved vest, and four or five t-shirts, underwear and socks and a light-weight fleece sweatshirt, a toothbrush and toothpaste, a comb and that was about it. We thought that we could get whatever else we needed when we got there.
We left Rome on 15 June, flew to Zurich and then on to Los Angeles. Out of Rome, David was sat next to an elderly American couple who had been on holiday in Italy. They latched onto David and chatted to him all the way to Zurich! It was quite amusing to see, David with his long hair and leather jacket, chatting to this couple of complete strangers. I just read my book.
The flight to Los Angeles was long (more than 12 hours) and tedious, but at least there was plenty of choice in films and music to while away the time. I slept quite a lot of the way.
When I first laid eyes on the bike I had hired, I panicked—it was huge! Long, wide, heavy and low; totally different from my usual wheels, a 600 cc sports bike. I had a real crisis of confidence. I seriously doubted that I would be able to handle it. David must have seen this in my eyes, and he sent me off down the road on my own to give it a shot and get a feel of the bike. It turned out to be easier to handle than it looked and much less intimidating, once I got over the initial panic, so we loaded up and set off into the maelstrom that is Los Angeles traffic.
We had decided to ride through Hollywood Boulevard and see the Hollywood sign, cruise Sunset Boulevard and the Sunset Strip, cruise through Beverly Hills and then head out on Highway 1, the Pacific Coast Highway. Easy to say and write, but less so in reality. First I had to roughly memorise the route (about 50 miles through Los Angeles, just to get to the Sunset Boulevard area!) and then take an unfamiliar bike, loaded up with our baggage and the two of us on unfamiliar roads with unfamiliar driving behaviour.
Well, we survived, and we made it to Hollywood Boulevard, complete with its Walk of Fame, Mann’s Chinese Theatre and all the classic sights. What we could not do was find a way through the maze of streets to get closer to the Hollywood sign. We tried, we spent about half an hour turning this way and that, following signs that promised to guide us there only to disappear at the next junction. In the end we gave up and settled for the one long-distance photo.
We found and cruised Sunset Boulevard and Sunset Strip. David got to see all the famous rock clubs, in daylight and as we rode past rather than anything closer but it was something. I was surprised by both Hollywood Boulevard and Sunset Boulevard; they were much dingier than I had expected. I suppose I expected all the Hollywood glitz to be on show, but it looked like any business district thoroughfare and any big city (unless, like David, you knew the landmarks, like the Roxy Club). Maybe at night it would look more impressive.
Following Sunset Boulevard took us right through Beverly Hills and Bel Air, two of the swankiest residential districts. We took a few diversions through residential side roads in Beverly Hills, just to be nosy. On one of these, someone was having a big party and there were cars parked for miles up both sides of the road. Outside the party house there was a group of valets who take and park your car for you. The look of panic on their faces when we rolled around the corner on the bike was a sight to see—it looked like they thought we were coming for the party and they were going to have to park the bike!
Bel Air was less welcoming—most of the side roads were gated communities with signs suggesting they did not want to be bothered. So we didn’t bother them.
Eventually, we emerged from the solid urban sprawl that is Los Angeles onto the coast road. Names of places you hear about kept popping up, first Pacific Palisades, then Malibu. We stopped for a break at one of the public beaches, just to stretch our legs and take in the sights (and have a quick gawp at the millionaires’ play houses!).
These early stages of the trip were painfully hard work for me, and just as painful for David. The pillion seat on the bike was small and none too comfortable, and David needed a break every 45 minutes at the most. For me, the problem was the strangeness of the bike, so different to anything I had really ridden, the sheer weight of the thing and the riding position. On my bike, I just bend my knee to lift my foot onto the footpeg. On this bike I had to swing my leg forwards and upwards from the hip, with practically no knee bend. In the constant stop-start of traffic through the city I was doing this over and over again every few seconds, and the muscles at the front of my hip were in agony!
At least when we got out of town I didn’t have to do this exercise as often. But then it was a question of manhandling the mass of the bike (plus the two of us and our baggage). To put some numbers to it, my bike weights about 200 kg, this thing weighed 320 kg. With the two of us and our baggage we collectively weighed close to half a tonne! This meant it took much more effort to get it to stop, start and change direction. And the big problem was that I was fighting the bike, trying to get it to behave like my bike, rather than accepting the differences and working with them.
