That Time We Rode Ducatis Down Pacific Coast Highway
I can’t remember the exact date I added riding Highway 1 to my bucket-o-adventures, but I can tell you, after many years of dreaming, the catalyst for action came down to one simple concept: FOMO. My friend Matt knew riding a motorcycle down Highway 1 had been collecting dust on my goal list for several years. So he did what any good friend would do—he tried to book the trip without me.
A few minutes of “can we actually do this” anxiety later, and the PTO was scheduled, the plane tickets were purchased, and I was on the EagleRider website putting down an $800 deposit on a Ducati Monster 821. Five weeks of agony followed as we counted the minutes until we could trade our corporate gingham and laptop bags for armored jackets and waterproof backpacks. We passed the time by filling in the logistical blanks. We’d pack next to nothing, carry our helmets onto the plane, stay with friends and in Airbnbs along the way, and capture the entire thing with helmet-mounted GoPros.
Meeting the Monster
Our adventure began in an industrial park garage located in the San Francisco hills. When we arrived, the shop owner was out front washing one of the other bikes. He greeted us by name and invited us to head inside for some coffee while he finished what he was doing. Some small talk, some shop talk, and then a couple of signatures followed, financially binding us to the not insignificant cost of our rentals. Then, finally, he introduced us to the Monsters. Matt was first up with a stealth-like 2016 Flat Black Ducati Monster 821—not even 10 miles on the odometer. A few minutes later I was introduced to my un-stealth-like 2015 Italian Racing Red Ducati Monster 821.
The shop owner briefly walked us through the bikes’ technology. I quietly noted how to turn off traction control. A few words of caution—easy on the throttle in low gears, no need to turn off traction control (hah, yeah right), wheelie control will help keep the front wheel down, etc.—before we strapped up and mounted the bikes. A turn of the key, a tach sweep, various lights flashing on and off, and then an invite to push the starter. The bike snarled to life. The tint on my face shield just barely hid the shit eating grin on my face.
A few uneasy clutch releases later and we were off into the San Francisco hills to test our confidence and vet our navigational skills. The first few minutes of riding were nothing short of euphoric. A few wrong turns, a stop at a random gas station to get our shit together, and finally, we headed north to Muir Woods to test our tires and nerves on the twisted mountain roads underneath the shadows of the old growth coast redwoods. The bikes rode gloriously. Light, tossable, loud and loaded with arm-wrenching torque.
We leaned the bikes hard and often as we worked our way up the mountain until we reached a lookout point. We stopped briefly to take some pictures, soak up the California sun, and greet our first admirers (a group of bros) who came down on the bikes like a fat kid on a seesaw. A few minutes chatting and taking selfies, and back down the mountain, through the shadows of the redwoods.
Then we turned south, over the Golden Gate Bridge and finally onto Highway One, where we thundered alongside winding coastal cliffs towards Big Sur and our first Airbnb stop.
When it’s my time, and my life flashes before my eyes, several seconds will fixate on the long, open stretch of highway leading up to Big Sur’s Bixby Bridge. The lookout at Bixby Bridge is a view you recognize long before you see it. A place captured in millions of photos.
Matt and I pulled up and shutoff the bikes. It was as if you’d reached the end of the earth, and the creator had forgotten to hide the edges into their world. Knowing any pictures taken with my phone would look like a potato, I almost didn’t bother. Then I look over and see Matt taking a selfie. Eh, why not?
I wish I could say the ride after Bixby Bridge provided an equally surreal experience. But construction, darkness, and a cold wind turned this undoubtedly spectacular stretch into one of the most harrowing of the trip. Adrenaline carried us to this point. But my back and shoulders grew older with each gravel covered s-curve. Cliffs inched closer on our right while a large wall of stone inched in from our left. My leans grew shallower, and I drifted closer to the wall—a danger I could see—and the cliff’s edge, a danger I could feel.
Matt and I continued to trade the lead, and I wondered if the miles were weighing on him, too. Just as it felt like I couldn’t take much more, the road straightened. Then up ahead, lights as bright as daylight. Construction lights. A man with a hardhat, safety vest and a stop sign on top of a PVC pipe stepped out into the road and held up his hand. We shut off the bikes, but left our lights on. He walked over and tells us the road is down to one lane–we’ll be stopped for 15 to 20 minutes. We kill the lights on the bikes. I glance over, and Matt has his helmet off. He’s lying flat on his back in the middle of the road.
To the City of Angels
It was midnight and we were somewhere north of Big Sur.
The construction lights were an hour behind us, and we’d exited the PCH to comb the neighborhoods for our Airbnb. Our single beam headlights pierced the darkness as the bikes loped along, down one street after another.
We were five hours behind schedule, and I started to consider the alternatives. Sleeping on the beach? No, we’d freeze. The chip aisle at the gas station we passed? No, the owner was too talkative.
Finally, the crazy thoughts lifted as we located our Airbnb. Then more relief when the owner turned out to be the laid-back, California hippy-chic, we hoped she’d be. She smiled as she came down from her wooden balcony at 1 AM, arms crossed and eyes squinted to find out who was making all that noise. Our accommodations were perfect—though I could probably have slept in the front yard just as easily and not even cared.
And what a feeling the next morning. To wake up at a stranger’s house in California with a couple of Ducati 821s sitting outside waiting for us.
And then later that day, the feeling of white-knuckled lane splitting down 6 lanes of L.A. freeway traffic. Our reward for all our slick lane splitting—a day of rest in the North Hollywood Hills with friends.
If I’m being honest, L.A was a bit of a blur. I remember climbing through a refrigerator door to eat alcoholic snow cones and BBQ (maybe would help explain the blurriness).
