Fire Ride – I take a motorcycle trip through the heart of darkness

Bandon, Oregon. Even though this town is on the coast, this is not fog, but 90% smoke. Pictures don’t do it justice since you can’t smell the burning forest in a picture, but you certainly can when riding through it. I invented a Walti Air Quality Rating System on a scale of 1-5, 5 being worst. This is a Cat 3.

13 Days, 4100 Miles and 9 States on a Motorcycle

This trip was suppose to be about freedom and the Rhythm of the Road, but turned into a hazy view of our collective future. For those of us who live in the Western U.S.– and I’m not just talking about the coastal states — we can expect region-wide forest fires will be a common occurrence. Millions of acres will burn, dozens of people will die, and entire towns will be wiped off the face of the map. Economic sectors will be destroyed (think lumber), companies will be sued into bankruptcy for sparking fires (think PG&E), and wearing a mask will be a habit long after COVID exits the scene. This will happen every year. There will be no more “escaping the chaos of the city to my little cabin in the mountains.” Even if we live far away from the fires, they will impact our lives as our skies will be clouded and grey the entire summer. What do we do? Where do we go? My answer is Mexico: )

I don’t care if you think this is caused by climate change or not, we have moved into the Age of Extreme Living and anyone who doesn’t recognize this is an idiot. Since when are signs pointing the way to evacuation centers common along a highway? Or 107 degrees in the shade in downtown LA and 117 degrees in Woodland Hills. Bad hurricane after bad hurricane on East Coast. Torrential rains every day in our home south of the border. I’m sorry to be such a downer, but I believe its better to recognize the challenges (and maybe start mitigation) than to ignore them and  hope for the best.

What started out as a “fun get away” turned into something much more meaningful.  It forced me to confront the cycle of extremes that I thought were just temporary occurrences and ponder a continuous future of them.  Reading about them on the NYT or seeing them on CNN allows us to flip the channel or page.  Riding through them for days and days makes it much more visceral.  Smelling like a campsite 24/7 is strange.  I can’t imagine the terror, disruption and despair the people who are living in the region are going through.  I felt guilty that I could, in fact, ride away while so many could not.

This trip started innocently enough, as many bad things do

I hadn’t been on a motorcycle trip for a year and I needed to get back on my bike. It’s bad enough that I haven’t traveled anywhere in the past six months for a guy who was always traveling, but I needed a m/c fix. Badly.

I told Karen that I was going on a m/c ride and invited her to come along. After all, 99.9% of our motorcycle trips have been taken together. My idea did not go down well. “Oh sure Fred, (not the warm and cuddly Freddy that I usually get), that’s a great idea. Go to a different town every day and check into strange motels and eat at strange restaurants in strange towns. There’s COVID crisis going on, you idiot! I think you should rethink this. Plus, I’m not leaving the dogs for a month.”

This is where the innocence starts to wear off

The pull of the riding my motorcycle won over.  I was prepared to take all the “necessary” precautions like wiping everything one touches beforehand, always wearing a mask, keeping safe distances, etc.  A cold front moved through the Walti/Rutherford household when I told Karen I was still going.

I flew to LA, did some administrative stuff (we’ve been in Mexico for two months), got Now Voyager II out of storage and got ready to hit the road. I was going to go north east through Canyon Country (Utah) when the Heat Wave of All Heat Waves struck Southern California. Record temperatures throughout LA. Heck, it was 107 in the shade next to Factory Place. I thought it would be stupid to ride through the desert in triple digit temperatures.

So, a quick change of plans — let’s go straight north along the coast and at some point turn right and hit Utah, etc. This is where the Real Stupid kicks in as I wasn’t paying too much attention to the NUMBER ONE DANGER in the West: fires. After all, we Californian’s are used to fires this time of year. Yes, they cause huge damage and take up the news for a cycle or two, but what’s the big deal, that’s someone else’s problem. Like I said, stupid. Not informed. Basically too focused on my stuff to really look around. All I cared about was getting on the bike

First destination would be Big Sur. I’d cruise along the coast and maybe spend the night there. I got as far as Rocky Point and the road was closed. There were signs for the previous 50 miles, but I didn’t believe them. When I got to Rocky Point, I asked the coffee guy (through a window)t why the road was closed? “Fires” he said.

