Friday, December 31, 2010

Fencing with the Devil

"This is the most treacherous ride I've ever been on," I kept repeating to myself as the 30-40 mph winds lashed at my F800Gs and the driving rain sleeted against my helmet and suit.  I was soaked, 70 miles from home and fighting to stay upright winding up Montezuma Grade coming from Borrego Springs, CA.  And then I recalled the freezing rain in Julian, CA a few hours earlier with 34 degrees indicated on the bike's thermometer and thought that perhaps THAT was the most treacherous!

Egads - what had Mark and I been thinking? A few days ago it hadn't sounded too bad — hey, if it rains a little while we're out and about, so be it!  But to head off this morning as the rainy front end of a cold Canadian winter storm rolled into town was sort of crazy.  Still... 'that which does not kill us, makes us stronger' some old fool said one time.

I'd thought when my friend and riding buddy Mark Myers called on Monday to suggest a Tuesday ride instead of Wednesday, I pressed for the original plan - having the extra day to get over my head cold would be beneficial.  Well, we both paid for it in spades.  I set out about 7:30am in a light rain from Buckwheat Manor to Mark's house in Rancho Bernardo.  My travel bits were nestled in a Krega-10 drybag tail pack so I was confident they would arrive in good working order no matter where we ended up. I wasn't sure about me though!

Rather than start off with the steep & twisty Highland Valley & Bandy Canyon jaunts that preface nearly every one of our rides, we headed over to Poway and Hwy. 67 through Ramona. Our first destination was to be a hearty breakfast at the Old Julian Cafe on Main Street.  Getting there was trickier than expected.  Since both of us have new Anakee tires on the bikes, traction never seemed to be an issue throughout the day, but the rain would not let up until we hit Borrego late morning.  As we climbed above 4200 feet into Julian and the temperature dropped below 40º, a nagging concern for "black ice" peeked out of my sub-conscious and put me on high alert.  By now, my outer suit and gloves were soaked and I could feel my fingers going numb.  Fortunately my feet were dry in a pair of rain boots and we were nearly there.  By the time we rolled onto Main St. the rain was a torrent, literally bouncing off the pavement.  Yessiree!  High adventure in our home county - sheesh...

There was some question about whether the folks in the cafe would let us in, but once we shed our waterlogged coats and helmets at the door we were a little more presentable.  I felt the stares of other patrons and as the rain continued to pour could only imagine what they must be thinking!  We warmed up with coffee and the aforementioned hearty grub before grabbing the gear and heading back out to confront the elements.  Over food, we agreed to head down the steep and twisty Banner Grade into the Anza-Borrego desert and hopefully warmer, more inviting riding weather.

Banner Grade is arguably one of the most fun, most twisty and engaging rides in the county.  It descends about 6 miles or so from Julian to the small outpost of Banner on the desert floor, a drop of just over 1500 feet.  There was water sluicing from the hills, usually at the apex of the corners which made every lean of the bike a delicate one.  I was concentrating as hard as nails and surprised when the old Banner Store with its neon "OPEN" sign flashed by on the left.  We straightened out the road and cracked open the throttles as the rain dissipated, first with thinning drops then the occasionally "plink" against the helmet.  While the skies were still gray and black clouds puffy, the desert smelled fresh as we shot past Scissors Crossing en route to Borrego Springs.

Dolomite Me Baby!
Christmas Circle in Borrego is a familiar rest and jumping-off point for all points in the region.  Mark had brought along a new map of the area which was an excellent guide to dirt roads and jeep roads; we intended to discover the difference between the two on this trip!  Click here to see the map.  After a short respite in balmy 52º weather and light rain, we set off heading eastward towards Peg Leg monument, Rock House road, and to explore one Truckhaven Trail.  Good choices all!

Rock House road began paved for a couple hundred yards, then turned to dirt.  A lot of RV camps were set up close to the S-22 highway, with dirt bikes, quads and buggies galore.  With the rain, very few people were out and about in camp.  We rode by the campers, me switching off ABS at the dirt, then standing up on the pegs for pretty much the duration of the road. Standing puts the CG ("center of gravity") a bit lower on the bike making for a more sure-footed ride off-road.

