Mid-Life Rider

rambling through mid-life on motorcycles

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Not what I had planned. Tales of Riding the Oregon Coast (for a day)

March 10th, 2008 · No Comments

FJR and helmet

It’s Friday night. It’s raining. I’m in a hotel in Tillamook, Oregon. This is not what I had planned.

“This is not what I had planned.”

More and more I have noticed myself having that reaction. Which more and more makes me reflect on why I have so many plans. I mean think about it. How many things go “the way I had planned?” In asking, let me also warn you about the all-to-familiar tendency to move the goal posts afterwards. But I’m ahead of myself.

For the past ten days or so I had been planning to ride down the Oregon coast to visit a long-time pal who lives in Ashland. Weather permitting. It’s not that I think of myself as a wimp, but I’ve had my share of riding all day in the pouring rain and I can live without it. So I wait on the weather, not committed to making the ride but not committed to some other course of action either.

I have a packing list so that’s not what requires planning. Riding gear, GPS, map, tools, dop kit, a change of socks, a pair of jeans, a book or two, camera, cell phone, charger, a bunch of protein bars . . . Check, check, check, and check and I’m good for a couple of days or even a week.

No, it’s the weather. All week long I watched the weather reports and the promise of “opening the storm door” to the 457th storm we’ve had this year in the Pacific North West. Dither. Dither. Dither. Go. Don’t go. Go. Don’t go.

“Sorry, I won’t be in town after all.” That in an email from my friend.

“No worries. Maybe another time.”

This is not what I had planned. So now what? Should I still go for a ride?

The weather report was beguiling Thursday night. Low percent of this. High percent of that. I could invade Iraq on less intelligence than this. But isn’t the point the ride and not the destination? So I packed up my gear, set my alarm, and slept.

Brrrrrring. Grog. Stretch. Groan. Whassat? Sun?

I could hear the FJR calling from the garage. Time to stop planning and start riding. So I headed south towards the Oregon Coast. Beyond that, I had no plan.

A Case of Just in Case

So much of motorcycling is “Just in case.” Think about it, if you knew for a fact that the weather would be “perfect,” that you would encounter no debris or unpleasantness on the road, and that you absolutely would not crash or even wobble, you would approach riding differently.

You’d ride like a God and dress like a lifeguard is what you’d do.

Actually, a lot of people, usually with brand new licenses, ride this way as a matter of course. The rest of us hope they learn fast before they learn costly.

I am not that way. I am all about “Just in case.” I pack tools and a tire kit and pump. I wear electric gear under my riding suit. I bring an atlas and a GPS. I run a radar detector. I keep Advil, Chapstick, and Tums handy. I have a camera. I have a cell phone. I have two credit cards. I have an extra set of keys.

All, “Just in case.”

I actually revere the act of suiting up to ride. I would do it even if there were no “just in case.” I’ve thought a lot about this and I think it goes back to suiting up as a little guy to go outside and play in the snow. The snowsuit, plastic bags on my feet, boots, jacket, gloves, and hat find their happy correspondence with my Kevlar gear, Sidi Boots, Gerbings heated clothing, REI poly pro, Lee Parks golves and Suomy helmet.

I love all the zippers and Velcro. Each layer closes me in to the point where it seems like I can barely move. But once on the bike, the sum of it seems to work together to provide support and structure and the feeling of impermeability. I feel ready for a nuclear attack should one happen along the way.

The combination of “just in case” and “I have no plan” and “it’s not supposed to be that way” often coexist quite nicely. Sometimes they grind on each other like a persistent snore.

My preferred state is to have a general destination in mind and to stay present in the moment. Then, whatever happens is whatever happens. I have no judgment. It just is. “Just in case” recedes out of view.

I find this attitude centering and useful when I ride. If someone cuts me off, I notice it, but I don’t react. “Hey @$#*&” is just another version of “it’s not supposed to be that way.” Same with the weather. Same with the conditions of the road. My riding buddy Ron talks about this in terms of “taking what the river gives you,” a term that makes eminent sense if you’ve spent any time in whitewater.

I aspire to this Zen-like state of calm off the bike as well. The truth is, those moments visit me infrequently when I’m not riding. I find them more on a bike, which is surely one of the reasons I ride. Or that’s what I tell myself.

Rolling, Rolling

One of the things I like especially about riding is that you don’t have to go somewhere to do it. I think about that over the two-days that follow whenever I see pickup trucks loaded with or towing dirt bikes, quads, horses, boats, kayaks, skis, or snowboards to name just a few. In all cases, these folks have to go first, do later. It’s that interregnum that I don’t like.

