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Western Swing


Setting aside wildfires, mudslides, traffic, congestion, and smog, it's difficult not to envy Californians. They have, seemingly, everything a motorcyclist requires. Well, almost everything

Before dawn I march, helmet in hand, across the parking lot of a budget Los Angeles motel. I’m eager to be on my way but summon a map on the phone a final time to sear the route to memory. While standing next to the BMW K1600GTL, I read highway numbers aloud while turning in the direction of each new turn. I face north for the 405, spin westward for the 118, back north for the 23, west again for the 126, north for the 150 (ditto for the 33), and west for the 166 that will take me to dinner. As I turn southbound (the 101 back to the city) my eyes meet the bewildered gaze of the motel’s night manager. Slowly he lowers his head below the desk. He’s seen enough. I fasten the Shoei’s chinstrap, straddle the BMW, and hustle into darkness.  


Northbound 405 is lightly travelled. For five minutes. Then traffic slows. With a toe tugging against the rear brake, and with a deft touch on the clutch and throttle, the BMW can be balanced at the speed of a brisk walk. But traffic has ground down to the rate at which a car is drawn through a car wash, and I’m unable to stop the bike from snaking drunkenly in the lane. In a blink I’m seasick. 


I’ve lane-split in California before, but never on a bike with the BMW’s girth. I glance down and recklessly approximate that saddlebags protrude as far as mirrors; if the front fits into a gap so should the rear. I dive into the lane-splitting lane, which, of course, isn’t a lane at all, but rather the painted stripe between lanes.


With speed, stability returns. I slalom past jutting west coast mirrors and arms dangling cigarettes out windows. Some drivers ease over to give room. Others hold their ground. A few lean on me. The sensation of splitting lanes is that of tiptoeing across an attic while balancing on a ceiling joist. One false footfall and into the kitchen I’ll plunge. As I begin to acclimate to life between lanes, a motorcycle passes me within the-lane-that-isn’t, and, startled, I jolt toward a panel van. I share an eye-locked instant of terror with the driver and a lesson is learned; keep an eye on what’s behind.  


Eventually, with Los Angeles behind me, traffic thins and I resume my position in a lane. Compared to the intensity of lane splitting, rapid highway traffic is as relaxing as pottering a dirt bike down single track. At highway 118 I turn west and exit at Moorpark.


The energy from the 5 a.m. power bar is long depleted, and now, mid-morning, my concentration is failing. I follow a sign that reads Business Section but find the Business Section is a hardware store and little else. I loop around for a second pass of East High St. and, in the back of the hardware store, spot the Cactus Patch restaurant. 


High above the Cactus Patch’s counter, between an enamelled Bud Light print and a mirrored Coors clock, is a solemn portrait of a man deep in oil paint. I assume it’s Reagan—the Ronald Reagan presidential library is in Moorpark—but it’s not. It’s a man named Dale Robertson, and his trajectory is the quintessential California story of success arbitrarily gained.  


Robertson, a small-time boxer and horse wrangler from Oklahoma, was posted by the army in World War Two to the mid-coast California town of San Luis Obispo. Along with servicemen chums, he went to the town’s photographer for a picture to send back home to his mother. The photographer—believing a photograph of a rugged square-jawed man would entice lesser men into thinking they, too, could be made robustly alluring—hung the image in his studio window. Aside from an additional client or two for the photographer, that should have been the end of it. It was just the beginning. Implausibly, competing Hollywood talent scouts strolling main street spotted the portrait, and a bidding war was on. Robertson, a mid-range actor of television-grade westerns, had a durable career, just like Reagan. Unlike Reagan, Robertson lacked an unimaginable second act.  

Beyond Moorpark, the road dips and weaves and flows. Wringing the BMW’s neck is tempered by a distractingly elusive scent. A memory of flat track leathers, caked in a slurry of moist stone from a pea-gravel half-mile, topple dominos of memory that collapse me onto knees on the garage floor with a can of lemon Pledge furniture polish. (Oddly, everyone cleaned leathers this way.) Roadside lemon groves, I discover, do not have the pertly acidic smell of freshly cut lemon but the complex aroma of aerosol-propelled synthetic cleaner. 