For the next three or so days I rode up the Coast of California and Oregon, going deeper and deeper into the fires despite I was trying to get out! Soon, I was amongst the more than 200 fires in California, Oregon, Washington, and Idaho ( my planned itinerary), millions and millions of acres burned, scores of communities and cities torched, huge amounts of forest gone along with the economy they drive. Fires were literally burning from the Mexican Border almost to the Canadian Border.

Walti’s Air Quality Rating System

After close consultation with the California Air Resources Board, and working in conjunction with the CDC, I developed my own air quality rating system based on in-the-field experience. Expect to see this on CNN the next news cycle.

Cat 1: Irrelevant this trip as there were never clear skies. But I remember what Vallarta looks like.

What Cat 2 air looks like. You’d swear it was fog, but it isn’t.

Cat 2: Like a really bad Los Angeles Smog day, but you can occasionally see the sun. Sky is light grey, but the grey never ends either up or around. At this point, you’re thinking a breeze or light sprinkle would be good.

Cat 3: No sun, dense grey smoke that you’d swear was fog, but it smells. Visibility is 1/4 mile, only a block of that being clear enough to see any details. When you get off the bike, you smell like you’ve been sitting around a camp fire. Most of the parts of California and Oregon I rode through were Cat 3.

Cat 4: Oregon and Washington over the Cascades. Thick grey and brown smoke. Flakes large enough to see. No one is outside. Visibility is so bad you can’t really see much beyond the side of the road. Visibility ahead is less than a block, and then only shapes appear. This is scary stuff as I can’t imagine the terror if you lived in an area that was going from Cat 4 to Cat 5.

Cat 5: Add flames to the Cat 4. I didn’t see any Cat 5, but I knew they were all around.

Go to the video

Words don’t describe the experience adequately. Videos do better. Those sharp readers among you will notice there aren’t any videos after a few days into the trip as the camera ran out of juice because I lost the power cord along the way: )

Fire Ride Recap (Day 5) : Overview

Day 1 -Ragged Point: Ragged Point

Day 1 – Ragged Point Fire Ride: Ragged Point Fire Ride

End of Day 2 (Mendocino): Day 2 Recap

Hwy 1 Along the Coast/Not Fog: Not Fog, but Smoke

Into the Forest on Hwy 1: Hwy 1: Into the Mountains

Day 3 “Plan”: “North” is the Plan

Day 3: Garberville and Murder Mountain Territory: Garberville

Day 4: The Worst Air – Cat 4: The Dalles

Lake McDonald/Glacier National Park: Lake McDonald Lodge

“Going to the Sun Road” through Glacier National Park : Sun 1

“Going to the Sun Road” 2: Sun 2

It took riding through seven states to get to clean air (Cat 2). Satellite images of the fires in the NYT showed the smoke covered the entire country from Left to Right Coast (BTW, why is the NYT doing a great job covering the fires and the LATimes only doing a so-so job?) . Only the Southeast looked clear.

The Good News — the country is in full COVID work-around-mode

If you think the country is shut down because of COVID, just venture out of the house. In town after town, I found hotels, restaurants, gas stations, retail stores, attractions, etc. all open for business, but not in the normal way. I saw…

  • 99% of all establishments required face masks to get in. See below for the 1%.
  • One Starbucks used a bouncer (his description) to keep us early morning coffee hounds waiting in line to keep us orderly. Want sugar in your latte? Ask for it and they’ll put it in the coffee.
  • Restaurants not accepting walk-ins, only reservations. Large parts of said restaurants were taped off. The popularity of booths has skyrocketed. Many Indoor restaurants closed, but their outdoor sidewalks were full and their kitchens were humming
  • Every kind of face mask and pseudo face mask possible, including a new emphasis on fashionable masks.
  • Plastic shields everywhere: between you and … the cashier, next door diner, and the Blackjack Dealer and your fellow gambler
  • Hotels with notices of how they’ve cleaned the rooms, restaurants using packaged and sealed tableware, etc.

There were of course exceptions:

  • Lots of people not wearing any masks
  • Or those who were only technically wearing a mask, with it dripping down over their chin, etc.
  • There were lots of bars open in which no one appeared to be wearing a mask after the first sip of beer. I only peeked in, of course.
  • And the winner for dumb ideas: one restaurant in Utah stopped me from entering because I was wearing a mask! They only allow people with no masks in. I could, of course, use the to-go window.

