Okay, Tom Milan does not really want me dead. I think he’s fond of me. Maybe a better title for this ride report would be…
“Tom Milan Wants Me to Be Completely Awake and Yet Totally Exhausted and to Stop Eating Meat and to Lose Weight and to Get Healthier and to Consider My Packing and Bike Choices More Carefully.”
Yeah, that’s it.
To give you an idea of what I thought would be some of the terrain we’d be facing on this ride, check out this email exchange between me and Tom during final the planning phase of the trip.
Tom — 12/12/13 10:21 PM: We will… leave Canyon Lake mid to late morning on the 27th, ride as much dirt as possible to Anza (gas and water stop) and then into the Anza-Borrego State Desert Park to ride Coyote Canyon to Bailey’s Cabin to camp… There is about a mile or so of deep sand on the way out and back but two-wheeled pickups make the drive; so it is doable for pretty much all bikes.
Hank — 12/13/2013 1:54 PM: A little concerned about your idea of “doable” sand — especially when taking my 530 lb. (BMW R1200) GS into consideration.* Define “pretty much all bikes.”
Tom – 12/13/13 3:20 PM: Another guy is going to ride his KTM 950. If things get nasty you guys can snuggle up together. (Uh, what?) There really is somewhere near a mile or so of cell bottom sand that could give you problems. We have enough guys to get you thru if necessary. I might have pics of the area to send to you.
END EMAIL STRING…
*It turns out the actual weight of my bike, fully loaded with gear, fuel and a soft-sided cooler full of beer was 637 lbs. I did the calculation using a scale when I got home. That’s about 60 lbs. heavier than a fully loaded Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200. Jeeze…
My son, Daniel, decided to join us on the ride. After the drama in Utah (bad weather, me crashing into a mud-filled rut, hunters who were probably poachers, an unplanned visit with the Wasatch Search & Rescue Team, etc., see “Smoothtah” Ride Report), it was comforting to know I’d have Dan along in case things got hairy. He’s dependable in that way, having hauled my busted-down ass out of the Wasatch Mountains.
We trailered the bikes to my niece’s home in Corona, unloaded, geared up and left the truck and trailer behind. We rode the last 20 miles down Interstate 15 to Tom and LindaMilan’s (space between first and last name purposely left off – that’s how we, including Tom, say her name) home in Canyon Lake, which is just south of Lake Elsinore.
Canyon Lake is an interesting community in that the Homeowner’s Association banned any and all motorcycles being operated within the community. Too much noise, I guess, from big-bore, straight-piped street cruisers and local “bros” whipping around on yappy two-stroke dirt bikes. We met the ride crew outside the front gate. There were other bikers meeting up at the front gate, too, revving engines and all. I figured it would suck to own the house next to the gate.
Along on this ride, in addition to me, Daniel and Tom, were Dave, Steve and Gersh. All are experienced riders, which is always a relief. At the end of the day, I was probably the least capable and competent. But nowhere near the oldest. Steve and I are about the same age. Gersh is a little younger. Daniel is 18 (so the hell with him). Tom and Dave are, chronologically speaking, seniors, but the kind of seniors who can pull a bus using a rope. With their teeth.
Five of us departed Canyon Lake shortly after 10am, expecting to meet up with Gersh later down the road. Tom was in charge of route planning for this ride. Having recently led the Smooth Crew through Utah and committing numerous navigation errors that nearly resulted in (or did—depending on your viewpoint) disaster, I was only too happy to buck this gig to Tom. I really had only a general idea of the areas we’d be riding through over the next three days. After a mile or so from the departure point, we turned on to a dirt road and the adventure began…
No it didn’t. The road was a dead end after a half-mile. So we turned around and rode back out to the pavement. Having been in the navigator seat, I kept my mouth shut. A few turns later we accessed a dirt trail that runs along the San Jacinto River, which at this time of year, and due to the recent drought, could be defined as the San Jacinto Sand Wash.
Sand. I hate sand.
