I ducked down to avoid the low hanging limb of what looked an awfully lot like bamboo to my untrained eye. The stream was quite deep here and my passage was restricted to the creek bed by the steep banks. Weaving through the fast flowing, onrushing water brought back a brief flash of my first riding days of mini bikes along Iowa's Raccoon river, although the Raccoon was never this clear on its best day. Through another tunnel of low hanging brush and a brief run before a climb up a tumbling waterfall. I was deep in the midsection of "Jim's Jungle", a long run up a stream bed punctuated with fallen trees so low you had to lay the bike down and chug it through while you crouched down beside it, waterfalls, sand bars, and lots of fun. It was November 17th, and I was on the opening dirt section of the 1997 edition of the Malcolm Smith Motorsports (MSM) 4th annual dual sport ride.
Being a grizzled veteran of all four editions, I knew that as fun as this was, the best definitely lay ahead. Malcolm (yes, that Malcolm Smith, if you're wondering), Dave Rees and the crew at MSM can be counted on to organize and execute outstanding events, and they came through yet again with spectacular scenery, challenging trails, excellent logistics and of course, a great group of riders to share the experience with.
My riding partner, Bob Mueller, and I had planned an early start from MSM in Riverside, CA, but an endless string of forgetfulness on my part put us out at about 7:30am. I had managed to make a half dozen trips back and forth from the van to the dealership to cut the locks off my gear bag (I'd left the keys in the hotel room), get water, get roll chart tape, etc.), and had then forgotten my fanny pack with all of my contact lens emergency materials and my camera, necessitating a return loop from about two miles out.
Finally underway we worked our way through the quickly brightening city streets to the nearby foothills of the San Bernardino National Forest. Riverside is on the Southeastern edge of the Los Angeles basin, so we didn't have to go far to get to "Jim's Jungle" and get our feet wet, very literally. Once through the water, we proceeded down some additional asphalt to our next dirt section, which set the pattern for the day: excellent off road sections separated by the bare minimum of asphalt required to get us to the next taste of California trails and fire roads.
While California is blessed with 102 OHV (Off Highway Vehicle) areas open to any vehicle sporting a state "green" sticker used to fund the program, this dual sport ride would consist strictly of local dirt and gravel roads, county, state and national forest fire roads, and
single track "goat" trails clinging to the sides of very large mountains. To the Midwestern eye, such a cornucopia of potential off road riding is somewhat disorienting, and takes a few visits to get
used to. During my first few trips to the mountains, high plains, deserts and clear blue alpine lakes of California dual sport events and riding, I had spent as much time admiring the scenery as
concentrating on the trails.
This stop on the 1996 AMA Suzuki national dual sport series offered plenty of opportunities to ponder a vista instead of a fast approaching switchback, as we soon found out climbing up the mountains on fast and smooth fire roads. It is somewhat hard to imagine, but
there are literally thousands of miles of dirt, rock and gravel roads accessing the most remote wilderness throughout the vast majority of California that is unpopulated. Those of us from "back east" (anything past Nevada is considered "back east") tend to think of California in
terms of news clip shots of the self-immolating hot bed of Los Angeles, bimbo inundated Malibu beaches or various granola stereotypes of urban San Francisco. In fact, these areas represent a tiny portion of the geography of the state, with the majority given over to the giant
agricultural valleys that feed us fresh vegetables all winter with small communities that feel very much like arid versions of Midwestern small towns; and the dominating mountain ranges that form the physical barrier that symbolizes the separation and uniqueness that is reflected in the character of the people of the state.
With so much "outback" to explore, it is no wonder that there are more California based off road riding events annually than anywhere else in the country. I had been fortunate enough to have a friend in the motorcycle industry move to the coast in 1990, and have been regularly visiting to ride the twisty mountain roads, the spectacular Pacific Coast Highway and taste the overwhelming beauty and challenge of off road, California style, ever since. Speaking from this background of
experience, I would encourage anyone who has not had the chance, to visit, and most importantly, to ride. There are a wide variety of options, including organized sport touring rides (MSM annual ride to Laguna Seca); to massive annual charity events (the Love ride); countless dual sport events (check the schedule in American Motorcyclist); informal, barn storming outback adventures (Pete's SLO City Cycle annual two day dual sport); organized and guided excursions
to Baja (MSM annual Baja adventure); and regularly scheduled posing and celebrity gawking (any Sunday at the Rock Store). Best yet, bike rentals are available for many of these events, so you don't have to trailer old Bessie all the way to the coast and back (although a long
vacation of dual sporting to the Pacific and back, perhaps via Colorado, sounds like a pretty good trip, by my way of thinking!)