And all the stops we were making to rest and relieve our aches and pains meant we were not getting very far. I kept watching the trip meter, watching the miles creep up, fretting about how little progress we were making, rather than just enjoying the experience.
But we did have the fun of seeing a group of people on a beach being terrorised by a sea lion! We had stopped for a break and were looking out over a beach where a family were meandering around when we saw a dark shape ‘surfing’ towards the beach on a wave. The family on the beach were terrified, and ran away from the water. But all it was was a little sea lion, probably a youngster, who just seemed to want to play. It made our day.
We arrived at Santa Barbara, about 60 miles up the coast from the outskirts of Los Angeles, as the sun was setting, so we decided to call it a day and find something to eat and somewhere to stay.
We asked around and were pointed in the direction of Hotel State Street (on State Street, would you believe?), which, we were told, was probably the only place in town that would have rooms available. My guidebook to California mentioned the place as being OK and inexpensive, so that was a relief. But it turned out to be the third most expensive place we stayed in the whole time in the States (the most expensive being the hotel in Santa Monica) and also the worst for facilities—it had shared bathrooms! Still, it was somewhere to stay.
Santa Barbara is a beautiful spot, and we had an excellent dinner in a restaurant on the town pier over the Pacific. And they didn’t bat an eyelid when David ordered a beer (despite the minimum age for drinking in the USA being 21!).
After a pretty stingy breakfast at a delicatessen (Santa Barbara does not ‘do’ diners!) we headed out on Highway 1 again, aiming for San Francisco. The first stretch wasn’t that exciting, with a long stretch running inland, away from the coast, across miles and miles of flat farmland. At one point, David commented about a strong smell in the air. We were both trying to place it, when we realised that we were running through fields of strawberries as far as the eye could see—that is what we were smelling! You would never have noticed it in a car.
Somewhere along this stretch something clicked in me, and I started to relax, to go with the flow, to enjoy the enforced stops (we were still stopping every 30 miles or so) and to work with the bike rather than fight it. Which was fortunate, because I was living a dream and it would have been such a waste to have ruined it by bucking against the traces.
The first place of note on this stretch (as far as we were concerned) was Morro Bay. This is a little fishing harbour set on a bay protected from the Pacific by a long sand spit. At one end of the bay is Morro Rock, a huge volcanic rock sticking up out of the surrounding sand. Getting to Morro Bay meant turning off the main highway and taking a detour of about 5 miles towards the ocean. The bizarre thing was the weather. Up on the highway, the sky was clear and the sun shining brightly. Down at Morro Bay, there were banks of fog rolling in off the ocean, so that Morro Rock kept appearing out of the murk and disappearing again. Very strange. We didn’t see any of the Peregrine falcons that are supposed to live on the Rock, but did see a harbour seal.
And then there was Big Sur. As the guidebook says, “Big Sur is an experience rather than one tangible place. Its beauty is awe inspiring”. And it is right. This is the stretch where the road hugs the coast, ranging from almost sea level to hundreds of feet up a cliff with the surf crashing below. Much of the land is covered with redwood forest, and the scent is marvellous—the mixture of salt air from the ocean and the pine scents of the forest. And the wind! We took quite a battering as we rode along, and I thought more than once that I would be glad to see the back of the ocean if only to get away from the wind. Little did I know…!
The scenery was simply stunning, the road was a joy to ride (I scraped the footplates a couple of times cornering a bit too enthusiastically!), the weather perfect.
This was my dream come true! And sharing it with David made it all the more special. We were having a great time. And David first displayed his amazing ability to spot rodents!
We decided to stop at Monterey, which is at the northern end of Big Sur, rather than pushing on to San Francisco. We had had a long day in the saddle, were full of fresh air and needed the rest.
And what a good decision that was.
As we rode along, we had both been keeping an eye on the water, hoping to catch sight of a sea otter. We thought we had seen one in the kelp beds along the way but could not be certain. But that evening, as we walked down by the marina after dinner, an otter popped up right next to us and swam along on his back, scratching and making otter noises. When we stopped, he stopped. He wasn’t in the least bit bothered by us. Sheer magic. And we also saw a bird that looked like a Great Northern Diver sitting on the water. While we watched it stuck its head under its wing and went to sleep, happy as a biddy.
Monterey was home to California’s sardine fishing industry, immortalised in John Steinbeck’s novel, Cannery Row. The current Cannery Row and Fisherman’s Wharf are tacky tourist traps, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is incredible, and that is what kept us in Monterey Sunday morning.
