Days 1-2 - Los Angeles, CA, USA to Fresno - 595 km
A line of vehicles forms behind the kiosk at the entrance to the national park. When the RV ahead of us finishes and it is our turn, I pull ahead of Jess and come to a stop beside the open window.
‘We’d like a couple of annual passes,’ I tell the park ranger inside the kiosk.
‘Sure. Will you be riding together? If you will be riding together, you can get one pass for both motorcycles,’ she explains.
‘Yes, that would be great,’ I say.
‘OK, that will be eighty dollars,’ she says, ‘ and I will need her to sign the other space on the access card.’
I give the park ranger my credit card and, while she goes about processing the eighty-dollar payment, I turn back to Jess and wave her to come alongside me. Then I turn back to the kiosk where the park ranger has finished with the payment and I take back my credit card from her. I As I replace the credit card into my wallet and the wallet into my riding jacket, I hear the heavy thud of Jess’s bike go into gear and then the growing thump-thump-thump sound of her engine as it engages with the gears. As I close the pocket of the riding jacket and turn my attention back to the kiosk where the park ranger awaits the approval of my credit card, I feel the solid thud of Jess’s bike hit mine from behind. I look behind and beside me and I see Jess looking at me with a sheepish grin and then I looked down and see that she had misjudged the added width of the panniers on our two bikes so that her left pannier has thumped against my right one. I meet her smile to tell her there is no harm done and then I turn back to the kiosk. But now I feel that the change in the force of her bike against mine has caused me to lose balance of my heavily loaded bike, which is cradled between my legs. The bike begins to keel to the side and, as the park ranger turns back to pass me the credit card receipt for my signature, she catches me in the desperate act of struggling to keep my bike upright.
It’s our first collision of the trip!’ I exclaim to Jess when we have pulled over.
She is smiling and keeping good humor but I can tell that she is a little frazzled and, once she is over the shock, will probably be upset with herself for ruining her record of no falls or crashes on her new bike.
‘It’s good,’ I say, ‘because a crash is certain to happen so better that it happens early and that it’s a small one so that we don’t have to have the anticipation looming over us anymore.’
We check the panniers and find that they are both perfectly fine with only a faint smudge to prove that the incident ever happened. I give Jess a rub on the shoulder and she takes a deep breath and then we remount our bikes and merge onto Generals Highway.
It is our second day of the trip and it is cool but sunny and now we are ascending a beautiful winding road towards high ground. I am listening to an audiobook over my headphones and running down the battery of my helmet camera by indiscriminately videoing Jess glide through each and every hairpin turn. She is ahead of me because she prefers to set the pace and I prefer to follow to keep others from riding up too close and to not have to worry that I am setting too quick a pace. Certainly she thinks she is going too slowly and she is stressing about it, I think, because she always believes she is riding more slowly than she is and she believes she is holding other people up. I wish she wouldn’t worry so much about it but I can’t blame her because I remember how I used to worry about it just the same until my skill and confidence and cynicism were greater.
We are in Sequoia National Park on our way to visit General Sherman Tree, which is purported to be the largest in the world by volume. Our trip began the preceding day when we left Los Angeles shortly before noon after a long morning of loading the bikes, packing away things we hadn’t space to take, and tidying the house so that my mother would not return from her holiday to have a conniption.
‘It’s not fitting!’ Jess had said the evening before our departure, slumped over her waterproof duffle bag, which seemed fit to burst as she tried to fasten down the roll-top. She had been at it a while now and had already drawn down her clothing and toiletries several times trying to achieve her 89 liter capacity limit.
‘Leave it for tomorrow,’ I said. ‘You’ll be fresh then and maybe you’ll have a new idea about it.’
She frowned and then decided that she liked the suggestion and went about finding something to watch on Netflix.
I was a good idea except I didn’t consider that, when we had finally succeeded in packing our bags and loading our bikes and tidying the house the next morning, neither of us would have any energy left for the actual riding. By the early evening of the first day, we had made it only as far as Visalia about 350 km from our starting place in Los Angeles and we decided to leave it there for the day, partly because we were tired and partly because we calculated that the additional 45 km gained by pressing on to Three Rivers just outside the national park was not worth the 40 to 60 more dollars that a motel would cost there.