I took the trail slow and easy on the big GS, as I’m still recovering from dumping the bike on my ankle in a muddy rut in Utah two months earlier. More on the ankle later. I was bringing up the rear, also known as “riding sweep,” which was just fine with me. The other guys, with the exception of Steve on his KTM 950, were all riding much lighter dual sport bikes.
Daniel and I were in constant communication by intercom using our Scala Rider comm systems. He was a couple of hundred yards ahead of me, calling out small rocks and ruts. Little did I know at the time how critical his eye for the trail would become later that day.
Along the trail there were neighborhoods in the distance and power lines overhead, but what I noticed most was that this little bit of wildlife refuge was a gigantic used tire dump. Tires were strewn everywhere. Hundreds of ‘em. I’ve said it before, humans are messy. From the saddle of my bike, I’ve seen tons and tons of crap dumped in and around living spaces throughout the US. Kind of a bummer.
We got back on the pavement and met up with Gersh, who took over “sweeper” duties, as he was familiar with the area. It was at this early point in the ride that Dan called out to me on the intercom, “I forgot to pack my sleeping bag.”
“Oh. Do you wanna stop at a store and get one,” I said, trying to sound like a concerned father.
“Naw. I’ll be fine.”
The low temperature at where I thought we’d be camping (altitude 1,500+/- feet) was predicted to be around 55 degrees. Dan also decided he didn’t want to carry an air mattress to sleep on. Tough kid, I guess. Me? I’m all about comfort and warmth when I’m out in the open. Pretty sure he’ll be rethinking those packing decisions before the next ride.
After vectoring on dirt access roads through farmland for a couple of miles, we picked up Stanley Road. We just blasted along, climbing into the foothills and past oddly isolated homes. It was the perfect dirt backroad for the big GS…
No it wasn’t. After a few miles of bliss, we came upon a dead-end gate with a sign that read something like…
Violators will be SHOT!
Tom was shaking his head, looking at his planned route map. Again, I kept my mouth shut. We turned around, rode all the way back and picked up Sage Road, which was a little more rocky, rutted and isolated. The homes tucked away along this road had the kind of fences you see surrounding prisons. There wasn’t a sign of life anywhere, which I attributed to the locals being busy out back, making meth or something. From there, we connected to Wilson Road and, eventually, Highway 371, which is a paved, twisty mountain backroad. Seriously fun riding.
At a fuel stop in Anza, we loaded my soft cooler with beer and ice for the campsite. Beer is considered “comfort food,” right? “Home free, baby,” was my thinking at the time.
A couple of paved road vectors later, we picked up a dirt road called Coyote Canyon. As I approached the climbing part of the road that would ultimately deposit us at our camping destination, Bailey’s Cabin, the big GS was already slip-sliding on the sand-filled road.
Sand. I hate sand.
I looked at the rapidly deteriorating “road” in front of me. No sand, thankfully, but that was because it was a rock-filled, rutted nightmare. Gersh rode ahead to check out the conditions. When he returned, he just shrugged his shoulders in that, “Well, you might die or not,” kinda way guys do with each other when they don’t really know the answer.
To his credit, Tom said we could bypass this trail and go somewhere else to camp if I wasn’t comfortable riding Coyote Canyon. Tom’s cool like that. It was getting late and the sun was heading down. I did that twisting and cocking thing with my neck and head, like Dirty Harry did just before he uttered the line, “So do ya feel lucky, punk?”
I looked at the group and said, “Oh, dear fellows, I’ll just buck up and give it my very best.”
Okay, what I really said was, “WTF,” but without using the abbreviation.
Three riders, including Dan, went ahead of me. Two stayed behind me, in case I needed help picking up the now-637 lb. bike, including 20 lbs. of beer and ice.
It was a harrowing ride. Good word, “harrowing.” Dan was a hundred yards or so in front of me and was calling out obstacles over the intercom, like, “Huge sand rut! Boulders in the middle of the road… stay right! You gotta climb a step-up rock section ahead—not good!”
Stuff like that.