The biggest of the big motorcycles—the BMW’s girth matches a Gold Wing’s—present challenges psychological and physical to the rider. Like the fat man’s genitals that live in perpetual eclipse beneath the shadow of his belly, the bike’s enveloping bodywork distance rider from tarmac. This isolation means confidence, initially, is less the result of feedback than faith. But the mood of the waves are transmitted to the captain of an ocean liner just as they are to the sailor in an 18-foot skiff. 


While the psychological parameters of a big bike can be overcome, the indisputable truth is that a 767 pound motorcycle, in close confines, is more combative ex-wife than loving partner. I arrive in midday heat to little-bit-hippie, whole-lotta-holistic Ojai, quivering from lack of caffeine. (The Cactus Patch, for all its untouched-by-espresso charm, had dismal coffee.) Construction has turned Ojai’s main street into an indecipherable maze of randomly dropped pylons and arrowed signs of conflicting direction. 


Alarmed by an impatient pickup on my tail, I abruptly nose the BMW out of traffic and the front wheel clanks into a deep curb-side recess. I return stoked by caffeine and in a fit of bravado wrestle the BMW uphill without assistance from its reverse gear. I’m wet through with sweat. Potholes, trucks, a grader, a paver, a man on a three-wheel bicycle and a woman on a cell phone in a gold Lexus block my route to the gas station directly across the street. Goodbye, Ojai.  


California 33 cuts through the Los Padres National Forest, part of the Sierra Madre Mountain range. The range and the road—one of the world’s best bike routes—are sublime. I catch a KTM Adventure ridden by a couple in full-fetish leathers with his-and-hers knee sliders. I brake deeper, turn later, and surprise them with an unexpected pass exiting a tight corner. (It’s the safest way to pass; by turning in too early, the KTM is adding lean angle, losing speed, and drifting wide at corner exit while I’ve already turned the BMW and throttled away.)


Tingling from my expertly executed pass and cresting a caffeine high, I arrive at the next corner too fast, turn in too early, and bonk the bike down hard at the edge of the road. I check the mirror to see if the KTM witnessed the ugly riding. My relief at not being caught turns to disheartenment at my superficiality, forgotten only after a stirring sequence of corners dispatched with precision. And near disaster.  


Hidden in the blind apex of a corner, a matched pair of Sportsters wobble, maybe, at 20 mph. Riders’ hands claw skyward to ape hanger handlebars and feet drape down-and-out to highway pegs. It’s a pose of biblical vulnerability. I nail the brakes and the ABS spasms. I swerve into the middle of the road and spare them crucification by the thinnest of margins. 


I’m now alongside the Sportsters. Yards of hair unwind from the open-face helmets of a fetchingly muscled woman and a savagely lean man. I brace for a screamed “fuck you” or “asshole.” Or, if they’re not too terrified to cobble together a sentence, a “slow down you fucking asshole.” I deserve it. The world is not obliged to clear a path for me. 


The BMW, in profile, has the visual heft of an Airstream, yet the couple don’t look over. Eventually, the woman turns her head, and, nearly imperceptibly, dips her chin. I don’t get it. And then I understand. She is arching her back and her left hand clutches not the handgrip, but the turn signal mounted lower on the handlebar. Her left foot is wedged between the frame and the front cylinder. She is in pain. Her body position is that of a cliffside climber—she’s just hanging on. The Sportster’s nonsensically placed footpegs, handlebar, and cocked-back seat are slowly separating her from the bike, like a somnolent bull lacking the horsepower to buck an unwelcome rider from its back. Guiltily, I ride off. The man missed the entire affair.


Every great road ends in sadness. Sinuous 33 runs out and abruptly I’m tired, thirsty, and need a washroom. The straightedge line that route 166 scribes through the hair dryer heat of the desert fosters claustrophobia from boredom. The mountains are now miles away. I ride the limit. I double the limit. Faster makes more wind noise. There is no sense of speed.


