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MOTORCYCLE DIARIES

The Baltimore Sun

A wise traveler once said, half the fun is getting there.

That's an understatement when it comes to motoring along the Pacific Coast Highway from San Francisco to Seattle.

For my wife, Cathy, and me, the road -- unquestionably one of the most scenic byways in America -- wasn't just a means of getting from point A to point B. The road was our destination.

I previously had made a similar journey in a '69 Cougar, and the scenic images have stuck in my mind for 35 years.

I looked forward to sharing the ride with my wife; only this time, for part of our drive we would be using a different mode of transportation: motorcycles.

The Pacific Coast Highway (designated Route 1 in most of California) is a virtual mecca for motorcycles, and, as bikers, we couldn't resist joining the crowd. My wife and I are both 60-something retirees who live in Harford County and have our own bikes, but because this was our first venture into long-distance riding, we rented bikes and limited the two-wheeler portion of the trip to a little more than 200 miles.

It was the most fun part.

It was a chilly morning in late September when Cathy settled into the vinyl seat of the cream-colored Low Rider. She hit the starter button with her right thumb and the bike sprang to life with the distinctive rumbling roar that bikers around the world recognize as a Harley-Davidson.

Using her left foot, she pushed the shifter lever down one click to first gear and went motoring off in the direction of where the sun sets on the Pacific Ocean.

I followed close behind on a deep-blue Harley Softtail Deluxe.

Most Harley-Davidson stores rent motorcycles. Unfortunately, for us, no store was located on the ocean drive. So we went inland about 60 miles to Eugene, Ore., to pick up our rides before heading back to the San Francisco Bay area.

It was a minor detour.

Soon we were back on the Pacific Coast Highway. The road was the show so we stopped only briefly to eat, to stretch our legs and to take in the views.

The views were spectacular.

We followed the ocean-hugging road as it passed through quaint little coastal towns, forests of towering redwoods in northern California and along sprawling sand dunes in Oregon.

We navigated winding sections where our bikes repeatedly leaned hard to the left and then the right before standing tall again as the road straightened.

There were hairpin turns where signs warned that the safe speed was only 15 miles per hour.

Along the way, we were treated to fantastic views of rugged, rocky shorelines being pounded relentlessly by frothy white waves.

There were long, sandy beaches, including one near Trinidad in northern California, that were laden with masses of tangled driftwood that resembled abstract works of art.

The West Coast shoreline is not packed with the high-rise hotels, apartment houses and condominiums that we are accustomed to seeing back east. There are many beaches that spread out nearly as far as the eye can see. It was not unusual to see only three or four people fishing or walking in the sand, with the nearest house some quarter of a mile away.

During a leg-stretching walk along a vacant beach at Ocean City, Wash., we saw spots where other beachcombers had built campfires to toast their hot dogs and chase the chill.

The road took us past ports housing fleets of fishing boats and pastures where dairy cows grazed along the ocean shore.

There was the smell of seaweed in our nostrils, and we could feel the salty ocean breezes on our face.

At times, only patches of tall grass separated the road and our bikes from the cliffs that loomed 100 feet, or more, above the Pacific.

We rode past spectacular lighthouses. Most of them we viewed from a distance while on the move.

Not so when we rounded a curve in the road and got our first glimpse of Heceta Head lighthouse, a few miles north of Florence, Ore. It was too good to zip by. Perched on a 200-foot cliff, the 1894 structure offered great views of the ocean and beach below.

It was a good spot for a picnic lunch.

Wildlife was plentiful along the way. We stopped to photograph elk roaming through the woods outside of Orick, Calif. Seals -- big, fat ones -- clustered on a muddy island just north of Bodega Bay, Calif., where Alfred Hitchcock's thriller The Birds was filmed.

We saw eagles soar overhead and pelicans diving for fish.

During an afternoon pit stop at Java John's Espresso shop on the shore of Port Orford, Ore., we were lured into doing some whale watching.

"They were just a couple hundred feet off shore a few hours ago," John, the pleasant shop owner, told us as he fixed two cups of mocha coffee.

We were excited to catch a glimpse of a migrating whale, but came back down to earth when we realized it was nothing more than a rock sticking out of the water.

The panoramic ocean views from San Francisco north to Rockport, Calif., were fantastic. Each curve seemed to offer a better view than the last.

Just north of Rockport, Route 1 turns inland and becomes Route 101 and meanders through deep forests of towering redwoods.

Route 1 and Route 101, which hugs the Oregon Coast, rank high on any list of America's most scenic roadways. If you own a motorcycle, this is the place to go.

