Dancing with Danger
11 months ago in Big Sur, California
“Hi there, so, the two of us are on motorcycles…” Barron looks at me and cocks his head to the side. "Oh, right.." Id nearly forgotten - we still have plenty of cash from our gigs in Atascadero. I just start the pitch out of habit sometimes. “Anyway, my friend and I are passing through, and we’re looking for a place to grab some brews and maybe a view.” I was just being friendly. I saw the beer brimming from the fridges that lined the back room. The small convenience store had a patio that jutted out over the edge of cliff, rising a thousand feet above the jagged coastline of Big Sur. The views really don’t get any better than this. The store manager appeared discontent, but finally mustered a response that matched her body language. Stiffening up, and with some attitude, “Nepenthe’s down the street ten miles. It’s world renown. Food’s better here, though.” Convincing, huh? Pep and I just wanted to split a six-pack and relax for an hour or two. I needed to unwind after my first real motorcycle wreck.
I passed through Big Sur last summer and paid $45 for a campsite. Pep and I knew finding a cheap place to camp was going to be a challenge in the tourist trap. Luckily, a friend had tipped us off on a spot frequented by local surfers just off Highway 1. You can assume, almost without exception, that when someone tips you off about free camping, you’re looking at a poorly maintained road, probably dirt, with a handful of cleared areas for parking – pretty minimal. But, we really didn’t have another option. Plus, we felt pretty good about taking our bikes where they have no business going. It’s what, Day 46?
The road started out paved, which gave us an opportunity to shoot some GoPro footage of the unparalleled beauty found on this stretch of the coastal highway. “We’ve been on Highway 1 for almost 3 weeks. I think my expectation has finally been met,” Peppy adds between the usual, “Are you getting this?” Only a few hundred feet inland, we ride switchbacks climbing thousands of feet above the coastline. We drive in and out of clouds that lay on the mountainside like heavy blankets. We wipe our lenses clean from the condensation. With the roads this curvy, you cant risk turning your head to the side to let the wind take the moisture away. “Smell that fennel?” Barron has a bit more experience in the culinary department than me. "If fennel is in Italian sausage, then yes."
After ten minutes of riding, we find ourselves at an intersection of four trailheads. As Pep slows to a stop, I see a small sedan slowly crawl down the first trailhead that continues up the cliff. A hand pops out of the driver’s window and motions for me to come closer. “You guys camping up here?” I respond, “That’s the plan. Did you guys get set up?” “No, we rode a few hundred feet and were fogged out. If you guys plan to camp, I’d get on it before the fog hits.” I relay the message to Barron. He grins and jumps on his bike. “Better hurry! The only thing worse than riding on dirt roads is riding on dirt roads when you can’t see anything.” True that…
“This spot looks pretty nice.” I hope to hint at the fact that I’m really not interested in riding any further down the dirt road. My Concourse is a great motorcycle for long road tours, but the 700lb road bike just doesn’t perform well on dirt. “Totally, but I want to be able to look out over the ocean when we wake up in the morning. Let’s see what else we can find.” Barron, like usual, is more relaxed on the rocky, ditch infested, sand pit of a road. I find the roller coaster a bit unnecessary for our purposes. Everywhere is beautiful, and I’d be more comfortable finding a little nook in the woods than an exposed overlook anyway. To my own fault, I don’t voice my anxiety and opt for a more passive response. “That sounds nice. I just don’t want to be on this road for too long.” A little heart-racing danger never hurt anybody.
After twenty minutes of climbing, the skies grew dark as the water vapor around us condensed into a thin fog. I’m slightly irritated at this point. “Why don’t we start heading back, man? I’m not sure the views are improving, and the fog’s only going to get worse.” Pep remains to be fully engaged in his hunt. I’m clueless on whether he has picked up on my discomfort. We ride for another five minutes before Barron is finally convinced to turn back. “Alright, man. Where to? I think the first spot looked the most spacious.” I agreed, quietly. Using gravity to our advantage (it can be very useful if you position yourself correctly), we carefully turned the bikes around and headed down the mountain.
The ride down was faster and not nearly as difficult as the ride up – you don’t have to work the clutch as much on a downhill ride. Within fifteen minutes we were back at the first cluster of campsites we passed along the path. Peppy effortlessly whipped around a hairpin turn and was stopped at the top the campsite. Without slowing down, I followed his lead, keeping my eyes forward to insure I didn’t run off the side of the path and down the face of the cliff. Within a fraction of a second my thoughts migrated from, “Nice turn, Jake. Way to remember your training,” to the most unoriginal arrangement of expletives directed at my bike and my riding abilities. Dirt and sticks fly up all around me as lay down the bike down at 15 mph. Barron, listening to the entire ordeal through his headset, quickly asked if I was alright. Hed seen me go down a few times, but this time there was urgency in his voice. He was by my side before I could get to my feet. Without any assessment, I said, "Yeah, Im fine," and tried to lift the bike from its earthy grip. While I flustered, Barron assessed the situation with a clear head. "Wait!" (It takes time to collect yourself after dropping your bike. Managing your anger, guilt, and pride can be a tall order when all you want to do is get your bike off the ground.)
“Stop! Look at the bike! How are we gonna do this, man?” Barron stopped my pathetic attempt to lift the bike by myself. I was unaware of the severity of the small wreck. The majority of the bike had slid off the compact soil that made up the road and was now buried in a thick layer of sand that comprised the path’s “shoulder”. Ten feet from the path was a small collection of shrubs that provided the only protection from the depths below. Together, we managed to lift the bike to an upright position, and Barron quickly ran around to the front to brace it from rolling off the hill. “Push, man! Push hard!” I prayed that he’d be able to keep his footing. If he couldn’t, the best option was to lay the bike down to prevent it from rolling into the bushes and off the cliff.
"One, two, THREE!" Barron pushed as I dug my toes into the ground and threw my weight backwards, tugging the handlebars to my body’s limit. After a minute worth of heaves, the bike was free and running, no one was injured, and both of us felt like we just completed this year’s Running with the Bulls. We pitched camp, saddled up, and headed down the paved road to find a much needed drink.\
I didn’t really want to get back on the bike after my first real motorcycle accident. But what else was I to do? Within minutes Pep and I were looking out over the Pacific Ocean with a six-pack of Pacifico, laughing at our dance with disaster. The conversation was special for many reasons. End of the day talks are each days highlight. But that night was different. As the sun set over the blue water, we were reminded of how much we appreciated the other, for all of our qualities, different or alike. Or maybe that was just me… I glanced over as Barron sipped his beer with a look of contentment. Its my suspicion that he feels the same way.