I stand at the counter in a restaurant in the town of New Cuyama. The menu lists six flavours of ice cream but five empty tubs sit under glass, as desolate as drained swimming pools. I’m handed a cone of half vanilla and half freezer-burn crystals. An unblinking child stares. The quiet is ungodly. To break the spell I ask another customer what crops grow in surrounding fields. He doesn't know. Before layoffs he worked the oil fields. And then, in the way conversations with strangers dart unpredictably, we dead-end a topic or two and short-circuit another. (He blurts out he voted for Trump. “If the leader of the free world must be old and white,” I say, “I’ll take Bernie Saunders. Or Colonel Sanders.”) 


The quip has him on edge. I picture him shooting me dead, right here, holding this ice cream cone. Once hit, I’ll collapse onto a life size cardboard cutout of “the most interesting man in the world” Dos Equis beer spokesman, propped just behind me. It’s a delicious image. (Alas, mountains and deserts bring out the Sam Peckinpah fatalist in me.) I let out a throttled snort. The kid, startled, grins. The man assumes I’m laughing at Trump. He asks, pointedly, unsmilingly, where I’m from.

When he learns I’m non-American, he overlooks that I sound subversively un-American to his ears. He wants to talk hockey. His son plays junior in British Columbia. In the midst of a dirge about the shortcomings of the boy’s mother, I stand, slip my jacket on, and roll an earplug between thumb and forefinger. I’ve heard enough. But then, unexpectedly, unwelcomely, the conversation swings again, and we fall into heartfelt agreement that people who buy homes near airports have no goddamn right to complain about noise or noxious fumes. Our voices have risen. The child has intensified his staring. I’m startled by the vigour with which I condemn citizens of the flight path.


The bizarre twist in our conversation drains the air from the room and I stagger into the parking lot. In the distance a mountain range has the appearance of pastels weakly smudged on canvas. My vision of objects closer than an outstretched hand is dismal (the BMW’s dash remains a mystery) but I’m good at distance. Or have been. I can’t get the mountain in focus. Instinctively, I cross the road. Thirty feet closer to a mountain at the far side of a plain does not help. A wind gust swirls and too late my hand flies to cover my face. Rubbing eyelids grinds the dirt deeper into my eyes. I’m wrapped in a dust storm. I roll my shoulder into the gust but the wind cleaves in two and curls an updraft of grit into my face. Back across the road the man stands at his pickup and watches me. He is out of focus. I am still holding the ice cream cone. My eyes are fine.


In 1951 the Atlantic Richfield Company developed New Cuyama after the 1949 discovery of oil in South Cuyama. The word Cuyama, in the language (extinct, naturally) of the Native Americans who settled the region, translates as “to rest, to wait.” A hard day’s ride makes stopping necessary, and not just for food or stretching out kinks. We need to reaffirm, through the soles of our shoes, our relationship to the earth. But it’s temporary—movement creates craving for more. Motorcyclists instinctively know when it’s time to leave a restaurant or gas station. Words aren’t necessary to rouse riders. If they are, you’re riding with the wrong people.


Yesterday, while plotting the day’s route, I anticipated the character of each road by how it appeared on the map. It is inevitable we do so. It’s also folly. A road is more than turns and a surface. An erratic squiggle on a map, like the electrocardiogram of a patient in dire straits, should indicate a great road. But it’s no guarantee. In Italy, gorgeous mountain passes are pockmarked by motorists in Fiats and Renaults and Peugeots who make suicidal passes on blind corners. For the motorist, it’s reinvigorating; each corner that doesn’t end in death affirms life. For the oncoming motorcyclist, it’s horrifying.


California 33 was the road the map promised. For 166 through the desert, I’d anticipated swapping 33’s twists for the contemplative calm of the desert floor. But today the desert’s immensity is threatening, the heat inescapable, and the hardscrabble homes forlorn. One sixty-six ends just north of Santa Maria, and I turn southbound down to the ocean on the 101. I knew by the time I reached the coast, in late afternoon, I’d be tired. But I also knew I’d be reinvigorated by the ocean. But not today.