Today, I just ride. From the moment I clear the garage door, I am doing the thing I set out to do. It’s different when I ride on the track, but only slightly as I ride my bike to the track too.

On multi-day rides, the first miles and last miles of each day tend to disappear without notice. Thoughts of leaving and arriving drown out the moment of the actual riding. I forget that I’m on the bike and not in a good way.

But not the very first miles of the very first day. Everything is fresh and new like I’ve never seen it or done it before. The motor winds, the transmission shifts, the exhaust inhales and exhales in rhythm with the twist of my wrist. I notice each detail. I feel every sensation. The bike is speaking. The road is speaking. “We’re finally free!”

As the miles start to gather beneath the tires, that sensation of being fully switched on fades into the background. These first hundred miles or so don’t invite much concentration. Riding the slab is like that. In the past I have alternated between mindless daydreaming, and very purposeful concentration, this later state being nearly as distracting as the former. Today, I play the meditation game, bringing my thoughts back to center, to the feeling of the bike beneath me, or the sound of the road, or the smell in the air.

“Just be on the bike,” I think. “Nobody is watching.”

Finally I am off the slab and on the coast road. I now have a destination vaguely in mind: Specifically south along the coast; generally towards Coos Bay. Despite my best efforts, I find myself wanting to hustle. Not so much to get there. I’m resolved that I will stop and sleep whenever it’s time to stop riding. No, it’s because there is open road ahead of me and I want to gobble it up.

In the back of my mind, I write stanzas for a future blog or maybe a book. And then I think I will need photos to testify to my presence on this ride. And then I see something that seems photo worthy. And then I really feel like I need to press on. There is road to conquer. There will be cars up ahead I will need to pass and there are surely those cars behind that I’ve already dispatched. And besides, pictures are for tomorrow. The road is for today.

Peeing My Way To Pictures

Nature has a way of bringing stops to my goings. It’s not that I can’t hold it, it’s just that I can’t hold it for longer than about 100 minutes when I’m riding. Put it down to age, vibration, and the fact that I try to stay hydrated.

Although I’ve already peed at the last gas stop, a sign alerting me to “Fresh Oysters” just over the bridge I’m about to cross inveigles. “Why not?” I think. I haven’t really gotten into a rhythm yet. So I peel off to see about Oysters.

As it happens, I picked out the first place I saw Oysters but it wouldn’t be the last. The mountains, and I do mean mountains of shells that visit the edge of the road along the way are just remarkable.

This place proved to be of the “small and quaint” variety. As I was about picture-taking, I bent and stretched to turn stacks of plastic boxes into photographic-art. And yes, I snapped the obligatory seagull picture. But I ate no oysters then.

The California Coast Highway is duly and properly noted for its scenic splendor. It’s also besieged by RVs, campers, and happy snappers looking for the next place to pull over. I can’t imagine why anyone would want to ride it but they do. On weekends no less.

The same road in Oregon, at least on this grayish Friday, doesn’t suffer from half the load. The FJR and I lope along, occasionally passing the odd truck or camper, but mostly staying well in hand. I have no plan, so everything is “not what I planned” but in a good way.

Junk Along The Way

The weather is a frequent and forceful visitor to the Oregon coast. Most of the towns along the way exist for reasons that are long forgotten and it shows. Some have staked a claim to the tourist trade that plies up and down during “the season,” and for this ambition, the traveler is treated with promises of hot tubs, cable television, and rooms with a view. Some of the towns have scrubbed up some of their old buildings and entreat further with art, food and wine, and souvenirs.

But a lot of it is just plain beaten down by the incessant salt air and the bumptious winter rains. There is a general grayness to everything man made that seems to match the color of the sky.

Man and the elements have both been less than kind to the trees. My shock at the countless old stalwarts lying completely uprooted is trumped only by the ugly wreckage left by logging. I find myself lost in an environmental calculus where there would be less of this sort of thing, but I run out of ideas for what to build houses out of. Maybe we should just build fewer of them. That means we should have fewer people. You can see where this was going. So could I. So I stopped and went back to “being on the bike.”

Seeing a place for the first time brings different things to view for different people. I have an uncanny eye for the flotsam and jetsam of modernity. Back when I took taking pictures really seriously, a colleague of mine said that I “took pictures of nothing, better than anyone” he’d ever seen. He meant it as a compliment. I took it as one.

