Cactus Bites Bear

Two days on the road gets you to a lot of places in southern California

When The Eagles sang that “you can check out any time you like” at the Hotel California, I had naively assumed you’d be able to check in any time you liked as well. Not so. This is, after all, America.

My plane banked into its approach run to LAX before dawn (why do all the airlines arrive at such insane hours of the morning?) and, despite the usual interminable immigration formalities, it was still not yet 9am when I presented myself at my own Hotel California, the Inn at Venice Beach in — surprise — Venice Beach, CA.

I could have stayed at the actual Hotel California itself, which is just up the coast in Santa Monica, but I wanted somewhere small, comfortable, quiet and convenient to the airport. And friendly, I had hoped, but check-in time is 3pm and there was no way the clerk was going to give me the key to my room a minute earlier. As Bill Bryson says, there are no exceptions for common sense in the USA!

The clerk did let me dump my bags in the hotel’s storeroom before turning me back out into that alleged home of weirdness, Venice Beach.

It wasn’t too bad. Despite not sleeping on the flight I wasn’t really tired, so I had a proper American breakfast including food groups that haven’t even been recognised as comestibles yet in Australia and then checked out the pier and the beach walk.

In winter, everything is pretty low key, so the bodybuilders, artists and panhandlers were just strange — not yer actual extra-terrestrials. It’s really just tattoo parlours and lots of shops selling identical t-shirts, some of which are quite funny. Try “My governor can beat your governor”, with a picture of Arnie in full flight. The good restaurants and avant-garde art galleries are to the east, away from the beach.

Now pay attention. I shall say zis just wernce. American coffee is weak, flavourless, brown-tinted water. All right? From here on, every time it might seem that I could mention coffee, just remember that sentence so I don’t have to repeat it all the time, OK?

Later that afternoon, some time after I’d claimed my room at precisely 3pm, I had a Victory! Well, that’s when their truck arrived, anyway, bringing me the Vision Tour I’d arranged with the kind help of Victory staff in Australia and especially Robert Pandya in the US. It was a bit later than expected, but the truck had to come 65 miles through traffic — LA is a big place, with Big Traffic. My thanks to all.

I headed out for an evening familiarisation run and found the bike is smaller than it looks and handles perfectly well even in tight Venice Beach back streets. I also discovered that vehicles are not allowed on the road called “Speedway” and got the first of the comments that were to become a mantra. A Harley rider pulled up next to me at the lights, looked over and enthusiastically called out: “Man, I gotta get me one of those!”

I slept pretty well — apart from its cretinous check-in policy the Inn is a rather good hotel — and, although the solid boiled eggs would have been better applied as roadfill than food, ate a hearty “continental” breakfast. Frankly, I was afraid of the American breakfasts awaiting me in the cafes outside.

Loading the Vision was pretty easy. The panniers are actually tiny, but there’s plenty of room in the top box. Getting out of LA took an hour and a half, much the same time it takes to get out of Sydney at peak hour if you start in the Eastern Suburbs. The equivalent in LA is, of course, the western suburbs, like Venice or Santa Monica, which is where I was. Think about that for a moment: Los Angeles has more than four times the population of Sydney, but it takes no longer to get out.

You can see that they really do need all those freeways, though. I headed east on a crowded Interstate 10, right past the centre of the city — if you can use a term like “centre” about Los Angeles. It was slow and boring until a car pool lane opened up — they’re like transit lanes in NSW and can legally be used by bikes.

Once the traffic cleared, I gave the bike its head and found performance quite … satisfactory. The California Highway Patrol found it amusing. At almost twice the speed limit (I’d missed a sign, er, hum), one trooper gave me the high sign and mimed opening the throttle even further. I meekly declined, having been previously told that 35mph over the limit meant instant gaol.

Eventually, I turned off to San Bernardino to check out the Route 66 and Maccas museum (see Route 66 story when I manage to write it) before heading out into the eponymous Mountains, along the Rim of The World Drive. Nobody ever said the Americans were modest! This starts as State Highway 330 before becoming 18 and then 38 and is motorcycle heaven as it wends its way up to Big Bear Lake — a place I could obviously not miss.

