Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Road trip: The Road to Paso

Sometimes, you just need a break from the drudgery of the day-to-day and do something a little different to recharge the batteries. I hit this point around the end of July this year and decided to treat myself to a couple of days away. The goal was to put in a full day of riding to clear my mind, ending in a destination where I could grab a good meal, have a drink or three, and then just relax and get a good night's sleep. With the goal of arriving at my destination by early evening, I scoured the map, trying to find a location that would provide the right mix of great riding, great food and drink, and relatively inexpensive accommodations. Thinking back to our trip to Monterey for Thanksgiving a couple of years ago, I settled on the Central California winery town of Paso Robles. And to maximize the fun riding, I plotted my ride through Ojai and up through some windy roads of the central valley before heading back west towards the Pacific Coast, saving the more direct ride along the coastal route for my return trip.

With the saddle bags attached to the K1200S, I treated myself to a light breakfast and waited for the worst of the rush hour traffic to pass before setting out. My calculations were to be in Ventura County by around 10:30 and on the fun roads before noon so that I could avoid both the commuters and the lunch crowds. With only a brief stop to refuel, I hit the start of Route 33 in Ojai almost exactly at 11.

Having only seen it on the map, Route 33 looked like it should be a ton of fun. A series of sweeping medium speed corners that runs from the resort town of Ojai up through the Los Padres National Forest and out the other side in the central valley of San Luis Obispo County, this road is generally well maintained and normally has relatively limited traffic. However, I had not accounted for the possibility of having to deal with the then ongoing Pine Fire that was raging through the Los Padres National Forest at the time. After blasting through some of the early corners, my progress ground to a halt as a construction crew blocked traffic in order to work on the fire line in hopes of stopping the spread of the fire. The wait was not particularly long, but sitting in the hot summer California sun in full gear, including my FirstGear TPG Teton jacket and TPG Escape pants, even with all vents open, got pretty steamy pretty quickly. Luckily, before I melted from the heat, we were cleared to follow the lead vehicle around the work site and a rush of cooling air flushed through my jacket and pants, bringing much needed relief.

As I made my way along Route 33, through some of the most desolate looking parts of California I have ever visited, I discovered that there is a ton of energy production happening in this part of the state. Riding towards the town of Taft, more and more signs popped up for major petro-chemical companies and the occasional drilling rig began to spring up. Rolling into Taft, it became clear that what kept it alive was all of the drilling and likely fracking that is taking place in the surrounding deserts. Of course, it was not just petro-chemical energy production taking place. The blistering rays of the sun that bake California are also being harvested to make tons of solar power. Enormous solar farms stretch for miles, covering enormous swathes of desert with dark panels, providing renewable energy to many homes throughout the state. It really is quite the site to behold.

Having exited Taft, I found myself alone riding along on a straight stretch of barren highway, flanked on both sides by nothing but flatness for miles. With unfettered visibility, I felt like this was a rare opportunity to open the taps on the massive motor powering my Beemer. I have rarely ever gotten a chance to see just what kind of straight-line speed this bike can produce and with not another soul in sight, it seemed like a now-or-never kind of opportunity. With the bike still in top gear and cruising along at the speed limit of 55 mph, I rolled on the throttle and let the motor's torque work its magic. In an instant, the needle had swung past 75, then 85, then 95 and before the blink of an eye, I had already crested 100 mph. Adjusting myself into a full racer's tuck to minimize my wind resistance, I twisted the throttle fully to the stop and watched as the speedometer continued to race unabated past 110, 120, 130.

Before 140 came around, a pair of headlights appeared off in the distance, snapping me out of the speed-induced euphoria and back into reality. I rolled off the throttle and sat back up, using my body as a big air brake to help slow things down to more sane speeds. The pair of headlights in the distance had materialized into a trundling semi truck, probably not something I would want to scream by doing over 130 mph. Still, the power of the K1200S is incredible. Even approaching 140 mph, the bike still pulled as strongly as it does at highway speeds. The sheer rate at which it is able to accumulate speed, even in 6th gear, is downright eye-watering. At over 100 mph, the bike feels just as planted and confidence inspiring as it does trudging around town. That feeling of speed is downright intoxicating and knowing that there is plenty more power to tap into is both reassuring and frightening.

