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The Press

GET YOUR MOTOR RUNNIN'

By Mike Salisbury
Forbes Magazine

One sure cure for a broken heart is a motorcycle trip from San Diego to Palm Springs.

I don't know what you did the day the love of your life walked out on you, but I called Chris Haines.

Chris owns Chris Haines Motorcycle Adventures, probably the best high-end motorcycle touring outfit in the country. There's nothing like getting dumped to start the adrenaline pumping, and no better way to direct it than cornering into a switchback to see a whole new vista. The eagle may fly alone, but Chris is the guy to point the way.

I last rode with his group six years ago. It was an off-road run down the coast of Baja and inland into the mountains and a place called Mike's Sky Ranch. Every detail was seen to by a chase team, leaving riders to enjoy days of back-road scenery that few people ever see, and nights drinking tequila. Lyle Lovett was along for the ride, post- Julia Roberts. (Now there's a guy who knows something about getting dumped.)

Chris's trip this year was a three-day, 600-mile ride from San Diego east into the desert to Palm Springs. All back roads. All first-class. All new Hondas. There were seven of us, three couples...and me, the eagle. Better get used to it, I suppose.

Chris picked us up at the San Diego airport in a new Ford van and the bikes were being unloaded when we arrived harborside. They were all easy-riding cruisers.

Chris provides any size bike that a rider prefers, from 750cc up to the biggest motor in cycling, the 1800cc VTX "extreme cruiser." Having a low seat height and a reassuringly low center of gravity, cruisers let you put your feet flat on the ground when stopped. Wide handlebars allow you to turn as easily as delivering the morning paper on your old Schwinn Phantom.

After a brief but detailed riders' meeting to discuss routes and road safety, it was tear-ass time, and I began my own inner theme song, "Get your motor runnin'...head out on the highway." We were off down the road like a herd of rumbling, rebel roustabouts, signaling to each other with thumbs up.

The first stop was the little western town of Julian up in the mountains, 50 miles east of the Pacific. Cruising on the near-silence of high gear through the tunnels of oak trees just outside San Diego close to the Mexican border, we slipped past sleepy border agents, old saloons and weathered general stores.

Quickly gearing down to humble the mountain, we rolled on up past blossoming apple orchards. Julian is a one-cop burg that looks like it was beamed in from the gold rush country in the Sierras. The perfect place for an outlaw biker from The Wild One.

Lunch was a noisy group affair, at the Julian Bakery next door to the old drugstore on Main Street. In our posse was Heather, the English supertall supermodel. Heather was married to Dan, the record producer from Marina del Rey, who may or may not have been the adopted son of Baby Doc Duvalier, as was rumored. (I think he started the rumor himself.)

Dan, like Heather, was chatty and friendly and dressed entirely in the all-black Hollywood look du jour. He sported a muscle shirt over his muscles and his ponytail fell out of the little hole in the back of his black baseball cap. In three days I never did see if he had any eyes under his black Oakley shades.

"I'm thinking of opening a chain of plastic-surgery clinics," Dan said at lunch. "What'ya think?"

After saddling up, Chris chose Dave, an ex-fireman who motorcycles Southern California daily, to ride point on his Shadow Aero, along with his attractive and charming wife, Marilyn. I run at the back of the pack on a wonderful 1100cc Shadow Sabre.

Motoring swiftly down, like a runaway mining train, we snake single file through the mountains, gliding over patches of snow lying in the shadows of the pine trees of Cleveland National Forest. Down we go to the Indian reservation of Santa Ysabel, waiting in the patchwork quilt of plowed rolling hills, then on to the Spanish mission of whitewashed adobe in Santa Ysabel.

Soon we're boxing with some great twisty roads that keep us getting better at corkscrewing through the hills. Each rider leans his bike into a fast right turn. Escaping through a narrow pass between two hills, the road straightens on top of a rise and the sky opens like a proscenium into the vast, empty stage of the Anza Borrego Desert.

We settle back to a comfortable cruising speed and I let some distance open between me and the other riders. There is nothing as good for the soul as desert solitude, with the white noise of a V-twin engine lulling you through the miles. As the sun begins to turn gold with its setting, we cross the Spanish Trail, the now invisible road that carried the conquistadores over the desert from Mexico, searching for the gold of El Dorado.