The lakeside scenery was ruggedly beautiful, even though the mountains often seemed to consist mainly of heaps of separate rocks; kind of rubbly. Maybe it’s all the earthquakes. The Vision flew around, flipping easily from side to side and accelerating strongly out of the many tight corners.

Bear City’s museum was closed (well, it was the off-off-season) and the town itself is kind of forgettable, but the diner recommended by my mate Clem Salvadori, Thelma’s, was wonderful. The decor and my waitress could both have come straight out of an indie road movie, and the chicken soup that came with the hamburger was … ah, superb. The burger wasn’t bad, either, and reeeal big.

I now had a choice. I could continue on the Rim of the World Drive over Onyx Summit and double back almost to San Bernardino; I could take one of the back roads through Rattlesnake or Pipes Canyon to Pioneertown and on to my destination in Joshua Tree; or I could turn north and make a loop through the high desert before returning south along Old Woman Springs Road.

Doubling back is against my religion, so that was out. When I had asked Clem about the back roads he judiciously suggested they would be sort of OK on a dual sports bike, but that I’d be doing a lot of walking if I tried to tackle them on a pure road bike like the Vision. Since lots of walking is also against my religion, that left the high desert.

Good choice, actually. First, the road drops down out of the mountains with some considerable enthusiasm and lots of corners. Past Whiskey Springs and down Cushenbury Grade (wonderful names) the National Forest ends. You can tell by the huge Mitsubishi cement plant to the left. Roads are fairly narrow, but good tar. I took the turnoff for Pickaninny Buttes and then turned right again into Old Woman Springs Road, and I was “on a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair”, all right. Vented helmet, see.

There was no noticeable “warm smell of colitas, rising up through the air”, although I probably wouldn’t have known it, anyway, if there had been. “Up ahead in the distance, I saw shimmering light”, all right, but it was just the headlight of a truck coming the other way.

Strange truck, by the way, looking a little like that car Johnny Cash steals bit by bit from the factory and assembles at home, in whatever the song is. It was made up from several quite different trucks and it was not at all obvious what it was hauling.

Flashback time.

On the plane on the way over, when I told a bloke I was chatting with over gin and tonic, supplied in bulk by a tired Qantas steward, that I was going to sample the high desert, he looked at me thoughtfully.

“Y’all know th’ hah dee-sert? Lahk, ah’m from the South, but ah’ve bin theah. You bin there befoah?”

I admitted I hadn’t. My destination was Joshua Tree. I just wanted to git … er, get there the most interesting way I could. He threw his head back and raised his eyebrows, no mean feat considering the number of self-mixed gins and tonic he’d put away.

“S’a strange place. Lahk ah said, ah’m from th’ South — ah know strange m’fren. But y’all be OK.” He thought a moment. “Long as y’all don’ stop nowheres.”

Unfortunately, in retrospect, I forgot to ask him what had brought him to the high desert.

It is a strange place. There’s no doubt that the word “desert” is spot on, but over its naked brown hillsides and steep canyons are scattered lots and lots of houses with dirt driveways. Mostly they’re just shacks, although they’re obviously inhabited, but occasionally there’s quite a grand place — invariably surrounded by chain link fencing sporting “Beware of the Dog” signs. Big signs, which somehow manage to get across the idea that they’re not about any kind of little dogs.

It all felt rather remote and rather lawless, so I opened the Vision up. Not because I was spooked, you understand; just to see what she’d do. The top speed is quite satisfactory.

Well, OK, it was an indicated 120 plus. Miles per hour, of course, so just over 190km/h. That doesn’t sound all that fast, but it is on a 365kg (dry) touring bike, especially when the low seat makes it feel as if your backside is scraping the road. The suspension coped well, although I’m glad I didn’t have to brake in a hurry. The back brake’s fine, but the front could do with more bite.

