12. 10-10-11 USA: The Ride – Part II

A New Bike

After completing the first stage of my journey – New York to Minnesota, via 9500 miles of Canada and the US – I decided to visit my father in Israel for a few months. I am a writer after all, and he had a lot of material I need for one of the historical fiction novels I’m working on. Having sold my Magna, when I returned to the states four months later, I found myself in a difficult position: find a motorcycle without a form of transportation, in one of 48 states, get there somehow with all of my stuff, and have the bike actually be worth buying.

A friend of mine was getting married in Oregon, so I was at least in a part of the country where dual-sports rule. And sure enough I found a beautiful KLR in Washington State. I hitched a ride from Corvallis to Kennewick, and spent the night at Mitch’s house (the guy who sold me the bike). This was my first time meeting someone from the ADVrider.com community, and it was enough to feel that I had come home.

I chose the Kawasaki KLR 650 (2005) because, frankly, it was the cheapest dual-sport I could find, and it was easy to lower (it came with a lower seat too!), both things being vital for me. Since my method of financing this journey was to sell everything I owned, I was not left with a lot of cash to buy, and subsequently repair, fancy bikes. I also did not like the idea of computers on my motorcycle, which, if malfunctioned, would stall an otherwise perfectly working machine. The KLR, mainly because of its affordability and the fact that they made the same bike from 1987-2007, is a very popular motorcycle across the Americas and has a club or community in almost every country from here to Argentina. For someone who has been mostly a city rider for 10 years, it was important to be able to find others who were more experienced, and mechanically inclined, to help me learn this new type of bike. The problem with living in large cities and riding cruisers is that there is always a shop to do things for you. This sad fact, and my own lack of initiative, meant that I didn’t even know how to change the oil on my KLR. So it was not without a great deal of trepidation that I mounted her for the first time, and, though incredibly uncomfortable on this completely foreign ride, made the decision to buy it on the spot.

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The next day, I christened her Georgia, tied my little backpack to the luggage rack, and began the long ride back to Corvallis. On that very first day, I decided to try out some of the off-roading skills I had seen on a video which Mitch had shown me the night before. You can guess how long it took before I was thrown over the windshield, while Georgia was left straddling a fallen fir tree.

For most of the ride, on or off road, I was engulfed in doubt. Riding straight up, not being able to plant both feet flat on the ground at a stop, the single (compared to 4 on the magna) cylinder, the longer handlebar… it was just so different from the cruisers I knew. I started thinking about all the gear I would have to mount on this beast, how high it would be, how much less control I would have... But there was nothing I could do, I was committed and would have to stop being a pussy.

I got back to Corvallis, packed my backpack and duffel, stuffed the leather saddle bags, and began the long ride down the Oregon and California coasts. With every passing mile I became more and more comfortable, and less and less scared. The 101 wound its way along the coast, past beautiful, isolated homes with wine country valleys behind them and the ocean outside their front doors. The mists and fogs framed the jagged rocks, floating like islands along the coast, and crept up the cliffs and mountains of the coastal range. So often it felt like riding through a fairy tale. And then at once I entered the redwood forests. There are few places on this planet as humbling as the redwood reserves in northern California. These giants are so tall that you cannot see their entire trunk standing at the base. They are so massive that even after a wildfire ravages them and hollows out their core, they continue to stand tall. Say what you will about the damage roads and cars cause, there are few stretches of road in the world more brilliant than the 101 as it passes through these forests. I would, in fact, argue that stretches of road like this are what bring so many people to the side of environmental conservation. Our ability to witness first hand, in an accessible manner, at least a fraction of our nature’s bounty, is more impactful than a thousand speeches, photographs or videos of these places as presented in classrooms.

Eventually the 101 brought me to the Golden Gate Bridge and America’s second greatest city: San Francisco. A full blown metropolis, with museums, opera and ballet companies, brilliant poets and musicians, massive industry… which sits at the foot of 2 mountain ranges, the Pacific ocean, forests, and wine country – all of which are within a 2 hour drive from the city center.

I spent a pleasant time visiting friends and getting good advice. I had not really considered sponsorship before, particularly because I wanted to see whether I could even do something like this, but now on my second steed and confident of my ability to boldly go where few have gone before, I began looking into getting sponsored. The parents of a good friend in Irvine graciously offered their home as a base, so I left the dream that is San Francisco for my pre-South American-assault base camp in southern California.

