Monday, March 24, 2008

Leaving Las Vegas by motorcycle

I'd ridden my motorcycle to the bicycle trade show in Las Vegas and seen all I wanted to see.

I rode out of Treasure Island's self-park about two in the afternoon. By God, right across the street was a ramp onto the Interstate north. No getting lost leaving Las Vegas THIS trip.

On the freeway I saw a dozen, no, 20 Harley-Davidsons, in staggered formation a few car-lengths ahead. I worked my way through traffic, fell in behind and stayed with them mile after mile through the desert.

I noticed various recent H-D "big twin" models, no Sportsters, and a late-model white pickup following them carrying luggage. Every bike had a Bartels H-D (a So-Cal Harley store) plate frame.

We rode up I-15, took the Hwy 95 turnoff, eventually stopping in Indian Springs, Nevada, for fuel. A woman, maybe 30, jumped out of the pickup, came over and introduced herself. I'm Carol, she said with an accent.

Carol and the riders were all French, guys and a few couples riding two-up. They dressed like the biker next door except for some of their Roof (brand) helmets; the fronts swiveled up like BMW helmets or Shoei DuoTechs, but the shields operated differently. You could leave the helmet front up, and pull the eyeshield down. Kinda cool, I thought.

None of them spoke English or wanted to try, so I could only talk to Carol. I showed her on my tanktop map: I was on my way to Beatty, then across Death Valley via Stovepipe Wells. She traced another line with a fingernail: Their route to Death Valley Junction.

We climbed back on and rode together for another 20 miles and separated. Carol waved good-bye. Frogs on Hogs. Au revoir, bros.

All over that part of California and Nevada, I saw groups on either Harleys or BMWs. The Harley groups usually WERE groups, riding in formation. The BMW guys were going faster, strung out along the road. Everyone waved, regardless of brand affiliation.

I'm sure they were Europeans on rented bikes enjoying the desert and mountains. This Euro tour-group thing is invisible to us Californians but it's an industry. There were dozens or hundreds of riders.

I bought gas in Beatty, then stopped again for a Gatorade just before entering Death Valley. Hot as it was, it'd be hotter in the Valley. While I drank, I chatted with a bicycle rider under the awning in front of the little store. He'd pedaled for hours to get there and was happy to sit a while in the shade.

I saw a man and woman on two Harleys in the parking lot and walked over to say hi. I'd barely got my hello out when the guy said: This is my sister. We're splitting up here. I'm going to Salt Lake; she's going to LA. She's worried about riding across the Valley.

I looked at the woman, who was maybe 40 years old. Yeah, she said, I'm nervous about the heat. I volunteered to ride across with her, make sure she was fine. That'd be great, her brother said, and she nodded thanks.

She's gonna turn south to Olancha on the other side of the Valley and pick up 395 south, he added. We'd appreciate it if you'd stay with her that far. You bet, I said.

We'll just say good-bye here then, he said, take us a couple of minutes, and she'll be ready to go.

I wandered back to the shade of the storefront awning and chatted with the bicyclist. Eventually, I could see the guy and his sister climbing on their bikes. I walked back to my Triumph and put on my helmet.

By the time I got saddled up, he'd waved good-bye. When I'd yelled my so-long to the bicyclist and crossed the parking lot, she was already well down the road on her Sportster. I chased and finally caught her, surprised that a woman who claimed to be nervous would be riding 90mph from the git-go.

I followed her for miles, watching her ride that motorcycle well and smoothly. When we emerged from Death Valley, the road straightened and the temperature dropped. She slowed, waved me around, gave me an "I'm okay" sign and waved good-bye.

I never heard her voice except the one time, when she said, "Yeah, I'm nervous about the heat."

I spent the night in Lone Pine at a nice old hotel-motel. Had dinner and breakfast in the cafe next door. You hear as many foreign voices in that place (and everywhere on 395) as you do Yank voices.

After breakfast, I walked to the cash register to pay my bill. There was another sweat-salt encrusted bicyclist sitting in a booth near the door. I could see his Colnago outside leaning on the window, a nice road bike.

I asked him how he was doing and we got in a little conversation. He'd ridden from Valencia, about 30 miles north of downtown LA. He'd ridden all night, had to have been a couple of hundred miles, and stopped for breakfast there in Lone Pine.

After breakfast he was headed right back to Valencia. He didn't say so, but he meant: without a break, without any sleep. He did say he was training for some upcoming endurance bicycle race.

It occurred to me the guy might like to take a shower. I'd already showered; I'd be loading up my bike and leaving Lone Pine in a few minutes. I invited the guy to use my room to clean up. You mean it, he asked.

I packed and carried my bags down to the bike while the guy took what I assume was a welcome shower. When I went back up the stairs for my jacket and helmet, he was standing in the bathroom door, wrapped in a towel, toothbrush sticking out of his mouth.

I asked him to leave the key at the desk when he left. He gave me his card and thanked me again. I put on my jacket and wished him a good ride home. You too, he said, and waved goodbye.

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