The Aquarium has a tank where you can watch sea otters above and below water. It was fascinating to see how like sea lions or seals the otters are. Their back legs are flippers, like those of a seal, not legs like a freshwater otter. On land they haul themselves along on their front legs, just like a seal. The faces may look like the European otter, but they are a very different animal.
The whole place was fascinating, but by early afternoon it was time to get going again.
We reached San Francisco early in the evening and found the ‘motel quarter’ on Highway 101, in an area called ‘Cow Hollow’. We pulled into the first decent-looking place and got a room for about $50 for the night. Clean, simple, just what we needed, and pretty central.
As we had ridden through San Francisco the evening before, we had seen a shop called ‘Guitar World’, and we just had to go and take a look. The other place I wanted to see was Lombard Street, ‘the world’s crookedest street’, which was not far from where we were staying (our motel was actually on Lombard Street).
The people in Guitar World were really welcoming and let David try out several different guitars and amplifiers and listened appreciatively while he played. They were impressed, which is quite something in a place like that.
We walked back through Nob Hill and Russian Hill, following the tracks of one of San Francisco’s famous trams, and came to the top of Lombard Street. The views over San Francisco and out over San Quentin were spectacular, but the view of Lombard Street was disappointing. Maybe if we had walked to the bottom of it and looked up? We were both too tired to go for that, and anyway we wanted to get on and see the Golden Gate Bridge.
Back on the bike, follow Highway 101 and the signs take you straight to the Golden Gate Bridge. Then I got lost! Crossing the bridge was no problem, but I took a wrong turn on the other side and we ended up meandering all over the headland over the other side. But eventually (and fortuitously) we found our way back to the view point overlooking the bridge and San Francisco. Dream part two achieved.
We met a couple of bikers there who had ridden down from Seattle, up by the Canadian border, and they took a photo of David and I together—“Otherwise it looks like only one of you was here”, she said.
Time to head off again. Back through San Francisco (bad timing—rush hour!), across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and Berkeley and head for Yosemite, which is about 150 miles east of San Francisco.
We made it to Merced, a little place about half way to Yosemite. At least it had comfortable, cheap motels!
Our plan for the day was to ride into Yosemite National Park, into and back out of Yosemite Valley, the ‘highlight’ of the park, and then cross over the Sierra Nevada mountain range on Highway 120, which runs through the middle of the park.
The first set back came as we entered the park—a notice stated that Highway 120 was closed because of snow and ice. In late June!!! I asked the ranger at the booth if this was really true and she confirmed it. So we were going to have to take another way across. But we put that to one side while we ‘did’ the Valley.
What a spectacular place! We were lucky with our timing, because all the waterfalls in the park were at their best, with the streams swollen with melt water. And the park was not too full of tourists, as it was still early in the season. We just wandered along the road through the park, riding slowly with our visors open to drink in the smells and the sights, stopping often to take photos. David really is an excellent photographer.
I would love to go back there again and spend more time, maybe hiking into the mountains or fishing in the streams. It really is a wonderful place.
But it was time to get the map out and plan our next move.
There wasn’t much choice, there are only two roads that cross the Sierra Nevada anywhere near Yosemite—the 120, which was closed, and Highway 108, over the Sonora Pass. But that meant backtracking nearly 60 miles west towards San Francisco before heading east again into the mountains. And Sonora Pass is nearly 10,000 feet!
The road into the mountains was spectacular, twisty, climbing incessantly. We stopped so that I could put on my sweatshirt (I had been wearing only a t-shirt under my motorcycle jacket) and continued climbing. As we climbed, we passed the snow line. The road was clear and mostly dry, but either side were frozen banks of snow. Spectacular, beautiful, but cold.
And then to cap it all, the sun set and the temperature dropped like a stone. We were at the top of Sonora Pass, 10,000 feet up, and all we could do was press on. The last place we had passed through was about 30 miles back, the next place on the map, Dardanelle, was about 15 miles further on.
To cap it all, the back brake on the Harley decided to fade away to nothing on the way down, which was no fun at all. Endless switchbacks, melt-water running across the road and no back brake to steady progress. I reckon I held second gear pretty much all the way down.
When we got to Dardanelle, it was a winter training centre for the Marines and all closed for the summer! The next place on the map was about 20 miles further on, where the 108 joined Highway 395, which runs north-south on the eastern side of the Sierra Nevada. But when we got there it was just a junction with a name, not even a petrol station! By this stage, we had done more than 120 miles since the last time we had filled up, and the tank range on the bike was only 150-160 miles, so I was getting worried.