I was lucky enough to be on my own bike, a `92 Suzuki DR350 we had discovered as a basket case and assembled via e-mail, as we worked our way up the mountains. We were on a fire road that was absolutely perfect for unfulfilled fantasies of bar to bar action with
Springsteen and Carr. It was if God had personally spent months experimenting to find the exact combination of traction, banking and twisties to allow for unlimited fun. These being public roads, with two way traffic, late apexes and strict lane discipline was a prerequisite for a happy and safe adventure, but these requirements left plenty of room for fun. Just as we were ready to stop and strap steel plates to our boots, we jumped off into another single track trail. This one led us to our first major obstacle of the day.
Halfway up a serious hill we spied a bike spewing a rooster tail of silt and rock, peppering the half dozen riders perched along the face of the mountain below, and providing a frustrating tableau to the two dozen or so riders arrayed at the bottom of the slope. We decided to ride on up and join the queue, and quickly got a close up view of the action. The trail had deteriorated into a bed of silt, about 18" deep, for about a 40 foot stretch. Although we saw a couple of good riders make it through without dismounting, all else had to get off and walk their mounts through the obstacle. The current holdup was an unfortunate soul who had stalled his bike and was trying to kick start
it from the right side of the bike. He was doing this because holding the bike with the left foot and kicking with the right was not an option, as the only thing to the left side of the bike was a valley, a
long, long ways down.
He was finally rescued by some helpful riders from the contingent waiting impatiently in line, clinging to the side of the mountain. After he was cleared, we quickly made our way through, myself with an assist from a fellow rider providing "push" services through the silt. Quite a task on an 18" trail.
Our efforts were rewarded, as the trail proceeded along ridgelines and twisty climbs up and down the mountain range. After running up on a batch of riders circling a dead end point, we all realized we'd missed a turn a short ways back. That turn, innocently labeled "down canyon trail", led us into a bleak landscape of burned out canyons, the results of the recent wildfires in the area. It was a landscape devoid of color, consisting entirely of monochrome shades of ash, gray and black. A foreboding and eerie space, quiet and still, it crept under my skin like a wet winter wind. It was like riding through the no man's land of a WWI battlefield, or traversing the emotional landscape of Edgar Allen Poe after a particularly bad date. As we descended down the twisting, narrow trail, it was not a far stretch of the imagination to feel like we were descending into the gates of hell itself. The smell of burnt creosote filled our nostrils as we tip toed through the boulders and ducked under the trunks of small fallen trees. It was hard to recall at that point that some species of the local vegetation required this devastation to reproduce, that without the searing heat of the fire, the seeds could not pop open to release the next generation. Later on, along the miles and miles of trails through burned out canyons, we would see signs of this regeneration. Small buds could be seen popping out around the base of some bushes, and clumps of grass were popping up in spots. This canyon, however, was as bleak and desolate a place as I'd ever been, and I was glad to concentrate on the steep downhill trail, rather than the Dante-esque surroundings.
In the end, the trail led us out to an unburned valley, and we were off to enjoy more scenic trails, fire roads and short asphalt hops. A particularly enjoyable set of fire roads led us to the lunch stop, perched midway up a mountain in a burned out canyon. The collection of white vans, support trucks and vehicles plopped in the middle of burned out scrub, blackened boulders, and black and gray soil looked like a NASA resupply mission on the dark side of the moon, but the
prospect of hot food propelled us quickly into camp.
We quickly fortified ourselves on Bar-B-Que beef (if you're a strict vegetarian, bring your own entrée), raw veggies, chips and cookies. After some quick socializing (during which we all got progressively faster with each retelling), meeting old and new friends, and a quick check of the bikes, we were ready to face the challenges of the afternoon.