This was our first long-distance trip on bikes. It was an experience we will long remember.

But it wasn't all fun and games.

It was a bit scary jockeying for position with those large, tree-hauling trucks driven by folks who felt the speed limit did not apply to them.

When we started on our two-day motorcycling trip, it was a chilly 41 degrees. Cathy donned rain gear over her jeans for warmth. I purchased leather gloves to replace the pair I left at home.

In addition to proper clothing, there are other things bikers think about every time they get on the road. Is that car coming out of the side road going to stop? Will that truck riding on my rear fender be able to stop if I need to stop? Am I in that car's blind spot?

It's called defensive driving, and it has a lot more meaning when you are on a motorcycle than in a car. You learn to anticipate the unexpected.

Much of the Pacific Coast Highway is wedged between the sea and unstable mountains. You keep an eye out for rocks or mudslides that people in cars don't worry about as much.

If that weren't enough to think about, we wondered how we would be received when we stopped for lunch.

We still remember being asked to leave Bruce Bitners Cafe and Grill in Churchville a few years ago, when we rode our bikes to an art exhibit at Harford Community College and then across the road to dinner. Our only offense: We came on motorcycles.

I guess it will still take more time to completely dispel the outlaw-biker image projected by the Hell's Angels and those old biker movies like The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando.

Dining was uneventful on the West Coast. Either the restaurant owners didn't notice our helmets and bikes or they didn't care. We didn't ask.

We are casual riders. We don't ride in the rain. We don't ride when it's very cold. As Cathy puts it: "We like to put-put around the back roads of Harford County."

For us, 50 miles is a long ride.

Our bikes are for recreation, not transportation. To put it simply, we ride for the fun of riding.

Traveling the Pacific Coast Highway was an adventure. Doing at least a portion of the trip on motorcycles magnified the fun.

Before Cathy and I left, we got lots of helpful advice from some of our biker friends.

It was a conversation we had with our friend Bob Branham, a Roanoke, Va., dentist and experienced long-distance rider, that really summed up the experience.

"On a motorcycle, you will feel like a bird flying in the air," he said. "Your senses will be sharper. You will see everything. You will feel free. It will be like an adrenaline rush."

Bob was right, I thought to myself as I rounded a turn on Route 101 north of Florence, Ore., and took in a new view of the rugged coastline.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE

The Pacific Coast Highway is the common name for three sections of road that run from the Mexican border to Canada. It spans about 1,700 miles. We drove from San Francisco to Seattle, a journey of about 800 miles. We limited our motorcycle riding to about 200 miles. Motorcycle rental -- We rented our bikes from Doyle's Harley-Davidson Inc., 86441 College View, Eugene, Ore.; 541-747-1033. Renters must be 25 years of age or older, have a valid motorcycle operator's license and possess the skills, knowledge and ability to operate a heavyweight motorcycle. Rental rates vary depending on the model. The fee for a Low Rider is $120 for 24 hours, $210 for two days and $575 for a week. For a Softtail Deluxe, the fee is $130 for 24 hours; $250 for two days and $625 for a week.

LODGING

Because the road was our destination, we picked lodging spots based on the number of miles we would be traveling each day. Some recommendations: The Landing at Newport -- 890 Southeast Bay Blvd., Newport, Ore.; 541-574-6777. A 25-unit condominium complex in the historic section of this fishing village. The balcony of each unit looks out on Yaquina Bay and its fleet of fishing boats, and the Yaquina Bay bridge. Rates for a one-bedroom condo range from $159-$189. Holiday Inn Express -- 204 W. Marine Drive, Astoria, Ore.; 503-325-6222. A 78-room hotel on the shore of the Columbia River that provides close-up views of ocean-going ships on their way to and from Portland, Ore. Rates are $180-$190 for rooms with river views.

RIDING TIPS

Local bike enthusiast Jim Harkins, a former Harford County executive, and his wife, Debbie, offered these tips for long-distance riding: Be familiar with your bike -- If you are renting a motorcycle, choose a bike that is in your comfort zone. Don't go for a big bike if you're not used to riding one. The weight distribution will be different and will affect your riding ability. Practice -- If you know the model of the bike that you will be renting, go to a local dealer and rent the same bike to get a feel for how it handles. Don't go too far -- Riding is more fun in small doses. It's hard to ride 500 miles in a day. It's especially hard on your body. Beware of leg fatigue and neck issues. Be safe -- If you want to have beer or wine with dinner, consider eating at the place where you'll be staying overnight. Drinking and motorcycle driving don't mix.

[TED SHELSBY]

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