So here in the midst of all of this natural coastal splendor, the tree-wreckage notwithstanding, I find myself stopping to take pictures of a partially sunken boat and a big pipe-thing. Yeah, I had to pee, but it was the boat that made me stop.

Where Will I Sleep Tonight?

I think a lot about commitment. For a living I help people work out difficult decisions. One of the first things we talk about is the idea that decisions are “irrevocable allocations of resource.” It sounds wise and it is, but people struggle at first to sort it out.

Motorcycling is all about those kinds of decisions. It’s all about commitment. It starts when you begin to pack. I travel light to begin with, always figuring I can buy my way out of a stained shirt or a ruined pair of jeans. Riding is a bit different.

I have many pairs of gloves, each different in some meaningful way. I can’t take them all with me, there simply isn’t room. Just like I can’t take all my tools with me. Just like I can’t take any number of things I might fancy for fun or “just in case.” So I have to do what the Templar advised and “choose wisely.”

I think about this particularly when I grab a helmet. The one I’m wearing is light but it’s noisy. The one I didn’t is a bit heavier but quieter and a bit more comfortable. But I haven’t ridden long distances in it yet and it’s not fitted for the heads-up display I use with my radar detector. 100 miles down the road I’m not going to turn back because I now prefer another. And I’m not going to buy a replacement. They’re bloody expensive! So every choice is made with care. Commitment.

This sense of making real choices shows up when I simply must choose this road over that road. I don’t have a plan, but I still have to choose. If I take that road, that means I am not going to ride on this one. This has always plagued me.

Which road will have the least traffic? Which will have the best scenery? Which will be in the best condition? Which will have the most entertaining twists and turns. And just to make it even more delicious, I have no assurance that I’ll be back this way again, so now I really want to make a “good choice.”

In the end, it’s better to not have a plan. That way you don’t torture yourself over the road not taken. That way you don’t hear voices in your head from people you don’t yet know and have not met counseling on the “other road.”

Even more metaphysically, you just don’t know what’s on the road you’ve chosen until you get there. And you’ll never know what’s on the road you didn’t pick.

All of this rattles in a non-specific way in my head as I clear Tillamook on my way south. I’ve given up on Coos Bay. Too far I think. I had scaled back my ambition to Newport and was working on Lincoln City. But even those vague plans changed as just south of town I became aware of three somewhat related things.

  1. The clouds were looking full and angry.
  2. I had to pee (again).
  3. And what the heck is that gigantic hanger-looking thing that says “Air Museum” on it doing out in the middle of the field?

I actually went past at first but kept getting a very strong sensation that I should turn back. I’ve been around enough to know that you listen to those voices. You heed those sensations. To the unnamed voice of the unknown person I heard whispering “wimp,” I just nodded and smiled. Who knows what lay down that road at that time? Not me.

I didn’t actually go into the hanger. In retrospect, I wish I had. It turns out they have one of the best collections of WWII birds anywhere. The whole place had a wonderfully second-rate ambitiousness to it that seemed charming if the rivers of Zeus weren’t getting ready to visit from above. I snapped a couple of pictures and thought briefly that if I ever had more money than God I would buy a DC3 just like the one parked just inside the hanger. And then the skies opened with a vengeance.

I backtracked with all the fervor of the converted and ducked under the breezeway of the Shilo Inn on the outskirts of Tillamook. It is 4:00 in the afternoon on Friday. It’s raining. I’m in a hotel in Tillamook, Oregon. This is not what I had planned.

But this is where I was. I had a couple of books with me figuring I would treat myself to some uninterrupted reading. It’s just that the “not-plan” that had been forming on the way south included a clever little B&B on the water, a room with a view, and a fine meal of local Oysters and a local brew to wash it all down.

Instead, I supped at the Shilo Inn Restaurant beneath a too-dim overhead light, sitting in a booth covered in material not as fine as the saddle of my bike. The Oysters, however, were fresh, local, and done brilliantly. The beer was cold, local, and just right. The soup was tangy and tasty. The bread was warm with a proper crust and a moist center.

This was not what I had planned, but if I closed my eyes, it was pretty damn good.

The Road Taken

I slept well but woke often. I had a few weeks before installed a new top-clamp made by a guy called Motorcycle Larry, the purpose of which was to move the relative position of the handlebars up and back. It’s a terrific piece of kit, beautifully made. The addition of an inch here and an inch there has done wonders to ease the pain I often feel in my shoulders and back. But the front forks no longer seem to lock and I haven’t brought another lock with me. So I worry about the bike.