My badass friend Brooke made the drive from Temecula, through the type of soul crushing traffic that you wouldn’t wish on your worst enemies. I remember visiting the Viper Room in the middle of day (don’t recommend), Hollywood smelling terrible, and helping celebrate Pride week in L.A. complete with Matt wearing some girl’s jacket (picture forthcoming). Our host, a good friend of Matt’s who happens to be a producer, took fantastic care of us and reminded me not everyone has given up on their dreams. Shout out to his girlfriend who taught us never to let the hungriest person order the food—125 wings, multiple boxes of garlic bread, and 3 large pizzas later.
Despite some good times, saying goodbye to L.A. isn’t too difficult when you do it on a Ducati. We knew we needed to get back to San Francisco to catch our flight and decided to traverse the middle of the State, taking the 101. Comparatively to PCH, the 101 is simply a highway. But this is California. Nothing in California can just simply be. What I thought would be one of the least memorable parts of the trip, turned out to be one on the most beautiful. For hours, we twisted up and down mountains, blasting by struggling semis and turning our heads to capture everything we could with our GoPros. We rode down through the warm, dusty, strawberry filled farmlands, littered with saloons and road side farmer’s markets.
At some point, on a long open stretch between ranges, we stopped for gas. I remember looking back with a sense of accomplishment at the mountains we had just covered. Being out there with nothing but a backpack, exposed to the elements, and with a good friend to share it with—it’s the sort of old world freedom and open road experience that makes you reevaluate what you want out of life. I couldn’t think of a single other place I’d rather be at that moment.
This feeling was tested as we pulled off the highway for a stay at the world famous Apricot Inn. Kidding. Though the place was a dumpster, the experience of pulling your motorcycle up to your propped open motel door in the middle of nowhere, felt like a scene straight out of a movie. With the hottest part of the day behind us and sunset on its way, we set off in search of food. Matt had looked up a tavern, but its location didn’t make much sense on the map. We decided to give it a shot anyway. We geared up, fired up the bikes and headed to the motel exit. As we rolled to the stop sign, we had two options. Left to the highway or right down a service road.
We took a right that led us to a dead end. The pavement stopped, but a dirt road continued on for as far as we could see. Matt lifted his helmet shield, smiled, and then continued on. And that kids, is how we turned two beautiful Ducati Monsters into dirt bikes.
We didn’t know it at the time, but we were riding through the Panoche Hills. And we would do so for hours, without cell service, without anyone knowing where we were, and with little chance of someone coming along to help us if something happened.
The Panoche Inn
We rode for hours at not more than 30 MPH on what might as well have been ice. There’s a reason they call them street tires after all. A couple of times I thought I was going down, but the knowledge that I was financially responsible for this not inexpensive machine and the fact that Matt would have never let me live it down was enough to keep me upright. Then it happened. Miles into this ride to apparently nowhere and we are suddenly staring face-to-face with a creek—as in a water-filled obstacle of unknown depth blocking our path.
I immediately start looking around—as if a bridge is going to be hidden off to the side somewhere. Nothing. We had ridden for hours only to have to turn around. As I start to walk the bike backwards to prep for a turnaround, I hear Matt’s Ducati engine revving. I look up in time to see this chuckle-head blast right through the creek. He didn’t check the depth. Didn’t pick any particular approach angle. Just blasted through. It’s deep enough to create a cloud of steam off his engine—but not enough to keep him from making it—leaving me in the awkward position of having to replicate his stunt. So I do.
After what feels like forever, we begin to see signs of life. A few structures here and there—mostly barns or what appear to be storage sheds in various conditions. And then, there it is—the Panoche Inn. We pull up, just in time to see the sun starting to set. The owner and his wife welcome us in.
We have the place to ourselves—so we shuffle up to the bar. Looking around the place, you can imagine the memories it must hold—pictures and dollar bills from people passing through litter the walls and ceiling. For the next hour, Larry and his wife make us feel at home with homemade sandwiches, pickles, and stories of their travels. Despite having ridden through nearly every state in the U.S., Larry tells us he plans to sell the Panoche Inn so that they can travel without being tied down. The thought of him using the many dollar bills attached to the ceilings and walls to help fund their dream retirement is enough to make me smile.
As darkness begins to close in fast, we say our goodbyes, and head outside to the bikes.
The remainder of the ride is done in darkness, the only sound coming from our exhaust pipes. We continue on with the comfort of Larry’s directions in our heads and his wife’s sandwiches in our stomachs. Finally, though still many miles away, we see the lights of the highway. We pick up the pace—and finally reach an entrance to the highway. We tear up the on-ramp letting all the caked dirt and mud rip from the bikes. It’s much colder now, and I’m happy the Apricot Inn is only a couple of exits up.
The first time I experienced the Pacific Coast Highway, driving with a friend from San Francisco to L.A., it had a profound effect on me. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. The thought that my own country had a place this exotic, this mesmerizing, changed my perspective on domestic travel. But as you get older, and experience more of the world, it’s more difficult to be profoundly impacted.
Maybe that’s why I waited so long to go back—I didn’t want to ruin the magic.
But how wrong I was. Because riding a motorcycle down one of the most divine coastlines in the world is nothing short of a religious experience. In a car, you simply witness the world outside. On a motorcycle you participate. It’s the difference between looking into an aquarium versus swimming with the fish. One is safe and pleasant, the other is an experience. And as far as experiences go, California is diverse. In a matter of four days, we rode through mountains, valleys, down dirt roads and six lane highways. We felt cold, damp coastal nights, dry, dusty midland days. We enjoyed a Corona on the beach in Santa Barbara and an alcoholic snow cone (or two) in L.A.
What a trip.