Wednesday, October 21, 2009

State Route 1 - Marin and Sonoma Counties


[February 2009] THE MISSION WAS SIMPLE. Transport Jessica’s 1000 cc Ducati Monster from the repair shop in San Rafael, forty-eight miles to her home in Healdsburg where she would put the thing up for sale. Seems the S2R race bike was too formidable as a first bike for a fledgling rider. One flop and seventeen hundred dollars in repairs later and Jessica was done with it. So as a favor to my daughter, at 10:30 AM on a Saturday, at Hattar’s Ducati of Marin just off the 101, I thumbed the starter and blipped the throttle. A reflexive and grin broke across my face. I knew was that this mission would something a little more than simply driving 48 miles north on the 101, if I made it so.

The forecast called for rain. I had packed my rain suit just for such an eventuality. However, in Marin, the sky was only slightly overcast with the temperature kissing the underside of 60.

Unlike the mellow response of the 1150 BMW, the Ducati rumbles and seethes and so wants to sprint wherever it is pointed. The on-ramp from Francisco Boulevard West to US 101 was the first indication. I found myself not blending into the traffic flow: rather I was knifing into it. The silver-gray S2R transformed me into one of those crotch-rocket riders folks decry and I simply shake my head at.

The first exit was mine and it took me to Sir Francis Drake Boulevard – the route from the cocktail suburbs of the 101 corridor to the bucolic pasturelands of west Marin. Those verdant fields within the morning fog-line of the California coast. In this short stretch, the environment transformed from diesel exhaust and impatient drivers of Mercedes, Infinitis and Acuras jockeying to be first at the light – to the sweet stench of cow manure, alder and redwood fireplace smoke and to folks on motorcycles waving joyously at the completion of what, for me, would be an adventure up the coast.

Especially the Ducatista. (Rhymes with “Sandinista.”)

Once out of the Saturday go-to-Whole-Foods traffic, the stop and go, and getting use to the clatter and pull of an abominable clutch, I could think for a moment about the Ducatista. In fact, this afternoon, I could be one. I’d already ridden like one. I could think like one – cavalier. I could suck in my belly and dress like one. I could wave like one. On-coming Ducati riders never raise their left hand to wave when passing. They simply drop it from the handlebar and open their palm – giving a rocket-fueled “low five” as they whiz by.

And best of all, I could park with them!

ROUTE 1 FROM OLEMA divides the pastureland of the Olema Creek drainage. Cattle grow fat on one side of the road. Sheep shear the grass on the other. Farm homes built in the early twentieth century dot large tracts of green rangeland and highway one rises over small hills and sweeps around others. Traffic is thin and only bunches up behind the occasional motor home, which should, by law, be banned from all such roads.

At a relaxed fifty-five miles per hour, the Duc whispers a sultry tone. Lulled, just a bit, I begin thinking about the ergos of the machine. This is considered a standard. A naked bike. There is no wind protection and the seating is upright. While the fairing on my BMW directs the wind right at my helmet, riding the Duc, the wind is constant but the noise is subdued. And unlike the Beemer, the Monster is not built for folks with a 34-inch inseam. The bike is designed for a normal length person – a rider the size of Jessica. My long legs are coiled between a short seat and high pegs, but they are not crying to uncoil. The reach to the handlebar is just right and business at either end easy to conduct – save for the clutch pull. The throttle likes to be blipped but does not like driving at idle in trafficked situations. The front brake is massive but I must remember that it is neither anti-lock nor is it linked to the rear. The switchgear is amazing simple: thumb left to indicate left; thumb right to indicate right; and simply push the thing to cancel. BMW should have figured this out. The silver-gray tank has a bold black racing stripe painted to the right of center and while by another law, in my mind, every Ducati should be painted red, the color on this one works well.

Two Multi-Stradii (Latin – plural of ‘strada’) and a “ten-nine-eight” pass giving the perfunctory low-five salute. I reciprocate. I belong.

I belong because in a few miles I enter the community of Point Reyes Station. It is noon and my Jack-in-the-Box breakfast has worn off. On the left is the Point Reyes Station Café and out front, three Multi-Stradii, a 900i Monster, a Tri-Colore and an older BMW R1100 GS. Even had I been on my RT, I probably could have parked here, but on the little Duc, I knew that I must. I switched off the ignition and swung my leg over the seat. Immediately, I caught the gaze of other riders and sucked in my belly. I fumbled to figure out where to hang the helmet on the bike and just as immediately, blew my cover.

“Clam Chowder and a Coke,” I requested upon entering the café.

“Clam chowder. That’s what folks come to the coast for,” replied the waitress.

“Actually,” I didn’t say, “I came to the coast to wring out this Ducati S2R before it was sold out of the family.” I just ate my soup, tipped nicely and left.

FOR SOME REASON, the route north along Tomales Bay is posted at 35 miles per hour. The road is relatively straight and the adjacent bay affords nice sight lines. One could go faster.

Apparently not the one driving the seventeen-year-old Corolla in front of me. Apparently, this person thought the speed limit sign was quoted as saying “31.” The line was double yellow. I didn’t have the registration for this bike. I didn’t want to do something untoward. Yet, after four or five excruciating miles, there was a straight stretch that I assumed the 96 horsepower L twin might make short work of.

Out I pulled. I cracked the throttle with great purpose. I’d never done a wheelie before. Always thought they were a dangerous act promulgated by riders with reptilian size brains. I’m sure, however, that the driver of the Corolla thought I was just another moron on a motorcycle more interested in speed than in enjoying God’s handiwork along the California coast.

