Gearing, gearing, gone! Our adventure-loving contributors gear up and fan out to experience the West on wheels.
Progressively wilder points east of Los Angeles: Palm Springs and Joshua Tree, California; Oatman, Arizona; Las Vegas.
Gear Up For:
Motorcycle touring with EagleRider.
Leather-jacket-loving iron-horse enthusiasts.
Los Angeles is not the West.
Cool, but not the West. So I’m going to ride, head east to go west, out of L.A. on a short motorcycle jaunt. The ride will take me and my EagleRider tour companions from ocean to mountain to desert in a day. We’ll catch Joshua Tree National Park in full bloom, roll into Palm Springs in style, pull up in historic Oatman, and roar into Las Vegas, fusing earth, sky, and water and clashing historical artifact and contemporary culture in unexpected ways.
Freedom. A total disconnect with the everyday — your job, your past, your obligations. People who ride motorcycles talk about the joy of being out in the open, free of the cage of a car, every sense alive. The sense of being limitless.
Leaving Los Angeles, I see billboards that challenge me to double down on adrenaline (a casino). The wall of a coffee shop in a shopping mall has a painting of Bob Marley with the advice “Love the life you live/Live the life you love.” The flat-screen TV on the opposite wall shows an ad for Forest Lawn. A fellow rider yells, “Anything under $2 is on me.” A glance at the menu and I get the joke.
The urban sprawl tugs at the eye, trying to convince one that this is the Wild West. Billboards for Battlefield Vegas and something called Burgers and Bullets invite me to fire a machine gun, to shoot a .50-caliber sniper rifle. Out here they use mountains as backstops for lead, use deserts to indulge our collective obsession with the joy of blowing things up. (You can stand in a camo-colored jeep and fire a swivel-mounted Browning M2. You can make an abandoned car explode. You can shoot sniper rifles at zombies or turn bowling pins to desert dust.) Signs start in California but the range is near Las Vegas. Our guide offered us a choice of showgirls or submachine guns.
Finally, a billboard for “Fresh Meat Jerky” suggests that we are in the land of cowboys, or truckers pretending to be cowboys. Billboards give way to more organic forms of advertising. Wagons perch on the roofs of general stores. How many wagons headed west? Just count the wagon wheels, strung along fences, leaned against walls, used as planters. Rusted cars on the side of the road announce the names of businesses in peeling paint. A giant arrow embedded in a hillside indicates an archery shop. That, or the Indians who live here are larger than life. Or maybe we have shrunk. A giant chicken struts on the roof of what must be a diner. The words start to recede. Road signs show the silhouettes of animals. A burro. A bighorn sheep. A leaping deer.
I am a writer. I collect words. But I ride motorcycles to escape words, looking for the moment when the view sucks the air from my lungs. A Berber scholar and explorer, someone used to the desert, once said, “Traveling, it leaves you speechless, then turns you into a storyteller.”
Beyond the billboards is an active landscape. I collect and read first encounters, writers’ accounts by people who had only words to bring back the experience of roaming the West. “It is a gaunt land of splintered peaks, torn valleys and hot skies,” John C. Van Dyke wrote. “And at every step there is the suggestion of the fierce, the defiant, the defensive.”
Or Clarence King in Mountaineering in the Sierra Nevada: “Vacant cañons lie open to the sun, bare, treeless, half shrouded with snow, cumbered with loads of broken débris, still as graves, except when flights of rocks rush down some chasm’s throat, startling the mountains with harsh, dry rattle, their fainter echoes from below followed too quickly by dense silence.”
I wonder if the sound of Harley motors is enough to startle the mountains.
We are chasing pavement through landscape that is still active. Our original route, provided by motorcycle tourism company EagleRider, from San Juan Capistrano up the twisting two-lane Ortega Highway, is unavailable, the road wiped out by a mudslide. The West is arid, except when it is not. We ride Route 74 through the San Jacinto Mountains, one eye on the clouds, one eye on the corners. The engineers who laid this road smoothed out the ridges, swept over ravines and drainages. The corners come at you to a slow count of four, almost a slow dance: one, two, three, four; lean, two, three, four; lean, two, three, four.
