By: Mario di Prete
We all have those special places that have unique meaning, that evoke our best memories, and that can take us back to another time in our lives every time we visit them. For me, one of those special places is a part of the Mojave Desert—the portion north of Castaic, California, to a small town right out of the pages of the old west: Trona, California.
The majority of my years were spent riding various styles of street bikes, from high revving 2 strokes of the 70's, to the modern superbikes like my Ducati 1098. Somewhere mingled in-between were, and still are, an eclectic collection of dirt and dual sport motorcycles; all an obsessive hobby that managed to deliver some of the most memorable experiences from my adolescence to present. My latest off-road trip to the desert had the classic underpinnings of a mid-life crisis; an older motorcyclist yearning to recapture some of his youth. I was searching for dusty isolated back roads that our forefathers may have taken when southwestern and central California was considered Republic of Mexico. I found them last November with the help of the BMW Off-Road Riding Academy located just off of I-5 in Castaic, California. A two day off-road training course on a R1200GS, followed by a two day ride into the Mojave is where my adventure begins.
Training at the academy began after a hearty breakfast with cups of steaming hot coffee, punctuated with good conversation from riders who eagerly anticipated the day's itinerary. After obligatory introductions, range orientation and safety brief, we were ushered to our awaiting bikes for the day's exercises. The course covers everything from clutch/throttle control, to negotiating deep sand washes, all on a 200 acre ranch discretely tucked away from civilization. These big off-road bikes command a lot of respect. It has been 33 years since BMW Motorrad founded the segment of large touring enduro motorcycles. The "G" in GS stands for "Gelande" (terrain), the "S" stands for "Strasse" (road). The GS models have earned victories in the Paris-Dakar races of the 1980's, and quickly became the mount of choice for world adventure riders. These are heavy bikes with shorter travel suspension and expensive parts, compared to the spirited pace that's possible on lighter bikes. Riding the "heavies" is a different kind of riding, like training with a medicine ball. The idea is not to smash into things so much as to roll steadily over or through them. This is no easy feat for a 500 lbs. plus motorcycle capable of velocities well above posted speed limits.
In keeping with the spirit of adventure, we pushed our bikes and ourselves under the watchful eyes of our coaches. During one downhill exercise I encountered a flat tire by running a little wide in a turn and trampling over some thorny vegetation. The coaches took advantage of my misfortune and turned it into a teachable moment by gathering riders around my crippled bike and provided a narrative of tubeless tire repair 101 while I performed the steps in sequence. This would turn out to be time well spent since I was not the only one who would experience this minor setback during the next few days. With the tire plugged and filled with air, I was back in the game learning how to negotiate my GS over loose, uneven terrain, all with increasing confidence. With two days of solid training behind me and storied history of the marquee to marvel at over dinner with fellow riders, the urge to explore my new found skills and machine in the desert was irresistible.
The following morning began with stuffing my off-road riding jacket pockets full with trail snacks, journal, camera, sunscreen and other items that I might need for the two day ride into the desert. With 3 liter camelback straps snugly fastened to my shoulders, I headed out to the staging area with 20 other likeminded adventure riders on similar bikes; most were BMW's, a light number of Triumph Tigers and a Kawasaki KLR complement the group. While running through my pre-ride check list searching for any mechanical gremlins that may be lurking about, I was also preparing mentally. Keeping in mind that I have a wife/kids/job, so planning to end day successfully, and getting up the next morning ready to ride again was at the forefront of my mind. This is an actual visualization that I do while putting on the gloves and helmet and the other ritualistic things that go along with getting my head wired on straight to go riding. The GS is a bike that requires a level of respect. And I most definitely respect rocks, ground, trees and mountainsides. As I mounted up, I was thinking about other ways to mitigate the risk so I could fully enjoy the ride deep into the desert.
The pace is steady, and rest breaks to consume much need water and take scenic photos are regularly scheduled throughout the day. Surrounding the aired desert is a wide range of geological attractions, dramatic vistas, and historic curiosities. The Mojave is a welcoming base for exploring the region on adventure bikes, small towns like Jawbone, California dot desolate stretches of two-lane black top back roads; we use these roads to connect some of the dirt trails together. These little isolated towns seem to draw subsistence income from visiting off-road motorcyclists and motorists alike. It reminds one of what it must have been like during the early days of travel on Route 66.
Off-road, you won't be skipping any whoops or flying high over jumps with these heavies. That's where the training and experience come in. Sometimes taking patience to conquer an obstacle is the best course of action; consistency and predictability is valued over speed. Given the harsh desert conditions and long distances between destinations, the ideal adventure motorcycle for exploring the area is capable of 65 mph or more on the empty two-lane highways, and is willing to tackle sand and rock-strewn single-track trails… just like the one I'm riding… moto-bliss in a dusty rugged kind of way. No traffic, no thoughts of the daily grind of life that often consume our very being, just the mechanical symphony of moving engine parts coming together in harmonic conversion on the black top. The taste of mother earth as you ride through dust plumes left by the rider in front of you as you match wits for the best line on the trails. The satisfaction that you were able to do all this with acquired skills and confidence is pure enjoyment!
Out in the Mojave, the sky provides half of the scenery. It's a dazzling cobalt blue with a few cumulus puffs here and there. Their shadow can be seen on the valley below. I can feel the warm breeze and I am greatly satisfied by the earthy smell. Right here, right now is when I succumb fully to relaxation and sit next to my motorcycle gazing upward into the brilliant blue sky. I have found my special place with unique meaning once more and will soon file it with my other moto-memories.
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