I imagined myself fishtailing into the side of a truck like the one I’d seen earlier, and slowed down. But it’s still a great place to go ride up there, whether you’re on the twisty roads in the mountains or the fast, open desert highways.

Like most fuel-injected bikes, the Vision gets thirsty once you take it out of its design envelope (and nobody designs road bikes for 120mph-plus these days), so I needed fuel around about Landers. The service station/shop is run by Sikhs and I had a friendly chat with the bloke at the cash register after he recognised my steel bangle.

“It came from Amritsar, sir?” he said after I told him I’d bought it at the Sikhs’ holy of holies, the Golden Temple. “I have never been there. The family is from Fiji.”

So that’s where the Indians got to after the first coup — places like Landers, CA , in the desert high above Lucerne Valley. Bit different from Viti Levu, I thought — but didn’t say.

I came to Joshua Tree with my nose burnt bright red. The high desert is not kind to your skin, even on a winter’s day and even if you slather on the 30+ repeatedly. The air is thin and very dry and the UV seems to get through it quite nicely.

When I’d booked my room at the Joshua Tree Inn I had, without really thinking a great deal about it, settled for the Gram Parsons room. Parsons, who effectively invented country rock and whom I’m sure you remember from the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, had his favourite room, number 8, at the Inn. He spent a lot of time there when he wasn’t on acid and looking for UFOs out in Joshua Tree National Park. He died there, too, supposedly of an overdose of heroin and booze, although that’s been challenged by his friends.

The Joshua Tree Inn is a bit like a rather upmarket version of an old-fashioned motel. It’s getting a bit worn now, but in an honest sort of way. Room 8 looks out on the Inn’s courtyard and a small memorial to Parsons, consisting of … well, just stuff that people bring. A packet of cigarettes, a bottle of booze, a vase with some dried-up flowers. Lots of blotting paper. No, just kidding about the blotting paper. Or maybe not. I’m not sure. Memory … going …

The room is big and comfortable and the Inn’s management has equipped it with a small CD player and a collection of Parsons’ CDs as well as a memorial book. There were many heartfelt current entries, which is impressive considering Parsons has been dead for 35 years.

It’s all really gentle and kind of sweet and unutterably sad. I had a couple of beers (a tasty dark lager from Michelob) in Gram’s honour, sitting at the small table just outside the room, but decided against being too literal and hitting up as well. Just kidding, truly.

As I drifted off to sleep that night, I thought about Parsons lying there, looking at the same ceiling and wrestling with his demons. Presumably he also wrestled with his “protégé” Emmylou Harris here, I thought, and went to sleep. A great night’s sleep, by the way, and a pleasant breakfast. I recommend the Joshua Tree Inn wholeheartedly, even if you’re not going to load up on drugs and go look for UFOs.

In the morning, I rode out to look at the real reason for my visit, Joshua Tree National Park. I’m not really into Dark Tourism. This is as spectacular a national park as you’ll find anywhere. It straddles the line where the high, or Mojave, desert meets the lower Colorado Desert, so it includes a great variety of scenery and vegetation — but there’s nothing quite like the stark Joshua Trees themselves.

Oh, as a coda to the “encounter” with Gram Parsons, here’s what Wikipedia has to say about his last connection with Joshua Tree:

“Parsons stated that he wanted his body cremated at Joshua Tree and his ashes spread over Cap Rock, a prominent natural feature there. However, Parsons’ stepfather arranged for a private ceremony back in New Orleans and neglected to invite any of his friends from the music industry. Maintaining [an] alleged promise, [two of his friends] managed to steal Parsons’ body from the airport and, in a borrowed hearse, drove Parsons’ body to Joshua Tree, where they attempted to cremate it by pouring five gallons of gasoline into the open coffin, and throwing a lit match inside. What resulted was an enormous fireball. Police chased them, but, according to one account, ‘were encumbered by sobriety’. The two were arrested several days later, but since there was no law against stealing a dead body, were only fined $750 (or $700) for stealing the coffin.”

