Saturday, August 05, 2006

250 miles 'riding bitch' in the desert - Thursday 13th July

Thursday 13th July was a great start to my seeing the sights in the southwestern states of the USA - however there was to be no sketching............

A very long time ago I went out with a former luminary of the Cambridge University Motorcycle Club - and in doing so developed a certain intimacy with the back seat of his Norton Commando. I also acquired knowledge of what to wear when riding long distances in damp cold English winters, how to tell the sound of a Triumph Bonneville from that of a Ducati and what a fishtail exhaust looked like on his classic Velocette motorbike (in bits in the shed of course!). However, I mostly only heard tales about Harley Davidsons and rarely sighted one. However, the sound once heard is never forgotten! It was therefore a great pleasure to know that the people I was staying with possessed three motorbikes - his (a BMW), hers (a brand new green Harley) and "theirs" (a Harley Davidson for riding two-up in comfort. "Theirs" means it actually belongs to Louise!). The latter (see photo above) was proposed by Louise as the steed for the ride out into the desert with Dick - mainly on the basis that the seat is far more comfortable. (It is, in fact, armchair like - once you actually manage to get into it!) Louise later informed me that riding on the backseat is colloquially referred to as "riding bitch" in Harley circles! However, the greatest revelation for ne was the intercom between helmets of driver and passenger making communication simple and effective.

Technically - this was what I worked out as the minimalist sketching kit to be carried in my 'bumbag' (which I think might be known as a 'fanny pack' in the USA) - a small sketchbook Moleskine and half a dozen pencils in desert colours plus my usual pencil and pen. In reality I subsequently realised that I had the potential to use a lot of space in the topbox or saddlebag panniers - but I was trying to shed my "kitchensinkitis" reputation. Read on for why they were never used........

We headed for the Anzo-Borrego Desert through the east of San Diego county along Interstate 8 (very near the USA border with Mexico). We passed giant boulder fields of granite created by erosion due to extremes of temperature - before turning north at Ocotillo on to S2 to go north to Ocotillo Wells, then east along Highway 78 to the Salton Sea and then north to an area where the San Andreas fault is well marked.

Dick advised that we needed to start early to avoid the worst heat of the day. However I think we maybe encountered the beginnings of the intense heatwave which was getting underway in California. It was hot - very hot. So hot that, having experienced being burned through clothing before in very hot climates, when we got to Ocatillo (95 degrees my mid-morning) I decided to cover my legs with Factor 50 to avoid being burned through my jeans.

We passed the Carizzo badlands near the Coyote Mountains (see photo) and continued north where we began to follow the route of the old Butterfield stage coach. As we dropped down to sea level to ride east to the Salton Sea, the temperature increased very dramatically.

After a while I realised that I was beginning to overheat and suffer rather too much from the extreme heat and needed at the very least to stop and drink water. We stopped in the shade of a small cafe which was closed and I followed Dick's instructions for how to cool down (drinking water and wetting both my head and back of my neck). The thermometer in the shade said the temperature was 115 degrees. We were, of course, riding in full sun and had quite a lot further to go to get to where we were going - and it was only likely to get hotter. I felt it unlikely that I was going to feel any better if we continued and so we turned back and headed for a higher elevation which would cool the air temperature. After another stop and much more drinking of water I began to feel OK again - but was not much minded to sketch!

On the way back we rode through Julian and Santa Ysabel - where we stopped at Dudley's Bakery and then the local Art Gallery where I was able to view a very good exhibition of plein air work by local artists. Definitely worth a visit if you're ever in the area.

Many thanks to Dick for a great ride and for his solicitousness when I suddenly began to suffer from the heat - I'm just sorry I never got around to doing my sketch of me 'riding bitch' as seen in the back of his shiny helmet!

Links: Map of the Anza Borrego Desert State Park

Places: Santa Ysabel Art Gallery 30352 Highway 78, Santa Ysabel

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  1. Didn't anyone take a picture of you sitting on the Harley Hogg? I would have loved to see that. I would never have guessed that you were a motorcycle person. I had an accident on a bike about 14 yrs ago and have permanent repercussions from it like a limp. My motorcycle was not so grand as the one you were on. My hubby has a street bike and would love a Harley but too expensive for us. I no longer ride even as a passenger. No fond memories of my accident and recovery. So glad you are back. Missed your posts. Jeanne

  2. I like your Moleskine pack. ;-)


  3. you're very lucky...and since I grew up in the desert, and rode motorcycles...I'm more than a bit shocked that your friend took such a risk. you both are very very lucky, particularly since, being from the UK, you are not aclimatized to such exposure. i would come close to betting money that the temperature out on the asphalt was in the mid 120's if not higher.
    btw, you might be interested to know: also from my own experience (and explanations given by my physician) each bout of heat exhaustion lower one's other words, the next time a person gets over-exposed the onset occurs more quickly. I wish I had been told this many years earlier! I now have next to no tolerance to high temps. I've also been taught (a little too late) that before one goes out into such heat, one should drink loads of water and then continue to do so...just FYI, if you are going to be spending more time in the hot desert.

  4. Thanks for the comments.

    Jeanne - I don't really classify myself as a motorcycle person as such - but I do love riding them if I get a chance - and hot weather is so much nicer than cold for bikes!

    Zephyr - to be fair I think it was a calculated and well managed risk. We in fact did take a lot of precautions against the heat. I drank a lot of water before I started. We also had lots of water in the panniers and we started early to avoid the worst heat of the day. However I had just got off a plane - and as you may be aware air travel tends to dehydrate despite all the water I drink on the plane and it may have been that I hadn't fully recovered from that. Also, California was brewing up one of the hottest spells it's ever had in its recorded weather history - and I think it turned out to be rather hotter in the desert than my friend was expecting. He also gave me lots of warnings about how hot it might be - to which my response was 'let's try' ie we could always turn back if I found it too hot - which is what happened. We both knew what to watch out for in terms of symptoms of heat exhaustion and I spoke up as soon as I started to feel 'off' and had minimal exposure to the really hot temperature. And the final bit of the explanation is that we are both geology nuts - and we'll go a long way and take a few calculated risks to look at a good fault line!

  5. Thanks for sharing this and love the fanny pack idea.

  6. I love your minimalist pack and the description of riding "bitch". This is a great story.

    This site is a treasure! I'm mainly an arm chair traveler at this time in my life.


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