Tuesday, April 13, 2010


BEYOND YANKEE JIM’S – little more than a place name now-a-days – the pavement disappears, replaced by nicely graded and securely packed gravel. Snaking down the wall of a tributary of the North Fork of the American, it’s easy to maintain a moderate speed, if moderate speed is tempered with caution. Blind curves? There are some. Precipices over which one might encounter serious injury? Some of those, too. And although this oft-traveled route deteriorates the further one goes, dropping 2,200 feet in elevation to the rickety, 1920s era suspension bridge at the canyon bottom, this is a delightful tour of vegetative and geologic zones, today made even more interesting by the mid-spring storm.

Foresthill is a mining/lumbering community seated atop the Foresthill Divide. Foresthill Road is a divine 17-mile stretch of pavement providing primary ingress and egress for this mountain community to I-80 west at Auburn. Sport bikers have deemed the route a Mecca and many have sacrificed themselves on the guardrail altars that line sections of the roadway. Makeshift memorials abound. And the CHP valiantly tries to prevent.

Summer and autumn fires race from canyon bottom to ridgeline frequently in this environ, and, on occasion, the Foresthill Road must be closed, effectively sealing the little berg off from the outside. Thus, Yankee Jim’s Road: Foresthill’s emergency escape route. Yankee Jim’s Road courses northerly, twisting into and out of the deep canyon of the North Fork to emerge at Colfax. 18 road miles – about six and a half the way the crow flies.

THE RAIN HAD JUST BECOME SLEET as the descent began. Great white glops flattened against the face shield of my Shoei. Somehow, “Stars and Stripes Forever” had chosen itself for the soundtrack on this ride, when “Stormy Weather,” “Here Comes that Rainy Day,” or any of a number of other tunes would have been more appropriate. Rhythmically, I wipe the helmet face with the index finger of my clutch hand on an even 8 count, at seventy-two beats a minute.

By the time the pavement ran out, the snow had turned to rain. Rain in great, pelting quantity. I use both hands on the handlebars. I crack the face shield open a fraction to prevent fogging. Wouldn’t do to not see a twist in the road. Even if I did survive the plunge, Verison’s “Nation-Wide Coverage” somehow doesn’t mean “here.”

With each convex turn in the road, a limited view of the canyon’s twists, coves and distant reaches appears. Vespers of mist tangle with the new-green oak groves and rich early-spring glades stretching up the slopes. Above, the pewter-gray underbelly of the storm blankets the ridge top. Where the turns are concave, what’s normally a dry draw runs full with tumbling, cascading water. The rush drowns out the purr of the motor and pushes away that damned Sousa march.

I stop at one, parking well within the sightline of any on-coming traffic – there will be none – standing in the downpour, helmet serving as Kevlar-hardened raingear for the head. Looking up the cascade, an angel’s gossamer cloak has been laid against the rugged rocks and soil. Pulses of volume and breaths of wind animate the sheet-white fall and, occasionally the angel’s finger beacons me to stand in her shower and bathe. I decline. I’m already wet. And, when I think about it, cold.

Rock edges rounded smooth, verdant mosses and healthy sword ferns in the cleavage of the mountainside indicate that this water event is nothing new: certainly not unique to this day. What is unique is my riding the big Beemer in these conditions when I don’t have to. When I could be home. Warm. By the fire. Or cooking up a last pot of winter stew.

RIDING IN THE RAIN is something we avoid. It is perceived as dangerous, and at best, it is cold and uncomfortable. Yet, in the depths of the canyon, protected from the elements only by a sixty-dollar rain suit, I am reminded that the basic joys of motorcycling are sensory. And in the rain, the sensory is so much more acute. The symphony of the full cascade. The sweet aroma of moistened duff. The gentle wave of the fern frond and clusters of poppies and lupine patiently closed, awaiting passage of the tempest. Those clouds clinging to the treetops across the way. The low ceiling. The spatter of mud on boot as the front tire splits a puddle. A shaft of sunlight foretelling the end of the storm.

You don’t experience the elements quite this way in a car. Or on the BMW in August.

© 2010
Church of the Open Road Press

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