~Since 2004~
A site about memories, thoughts, photos, and unrepentant opinions about motorcycles and motorcycling after four decades of twisting the throttle.

Sunday, August 15, 2004

The best days are free

Lake Hodges road by "novermberwolf"
Many younger riders these days have a hard time understanding what it was like to go out to the country and ride any place you darn well pleased, not where Big Brother says you can. There were far fewer "No Trespassing" signs then, no OHV parks with carefully marked trails, and no official government signs with a barred circle over the picture of a dirt bike.

I remember a racer at a desert race in 1970 commenting on the first hints of land closure: "The desert is public land and it belongs to all of us! They can't kick us out!" Thirty years on it's tough, without doing a great deal of planning, to ride through the countryside and be able to head out over hill and dale with no thought of being arrested, run off, or shot at. Back in 1967, as long as you didn't chase the cows and remembered to close the gate behind you, you could ride pretty much anywhere in the countryside.

I have indelibly marked in my memory a particular day in the summer of 1967 when my friend Mike and I took off on our little Yamahas, he on an 80cc bike and me on my 60cc bike. I was a better rider than Mike but there was no substitute for engine displacement and he was usually ahead of me.  We headed southwest out of our little town of Escondido, CA and towards Del Mar, CA on the coast. It was a blue sky, warm Southern California Saturday and we had purposed between ourselves a few days earlier to do some serious riding. Our goal: Escondido to the coast entirely off-road. The distance to Del Mar was only about 25 miles though rolling hills, down cow trails and a few dirt roads but I had a sense that we were doing something special, something that only true motorcycle aficionados such as ourselves would try.

We turned off the paved road just south of town near Lake Hodges and let ourselves through a wobbly gate of a wire fence. We rode as we wished and wandered around for an hour or so through some rolling pasture land and eventual came across a spot with a little dry wash and an embankment looked just right for practicing our jumping skills. We ran up and down the embankment for a while, the Yamaha's little two stroke engines wound tight as we jumped, dodged cow pies, and imaged what it would be like to have real "scrambles" bikes one day and fly off of jumps like Gary Nixon, Bart Markel or those new European guys with the oddball names Ake and Torsten.

As the day progressed and it got warmer we got sweatier from our jumping and cow pie scrambles course racing so we stopped at a small pond, stripped down to our skivvies and jumped in to cool off. After the swim we sat in the dry summer grass by the pond and ate the few snacks we'd stuffed in our jacket pockets. It was about as good as life can get for a boy at the age of 16. There were moments more exciting to be sure, and those usually involved a girl and a drive-in movie, but none were better than riding a motorcycle.
The Southern California summer sun finally dried us enough and we got dressed, kick started the the Yamahas and went on our way west. Thinking back now, I don't believe it ever occurred to us that the Yamahas would not start or would ever let us down beyond an occasional fouled spark plug. I'm not sure we even had the stuff with us to repair a flat tire. Adventure takes a lot less preparation when you are naive.

We meandered down some farm roads and mostly smooth dirt trials made by cows, rabbits, and coyotes so the 3" travel suspension of our Yamahas only bottomed out occasionally. It wasn't difficult while zipping along a 25 mph or so to imagine we were demonstrating skills sufficient to land us on the US International Six Days Trial Team one day. We'd both read in Cycle World and Cycle Magazine of the "ISDT" and seen the pictures and there was no doubt in our minds that we had what it took, all we lacked was the proper equipment.

Mike and I never actually made it to our goal of Del Mar and the coast that day although we would another time and using another route. At some point, for reasons now forgotten, we made a big looping turn back around east and then north a bit. Along the way we found a dirt road zigzaging up a fair size hill of oh maybe 1,000 feet or so in height. The little Yamahas struggled to make it to the top. With street tires spinning there was a significant amount of pushing involved on the worst sections but we finally arrived at the top and viewed our valley and the town from a perspective we had achieved on our own.

It seemed like quite an accomplishment and a still sweeter reward to have achieved it and not have to share such a splendid view with parents insisting we be careful or siblings hollering for a bathroom. Great moments in travel rarely arrive with such exclusive joy when you are sixteen years old.

We stood there for some time trying spot our own homes, schools, familiar landmarks and places we'd just ridden through. After a time we started the bikes and wound our way back down the mountain and actually bulled our way through the head high tall grass on the bottom of then mostly dry Lake Hodges. These days when I have occasion to be in California and pass by the periodically full lake I'm always quick to tell the story of the time I rode my motorcycle "across the bottom of that lake."

We made it back to the paved road and let ourselves back out through the same gate we had passed through five or six hours earlier. I don't recall now how many miles we rode on those little Yamahas, it probably seemed farther than it was, but I do recall the day, the sunshine, the fun, and the camaraderie. Every motorcycle I have owned since then is better than that old Yamaha 60 but I've had few days since where riding was as pure and sweet as that day.

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