Thursday, October 24, 2013

Road Trip: Lake Elsinore and the Ortega Highway

The legendary Ortega Highway connects the coastal freeways near San Juan Capistrano to the desert highlands of the the city of Palm Desert, passing through the inland resort community of Lake Elsinore. Exit from the infamous Interstate 5 freeway and head away from the California coasts into a barren landscape, dotted with random bits of vegetation. Before long, you find yourself climbing and the greenery begins to get denser, until you are high up enough that the temperature has gotten a few degrees cooler, and the air is just a bit crisper. Having only ever taken this road at the helm of our family MDX during a detour on our way down to San Diego, I endeavored to return, preferably on two wheels, to make full use of its ample curves. Luckily, my time spent reviewing the BMW R1200GS presented me with the perfect opportunity, if not quite the perfect bike.

My morning started just after the rush hour chaos had ended. Things were still a tad damp from the fog that blankets the coast on these early summer mornings. Luckily, the Beemer's grip warmers worked like a charm and the massive windscreen, set as upright as I could make it, offered a place to hide away from the wind. Taking it fairly easy with cold tires and moist roads, I weaved my way onto the 405 Freeway and headed south through the heart of Orange County, my heart dead set on carving up that particular ribbon of asphalt.

Before too long, I found myself pulling off into a gravelly patch at the start of Ortega Highway, pausing a few brief moments to affix my GoPro to the top of my helmet and start the recording. Leaving a rooster tail in my wake, I blasted onto the asphalt, the tires hunting for traction as the surface transitioned from gravel to sand dusted asphalt.

You can just make out the lake to my right as I descend
It carves its way through the mountains, gradually climbing as it twists and turns back and forth, weaving a serpentine path, before making a rather sudden, and dramatic drop down into the basin, the lake off in the distance. The road itself feels like it was recently paved, with a smooth, clean surface that is free from potholes, making it easy to quickly get comfortable and to lean the bike over at some pretty severe angles and not worry too much about a sudden bump in the middle of a turn upsetting the suspension or shifting the line. And since I was using an older HJC helmet that did not have my normal communication setup on it, this ride would be entirely an escape into the ride.

Carving up the mountain, the greenery gradually sharpening into focus as the haze burned off, I had settled into a solid rhythm when suddenly the GoPro mounted on my helmet came loose and made a break for it. As if in slow motion, my left hand jumped from the grip in time to cradle the camera as it bounced into my lap. Crisis averted! I promptly found a place to pull over and reattached the camera, figuring the separation was just a fluke. However, I could not have been more wrong because, as I was making my descent towards the lake, the camera would detach itself once again, and my luck had run out. This time, the entire unit bounced off of my thigh and crashed to the asphalt. Shit! I immediately pulled over to the shoulder and jogged back to see the damage, fully expecting to find a pile of shattered plastic. To my surprise, the little-camera-that-could not only survived unscathed, but was still running. The case had popped open and the mount was a little worse for wear, but all of it was not only still functional, but all had only suffered minor scrape. Figuring this was a sign, I stowed the camera and continued towards the lake.


Exiting the mountains, I pulled off to the side of the road to orient myself before heading for my lunch stop, a diner popular with the locals of Lake Elsinore, most noted for its dancing waitresses. Pulling into the parking lot, there were more than a few funny looks as people appeared not to be familiar with motorcyclists who wear full gear in the heat of summer. After refueling with a decent meal and some cold drinks, I stepped back out into the now blazing afternoon sun. The morning's haze and the elevation in the mountains had held temperatures down, but with the haze burned off and sitting the bottom of a basin, the ruthless heat of the sun turned my gear into a sauna. I eagerly sought out the open road again, thankful for the cooling breeze as I picked up speed.

The return leg back through Ortega Highway was much less entertaining, trapped behind a rather slow, but insistent pick-up driver and a steady stream of oncoming traffic. Even so, to settle into the ride and relax meant more time to enjoy the scenery. This part of California is not yet known for its wineries, but many new entrants to the marketplace seem to be springing up, a few of them littering my route, along with a few farms and personal residences. Riding along with nothing more than the wind and the pleasant thump of the boxer motor certainly imparts a peacefulness to the entire experience. It is for days like this that I took up motorcycling in the first place.