Again, all we could do was keep going and head for Bridgeport, the next place marked on the map (and hope it was more than a signpost!). The map said it was only 17 miles away.
(By the way, as we were coming down from Sonora Pass, the moon rose, and I am convinced it was twice as big as I have ever seen it—but that might just have been because I was freezing!)
By the time we reached Bridgeport I was deeply chilled, shivering uncontrollably, so we pulled in to the first motel we saw (Best Western, I think). I knew it was going to be expensive, but I just had to get off the bike and into the warm.
After standing under a hot shower for ages, I started to feel human again and we went out looking for something to eat. But everywhere closes early in the States, or so it seems, and we ended up having to eat at the local hotel. The steaks were excellent but it was about the most expensive meal we had the whole time we were there. But we were desperate.
On the way back to the motel, we saw the ‘vacancy’ sign on one of the motels had been switched off, and now read ‘No’—just ‘No’. We nearly died laughing (hypothermic hysteria?).
Wednesday was our longest, most punishing day in the saddle.
We were setting out to head almost due east across Nevada, heading for southern Utah and Bryce Canyon.
Roads don’t seem to run east-west across Nevada, so we were taking the one that came closest to it, Highway 6. The first leg was on Highway 120 (the eastern extension of the road we couldn’t take the day before because of snow), and it wasn’t until we joined Highway 6 that we found out it is also known as ‘the loneliest road in America’—and I can believe it. The road seemed to consist of a series of 20- or 30-mile straights, with the odd twisty bit in between, and about 100 miles between ‘towns’. And these ‘towns’ often consisted of not much more than a staging post—a motel and a petrol station (usually with one pump!).
And a constant headwind blowing out of the desert towards the Sierra Nevada mountains. I thought that the wind blowing off the Pacific was a pain, but it was nothing compared with this. I reckon this headwind was blowing at about 40 to 50 miles per hour, so with our ‘ground speed’ of 60 mph, it was like riding at 100 mph with no protection from the wind. My hands were cramped ‘claws’ every time we stopped, from hanging on for dear life! When the road swung so we were sideways to the wind, we had to lean the bike into the wind to go in a straight line. No trees, only sage brush and tumble weed. We came to hate Nevada, but we did give a thought to the people who had originally crossed it on horseback or with covered wagons. It was bad enough at 60 mph, what must it have been like for them!?!
The most bizarre episode was when we were stopped by a woman standing by the side of the road with a sign that said ‘Road Works Ahead—Expect Delays of up to 30 Minutes’ and a big ‘Stop’ lollipop sign. My first thought was that it was a joke, or a hijack, but there were a couple of cars already stopped there, and she had a big jeep with official-looking writing and flashing lights on it, so we stopped. But we could see for at least 10 miles and there was nothing going on!
It was OK for the people in their cars—they just sat there with their engines running and the air-conditioning going full pelt. David and I got off the bike and unzipped our jackets and stood there, arms out from our sides like a pair of scarecrows, trying to catch the breeze. (The wind had, of course, taken the opportunity to take a rest.)
After about 20 minutes of this, a convoy of cars appeared in the distance, led by a big jeep with flashing lights. As it reached us, it pulled over and the driver waved all the following cars past. He then turned round and we could see a big sign on the back: ‘Follow Me’. So we did. And about 20 miles further on we found the place where they were resurfacing about 10 miles of the road. Why they had to stop us so far away, I will never know.
We finally reached Ely, tired, windblown and in need of sustenance. We had covered about 320 miles in the day.
Which led to another bizarre episode. There we were in the local McDonalds (the only eating place that was open by the time we got there!), eating our burgers and chatting, when this chap sitting across the way asked us where we were from and started to chat. We had seen him come in, dressed in dirty old ‘Limey pants’ and a decaying singlet and assumed he was the local bum. But he was eloquent and cultured in his speech and astonishingly knowledgeable. When I told him what kind of work I do, he immediately brought up the regeneration of an ancient date cultivar from a stone that had been found at Massada, in modern Israel. I hadn’t even heard about it, but when I checked up when I got back to Rome he had all his facts right! And he carried on a very knowledgeable discussion about computers with David.