 Unexpected Journeys

I have made the drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles at least 4 times along the PCH (HWY 1 – Pacific Coast Highway), and yet I never cease to be P1000391-1 (321x600)amazed by it. Though it is not what it once was, with traffic being a constant burden on what is otherwise an excellent driving road, it still threatens to send you flying over a cliff as your attention is constantly drawn from the road to the spectacular pacific coast. Though less rugged looking than the Oregon coast, in reality it is no less stark and awesome. Gnarled Cyprus line the way, shaped flat and forced to lean inland by the constant wind, their leaves spread in a wide brim to take advantage of brief moments of sun when the ever-present fog disperses. The cliffs are jagged, steep and high, yet the crash of the ocean is only a shutting off of the motor away. And though the hum of passing cars is always in your ears when you pull over to gaze over the distant horizon, there are a few (and hard to find) spots where you can pull over, walk down the hill a few seconds, and become completely engulfed in the wind and waves, sitting hundreds of feet above the ocean, completely unaware that there is any mechanical world at all. I know of such a spot, and it is the reason I never make it anywhere on time when traveling the PCH.

P1000453 (600x400)Monterrey, Big Sur and Santa Barbara flew by. Their seafood, museums, parks and mansions, blurred by the rain, obscured by the fog, and overshadowed by the road itself. I stopped in L.A to meet some other travelers, and continue looking for sponsors.  With only a few days rest after traversing almost 2000 miles in a couple of weeks, two friends from Minnesota flew in, rented a couple of hogs, and took off with me up to Yosemite, via HWY 395, back into Monterey, and down the coast yet again. I road more in 3 weeks than most people do in a year, but I could not complain as every mile made me more comfortable on Georgia, and the rewards of Yosemite and the PCH are worth every sore I had on my ass.

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10 days later I found myself in Malibu, at a wine tasting room along the PCH. My friends had returned to their jobs, lives and fiancées, so I was alone yet again, but this did not last long. “Tree” was working at the wine tasting room, and it was all of two seconds after walking in that we had become friends. One conversation lead to another and another, until someone mentioned Burning Man. I had always wanted to go, but thought tickets were unavailable, and did not know how to go about getting there with all of my stuff. As fast as we had brought it up Tree invited me to join him and his friends in their camp and trailer. It was so kind of him, and I still had no ticket, but was confident that I could find one on Craigslist (as per Tree’s suggestion). The next day I got online, found a ticket, had it fedexed to me, went back to the tasting room, gave Tree a hug, moved all of my stuff to his tiny one bedroom apartment (in which another friend was already crashing), and a few days later found myself riding shotgun in a Ford F-350, with 6 people and a huge trailer on our way to Burning Man. My dream became reality in a single week, with not a day to spare before the start of the festival.

What happened at the burn I will relate some day. It is sufficient to say that I found absolute joy there. When a person is surrounded by 50,000 people who accept him for who he is, and do not judge him, that person will feel true freedom – and it is then that they are able to feel pure joy. We lived a lifetime in those 8 days, from birth to death, and it was the happiest lifetime I could have imagined. Though it cost me money I did not have, and set me back almost 3 weeks, going was one of the best decisions I have ever made.

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We came with 6 people, we returned with 7. On the last day, just hours before leaving, Tree’s and Jadee’s eyes met. They stood there just looking at each other in silence for what seemed like eternity, then spoke in whispers for hours. She did not even bother looking for her things or the people with whom she came, she just got in our truck and began her new life. Though she eventually had to go back to Australia, it did not take long for Tree to follow her, bring her back, and marry her 6 months later. I almost feel like I was present at the birth of a star.

 

Gearing Up

It was the four of us now who shared Tree’s tiny apartment when we returned to L.A. But I was not destined to continue sharing in their happiness, as I had a bike to equip, and a journey to continue. I finally made it to my base in Irvine, from which I managed to secure 4 sponsors. 3 weeks later I came back to L.A where I had found 2 shops who would sponsor my tune ups and installation of the panniers, gas tank, chain and sprockets….