Devil winds. That’s what the Santa Ana winds are called. They form in the high desert and run to the coast, and today they’re ferocious. The BMW’s bodywork catches the fury, and I ride the straight road to Santa Barbara leaned hard to the left. Never trust a map. 


Dinner is good, but I don’t enjoy it. Looming like a tax audit is the ride, in darkness, back to Los Angeles. It’s after 10 when I leave the restaurant’s parking lot, and the highway is fast and full. It’s a fault of mine that to maintain focus I require speed. I struggle to keep below 90 mph, though, as always, I slow near interchanges and where shadowy overpasses bisect the highway, lest police be tucked beneath. I arrive in the city after midnight, exit the highway, turn the wrong way, attempt a shortcut, and become hopelessly lost. I pull onto a residential street, park at the curb, remove my helmet, stretch out on a lawn, and drift, perhaps to sleep. 


People are coming. I don’t see them but a conversation halts and I hear steps quickening as they scurry past. I’m keenly aware that foreigners with borrowed motorcycles sleeping on Los Angeles lawns may not be treated with deference. Glancing at a map untangles the way to the motel, and, while stretching hamstrings at axle height, I contemplate the BMW. 


Halo vehicles, whether they’re 767 horsepower supercars or 767 pound six-cylinder motorcycles, showcase the manufacturer’s design and engineering might. They are statement as much as machine. The straight-six is to BMW cars what the boxer twin is to BMW motorcycles—the signature engine. That BMW would cross-pollinate and make a six-cylinder motorcycle is understandable. (A boxer twin in a car, once a laughable proposition, isn’t quite so far-fetched in an age of charge-the-batteries hybrids.) 


But the six in the bike isn’t as sonorous and sensuous as you’d hope it to be; it’s an anodyne—if supremely capable—engine. The K1600GTL begins and ends with its engine, and anything less than a mill so titillating that it slips you into pyjamas and tucks you into bed is a letdown. Halo vehicles, it’s worth remembering, are rarely a brand’s most accomplished machine.   


The best German vehicles are mildly illogical concepts that, through temerity and stubbornness, become successful. The seminal sports car—the 911—has an engine hung out back with all the elegance of an outboard motor clamped to the transom of a fishing boat. The car’s brilliance has been earned through 50 years of dogged refinement.  


An engine with opposed cylinders, fitted to a vehicle that leans, is illogical (except for the caveat that air to cool the cylinders is unobstructed). Lean too far in a corner or dump the bike in the driveway and the bike pivots on the cylinder head. And yet BMW’s boxer twin, despite this handicap, and overlooking that it chortles like an old man with a fish bone snagged in his throat, is, unquestionably, one of the great engines in motorcycling. If you cross the continent more often than you run out for milk and cheese, buy the six-cylinder. Otherwise, BMW’s twins are the better bet. 


The man from this morning is back on desk duty at the motel. He glares as I unpack the bike. He is on the phone. Likely hearing a complaint from a lodger about the ice maker on the upper floor. It drones like a wood-chipper but only intermittently releases a cube. Last night, when I called down and complained, the man at the desk mumbled something unintelligible and hung up. It had to be this guy. With the phone still to his ear, his eyes trail me to the stairwell. As I unlock my room the ice maker seems even louder than it was last night. I scan the hallway. I glance over the balcony to the parking lot. All is still. I look for the convex bulges of opaque glass that signal surveillance cameras. I don’t expect to find any in a place like this. And I don’t. 


In my room I unpack and dress in fresh jeans and a black t-shirt. I rummage deep in a jacket pocket and find it, and despite the day’s heat, its steel body is cool to the touch. I prop a riding boot in my doorway and enter the hallway. Quickly, but without rushing, I cross the hall, put my shoulder to the ice maker, jar it from the wall, unplug it, and unfold the most serious of the Leatherman’s blades. In one stroke I cut the cord flush against the metal of the machine and push it back against the wall. With the tool tingling murderously in my hand, I cross back to my room. My gait has taken on the hint of a swagger. I have killed an ice machine. Los Angeles has become as quiet as the desert. Tonight the deep, dreamless sleep of a child is mine.  

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