He had some fascinating things to say about present-day America. He said he was glad to have the opportunity to talk to us, because we could understand what he was saying and he didn’t have to worry about whether we would denounce him to the authorities.
It was a strange and intriguing encounter, but when he invited us back to his house we chickened out, claimed fatigue and went back to the motel.
One of the places that I had wanted to visit was Bryce Canyon, in southern Utah. But I was beginning to have doubts. It seemed to be taking longer to cover the distances than I had expected, and after the previous day’s punishment I was wondering if we should ‘cut the corner’ and head for Salt Lake City, in northern Utah, rather than continue heading due east to Bryce. David and I talked about it, and decided to see how the day went.
About 50 miles into the journey we made the choice and decided to go for Bryce Canyon. As David said, it was one of the things that I had said all along that I wanted to see, so it would be a terrible shame to miss it out.
So we turned off Highway 6 onto a little bitty back road that headed south-east towards Bryce. If we thought Highway 6 was lonely, this really took the biscuit! At one point, when we needed to fill up with petrol, the only petrol station was unmanned—you had to pay with a credit card or you got no fuel, because there was no one to pay, no alternative!
The road took us through Great Basin National Park. A grand sounding name for an empty piece of land (about 200 km2) with no facilities or anything. Apparently, this patch is completely surrounded by hills and the streams from all the surrounding hills run down into the basin. There is no outflow, no lake, no standing water, it just all evaporates. We were quite happily barrelling along when I saw a mirage ahead (well, it was about 35°C and dry as a bone). I kept on going at about 50 miles per hour, assuming the mirage would disappear as we got closer. It didn’t. It wasn’t a mirage, it was a stream about 2 or 3 inches deep running across the road! We got absolutely soaked from head (well, neck) to toe in cold water—and it was cold, snow-melt water.
But within a few minutes we were dry again, as the heat took its toll and evaporated all the water.
We continued heading towards Bryce, but towards late afternoon, when we were about 20 miles from the park, we could see thunder clouds and lightening in the hills in the direction of the park. We and decided to call it a day and go to the park in the morning. We were in a little town called Panguitch.
We wandered around the town, trying to make up our minds where to eat. I saw what looked like a ‘Western’ restaurant, complete with live country and western music, so I decided we should eat there. Hmmm…
The live music turned out to be a live singer, singing along to recorded music tracks—a kind of ‘depressed karaoke’ as David called it. And he was right. The woman singing sang a song she had written when her sister had tried to commit suicide after some event that had cheesed her off. Melancholy isn’t in it!
Still, the steaks were large, Angus and excellently cooked, the surroundings fun and the music tolerable (actually, I think she had a nice voice, if you like country and western).
Bryce Canyon was worth the effort. Even the road heading towards it was spectacular. The most amazing thing about the Canyon was its sudden appearance. All around is open rangeland, with scattered pine forest. We parked the bike, walked a couple of hundred yards along a marked trail and suddenly the ground opened up into this surreal canyon, all oranges, yellows and ochres. No warning (well, there were barrier rails), there’s a 300 foot drop and things like stalagmites everywhere.
David again demonstrated his ability to spot things rodent, spotting a chipmunk that came looking to get fed. No one else seemed to notice it—or maybe they are simply too commonplace to bother with, I don’t know.
We rode further into the park to look at few more views and spotted what I think was a California Condor—there are 8 or 10 pairs of them nesting in the park, and it was a huge bird.
We decided we had had enough parks for the time being and hit the road, heading for Salt Lake City. We followed back roads about half way, then got onto Interstate 15, a real superhighway.
Along the way we stopped off to visit a hunting, shooting, fishing superstore. What an eye-opener! Rifles, machine guns, pistols of every shape and description. Racks and racks of spinning and fly fishing tackle, with float tubes, boats, catamarans designed as fishing platforms. Camping equipment, knives, you name it. I could have spent days in there (and my yearly income!).
Running up towards Salt Lake City the views are impressive, with the mountains suddenly rising behind the city. Something to look forward to, as we were going to have to go through them to get to Wyoming.
We found ourselves a comfortable motel near ‘downtown’ and went to the local ‘sports bar’ for dinner. The maitre d’ was a great chap, had spent 7 years in Scotland—Edinburgh, Glasgow, the Hebrides—as a Mormon missionary. (That must have been a pretty thankless task in the Hebrides; I am surprised he got out alive!) Again, no one batted an eyelid when David ordered a beer, although our new friend did look a little put out when he asked David why he was riding pillion and not on his own bike and David told him it was because he was not old enough, being only 18! He didn’t say anything then, but did have a quiet, friendly word in David’s ear on the way out.