At this point, it is approaching 1PM and I have covered well over 100 miles since my last fuel stop. Checking my gauges and comparing against the signs on the road, I take a calculated risk that I should have enough fuel to reach the little town of Santa Margarita where I assumed fuel would be readily available. Switching my brain from canyon carving to smooth riding mode, I brought the distance-to-empty counter up on my dash and set off on the Blue Star Memorial Highway. With absolutely no one around me, I focused my efforts on steady throttle application and smart gear selection while using my body weight and the bike's momentum to get the bike to carve around corners. It was a real exercise in steady bike control and smart riding as I made every effort to maximize engine braking and avoid using the brakes to scrub my speed unless absolutely necessary. Nearly 75 miles of this kind of concentrated riding is really quite taxing on the mental state of a rider and even with my music going in my helmet, my concentration was starting to suffer as I finally reached Santa Margarita, with just 3 miles of range remaining in the tank.

Unfortunately, my earlier assumption that gas would be easy to find in this tiny town, despite its location at the junction of the Blue Star Memorial Highway and Highway 101, turned out to be a mistake. The only gas station in town appeared to not be operational and with the bike basically running on fumes, a bit of panic started to creep in. I did some quick mental gymnastics and decided the best course of action would be to hop on 101 and hope that a service station would appear mercifully soon. As I accelerated up to highway speed and tucked in behind my windshield to minimize drag, the range counter on the bike went blank, indicating I was in real danger of finding myself stuck by the side of the highway.

Of course, I am just about the luckiest idiot in the entire world because within 3 miles, I see signs for fuel stations coming up. I ride gingerly, trying to maintain a steady speed to keep my fuel consumption to a minimum without holding up traffic behind me. As I reach the sign indicating an exit with gas stations is just a 1/2 a mile down the road, I start to breathe a little easier. Moments later, I have pulled into the gas station and pulled my helmet and gloves off, inhaling a deep breath of gasoline vapor laced relief. Following my standard fill-up procedures, I top the bike off and, to my utter shock, the bike only took 4.374 gallons of fuel. Shit! I had at least another half gallon and 20-25 miles of range left.

Needing a break from the bike for a few moments I step inside the air-conditioned convenience store and snag a bottle of ice tea from the fridge and a quick snack. Taking a few minutes to avail myself of the air-conditioned environs while I made my selection. My thirst quenched and my body cooled to comfortable temperatures again, I fired the Beemer back up and cruised the final miles into Paso Robles, taking a moment to cruise through town and familiarize myself with the layout before going in search of my accommodations for the evening.

For my overnight stay, I was able to find an inexpensive, but extremely well appointed, studio apartment on AirBnB that was an easy walking distance from the central square where all of the restaurants and entertainment are located. I peeled out of my riding gear, taking a moment to wipe away the collection of bug splatter that had accrued over the nearly 350 miles of riding I had done so far that day, and hung everything up to air out while I hopped in the shower.

Feeling clean, refreshed, and sufficiently hydrated, I decided to leave the bike and stretch my legs with the walk to the central square to grab an early dinner. Having taken the time to research my choices, I had selected Artisan, a rustic-chic farm-to-table restaurant with an excellent looking menu and a prolific wine list, as my chosen spot for dinner. I settled into a booth over on the side of the restaurant where no one else was sitting and availed myself to a menagerie of wonderful small plates along with an excellent glass of Pinot Noir, a Central-California specialty. Perusing the news for the day, sipping on my wine, and fattening myself up with an early dinner, the exhaustion from the day finally caught up with me. After my second glass of wine, having switched to a lovely Napa Valley cabernet sauvignon, the steady attack of yawns and my drooping eyelids told me that it was probably time for me to retire for the evening rather than staying out to explore the town as I had originally planned.

After a good night sleeping off the booze and exhaustion, I woke up and re-packed my stuff into the saddle bags and threw on my gear to go grab some coffee and a breakfast burrito. Taking the scenic route around town gave me a chance to see parts of the town that I had not seen the day before. Paso Robles is not big by any means, but seems to have quite a bit to offer its residents. The large central park had a concert going on the night before and this morning there were people gathering for yoga. At the northern end of the town, another small, but seemingly new park for kids was starting to come to life as a few parents were out with their dogs and strollers. This sleepy town definitely takes its time waking up.

My belly full of coffee and burrito goodness, I headed back to my accommodations to load up the bike and take a few moments to plan out my ride. Setting out for home, I felt a sense of calm wash over me as I cranked up the music, settled into a comfortable riding position, and cruised onto the 101. Off in the distance, another wild fire sent a plume of smoke wafting into the horizon. As I approached Ventura county, the road hugged up against the coast, offering up stunning scenes of sandy beaches leading into the sapphire blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. If only every day could be like this...