Jan 21, 2019

Ancient History

All Rights Reserved © 2013 Thomas W. Day

My wife and I took a west coast driving vacation during the winter of 2012-13. We rented a car in Portland and drove it to San Francisco in a lazy week. Not much of a motorcycle story there, right? The fact is, my wife isn't much of a pillion fan and that trip was pretty much about her. Her father died a few months earlier and he'd wanted to have his ashes dumped in the Pacific Ocean, so a lot of our travel focus was about that ceremony and her memories of growing up in the San Francisco Bay area, family trips north, and other nostalgia. If we'd have wanted to rent a motorcycle, the nasty fact is you can rent a decent car for about 1/6 the price of a barely-half-decent motorcycle in Portland. The whole trip was going to be planned around PCH and 101, so it would have been an amazing motorcycle trip, but one of the things you do to stay married for 47 years is compromise and that means letting the wife travel the way she wants to travel. She does the same for me on my solo trips.

When we arrived in Portland, it was a perfect motorcycle day; 48oF and sunny. I saw exactly 2 motorcycles in the whole city during the 6 hours we toured Portland and both were parked. We left town on the early edge of the evening rush hour and didn't see a single motorcycle all the way to the coast. I guess that should have made me feel sort of justified in travelling by four wheels, but it mostly reinforced my suspicion that motorcycles are a vanishing form of transportation. For the next 920 miles, I logged every motorcycle and scooter I saw in Oregon and California and until we arrived in San Francisco it didn't take much more than my fingers to keep the tally. All but four of the motorcyclists were on 650 V-Stroms: for a total of a dozen people on bikes. One guy was on a KLR, one on a KTM, and the other two on unidentified cruisers. Add three scooters, all spotted in Arcada, CA, and that describes all of the two wheel action between two major cities on the best motorcycling highway in North America. On a positive note, everyone--including the scooter riders--was geared up, but maybe that was due to the "weather."

Once we were in range of San Francisco, the number of riders moved out of the statistical capacity of my digits; but not by much. In the home of lane-splitting, filtering, and sharing, motorcycles are still as rare as '57 Chevy station wagons and Ferraris. "One-in-a-million" might not be all that far from fact, considering that the estimated population of California is somewhere around 38,000,000 and the San Jose-San Francisco-Oakland metropolitan area has almost 8 million residents. Berkeley was a minor scooter Mecca, especially around the UofC and there were a fair number of beater bikes chained to posts outside of the clam-like million dollar rowhouses near Golden Gate Park. Since it was 62oF and clear on our day in SF, I suspect most of those bikes were some kind of New Year's holiday decoration rather than actual transportation. If you're not going to ride on a perfect January in California, you're not really a motorcyclist.

None of this was what I'd expected or hoped to see on the west coast. The California I remembered was decorated with motorcycles on every sunny day. The only days I didn't motorcycle to work were days when I bicycled. But California is a different place than it was in the 80's. Back then, motorcyclists got ticketed for loud pipes and we had to suffer the annual emissions inspections where you'd get sent back to "fix it" if anything in the fuel or exhaust system path was not OEM. Today, loud pipes and gross emissions violations are tolerated by the CHP and local cops and motorcyclists are widely despised in the Golden State. Our minimal contribution to traffic flow has been nullified by our generally hooligan character.

The Minnesota "Start Seeing Motorcycles" campaign does not make it across the Rockies or the Sierras. The only sign I saw in the whole state that acknowledged motorcycles at all was a small billboard near Santa Clara that said, "Pray for Your Favorite Coffin Cheater," illustrated with a picture of a crashed motorcycle and the usual crowd of cops and EMTs surrounding what appeared to be a body bag next to the trashed motorcycle. There was a time when it seemed like California might be leading the rest of the country into accepting motorcycles as valid transportation, but that appears to be ancient history.  If California really does lead the nation's trends, these are interesting times for the future of motorcycles in the United States.

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