We enter a cold pine forest, have lunch at the Mile High Cafe in Idyllwild, a place resettled by hippies in the ’60s, trying to escape from Los Angeles. That afternoon, we dive down the Palms to Pines Highway, mimicking the gyre of raptors and vultures, patrolling the sky, looking for dinner. The San Gorgonio Pass drops us over “the dividing line between California barren and California fertile.” I feel the transition with every sense. This is the beginning of wild palms, oasis, the desert of the imagination.
We ride through a valley filled with wind turbines, 3,000-plus white-bladed
warriors, performing a slow kata. Imagine an army of high-tech terra-cotta soldiers, mesmerizing, blades spinning in a clockwise direction, except for one, inexplicably flaunting a counterclockwise bent. Old windmills drew water. The new ones power flat-screens and espresso machines, pulling a resource out of the open sky.
Get The Gear
- Harley-Davidson’s Boom! helmet is equipped with tech that lets you communicate with other riders and crank some tunes to elevate the experience. harley-davidson.com
- A cool understated design and warm inner lining make Wrangler’s Sherpa Denim Jacket right for the ride. wrangler.com
- Lucchese’s Rusty performance boot gives you some Western flair on the bike without sacrificing performance and durability. lucchese.com
We roll into Palm Springs. Still not the West, but rather an eastern suburb of Hollywood. Starting in the ’20s, the very celebrities who put L.A. on the map escaped here. A few Western stars — Roy Rogers and Dale Evans and Alan Ladd (Shane) — occupy spaces on the Palm Springs Walk of Stars, palm-tree plaques beneath our feet. I imagine an archaeologist in some future century clearing the dust from one of these plaques and trying to make sense of Liberace and Harpo Marx.
A morning broadcast tells of an automobile accident, locating it as “where Frank Sinatra meets Bob Hope.” These are not the names of epic trails — the Santa Fe, the Cimarron, the Oregon — but rather the local celebrity road map.
Our group of not-so-desperate desperados (yes, I’m beginning to view us in those terms) meets for pre-dinner drinks in the lobby of a club. In a cube formed from old speakers stacked on top of each other, an elderly lounge singer croons Frank Sinatra tunes over a boom box karaoke accompaniment. He is really good, but is Frank Sinatra East or West? Hoboken or Vegas?
I ask one of my posse, a California-based biker, where he thinks the West begins. At the riders’ meeting the next morning, he answers: “The West begins at the edge of town.”
But however far from town you get, it is nearly impossible to escape the celebrity overlay. Just as you can program Google Maps to give you route, satellite, or street view, there is a layer of legend to wade through. Cobwebs to be brushed aside. Eventually, perhaps, there will be a Pokemon Go game that uses GPS to cause images of Roy and Dale to gallop past, singing “Happy Trails to You.” Here’s the one-room stone gas station on the Needles Highway that got blown up in Universal Soldier (starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren — as un-Western a set of actors as you can get).
And there are legends, of less pleasant truths. Guides to Death Valley now call attention to the Barker Ranch, a ruin on the southwest corner of the park, where Charles Manson lived with his followers, captured on film in a 1973 documentary. Or consider Joshua Tree National Park, where friends tried to cremate Gram Parsons and were only partially successful. The authorities sent the remaining 35 pounds or so home to New Orleans for a proper burial.
We take a cocktail cruise on the Colorado, motoring under a bridge that Captain America and Billy had crossed in Easy Rider, a white arched bridge visible in the background. We pierce frame after frame of celluloid and light, ghost dancers, a sense of brushing aside cobwebs to see the real thing.
On the cruise, I watch two teenage boys clamber up onto a trestle bridge and leap, their body language mimicking that of Kokopelli, the flute-playing Native American fertility god, arms and legs akimbo. They plummeted into the sound of water splashing. Cannonball exuberance. In the moment. As if saying, “This is how you experience the West.”