Now, let’s go to the pictures

Before I shoved off, Cindy, Peter and I had an “urban picnic”. We found a deserted courtyard in one of the new apartment buildings in the Arts District and had dinner.  Not sure I’d want to walk out the front door every day and look at that mural: )

There always needs to be a before shot. Now Voyager II is thinking, “What took you so long? I’ve been waiting almost a year!”

Man and Machine are never far apart. In the hotel room, checking to make sure NVII is comfy.

By far and away the best dinner took place at the Little River Inn, Mendocino. Outdoor dining only by reservation. It was nippy enough that the heaters were needed. During this trip, temperatures went from a low of 36 to a high of 90, often during the same day.

Same message has probably been on the sign for decades. If you want to see what the 70s were like, come to Garberville today as it remains Hippie Central. It’s also the capital of the Weed Growing Business. It’s located in a part of Northern California called the “Lost Coast.” To get a flavor, go to Netflix and watch “Murder Mountain”…

Even the fish were taking precautions in Oregon

Road Warrior Fire Ride Edition. Underneath the scarf is a a full COVID mask. Both of which were under a face shield. Still, I could pretty much taste the wood burning.

The low point. Had just made it over the Cascades, encountering Cat 4 air for hours, and expected that the smoke would die down since I was east of the Cascades. Very wrong. Couldn’t go any further, so found a hotel in the Dalles (Oregon) with Sam’s help. Dinner served with hand sanitizer and a Screwdriver.

While watching the news in my Dallas hotel room I saw this story of beach goers in Hermosa Beach, LA, where KR and I lived for close to 10 years. Just goes to show you there are crazy people around the country in all climates: )

First good thing about this trip: Lake McDonald Lodge, on the Western Gate of Glacier National Park. Great, old hotel built in conjunction with the railroads to attract tourists in the late 1800s. Karen and I have been there twice, but never able to get a room. Not a problem in these times.

Lobby. During its day, this was a “grand” lobby. Now, its gorgeous, but cozy in scale.

Road Warriors can find office space anywhere. Learned that the promise of “Free Wi-Fi” doesn’t mention where you can get a signal, which in the McDonald’s case, was only in the lobby.

If only it were so easy.

Does it get any better than this? Making the list of things to get done on your motorcycle

I had a string of pretty good hotels after the McDonald. This is the Grand Union in Fort Benton, Montana, the oldest hotel in the first city of Montana. Both hotel and city probably peaked in the 1850s.

Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Alive and kicking.

For those of us still kinda conservative, its possible to find places to eat outside and away from people. This is Jackson.

Aside from the Pizza, not sure I agree with the message. Yes, staying strong is important but I think we’ve all been too calm:) We need to make some pretty radical changes if we’re ever to change the extreme living cycle. IMHO.

Moab, Utah. How can you not stay at a hotel with a motorcycle on the roof? Basic, but good accommodations, except they recommended the Mexican restaurant next door which was both awful and booze-free. Maybe one impacted the other?

They obviously have their advertising message honed.

OK, now we’re starting to get to the good stuff! Highways 12 and 89 in Utah are very good.

Notice the color of the sky. We’re now in “Canyon Country” Utah. This is a place to put on your “go there” list, on a m/c, RV or car. Hours and hours of scenery like this.

Happy camper for the first time in 11 days

Sam was tracking my progress via some app named Life 360. It reported 331 “high speed events,” many of which occurred on this road. NVII was solid as a rock at 110, even with knobby tires.

Up and down and up and down. This is the peak at 9500 ft. elevation on Hwy. 89, still in Utah.

Then, in the middle of the desert brown of Canyon Country, we come into an oasis of greenery.

I know what you’re thinking, “How many f___ing motorcycle pictures do we have to look at? This is close to the end: ) Typical of the small “towns” scattered along the highways of Utah/Arizona/Nevada. This is notable for two reasons: first and only restaurant I wasn’t allowed in because I had a mask on (no kidding) and stopped at a Dairy Queen and had my first shake in a long time.

Motel in Bryce Canyon. It came with…

An appropriate bathroom for a tired biker: )

Last stop was Vegas. Took a couple of Zoom meetings, had a Corona and got a few hours sleep. Left at 3AM in order to cross the desert before temps got to the 95 they were when I arrived.

NVII awaiting to go home. He was anxious to beat the heat too.

That’s it for now. I hope everything is going well for you and yours.