In L.A I had found yet another kindred spirit with whom I stayed for 3 weeks while gearing up. In those stressful final moments of leaving the known world, I felt the comfort of home while staying with Olga. The craziness of receiving packages, installation, calling and writing to more sponsors, was all softened by pleasant nightly chats, tennis games, shared stories and great food.

P1000504 (600x400)Georgia was now fully equipped. She went from a skinny little dual-sport to a formidable beast. The small leather saddle bags where replaced by 9” panniers; the 6 gallon tank with a 10 gallon tank; shocks, chain, bolts… everything upgraded. And thanks to Happy-Trail.com and Burbank Kawasaki it only cost me an arm. All I had left to do was the doohickey and tires, and I was going to save that for my final stop in the U.S – San Diego. That was the plan. I was all ready to go. All bags packed, all bike work finished, I had just picked her up from the shop, was on my way to Olga’s for my last night, when I suddenly felt the full impact of 3 people’s procrastination.

 

Breaking Down - The Doohickey

If you just bought a KLR and it has not had the “doohickey” replaced – the first place you need to go is to your mechanic, or your garage, and replace it. Don’t say “screw it” and go to the movies first, don’t say “I can’t afford it”, the truth is you can’t afford not to.

The genius from whom I bought the bike did not do it, and the genius from whom he bought the bike did not do it. This is fine - the doohickey may not break for thousands of miles, even hard riding, but then again, it can break as you are leaving the dealer’s lot. I am not going to go into what the doohickey is because all of that is available online, but I will tell you what may happen if it breaks.

There are many possible scenarios, but of course I found myself face to face with the worst.

I was smart enough to buy a replacement from Happy-Trail, I was even smart enough to make an appointment with a mechanic in San Diego (my last stop in the states). But I was not smart enough to have the mechanics installing the gas tank and doing a tune-up in Los Angeles change it for me. I spent a long time looking for shops to sponsor me and managed to get a little from a few shops, but not the doohickey. So I figured I would try again in San Diego and if it came to naught I would have them do it at my expense.  My last night in L.A, I picked up my bike from the shop and was going to where I was staying to pack my stuff for the next morning departure to San Diego. I had already spent more than a year traveling in the states and Canada and could not wait to get across the border where life would be a lot cheaper. As I was exiting the freeway, the engine suddenly shut off. Thankfully I was able to coast to the bottom and onto a sidewalk. I tried to start the engine but got only a weird rattle in response.

breakdown (374x600)I was furious! I had just left the mechanics, they seemed to give me a good deal on all the work they had done, and now it seems as though, through a mistake or maliciously, they have damaged my bike. But I was wrong. What happened was the doohickey snapped in half and sent the spring around the timing chain and into the cylinder shaft, damaging at least two valves.

What normally costs $30 if you do it yourself, or $110 if you go to a shop, ended up costing me $650 and 7 extra days of staying in the country. By the way, $650 was what they charged me, the actual cost was around $1000. I had to replace two valves, the seals, the doohickey and the cam chain just in case there was damage to it.

So, as I said, don’t go to the movies, go to your garage and get it done.

Just so you know what $650 means to me:  almost a month and a half on the road. This includes fuel, food, museums, camping, beer…

 

Final Breath

Between Burning man, equipping the bike, and repairing it, my wallet was a lot lighter than I would have hoped when entering Mexico. I spent almost 3 months in California, which put me about 2 months behind “schedule”.

I have been travelling my entire life, but for some reason I saw the crossing into Mexico as a significant step in my life and journey, and it was not without fear that I departed my cousin’s house in Sand Diego and pointed Georgia southward. I was 16 when I took my first solo trip, and have been alone and far from home many times since then. But this time I felt even more alone, more vulnerable with my entire life strapped to the back of a motorcycle, about to enter not only a foreign country, but a foreign culture and tongue. Europe, Israel, the Caribbean, Eastern Europe – none of them ever felt foreign, they never felt otherworldly. I knew Mexico was immense and special, and it brought a fear I was ashamed to admit.

Thankfully fear has never stopped me from doing anything, so to the border I went, breathed my last breath of “free” air, and took my first breath of truly Free air in Tijuana.

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10. 9-5-11: Losing My Sense of Urgency
13. 11-11-11 Concluding North America

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