This ride comes in between wildfire sieges. After seven years of drought, California is under deluge. Dam spillways are collapsing. Reservoirs, already full, stare at a Sierra snowpack that is 180 percent higher than normal. And, in the desert, wildflower seeds that had lain dormant for years sprout, blossom, read their While You Were Out messages, practice their dance moves, performing madly as we ride by.
Robust yellow brittlebush. Thickets of yellow that abruptly end — soil? elevation? — to be replaced by pale flowers. We roll past carloads of photographers, hunkered down over the once-in-a-lifetime display. Annual desert plants have what is called an ephemeral life cycle: They bloom and die, leaving behind “a hardy form of propagation.”
At 15 mph I notice Joshua trees, topped by clusters of creamy white flowers, that look like drunks trying to wave down a ride. Or the humpbacked Kokopelli again, so revered in the Southwest. Ocotillos that look like they were formed from used pipe cleaners. Cholla “jumping” cactuses, with bristly balloon-animal caterpillars, covered in spikes. We ride past creosote bush scrubs. The plants seem to follow a floor plan that defines the Western ethic. Keep your distance. This patch of desert can support one plant, and one plant only. Invade at your peril. Plants like the creosote bush scrub actively inhibit the growth of other plants; the older the plant the meaner, and the better its chance of survival. Somewhere in this battleground is an ancient creosote plant known as the King Clone, its greenery drawn into a defensive circle that has lasted thousands of years.
This thought, that the old seem better-equipped to survive in the desert, may explain Palm Springs.
At 60 mph or even the 15 mph park limit, I am free of the obligation or ability to name individual species, all 450 of them. Or to interact with the wildlife. Tarantulas? Tortoises. The fine-tuned adaptation is brittle. Steve, a retired firefighter, tells us not to approach tortoises. When frightened, they wet themselves. Not unlike guides, he says. But out here it’s not easy to rehydrate, and the tortoise might die.
Fold and Go
Although you won’t have much extra storage when embarking on one of these grand wheeled adventures, that shouldn’t stop you from rollin’ on once you get to your destination. A foldable bicycle offers the ability to explore surroundings and see things from a different perspective. If you need some electric power beyond your legs, go for the top-of-the-line QuietKat models (quietkat.com), offered by a small company out of Eagle, Colorado. They’re relatively light, zippy, and available at outdoor shops such as Boerne, Texas’ Wheeler’s Western Outfitters (wheelersfeed.com), where they’ve been a popular choice for ranchers and adventurers. If your legs are in fine shape for pedaling and you want something lighter and more affordable, look into the models from Union City, California-based Zizzo (zizzo.bike). The lightest bike they have is a mere 23 pounds.
At every stop the guides hand out bottles of chilled water that we turn to empties just like that.
I have never been able to reconstruct a ride, to unspool it in chronological order. The miles shatter into moments. The soft gleam of the brushed aluminum fuselage of an airplane at sunset. A field of rock cairns on the turnoff to Oatman, trail markers that say someone passed this way. The constellation of lights in a dark night sky, resolving into casinos. The SUV with the personalized license plate “My Path” cutting through our formation. The tower of tortilla chips and melted cheese hiding beneath a quart-size tin can. The giant chicken on top of a diner peering out over the desert. The cool girl from a New York fashion magazine throwing poses against the piled boulders in Joshua Tree. The teenage boys jumping from beneath the trestle bridge into the fast-flowing Colorado. The splash.
Everyone on the ride has a passion. They want to experience the West, exposed, out in the open, behind handlebars. When you share an adventure with kindred spirits, you form a bond. At night we share stories about our favorite rides. Anastasia, a Russian-born tennis player turned photographer recalls two: in Missouri, riding through cornfields, with a storm on the horizon, the moisture in the air carrying the scent of the corn; in New Mexico, riding down Route 66 into Santa Fe, the Sangre de Cristo Mountains lined across the horizon, sheets of rain falling from the sky but not reaching the
ground, hearing Russian songs from her childhood, and thinking, My life has brought me to this moment.
