By lex, on January 2nd, 2006
I’ve been putting it off for far too long, but every time the urge came to throw a leg over it and go and find some twisty mountain roads, the weather has conspired against me. Which when you think about it, is not so very easy a thing for the weather to do in San Diego, but there it is. It wasn’t perfect yesterday, either, the rain having fallen all through the night. But by 0900, the sun had broken out, Mount Palomar is nearly an hour to the east, and reckoned that by the time I got up there, the roads would be mostly dry.
I was mostly right.
There are a couple of good motorcycle maps for the San Diego county area. This one has some great pointers on where the twisty’s are (as well as the CHP), while this one, from someone named “Ducati Girl” (I admit to being intrigued) is less detailed but more up-to-date. I used them both.
As I puttered out to the east, climbing past Lake Hodges, the weather turned cool and I was grateful to have brought along an extra sweater for underneath my riding togs. I took a lot of pics, since riding takes most of the attention you might otherwise allot to framing memories. This shot I took about half way up to the mountain, looking back.
There are two main roads to Palomar, the S6, or South Grade, and the S7, or East Grade. Here’s a cool topo map from a “Pashnit” motorcyclist’s website, while the US Geological Service graphic below was lifted from the same site, and gives you an idea of how the different roads are laid out:
The next two pics are the reason why Mt Palomar is a kind of Mecca to motorcycle riders:
There’s great carving to be had on the South Grade, and this time of year I was the only motorcyclist I saw on this route. There were a number of bicyclists from three or so elite racing clubs who were doing the climb, which rises from about 2000 feet above mean sea level to 5500 feet in a matter of seven miles. It’s a feat of almost unimaginable athleticism and endurance, in fact I’m getting hypoxic just typing about it. On the other hand, while I’ll admit to being perhaps more than a little envious of their ability to even attempt such a climb, I suspect that by the time they were near the summit they were envious for their own part of my ability to haul back on a throttle and chuff past them. Riding around the low-lands here in coastal San Diego you’ll see quite a few folks who resemble over-stuffed sausages in lycra, people with an order of magnitude more money invested in their rides than they have training miles on the road. With these fellas, not so much – no wasted flesh at all. One of them had to be on the wrong side of sixty, so by now you’re probably sensing the contours of at least one of my New Year’s resolutions.
The ride was well worth the trip, the kind of thing I don’t do quite enough of these days. You forget sometimes how it feels to hit a high-to-low apex turn for 90 degrees only to find that the turn continues a full 180 degrees, and now you’re back high again and drifting into the oncoming lane. Palomar is a good place to recapture that feeling, as well as all the accompanying sense of being so vividly alive that comes with it. There’s a natural human temptation to throttle off and slow down, and even hit the brakes, maybe, that is unfortunately wholly inappropriate to motorcycling. In fact, what you’re supposed to do at that point is lean her over some more and add a touch more throttle – counter-intuitive, but the only real way to keep the rubber side down and the red stuff enduringly surrounded by the pink. It being my first time in a while (be gentle), I took the South Grade as slow as I thought prudent, which was, in retrospect, maybe not quite slow enough. You tend to keep the gearing lower than the speedometer might recommend when climbing in the hills: Even in the relatively straight stretches I was doing sixty or so in fourth gear, just for the torque that was in it as well as the fact that the thought of taking power off the drive train for even a moment by up-shifting would make my heart die inside me.
Finally got to Mother’s Kitchen Restaurant, which somehow managed to be world-famous without spilling the beans to your humble scribe that the menu is entirely vegetarian. I settled on a thoroughly presentable oatmeal raisin cookie washed down with an exceptional if tiny cup of strong and sweet Turkish coffee, after which I felt much fortified and vaguely European, even ironic.
Speaking of cookies, they had a nice booth set aside for guests to write “any soldier’s” letters to the folks deployed. The staff would mail the letters forward accompanied by their own cookies, with a little jar to help them sponsor the effort, which I took right kindly in them.
The closest I came to a mishap (on the way up, anyway) was after I’d gotten off my ride to take this pic. I left my helmet on, for it was only to be a quick shot, but as I jumped down off the rock I was standing on, I tripped over a lesser rock below it and began one of those long, shambling stumbles you sometimes see where the guy can’t quite get his legs back underneath his center of gravity no matter how hard he tries to run and catch up with it, and the question becomes not one of if he’s going to fall into the dust, but when and where, and whether in doing so he’s going to crush his expensive digital camera into pretty little shards or run himself right over the cliff edge, or both. I gave it all up at last for a “controlled” roll and a fall, rescuing the camera as I went heavily down on my back and thanking my protective gear for taking up most of the blow while providing apparently unlimited comic relief for a family of deeply gratified Mexican-Americans who had joined me atop the scenic vista just in time to catch this rarely proffered display of elegance and grace.
The ride back down the east grade was more exciting than advertised, if only because it’s just sweepy enough to make you feel a little brassy. Kept the rubber side down, although I did manage to drag a foot peg in one diminishing radius turn, which is the kind of thing that will grab both your inboard boot and your attention, the GS being such a tall bike, and capable of some pretty scary lean angles before parts not designed for the purpose make contact with the road. Passed by the La Jolla indian reservation, which had on one side of a large roadside billboard the uncontroversial if perhaps redundant exhortation to “Live long or die young,” and on the other the somewhat mystifying commendation to “Remember our culture – Smoke tobacco in a sacred manner!” Has to be a back story in there somewhere.
Puttered into Julian just because it was near, and also in that it has to be a contender for the world’s quaintest Western mountain village – a lovely place with excellent apple pie and cider that manages to keep the past alive while stopping just short of being precious.
Headed back home reluctantly, and after nearly a full tank of gas and 186 miles just that teeniest bit saddle sore, but very happy that I’d come. I’ll go again, someday, when I need it.
More on Palomar, from alert reader cin:
Almost every weekend, motorcyclists come here in droves.
They come for the scenery and for the camaraderie of other motorcycle enthusiasts.
But many of them come for the rush.