Saturday morning we had breakfast at the sports bar before heading off. Wimbledon was on, and we got chatting to our friend of the previous evening. Apparently (and here I am demonstrating my credulity) he played tennis as a junior, up to College level (on a sports scholarship to College), and used to play with Andy Roddick when they were teenagers. He damaged his elbow at some point and had to stop playing, hence, as he said, he is now managing a restaurant in Salt Lake City. Well, interesting story.
The road north out of Salt Lake City skirts the salt lake at a distance; we got the occasional glimpse of it in the distance. Big. Flat. White. But then we were back into the mountains again.
The road was nothing special, until we approached Bear Lake, where it wound its way down a steep scarp. Which would have been fine, except the whole length of the descent was being resurfaced and was a dirt track. And to cap it all, they had just sprayed it with water to keep the dust down! Downhill, on slippery mud overlaying a loose surface, on a motorcycle! Not fun.
I kept it in first or second gear all the way, taking it very easy (much to the annoyance of the cars following us). I don’t suppose it was more than two or three miles but it was mentally exhausting.
We stopped at the bottom at a petrol station to fill up and get some refreshments. A group of motorcyclists at the station came over to ask us where we had come from, and how we had got the bike all covered in mud. You should have seen their faces when we told them, because they were about to set off up the hill!
The rest of the day’s travel was pretty uneventful, although David got quite excited when he found out we had actually crossed into Idaho. Apparently, among his friends at university, their name for somewhere that is the absolute pits is ‘Bumsville, Idaho’—and we found it! Or several of them. Paris was the first, and Montpellier, where we spent the night, wasn’t much better. But we were within striking distance of Jackson and decided to take it easy.
Well, if nothing else, Montpellier did provide the biggest breakfast we had had up till then! We ordered eggs, bacon and pancakes, and it came on two plates—each! David likes his food, but this stumped even him. Still, it’s one heck of a way to start the day.
It was only a short hop to Jackson, barely a hundred miles, so we set of mid-morning and took it easy. It was the first time since before Yosemite that the agriculture made any kind of sense to me—nothing spectacular, just ‘proper’ farming.
Snake River is a spectacular sight, especially running full as it was. I don’t know why we didn’t stop and take photos; I guess because we just wanted to get to Jackson (and maybe because we had seen so much up to then and needed something really special to make us stop and get the camera out—again!).
We rolled up to the motel around lunch time, booked in and went for a wander into the town.
It was strange, David and I had completely different reactions to arriving in Jackson. I suddenly felt very melancholic, almost depressed, because, to me, Jackson was the end goal of the trip, the end of the holiday (although we still had three days to go). But David was elated, as to him it represented an achievement, what we set out to do.
Anyway, one of the first things we did was walk into a fishing tackle shop and ask if they arranged fishing expeditions—which of course they did. So we booked an outing for Tuesday, the first slot available (and the only one that suited us). We had decided that we wanted to fish from the bank rather than go afloat (it seems most people prefer to fish from a boat there).
So that left the Monday for Yellowstone Park.
There’s not much to Jackson, gift shops (tacky), art galleries (expensive), bars (over 21, with ID, only), hotels and estate agents (very, very expensive, Sotheby’s and the like). We wandered in and out of the gift shops, looking for presents to take home but most of the stuff seemed pretty awful. We looked in a desultory sort of way at cowboy boots and hats, looked at several exhibitions of paintings and photographs, but didn’t find anything that really took our fancy that we could afford.
So early to bed.
We set of early Monday morning, because it is a quite a long way to Yellowstone from Jackson—about 70 miles to the southern park entrance, and then over 100 miles to do the ‘short’ loop in the park itself, then 70 miles ‘home’ again.
Well, we set of early enough, but we decided to stop for breakfast on the way out of Jackson, and that held us up for an hour or so—there seemed to be only one diner open and it was packed and the service was slow.
About half way to Yellowstone is the Grand Tetons National Park, and we thought about taking the road through it to Yellowstone, but then we found out we had to pay to use it and changed our minds. Still, we got some good photos of the mountains!
As we rolled along the highway, we thought we saw some bison in the distance on either side of the road but couldn’t be sure. But then we really saw some. A small herd of them decided the cross the road, and traffic came to a halt. They are huge!