This was not what I had planned.

I finally rolled out around seven to the site of dryish roads and an overcast that hinted at moving on. I briefly toyed with the idea of heading further south, but there was something about riding in the opposite direction from home on the day I intended to sleep in my own bed that just didn’t work for me. It never does.

I always lament this horse-like tendency to want to hightail it home on the final day. This is made doubly so on this day because I have no need to be home at any particular time. My wife is out of town until Wednesday and this is Saturday. But I still feel that urging to go back the direction I came. So I compromise with myself and head sort of North but mostly East.

The road across the Tillamook forest is brilliant. It darts briefly across farm country and then shoulders its way up and into the woods like some mythic wisp beckoning the hero onward, onward.

I watch the air temperature reading out of the corner of my eye on every approach. The road is shaded as far as I can see and the pavement is still wet from the drenching last night. 48 degrees on the gauge is reassuring, but not conclusive. I don’t press. I look for good lines and move my body off the bike to keep the FJR as upright as possible. I trail the front brake in combination with a live throttle to take up the driveline slack and take out the hitch from right off dead throttle. It’s all about being smooth and I am.

I have noticed off and on how different the FJR is from the Aprilia that I recently bought and have been mostly riding. Those first few miles yesterday I reveled in the sybaritic comfort of its big saddle, wide bars, and “sit up and beg” riding position: the concepts of “big” and “wide” being completely relative.

Out on the twisties the big FJR comports itself well given it’s heft. Each input has to be given with conviction. With the Aprilia, an intention is usually enough.

As is usually the case, a curve hard to the left means another like it to the right will surely follow. Sometimes they’re right on each other. Sometimes you get to catch your breath. Sometimes you can see the expanse of several linked bends ahead. Sometimes the trees or topography makes that impossible.

Whether I’m riding at 5/10s or 7/10s (not even 8/10s on the road), I always want to do it the same way. I can tell I’m getting tired when I skip a beat.

Set up to the outside.

Scan the pavement and pick a line.

Shift my weight off the bike.

Hold the bike up with the off-hand.

Balance the throttle and the front brake.

Wait for it. Wait for it. Now!

I release the off-bar and let the bike drop into the corner. If it’s tight, I pull the bike down towards me by pushing on the inside grip. Sometimes there will be a car coming behind me or coming the other way. I’m not playing Rossi here, but I have to guess the sight of my ass hanging off the big blue bike is cause for comment.

If the next turn is RIGHT NOW, I climb up over the top and repeat the process going the other way, thrilling, I must say, as I feel the bike swing from lean to lean like the prizefighter it is. Trust the bike. Trust the tires. Ride with commitment. The FJR does not let me down.

Can You Ever Really Get Lost on a Bike?

Up Route 5 is Woodland, Washington. I don’t know what it’s there for, but I do know it’s the southern gateway to Mt. Saint Helens and the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. This is to be the centerpiece of my second day on the bike.

I gas up and check both my map and the GPS. I know from having ridden the road once before from the other direction that there are several opportunities to go this way or that and I’m not wanting to get lost.

Get lost. What an odd concept when you’re riding a bike, without a plan, in the moment. And yet there it is. That familiar feeling of going and doing in service of a goal and a destination that rules so much of my life.

“Don’t get lost.”

“Um. Errr. Okay. What if I do?”

“You’ll have to backtrack. You’ll lost time.”

“Um. Errr. Okay. What if I do?”

There is no answer to where this is going, for many reasons, not the least of which is that I’m playing both parts in this conversation. The whole point is to ride: To make the bike go down the road in a pleasing, even thrilling way. The sooner I “get there,” the sooner the fun is over. Why not get good and lost?

But I don’t set off that way. I now have a plan. Not a complete plan, but a plan to ride up the east side of Mt. Saint Helens to route 12. I promise myself that I will journey up Windy Ridge to see the great expanses. Once at route 12, I’ll either head east or west, depending on how I feel.

I ease out of town. Two patrol cars sit door-by-door, the drivers passing time talking about whatever nonsense they witnessed last night, waiting for some hot foot to miss the posted limit.

Motorcyclists dream about Route 503. Even if they’ve never heard of it. As the trees close in around the blacktop, the road shakes itself, ready to take on anyone ready to try.

“Motorcyclist use extreme caution.”

“Curves next zillion miles.”

“[arrow to the right] 25 mph.”

The signs beckon and promise like some evil witch just a few miles out of town.