It didn't take long for the challenges to arrive. After a short section of fire roads, asphalt and back to the dirt, we came across a very interesting entry on the roll chart: Alessandra Trail, A RIDERS
ONLY, VERY ROUGH. Now, this route being laid out by Malcolm himself, and Malcolm having a certain reputation as a demigod of dirt, and his A routes having a solid history of, shall we say, "no wimps or whiners", these phrases were not to be taken lightly. Of course, we plunged onward, myself having traveled much too far, from much too much cold, to bail out on the B route. The trail lived up to its billing, being the most challenging combination of steep, narrow, technical (this is a code word for ROCK on roll charts) and switchback trail sections I had ever ridden. The switchbacks, in particular, were a revelation, as you could fit them into the average corporate drone's office cube, with room to spare. Basically, the only choice was to ride around the edge, nearly horizontal to the ground, like the "barrel" racers in the fairs of days gone by. As in most things in life, "he who hesitates is doomed", were the watchwords for the entire section.
A steady pace carried us out the top to join the other dozen or so riders celebrating their passage at the fire road at the top. We took a few minutes to feel like heroes, then our revelry was interrupted by the sound of a couple of bikes absolutely tearing up the trail. By then we'd become accustomed to the sound of slow revs and slipping clutches up the last section of tight, nearly vertical rock just below us, but these guys were flying. Out of the trailhead popped Malcolm
and Mike Webb, of Suzuki, laughing and gassing it up. If you ever get the chance to ride or watch the really good guys, it can be a frustrating experience, for they make it seem so effortless. It is
just a fact that the good riders work a lot less than the ones lower in the food chain. These guys didn't look like they'd broken a sweat all day.
They stopped to say hi, then blasted on down the fire road, whooping and hollering as they went. I have no idea of Malcolm's real age. I suppose it is a closely guarded national secret, like the pass codes to the nuclear launch codes or something. I just hope I have half the energy, and enjoy life half as much as he does, when I am within sighting distance of his age.
We soon joined them on the route down the fire road to the next section. We joined a trail that meandered along a ridge line, offering spectacular views of the surrounding peaks. There were very few entries on the roll chart in this section, and I could see that we were coming up on pavement in just a mile or so. If I looked down, I mean way down, I could see a paved road waaaaay down there in the valley. It looked about the size of a piece of spaghetti dropped on the
kitchen floor. As I got closer and closer to the indicated mileage, I started to recall the local riders' comments about a "really knarley" downhill section somewhere in the ride. At exactly one mile from the pavement indicated on the roll chart, I found the downhill.
It was one mile of nearly vertical (except where it folded back on top of itself at switchbacks), very technical (remember the code word: ROCKS!) trail. With a nice selection of fist sized, softball,
basketball and boulder sized rocks, loose gravel, and a little dirt it was an excellent test of balanced braking, the front knobby and the skid plate that played a staccato syncopated rhythm all the way down. I had considered the Allesandra trail to be my ultimate riding triumph up to that point, but the Hixon downhill will join it in my personal hall of fame.
After a brief water break at the bottom, we jetted off for the blast back to the shop. It was almost all pavement, except for the six mile stretch labeled "up wash" on the roll chart. In California, a wash can mean anything from hardpan scattered with small rock to deep, Arabian style sand. This was decidedly the latter. The sands of the Deep River Falls, WI riding area were not even close to this seemingly bottomless sandbox. As always, weight to the rear and high speed were the only
antidote, so we slid back and gassed it. We thought we were doing pretty good too, until a group of six riders blew past at warp 10, sandblasting us in the process. Properly chagrined, we followed them out of the wash and back onto the pavement.
A quick trip down the two lanes and freeways brought us back into Riverside and the friendly confines of Malcolm Smith Motorsports. Our faces were filled with dust, sweat and ear to ear grins, having survived and enjoyed another day of fun and challenge in the mountains of California.
California OHV Information:
Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Division of California State
P.O. Box 942896
Sacramento, CA 94296-0001
Malcolm Smith Motorsports:
7563 Indiana Avenue
Riverside, CA 92504
If you go:
California is filled with some serious wilderness, all accessible by any street legal motorcycle. Your bike must be street legal to ride national forest fire roads. Green sticker vehicles can only be used in OHV areas and competition areas.
If you can, ride with someone local who knows the area. Never go alone, and always carry maps, a compass and necessary supplies to survive a night in the mountains.
To have a fun, safe time you'll need:
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