I climbed about a mile and then I descended for three miles of hell into what I supposed was Coyote Canyon. I stayed on the bike and didn’t crash, but I had to stop repeatedly to make adjustments and plan how to ride the next section of nightmare. I could smell the clutch burning and felt the beer cooler pressing up against my backpack. Up to that point it was the hardest, most difficult section I’ve ever ridden on the GS. I was exhausted when we stopped at the bottom, where were greeted by a long section of deep sand.
Sand. I hate sand.
A couple of the guys rode ahead to see what was in store for us on the approach to our proposed campsite at Bailey’s Cabin. They were back about the time my heart rate returned to normal and were shaking their heads. Deep sand and hidden rocks ahead. Crap. That was it. I was done for the day. The rest of the crew seemed okay with that and we pitched camp at the bottom of the hellhole called Coyote Canyon.
I like to camp. I also like luxury hotels. I have the right equipment for motorcycle camping, like a lightweight sleeping bag, a medium-weight tent and a really cool collapsible camp chair (all purchased at considerable expense from REI, or as Bird and I call it, “The Mother Ship”), all of which tucks away neatly in a waterproof bag on the tail of the bike. My clothes fit in my backpack, and my food, water and cooking gear are stored in the panniers on the bike, along with a tool kit and a first aid kit.
And I had 20 pounds of beer and ice.
The camaraderie of the campsite is very appealing to me. You’re independent and self-reliant, yet supported by guys with the same objectives. I’ve never served in the military, but I imagine this is one of the elements of that bond I hear about. Except no one was shooting at us. Respect.
Once camp was set up and the sun went down, it started to get cold. Really cold. Turns out, we weren’t at 1500 feet, it was more like 2800 feet. And, believe me, that can make for a big difference in climate and comfort. Gersh brought up the fact that it was illegal to have a campfire in this area and that he’d already paid a $500 ticket to the Forest Service once as part of that learning experience. We observed the no campfire law for about 90 minutes and then made the decision to split the ticket if it came to that. Dan just kinda narrowed his eyes at me during this discussion. $500 divided by six guys is about eighty-three bucks each. That’s a lot of party dough when you’re 18. We made a fire ring surrounded by 40 feet of sand as a fire-break and lit up to keep warm. We figured any ranger crazy enough to drive down that canyon road in the dark deserved his five bills. And we’d have plenty of time to see him coming.
Great conversations around the campfire that night with the crew. These are interesting men, most of whom have made a good living in manufacturing and using their hands. I respect that and hoped that Dan was listening. He has the natural hand skills I wish I had.
We got to bed early. I covered up Dan with every available piece of clothing or material I could find. He did bring his camping pillow, so that was something. He fell asleep almost immediately, which he can also do in a crowded room – while standing up. Youth, frankly, is annoying.
Me? I lay awake for hours freaking out at the very real reality that I had to ride the GS out of Coyote Canyon the next morning. I was truly rattled. I was also feeling an odd, yet continual pain in my ankle and foot from the Utah crash. The ankle was supposed to be only sprained, however, a recent MRI revealed that it was, in fact, a hairline stress fracture of my fibula. I got the results two days after I returned from this ride. I’m writing this report while wearing an orthopedic “walking boot” on my right foot and ankle. Fantastic.
On the upside the beer was gone, so the bike now only weighed about 617 lbs. By comparison, Daniel’s Honda XR 650 weighs in fully loaded (including mat and sleeping bag) at around 375 pounds. Can’t imagine why I was worried.
The next morning, we had breakfast and packed up our camp. The guys quietly watched me stare at the ridiculously vertical, twisting, rock quarry path in front of me. I was very nervous, to say the least, and expected to be down on the ground shortly and often. I mounted up, did the “Dirty Harry” move with my head, applied throttle and released the clutch.