And then the road is on me, throwing a mean left followed immediately by a hard right. The big FJR and I settle into a familiar rhythm. The bike dances underneath me, pounding back at the uneven pavement, but never placing a wrong foot. I’m off the bike, knee hooking the tank while staying light as I can on the pegs, waiting for the bike to settle before I throw my next move.

There are no great lines, only good ones. There are no good curves, only great ones. And I have the road to myself.

I rotate the bike from full lean to full lean, working back and forth between second and third gears, pushing but not pressing. I remember to breathe. I check the air temperature. I check my speeds. Even at 6/10s I’m working it. The road beguiles and seduces. I breathe some more and back off my pace.

To my right, Lake Merwin passes a hundred feet below me. With all the storms this year there should be more water in it. It shouldn’t be this way. But it is. Still. It’s stunning.

Twice I stop. The signs aren’t clear and I haven’t paid that much attention to whether or not I should be going to Cougar or Battle Ground. I had set my GPS to go to Randle but it was determined to route me back the way I came. I trusted it but didn’t.

To my left, Lake Merwin passes 100 feet below me. I had done it. I had gotten lost. But not just average lost. I had gotten the kind of lost that now had me right back where I had started in Woodland, WA. Literally within ¼ mile of the Shell Station I had left an hour ago. I felt briefly like I was in a Nicholas Cage movie.

I could feel the anger rising in me. Breathe. Turn around and go back the other way. Moments later I’m really tearing it up. No more 6/10s. I’m hammering back at the cursed road that had led me so wrong. Flying around a corner knee nearly on the ground it struck me.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m rushing to get past this absolutely breathtaking motorcycle dream road to get to some other fabulous road so that I can . . .”

Breathe. Relax. It is supposed to be just the way it is.

The red mist having subsided, I returned to less athletic ways, worked the road back to where I had make a “wrong turn,” and finally got myself pointed north towards the waiting Windy Ridge and thereafter Randle.

The road staid pure, taught, and angular, jutting this way and that as we gained altitude. The air temperature gauge indicated 48 degrees but the deepening piles of snow on the roadside told a different story.

What’s this? A sea of pickups and SUVs pulled up like a North Atlantic convoy. People are gearing up, but to do what? What are those? Snowmobiles?

And then not 100 yards further. “Road to Randle closed. Blocked by snow.”

That’s when the absurdity of it all hit me. Not thirty minutes ago I was sweating and cursing in my helmet because I had gotten lost. And the road I was torturing myself to get to? Closed. The road that had annoyed me for making me ride its delicious curves twice was now laughing back at me. The sideshow was the main attraction. I was just too blind to see.

I rode a bit further up the mountain until that voice got after me again to “turn back.” So for the third time that day I headed towards Woodland, balancing the first signs of fatigue, with a draining gas tank, with the last great stretch of road I was likely to ride that day. I didn’t press but I did push, once again reveling in tangoing the big blue FJR down the mountain and through the woods, feeling the suspension working underneath me as the road thrust this way then that.

The Road Home

I’ve already said that the last miles home tend to disappear without much notice. Pounding up the freeway I’m no longer in the moment. I want to get home. My shoulder hurts. Then my knees. Then my back. Reports keep coming in from the front that all is not well. I move this way and that and never do find a completely comfortable position.

“It’s not supposed to be this way.”

“No, I suppose not.” But there is nothing to be done other than to keep pushing on.

This is not why I ride. To push on. I know too well how to do that in my “real life.” I know I can and I will. I’ll endure two hours of rank boredom and nagging muscles. It’s as far removed from what I was feeling during any other part of the trip as I can imagine. It’s like none of it every happened. Not the thrill of finally rolling out of the garage. Not the breathtaking coastal scenery. Not the piles of trees, shells, and junk. Not the sublime jousting with the mountain roads. All those thoughts and feelings are gone now. And it’s not supposed to be this way.

And then the signs say that home is only 60 miles away. Then 40. Then 30. Then ten. My muscles stop aching. The athletic feeling I have when I’m really riding vs. just sitting on the bike returns. My vision sharpens. It’s like I’m back from the dead.

The apartment will be empty. But I’ll be home. As the hot water pounds down on me from the shower head above me, I can still feel the sensations of the bike moving underneath me. My knees don’t hurt any more. My back and shoulder are still sore, but in a good way. I earned that pain riding my motorcycle by God. Not sitting at a computer or around some meeting table. And the next day I’m ready to do it all again.

© 2008, Copyright Mid-Life Rider

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