In the evening we watched TV and bickered playfully and did other normal at-home things and late at night, as I lay awake sleepless for the excitement of having finally started the trip and the anticipation of more riding tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, I thought about the solitude of having traveled alone during my first motorcycle trip. The evenings were often very lonely, I remembered, so that even exhausted after a long day of hard riding and brutal weather, most evenings I found myself out walking the streets or going for an unneeded drink just to avoid the long evening hours when solitude can feel a lot like loneliness. It had been good for me at the time and something I thought I wanted to do again but now, looking over at Jess purring lightly in her delirious exhausted sleep beside me, I was very glad to be doing it this way and with this person.
The next morning we faced similar challenges to get our duffle bags repacked and loaded onto our bikes but we were off well before lunchtime and I counted that as a success. Now we were on our way and we had entered the first national park on the northern leg of our trip. We had had our first crash and we were both fine and our bikes were both fine and the sky was clear and sunny and we were riding beautiful twisties in a tight formation.
About 30 minutes into the park I signal to Jess to pull over at Amphitheater Point so that I can enjoy the view and take a photograph. As I bring my bike to a stop, I look to my left and see Jess slowing her bike but not quickly enough to avoid hitting the curb at the front of the parking space. After the small jolt she looks to me to see if I saw it and, seeing that I did, she makes a gesture of slumping her whole body in exhaustion.
‘It’s like you were so desperate to get off the bike – you just rammed it into the curb and jumped off!’ I said some minutes later when our gloves and helmets were off. We were both laughing and we sat lounging on the stone parapet of the lookout.
‘The parking was uphill and after all the twisties – I misjudged it!’ she said.
‘Yeah, and as soon as you hit it you were like, “I’m done!” and you practically jumped off your bike,’ I said.
She laughed because when she has done a hard stretch of twisties and has done it very well as she just had, she is less critical of herself and will laugh at her small mistakes.
‘And did you see I hit that rock after that turn back there?’ she says.
‘Yeah. I saw it and it left a big smudge on your tire,’ I say.
‘For several miles after I kept seeing it go round and round. It was hypnotizing me,’ I said.
I went to look for the smudge on her rear tire but it was gone now and I came back to where she sat and shrugged.
‘Anyway it’s been a day of hitting things,’ I said, ‘me and the rock and the curb.’
Back on our bikes, we do 15 long minutes more through hairpin turns and another 15 at higher speed as the highway straightens out until we reach the parking for General Sherman Tree. After parking our bikes and securing the helmets and riding jackets by running the steel cable of the PacSafe through them, we walk to the notice board.
‘Oh, it’s not right here. You have to walk to it,’ Jess says, tracing the foot trail on the map. ‘It’s half a mile downhill, which means it’s half a mile uphill coming back.’
‘You can manage it,’ I say.
‘Ok, but I get to complain and I get to take breaks whenever I want,’ she says.
We follow the path, our stiff riding boots clopping on the hard-packed trail and my thick Cordura riding pants swish-swishing with each step.
‘You sound like you’re wearing snow pants!’ Jess says.
‘Let it be,’ I say back. ‘This is the sound you’re going to hear everywhere we go for the next six months.
Further along the trail I begin to record a video, explaining where we are as we near the destination.
‘We’re going to George Sherman Tree,’ I say, ‘which is what Jess has taken to calling it.’
‘I heard George Foreman instead of General Sherman and I got confused,’ she says. ‘Don’t defame me! Whatever, all you will hear on the video is the sound of your pants!’
At the end of the trail, we visit the tree and we take photographs. On the way back Jess tries to stop us at each bench that the Park Service had placed along the half-mile. When we return to the bikes we have a brief conversation with a retired RAF officer on holiday with his wife who stopped to admired our bikes.
‘You know, it used to be on my last trip that I didn’t want to be noticed so I would downplay what I was doing,’ I say after the British vacationer returned to his wife.
‘And now?’ Jess says as though to concede me the opportunity to say what she already knows.
‘I love that people are envious of our bikes and of what we are doing,’ I say.
‘Of course you do,’ she says.
Back on our bikes, we follow Generals Highway east to Highway 180, catching a glimpse of Kings Canyon National Park on our way out of the Sierra Nevada mountains and on to Fresno where we will stay the night.