At a hundred yards up the trail I was already out of breath when I suddenly remembered to actually… breathe. We used the same ride positions as the way in: three in front of me, two in back and Dan calling out obstacles on the intercom. My focus was so intense that I finally asked Dan to stop describing the crap-storm of rocks ahead, as I needed to concentrate on the road 10 feet in front of me. I was working hard to get into a rhythm, like from my desert racing days on crappy trails like this. On a 250 lb. racing bike. It took a while – and damn near every ounce of strength I had – but I made it out. At the mountain’s peak, we ran into a group of mountain-bikers headed down into the canyon. They shook their heads at my dumptruck-sized motorbike, shrugged and blasted down into the maw.
After a short rest at the exit out of Coyote Canyon, we vectored to Cooper Cienega Road and that day’s part of the adventure ride began…
No it didn’t. We headed up and down a number of neighborhood/meth lab dirt roads until Tom gave up on his map and GPS and decided to ask for directions at a gas station in Anza.
Now here’s the irony of the day. I spent the first part of the morning on the hardest ride of my life, wrestling my big-ass bike up a mountain without stopping, or dumping it over a cliff with me attached. After fueling, I rode to where the guys were forming up, leaned the bike into the left side mounted kickstand, which I had forgotten to extend, and promptly laid the bike down. On the pavement. With the motor running. In front of everyone. As Bugs Bunny would say, “What a maroon.”
We finally accessed Cooper Cienega Road, AKA for some reason, Cooper Cienega Truck Trail. Hard to picture large trucks driving over this rocky and rutted road. Maybe if you’re a bootlegger. It was a great 25 mile ride and we could see the summit of Mt. Palomar in the distance to the southwest. While not as difficult as Coyote “Hank is Totally Screwed” Canyon, it offered a challenging ride that kept me riding slow, steady and very awake.
We got back on the pavement at Highway 79 and stopped at Sunshine Summit for lunch. It was there that Tom quietly mentioned to me that tonight’s camping destination required traversing a canyon similar to Coyote “Holy Hell” Canyon.
A man’s gotta know his limits. My limits include only one life-threatening-scary-as-shit trail per day on a 600+ lb. adventure bike. I told the guys that Dan and I would pass on this one and stay instead at a local motel in Borrego Springs nearby the campground. Then I sat there for a bit, totally exhausted, and thought, well, we’ll get to the motel at 3pm and sit there until tomorrow morning at 9am when we meet up with the guys and ride back to our starting point. Nope. We decided to bail and ride back – on paved highways – to our truck and trailer rig, drive home and sleep in our own beds that night.
My ride ended there. Tom will need to fill in the details of the remainder of the ride, but I know they all got back safely.
So, you ask, where are all the photos detailing the ride? I’ve included a couple of shots, but, the truth is that there were three things preventing me from taking many photos.
- Speed. Most of the time we were on the gas, which is a blast, but didn’t provide a lot of time for setting up shots. I’d like to point out that those old coots ride pretty fast for old coots.
- Terror. As mentioned, I was hanging on for dear life up-and down-and-up Coyote Canyon. On the few occasions when I stopped to gasp for air, I was exhausted and hanging over the handlebars like a wet rag.
- Evidence. I have a decent amount of life insurance. As I was climbing out of Coyote Canyon, the occasionally rational voice in my head was telling me that the insurance adjusters might consider riding that “road” on a 600+ lb. bike to be suicidal and would likely deny the claim. Photos wouldn’t help.
So, here’s what I’ve got to show…
Yeah, kinda anti-climactic photos after reading this long report, so I’m including photos of kittens. Everybody likes kittens. They get into all kinds of hilarious mischief. Except even a kitten would avoid riding a fully-loaded BMW R1200 GS into Coyote Canyon.
It was a long, quiet drive back to the house. I spent most of it thinking of the various ways to reduce the weight of my ride profile. Instead of beer, carry whiskey in a flask? No, wait. I had already that in my backpack. Smaller, lighter camping gear? Smaller, lighter bike? Smaller, lighter Hank? Good stuff to ponder and I’ll report back on what happens.
Overall, it was a great ride, on great trails (depending on your particular viewpoint) and with great guys — short of the part where Tom Milan wanted me dead.
Look for more HANKWENTTHATAWAY posts coming in 2014. I’ve got some great rides lined up and I’m happy to have you along for the ride!