This was a fun ride, riding parallel to Clark's Dry Lake bed, with angry clouds above, but chunks of blue sky peeking through. The rain had hard-packed any sandy sections so it was smooth.  About 2-3 miles in, we saw the Borrego rock quarry and stopped to take a peek.

No Freakin' Way!
Another reason we stopped:  mud, and lots of it.  Not the kind of mud you fly through, or even crawl through at slow speed.  This was the dry lake bed turned wet kinda mud.  Even the old gent repairing a barbed-wire fence at the quarry advised us to not even try.  Said that if it had just rained the soil under the surface would have been hard-pack.  But with the deluge from days prior and last evening, it was soaked through and through!  Better judgment prevailed.

We moseyed back out to the highway, and went searching for Truckhaven Trail, a little slip of a dirt road just before Font's Point which was a trip I'd taken in the Tacoma with the kids and my buddy Steve Koenig (who owns a sweet H3 Hummer).  The Trail split off from the highway at a 30º angle then hugged some foothills, dipping through a couple of (mercifully hard-packed) sand washes and climbing a couple of embankments and low-lying hills.  Eventually it wound back to S-22, a thoroughly satisfying big-bike jaunt.

Tow vehicle?
While poring over Mark's map at Christmas Circle, we'd also seen a side-road for the Vern Whitaker Horse Camp and thought that would be fun to explore.  Anything for a dirt-road!  This one split through some sweet-smelling orange groves.  Amazing that the trees were still producing at this time of year, but the migrant workers picking oranges were not bluffing.  The camp was several miles into the desert, but had stalls, bathrooms and campsites.  Of course, ya had to have a horse to camp there, and "iron horses" apparently didn't count!

Desert Beauty at Vern's Horse Camp
At this point we'd been riding and poking around for almost 6 hours and it was time to start heading homeward.  We stopped briefly at the Chevron in Borrego - Mark for gas, me for a Red Bull.  I figured I'd need some wings to head up Montezuma Grade which was looking pretty dark and foreboding at this point.  The route home was set to be as rapid as possible:  Borrego Springs > Ranchita > Hwy 76/Lake Henshaw > Pauma Valley > Hwy 15.  We briefly flirted with taking another side trip out of Ranchita on what looks to be a very promising dirt road back down through the mountains to Yacqui Flats, but that will be for another day.

Which brings us, gentle readers, 'round to the start of this Missive: treacherous riding up a gorgeous and dangerous twisty road, in sleeting rain, fog and the gusty wind of Hades own breath.  OMG, I'm gonna die!  Cautious, but quick, we headed up the mountains.  I can't speak for Mark but I had a warm house and family on my mind!  I think the thing that was most unnerving was the wind.  Unpredictable. Swirly. Inconsistent in its ferocity.  There's simply no way to describe the sensation of the bike drifting almost uncontrollably across a wet lane towards "rocky pain" than unnerving.  We were in a fencing match with the Devil himself: parry, thrust, side-step, score!  After reaching safe haven at home, I looked up the weather report online only to discover in horror that wind gusts up to 65mph were reported in Ranchita... I don't think I'd be here to write about it if I encountered something that strong, but it does give one pause.

We finally reached Hwy. 79 east of Lake Henshaw, and yet it seemed as though the wind kicked it up a notch, having a few miles of open space across the lake to build in intensity.  The rain hadn't let up since we left Borrego and wouldn't all the way home.  We blasted past the Mataguay Scout Camp to Hwy. 76 - lots of folks at the Lake Henshaw cafe´ today - and onward towards home.  Still... Jilberto's Taco Shop called out - we needed to refuel our bodies after the workout!  Spicy carrots and carne asada tacos never tasted so good!

Besides being chilled to the bone, wet and tired, the rest of the journey was pretty much routine - a fast blast south on Hwy. 15, thanking Cal Trans for rain-grooving the concrete and thanking the Good Lord above for delivering us once again to our loving families — ever the more appreciated for the journey we'd endured to return to them.

Without the constant adventure and adrenaline rush of a RTW trek — or at least a trans-continental journey — we search for some pinch of hard-nosed reality in our own backyard.  This week's ride was all that and more!