It’s 0 Celsius, we’re navigating though the occasional bout of slush and the bikes are now thoroughly coated with sand, gravel, salt and road spray. I haven’t had time to plug in the heated vest, I’ve been too busy working the bike and that’s warmed me up naturally. No, I’m not having flashbacks to a mid-winter Vancouver to Squamish coffee run back home; we’re riding through Sequoia National Forest towards the day’s highest point, 6102 feet, at Greenhorn Summit.
Leaving Buttonwillow this morning, the Touring and Sport groups immediately take amicable leave of each other with the goal of meeting up at Lake Isabella. Last night the rains and downbursts began shortly after check-in and our intoxicated dinner revelry. Marginal food, keeping with the look of the place, was served up with cold fries and microscopic tri-tip by an overwhelmed waitress.
Leaving such fare behind, we exit Buttonwillow eastbound on the ruler-straight 58. In a bit of a jig at Bakersfield, Evan provides some entertainment with a classic GS-style egress from the freeway after overshooting our exit… damn kids these days! We hit the 99 and the 204 in quick succession before heading north-east towards Woody on Granite Rd. It starts slow though rolling dry ranch lands, oil fields methodically exhuming liquid dinosaur from the earth, and road of questionable quality, but it’s building in character and flavour, tightening as it goes. The day’s slippage award goes not to Buttonwillow, but Green Briar Vistas, a palatial stone archway, over a worn dirt road, leading to a single exhausted and fragile trailer overlooking a field of oil pumps; some places slip naturally, this one had some extra lubrication. About 15 miles later we swing onto an asphalt tributary, the Woody Granite Road.
RPMs climb as quickly as the elevation, excitation and adrenaline. It’s good fun and competes with the high bar set by yesterday’s ride, except the granite in “Woody Granite Road” apparently refers to its gravel incarnation periodically found strewn across the corners. We refuse to touch the Woody part, some clichéd puns are just to easy. Throughout our rather spirited and winding ascent the scenery transforms, the dry ranch lands and oil fields have given way to a more mountainous and cooler palette of greens, blues, and a menacing dark sky.
We pull off into Woody, a general store masquerading on the map as a town. Regardless of the map’s accuracy or my inability to read it properly, it does provide a bit of insight into the next leg of the day’s ride, words that bring a certain joy to the heart of motorcyclists everywhere: “Caution: Steep Winding Road”. But before we set out with an eye to beat out the menacing sky, Declan puts out an understated warning.
“The roads are likely to have a bit of gravel on them, the road elevation climbs quite a bit.” I haven’t known Declan long, but he has a quiet, sharp sense of humour that often relies on you catching the understatement in it. It can be pretty entertaining, provided you’re listening carefully.
At first all is good, then a bit more gravel starts to appear… I switch the VFR’s temperature gauge over to ambient from engine; 10 degrees Celsius and falling. We continue to wind and climb. The pace slows off considerably and the bikes begin to space out. I back off from Tom, who flew in from Denmark to make the ride, because his mount, the Blackbird, is slinging up a good amount of road spray and gravel from the rear tire. He’s on the brakes a lot now. The temperature is 5 degrees and snow has appeared at the road’s edge.
A few minutes later we’re at 0 Celsius, freezing, and still climbing; we’re still below the summit. Thankfully the temperature holds, that or Honda’s engineers never anticipated anyone would be foolish enough to attempt sub-zero romps and left that functionality out. This is where the occasional bouts of slushiness patch the road, and I begin to expect ice. Thankfully, that expectation is never met, though I have new respect for how sure-footed the VFR is.
A little taste of the North… in California.
We make a quick stop for a photo and video session at 6102 ft, here Greenhorn Summit’s air is a bit thin and Kevin makes mention that the Magna is gasping a bit for air and not running at its finest. Luckily the descent is steep, it’s also down the warmer eastern slope of the summit which sees the sun more often. Conditions and temperature improve rapidly, soon we are slush and gravel free as the bikes course downwards towards Lake Isabella, where we meet the Touring Pack at that great global institution (no, not Starbuck’s) McDonalds.
From Lake Isabella our groups merge. The 12 bikes bullet train out of town toward our evening’s dual destinations, Bob’s martini and Ridge Crest… after a minor navigational faux pas, which saw a good half the bikes power-shrinner-ing with Bob in the lead. From the sounds of it, taking the wrong exit out of Lake Isabella is a Top of the Hill Club tradition. The rest of the ride to Ridge Crest along the 178 flowed easily and quickly as our tires through the sweepers as we skirted the US Naval Weapons Center to the north of us. One can’t help but speculate what machinations the military has developed there as you ride by. Kevin puts the camera away.