Encumbered by sobriety, eh? Not a problem Gram Parsons himself ever had, I’d wager.

But I can completely understand his fascination with the park. Despite it being a desert — two deserts, even — its combination of startling landforms and ancient vegetation makes it a spectacularly rich area. In the north, the main focus is on groups of tall, red rocks dotted artistically about the place; Cap Rock is one of these. They’re popular with climbers. The south is more the wide-open sweeping plains kind of desert, but with plenty of mountain ranges in the distance.

It’s all quite wonderful and the park’s roads take you to many intriguing places. There are both sealed and gravel roads in the park, both types in good condition — the US Parks Service seems to have a decent budget for infrastructure. Bikes cost only $5, as against $20 for cars.

I rode out along an excellent if occasionally bumpy tarred road to Keys View, for example, where I looked down at the San Andreas Fault running through the Indio Hills on the edge of the Coachella Valley. One day, that will let go and the effect will be earth-shaking, literally for California and metaphorically for the whole USA and the rest of the world.

One hilarious experience — for the people watching — is a visit to the Cholla Cactus Garden. These cacti, commonly known as “jumping chollas” for a reason that will soon become obvious, are not especially attractive. They’re certainly nothing like the other-worldly ocotillos a little further along that look as though they have invaded from Mars in all their spindly, bright glory. But the chollas have a party trick, as I discovered.

Walking back to the bike after a quick look, I noticed there was something stuck to my boot. It was a cholla fragment and I reached down to remove it.


As I touched it, the small section of cactus literally — literally! — leapt at my hand and attached itself with what felt like several dozen viciously barbed hooks. It seems the cholla has naturally spring-loaded spines that snap it around to jump at anything that touches it.

One of the onlookers took pity on me after he’d stopped laughing and advised that I ask for first aid at the visitor centre. Trying to put a brave face on a lacerated hand (not easy all by itself), I attempted a joke with the park ranger at the desk and got a lesson in the sometimes… surprising literal-mindedness of Americans.

“One of your chollas jumped me!” I said brightly.

“Sir, you are saying that you have been stung by a cactus?” she asked. Maybe it was my accent. She was very helpful after that, mind you, and gave me some cream to put on my many tiny wounds.

Heading back to Los Angeles, Interstate Highway 10 beckoned just after the southern park boundary. I refuelled at Thousand Palms; the Victory’s on-board computer will tell you how far the remaining fuel will take you until you do get a bit low, when it freaks and gets really anxious.

On the way west, I suddenly found myself passing the first wind turbines I’d seen in California. Then there were some more, off to the other side of the freeway, and then as the road tipped down through a mountain pass near Banning they were suddenly everywhere. Ranks on ranks of the white posts and props filled the entire width of the generous pass and spilled down into the valley beyond.

It was a bit eerie; you could be forgiven for thinking these things were really propellers, designed to slow down the rotation of the Earth or to steer us off to some other solar system that Californians preferred …

“My governor can beat your governor”, remember?

Then I was on highway 60, rolling through endless suburbs, and eventually back in the ubiquitous LA traffic. I rejoined I10 near what passes for the centre of the city and followed that to the high bluffs overlooking the Pacific and, incidentally, the end of Route 66 as well.

When I got off to take a photo of the humble bronze plaque, I found that the Vision’s seat had been kind to me: even after a long day’s riding I was able to walk without creaking or agony. High praise for any motorcycle seat. The Victory’s doesn’t allow you to move around, but it is comfortable.

The last photos I took on the ride were of the bike outside the Hotel California, on Ocean Avenue in Santa Monica. And, of course, that reminds me that there’s a Parsons/Eagles cross link to this story as well. The song My Man on the Eagles’ On The Border album was written by Flying Burrito Brothers alumnus Bernie Leadon … as a posthumous tribute to Gram Parsons.

Fortunately, when I turned into the parking lot of the Inn at Venice Beach, it was after 3pm.


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