I glimpse Dan and Heather in my mirror. They make a beautiful team-in black leather, backlit by the sunset as they roar alongside the dotted line of our lost highway.

Now I'm starting to feel it a little bit--Dumped?! How could she dump me?! I see her superimposed against the desert sky, pale and smiling, peering out from beneath that jet-black Louise Brooks pageboy....

An explosive blast from the air horn of a highballing semi scares her away. I settle back into the healthy here and now, traveling at 100 miles an hour on two wheels, pulling up onto the ridge that is the backbone of the Santa Rosa Mountains.

This range creates the pink granite amphitheater that surrounds Palm Springs. As we throttle up, gaining elevation, the scenery changes as quickly as the canyon ride at Disneyland. Now almost silent, we cruise quickly around boulders as big as a three-story house dropped onto moonscapes of endless sand. The road drops for what seems to be a mile down into the twilight glitter of Palm Springs.

At the bottom, we hit the brightly lit highway that connects all the towns in the valley like a string of festival lights. My helmet fills with the fragrances of resort landscaping and the chlorine smell wafting from kidney-shaped swimming pools.

Looking like 21st-century knights in black leather, we motor under the porte cochere of our hotel just in time for cocktails. The hotel has an inviting bar with a good wine list and my room has a nice shower. The boys stable the bikes for the night and we all head out into the warm breezes to sample a taste of the desert paradise.

Strolling past the sidewalk cafés, under the walls of Royal Palms, are swimsuited college students wearing Gucci shades in the dark, and gold-chained old guys in tight white pants with sockless loafers. In the street, low-riding Impala convertibles jack up and down on hydraulics, irritating the rhinestone cowboys cruising by in Bentleys. Tanned young girls in bikinis ride on the backs of their boyfriends' lime-green Ninja sport bikes. It's enough to make a middle-aged guy like myself feel young again.

That is, until Heather says, "You know, Mike, for an older person you're still a pretty attractive guy."

The next morning we cruise east into the sunrise. Through the orange blossom fragrance of La Quinta, past polo ponies being exercised on boulevards of date palms. Endless green fields of golf courses are automatically bathed in huge fountains of spray like some water-show spectacular.

We enter a box canyon that Geronimo would find very homey, then, suddenly, out the other side, we are on an endless flat of blinding, open pink desert. Alongside the westbound highway that brings all the legal migrants into California we pull the bikes up to the rusting metal corpses of the General Patton Tank Museum.

After a nostalgic roadside meal of Cokes and hamburgers with blackened meat cooked hard as hockey pucks, we follow the sun into the fairyland of Joshua Tree National Park. The light rimming the cactus makes for the most breathtaking desert scenery in the entire state. Everyone is so stunned by the beauty of the landscape that we begin to lose the day before we know it.

Night is reaching toward the flat desert floor as we end this second day at another roadside attraction: Pioneertown, a charming false-front Western town built as a movie location by Roy Rogers. Pioneertown is also the home of a Western-theme 1940s bowling alley. Before packing it in and heading to the hotel for the night, Dave and I cure our desert dehydration at the bar of the wooden bowl-o-rama. "A little 'sarsaparilla' in your coffee, pardner?" As attractions go, it was second only to the looming, four-story tyrannosaurus outside Cabazon that we pass the next morning. The trip is winding down. And soon I can hear the voice from an old travelogue bidding a fond farewell to lovely Palm Springs as we gun it up to Idyllwild.

We pass a crater lake that seems to be made of glass, and pull up a hidden road into the Hideout. This is a very rural and genuine biker hangout chock full of the real thing and a few weekenders like us. We check out the endless gauntlet of bikes, slap backs and high-five. Buddies on bikes.

Bolting through the bucolic, wistful beauty of the rolling hills and grazing horses of Mesa Grande, we head home to San Diego to meet the stars on the water as twilight falls into the deep and mysterious Wildcat Canyon on the last and most challenging road of our trip. After three days in the saddle, we are up to the challenge.

Back in the All-American City, our ride is done. We do the classic, John Wayne-like dismount for the benefit of the tourists unloading from taxis at the Marriott.

Dan and Heather say good-bye. Then the rest, good companions and good riders all. I feel entirely renewed-even for an "older person." Maybe things aren't that bad for the eagle, I muse. Maybe life isn't over after all.

And I go to find a pay phone.


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