Sometimes the moments are small: feeding the chipmunks at the top of Beartooth Pass outside of Yellowstone. Sometimes they are huge: riding the edge of the continent, along the Pacific Coast Highway, how Highway 1 seems to hurl your heart out there.
When Steve speaks the names of routes in British Columbia or Montana, or says the words Wild West, he seems to leave the room, goes back, still caught in the moment of those rides, that sweep of raw rugged scenery, flashbacks that never let go. Staring down into a mile of canyon. Watching alpenglow on the Canadian Rockies. Being watched over by ragged, thrusting mountains, with nothing between you and the landscape but pure air. That is why we ride motorcycles out west. Kelsey, a photographer, grew up in Seattle, amid the close granite of the Cascades. Rock cut by water. She talks of discovering the Basin and Range region of Nevada, the inland West, riding the loneliest roads in America, seemingly motionless between isolated mountains separated by broad flat valleys. The Great Expanse.
As far as origin stories go, EagleRider’s seems almost fated. Chris McIntyre was hanging at the Fernwood Bar & Grill on California’s Pacific Coast Highway. The owner offered to show him something very rare. They walked behind the bar into a grove of albino redwood, some of the last of their kind. McIntyre returned to the street just as two guys pulled up in a rented Mustang convertible. His thought — the thought that changed his life — was: I want to do that.
Not drive a rented convertible into Big Sur, but rather to create an alternative experience altogether, to provide the right vehicle for the right place. His guiding principle: “I believe it is a rite of passage to go from point A to point B on a two-wheeled vehicle.”
He bought four motorcycles and started finding riders out of his garage in San Pedro, California. That was in 1992. Today EagleRider’s 100 locations include Chicago, Denver, San Francisco, Seattle, and Las Vegas. Each year, more than 100,000 clients rent EagleRider’s immaculate mounts: Harley-Davidson, Indian, BMW, Honda, and Triumph bikes.
McIntyre’s rental gig grew into the business of guided tours. The routes are awe-inspiring: Route 66, Death Valley, the Pacific Coast Highway, a loop through Canada and down the Rockies through Glacier, a loop of the Wild West, a ride along the eastern Sierra from Zion to Yosemite, an adventure across the border to Baja.
EagleRider guided tours range from 15-day adventures to one-day taste tests. There are theme rides like the “Blues, Beer, and Barbecue” excursion to New Orleans. For enthusiasts who want to go it alone, EagleRider also provides info for self-guided expeditions. eaglerider.com
From Joshua Tree, we head for Arizona on the Oatman Highway and sections of the legendary Route 66. Eventually, we’ll end up in Las Vegas, by way of the Hoover Dam — both testaments to the outsize can-do Western spirit. The 1930s: the building of a massive concrete arch where more than 100 lives will be lost to get water and power out of the Colorado River. The surging of a city where casinos will grow out of the dusty Mojave and cash will flow like an undammed river.
In Vegas, we’ll dismount for a helicopter ride over the Grand Canyon. Showgirls will meet us on the tarmac. The contrast will be striking: millennia of revealing erosion in Mother Nature’s grand display; rhinestones and feathers and not much else in man’s showstopper.
But it’s right now in the “gunfights and burros” “living ghost town” of Oatman that I have my one-with-the-West moment. We park the bikes in front of the Oatman Hotel, where Clark Gable and Carole Lombard allegedly stayed on their wedding night. Inside is the quarter-
million-dollar bar, covered in dollar bills left by appreciative tourists. The West is known for its raid-and-plunder economy, but this is the reverse. We wander the streets, taking pictures in coffins leaned against a wall.
Seeing a gang of genuine bikers, wearing genuine biker jackets, Japanese tourists rush over to have their picture taken, smartphones at the end of selfie sticks, pulling faces with the big bad Harley riders.
We have become part of the West.
Photogrphy: Max Power/Courtesy EagleRider