About the time the front wheel touched down, huge raindrops began to spatter the face shield of my helmet. My rain suit was strapped to the back. Now, I would either need to pull over and let Mr. Slo-Mo pass me in his antique Toyota, or ride a good distance getting a good soaking, until I could hop off, toss on the rain suit and get back out on the highway before the offending (or offended) driver overtook me. I opted for the latter and throttled down from my unintended 78 to a more reasonable 10 over.

IN ALL OF MY ADVENTURES on the BMW, I don’t think I’d ever visited this lower section of Highway 1. Once into Bodega Bay, however, the route was familiar. The ride just different. While the Beemer takes the curves and twists of the coastal roads with ease, the Duc charges and dives into them. The Beemer’s aristocratic approach is calm and controlled. The Duc’s breathless.

After 90 minutes in the saddle, I am now developing a one-ness with this machine. Everything works well. Its reflexes are athletic and exciting. It sticks nicely to the road and it inspires my confidence to plunge into turn after turn with enthusiasm.
I’ve decided that I’ll always have a BMW, but I’d most certainly consider a Ducati as a second bike.

At Bodega, I use the cell phone to check in with Jessica and her mom. “No, I won’t be joining you for lunch…”

“Bodega Bay…” I ho-hum, feigning terribly-sorry-I’m-going-to-miss-lunch-with-you.

“Probably Jenner.” I ho-hum some more.

“A couple of more hours, perhaps…” Ho-hum.

“Oh, it rides okay, I guess…” Ho-hum.

“Yes, I’m having fun, I suppose…” HO-hum.

“No. No. Don’t wait for me…” Sigh.

“Probably about 4:00. Maybe before…”

I take a moment to call my riding buddy who lives in Washington State. “Unless you are kissing the prettiest girl in the world at this very moment, I’m having a hell of a lot more fun than you are,” I suggest, adding: “Ha ha!”

“Do tell,” he replies.

THE BLUFFS BETWEEN BODEGA and the mouth of the Russian River are those typical of the Northern California Coast. They are steep, rugged and while scenic, quite foreboding. It is said that the eastward expansion of the Russian empire was halted because the Washington-Oregon-California coastline rarely afforded safe harbor.  The Russians did build a community. Fort Ross. North several kilometers from the mouth of the river. John Sutter, arguably king of the Central Valley some eighty miles to the east, did business with them. But the Russians never ventured inland, never gaining foothold in the golden state. The riches with which they found satisfaction came in the form of sea otter pelts. A persistent and cold coastal fog, it seems, masked other openings to the inland and the Russian foray into North America was easily halted by the Spanish-later-Mexican-later-Californio dominance of the region.

The ride along these bluffs carries one back to those untamed days. Thoughts of weeks or months at sea. Longing for landfall. Then seeing angry waves chewing at these rocky cliffs. Knowing there is no place to moor. No getting off. How long and discouraging the trip back to Alaska would be.

I didn’t turn inland at Jenner and didn’t follow the Russian River to Healdsburg. Instead, I wanted to let this little Ducati gobble up just a bit more coastline. Climbing out of the river course on the north side of the Russian River, California State Route 1 corkscrews like those roads one might imagine grace the Dolomites of Central Italy. The bike loves everything about this section except for the Buicks that are driven by people who have confused their sedans with a motor home.

Half way to the top of the hill is a secondary road. Meyers Grade. “Narrow Road. Sharp Curves. Next 9 Miles.” Don’t bother asking me twice.

Meyers Grade courses northward while Highway 1 veers to the north-northwest following the coastline. No big sedans or motor homes here. The pavement is broken and patched with splotches of asphalt. The little bike jumps and chatters over them and I can feel my fillings begin to loosen in my teeth.

Atop the ridge is a narrower and windier road breaks off to the east. It is an adventure waiting to be experienced. Every new road is. Foolishly, I think this. Because, if it’s paved, then somebody’s been there before, right? So what can be the adventure? But I suspend disbelief and turn eastward. I love roads not taken by others.

Called Fort Ross Road, it descends into nameless stream courses and canyons. I wouldn’t engage in the following, however, if I were to engage in the following, a sunny spot on a hill side in one of these nameless stream courses would be the ideal place to do it, I’m sure. Moderate climate. Ample moisture. Filtered sunlight. Seclusion. A number of perfect spots for tiny, independent pharmaceutical plantations, I would suspect. Wonder if anyone’s ever thought of doing that in these parts. I mean, they do moonshine in the hollows of Appalachia, banjo music begins to strum inside my brain, why not dope here?

I drive in and out of curves and past innumerable side roads that lead to houses and hovels and wonder about the people who live in rural Sonoma County. What do they do? Where do their kids attend school? How close is the nearest store? Or bakery. Are they on the grid or off?

Cazadero, a mile or two further on, offers an answer to the school question. And the bakery question.

IN SHORT ORDER, I find myself back on a major highway, swinging through Guerneville and making a left onto Westside Road. This will take me to Healdsburg past the site of the place where Jessica took her spill on her new (to her) and very able machine. This one.

I fill up at a station about a half-mile from my daughter’s house and think: The Ducati is sweet: far too much bike for my dear little kid to handle, but an intoxicating blend of Italian styling, sensual whispers and incredible road manners. Wish I had room in my garage.

© 2009
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. I enjoy the combo of lyricism, history, geography, and adventure. Keep it up!

  2. Wild Goose rider suggests:

    Great story, you should have bought that Duc!!! She can be a cruel maintenance mistress, but the joys of a proper road.....

  3. Physically, I'm afraid I'm too long of inseam for such a beast. Ended up with the Breva, which is great, great fun. When I come back, I wanna be 5'10" instead of 6'5". More options that way. Grin