Everywhere you looked there was wildlife. Deer, bison, eagles (we saw an osprey fly over with a fish in its talons), beaver, rat-like things (David’s speciality).
At first we were mesmerised by the vastness of the pine forest, and tried to imagine what it must have been like to travel through countryside like this before it was opened up and the roads built. But after a while, vast pine forests begin to pall, and you wish the vista would open up a bit.
And being on a motorcycle, rather than in a car, you get the full benefit of all the scents—the pine forest, the sulphurous springs, the road kill. We saw several elk—our red deer—that had been killed on the road, and generally it was the smell that warned us first. Phew!
Then we reached the bits that had been burned out by forest fires in the 1980s—mile upon mile of devastation, with young pines growing amid the charred remains of mature trees. That must have been some fire! Of course, it was the mismanagement of the ecosystem that made the fire such a catastrophe, but at least lessons have been learned that should prevent such devastation in future.
Old Faithful—that was our first main stop-off. You can’t go to Yellowstone and not see Old Faithful. And we were lucky. The geyser erupts every hour and a half or so, but we arrived about half an hour before the next ‘show’ so we didn’t have to wait too long. A Ranger gave a running patter about the geology of the area while we waited and told us what to expect, so everyone got ready with their cameras. And right on time, Old Faithful delivered. It was worth the wait and worth the trip.
And then it was over and off we went on the bike again, stopping off here and there as the fancy took us. The first stop we made was at the Excelsior geyser, which is now just a large hole in the ground having blown its top off in an over-enthusiastic eruption about 50 years ago. Apparently, several people a year are found dead in the pool, having dived in without really understanding that the water is bubbling because it is BOILING! Oh well, I suppose it increases the average IQ of the remaining gene pool.
Then it started to rain!
Up till then we had had excellent luck with the weather. Sunny, if cool because of the altitude (we were over 8000 feet again), and dry.
We took shelter while the shower passed over, then it was back to the bike and on round the ‘short loop’.
We carried on, with only the occasional stop to gaze at a particularly picturesque waterfall or landscape, until we reached the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Not as large as ‘the’ Grand Canyon, but magnificent none the less, and with a spectacular waterfall.
We had a good laugh while we were standing there looking at the waterfall. There was an information panel for tourists that said ospreys often nest on the cliffs on the far side of the canyon, but you need to look carefully because they are so far away. So there are all these tourists with their binoculars, staring at the far side of the canyon several hundred yards away. And David and I look down into the gorge, and lo and behold, about 20 feet below us on our side of the canyon is an osprey’s nest, complete with ospreys and young. David and I try point this out to our fellow tourists, but they refuse to believe it is an osprey’s nest (ignoring the evidence of their own eyes) because the sign says the nests are on the cliff opposite. There’s no helping some people.
With the afternoon drawing in, we set off for ‘home’, hoping that the weather would hold. It didn’t. We got caught in a torrential hail storm and did precisely what everyone tells you not to do—we took shelter under the trees. I know that is supposed to put you at risk from lightening, but just then, given the choice of hail-induced hypothermia and getting fried by lightening, I think we would have opted for the lightening! Luckily, we didn’t get struck by lightening, and the plastic poncho that I had bought earlier in the day (for use in case of need on our fishing trip the following day, I might add) kept the worst of the hail of us. We had some laughs, standing there in the fringe of the forest at the side of the road, under a plastic sheet, waving at passing motorists and yelling ‘hallo’ at the top of our voices. No one stopped!
By the time the hail storm had passed, it was getting well dark and the temperature was falling. I had my thermal leggings on but not the top, so it was a bit chilly. I resorted to stuffing the park newspaper (which they thoughtfully give you at the entrance to the park) down the front of my jacket to fend off the worst of the cold. It worked surprisingly well.
We were pretty much the only vehicle on the road by this time. Everyone else had gone home. It did mean that we got to see a lot of wildlife on the way, even a wolf as it trotted across the road. But it did make for some tense driving. Hitting an elk or bison in a car would wreck the car, hitting one on the bike would wreck us and seriously spoil our day! At least the lights on the Harley were good.
We got back to the motel at about 11 p.m., having left at about 9 in the morning—a long day in the saddle, but we enjoyed every minute.
Our last day, and a day we had been looking forward to. Our appointment was to meet the guide at 8:30 in the morning “by a stand of cottonwood trees” down by a stream that joined the Snake River not far south of Jackson. After a few false starts, we found the right track (gravel, rutted, rough, not ideal Harley territory!) and headed off for what we hoped were cottonwood trees (another oversight on my part: I don’t know what a cottonwood tree looks like). Fortunately, we were also told he was driving a red Jeep, which I could recognise.
Andy, the guide, had waders for us, a couple of rod (both Sage!), plenty of cast material, sight bobs and, most important of all, a good selection of local flies. He told us that the favoured tactic was dry fly, but we were a bit early in the season, and early in the day, for much to be rising, so he recommended starting out upstream nymphing. The two main species we were likely to encounter were Cutthroat trout and Whitefish (something like Powan, looks a bit like a grayling without the big fin).
Andy took David in hand, and I went off upstream to see what I could do. I found a lovely deep run under my own bank, and the only way to fish it was upstream, which was a first for me. Casting up as far as I could and trying to strip line fast enough to keep pace with the stream was challenging. But almost immediately I got one take after another, missing plenty of them but hooking a few small whitefish. They gave good account of themselves on the light rod, but I really wanted a cutthroat. I kept moving upstream and I kept catching whitefish. Some of them were pretty fair fish, a pound or more I would guess, maybe 14 or 16 inches in length, great fighters. But still no cutthroat.
Our time with Andy was through to 12:30, and it was getting on that way, so I wandered downstream to find them and see how they were getting on. David had had less luck than me in terms of numbers, but he had had a small cutthroat. There were a few fish beginning to rise, and Andy had him fishing dry fly—a first for David. They were on the far bank, a few yards below where I was standing. Right opposite me, tight to their bank, what looked to be a good fish was rising repeatedly. I called to them and pointed out the rise. David moved up into position, made a good cast and first run down he was in! It was obviously a good fish, and made a strong run downstream and in towards their bank and some snags. David held on, tried to bully the fish, but the hook lost its hold. What a disappointment.
But I spotted another fish moving, just a few yards further upstream again. Again, David covered it with a good cast and he was in again. This time Andy was not going to let the fish get away and he jumped straight off the top of the bank into the waist-deep water to get it in the net. David played it beautifully and in next to no time it was in the net. A Snake River Cutthroat, according to Andy, and a good one at about a pound.
And that was the end of our time with Andy. He offered to lend us the tackle so we could go on fishing, and we took him up on the offer of the loan of only one rod, as we had carried a multi-piece fly rod of our own all the way from Rome and one of us could use that. But we decided to break for lunch and come back in the afternoon, fortified.
After a quick lunch in Jackson we were back out on the river, but this time without the waders, which limited us a bit. And on top of that the wind had picked up and the hatch of flies that had been building up earlier had disappeared altogether. We tried for an hour or so but without much conviction before we decided to call it a day.
Again, we had very different reactions to the day’s events. To me, it was the highlight of the whole holiday, the perfect way to end it, the icing on the cake and I was as high as a kite, especially as David had caught such a wonderful fish. But it left David feeling rather down, that it was the end of the adventure. Life is strange, isn’t it?
And that was about it. We went back into town, did another round of the souvenir shops in the hope of finding some bits and bobs to take back (which we did), then dinner and bed.
We took the Harley for one brief run through Jackson, back to the one diner on the road to Yellowstone for breakfast, and then it was time to drop it off at the hire agency.
The guys at the bike shop were pretty impressed with us—apparently we were the first people they had had turn up there from California. The bike was a bit of a state, covered in dust, mud and flies, but they weren’t worried; when we saw the bike an hour or so later it was clean and shining just like when we first saw it.
Altogether, we had covered about 2500 miles in the 12 days we had the bike, and travelled through five states. We went through some real lows, especially the first couple of days before we got in tune with the bike, and hit some real highs. We baked crossing Nevada and froze in the Sierra Nevada mountains and in Yellowstone Park. We met some strange characters along the way. One of my abiding memories will always be the ‘salutes’ from other bikers as we passed. A friend of mine, Tony, has waxed lyrical about ‘the brotherhood of the road’ and I was always faintly dismissive of it, but there was a real sense of ‘community’ among the bikers we met. Whenever we stopped on the side of the road to take photos, other bikes would slow down and check we were OK before going on their way. Something rather special.
I am glad we went, we will have memories that last us a lifetime—and maybe the memories will encourage us to do something like that again before too long. We shall see.
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