A stone's throw from the abandoned mining town of Idria, the baking, cracked asphalt of the narrow country road abruptly gave way to rocks and hard-packed, deeply rutted clay. I downshifted through my motorcycle's gears and stood up on the pegs, letting the bike's long shocks ride out the roughness. I veered around a half-fallen tree that blocked most of what remained of New Idria Road, riding at a slow clip into the shade of the old trees interspersed with the empty buildings. The Harley guys back at the Panoche Bar said Idria was deserted, and maybe it was, but the hostility of its former residents remained. "Fuck the Sierra Club!" one hand-made sign declared. The run-down country houses and barns were decorated with unreasonably hostile "KEEP THE FUCK OUT" signs.
Nice place, I thought, pulling up to a large sign at the end of town that informed me that the road past the cattle barn had undergone an emergency closure as of May 2008. I wasn't sure exactly what was closed, since I hadn't seen a cattle barn (and wasn't sure I'd recognize one if I had), so I figured I'd just keep going until I saw something more explicit. I found that halfway up the ridge, where a metal gate completely blocked the road, adorned with one of those lovely KEEP OUT NO TRESPASSING THIS IS PRIVATE PROPERTY signs that seemed to be Idria's primary output. Looked like the road to Clear Creek was gone for good.
I turned my bike around, disappointed, and picked my way back down the ridge. I stopped at the bottom. There was a crossroads there, if you can even call it that -- branching off of Clear Creek Road, a narrow rocky track climbed steeply into the mountains. I wasn't sure whether the road closure applied to this switchback as well, but there was no gate blocking the way, and anyway, I figured, who the hell was going to stop me?
The trail got narrower and steeper as I ascended. My motorcycle's a DR650 -- it's not a dirt bike, but it's pretty much as close as you can get to a dirt bike while remaining reasonably street-worthy. The suspension handled the ruts and rocks with aplomb, but the stock Trailwing tires weren't quite everything I dreamed they would be. The relatively smooth tires, combined with the bike's weight (heavy only in comparison to a dirt bike, but still heavy) gave me a disconcerting drift on the loose rocks and gravel that made up the track. I happily thundered along the top of a high ridge, enjoying the view of a mountain lake at the bottom of the sixty- or seventy-foot cliff to my left. Two rough-looking men were standing by the lakeside, fishing; I couldn't say whether the looks they gave me were hostile or just curious. I eventually made my way down to a crossroads, which featured a sign declaring the entire area closed, and told me that if I was caught there, I faced a $1000 fine or 12 months in prison.
Faced with a little more than half a tank of gas and the pugnacious sign, I turned around and rode back down the ridge. The loose rocky trail was considerably less fun on the way back down, as the amount of sliding, combined with my bike's unfortunate propensity to drift, made my brakes essentially useless. I pulled the engine down into first gear and held on tight, weaving my way through the loose rocks and the deep ruts. Sliding through the gravel and coming at an awkward angle on a particularly unforgiving series of ruts, the bike jerked suddenly to one side. I jammed my right boot onto the ground, pulling the bike level again just in time to crash through a low bush on the side of the track. One of its branches stuck into my bike's frame. The trail was clear but steeper now, and veered sharply to the left, switchbacking around a rocky outcrop, and I barreled down the side of the mountain, branch in tow. The engine braking wasn't quite cutting it, and, realizing I wasn't going to be able to make the turn, I squeezed the brakes, hard, spinning out into a 90-degree turn as I skidded to a halt on the edge of the track. I glanced at the cliff to my right, breathing hard.
Well, that wasn't so bad, I reassured myself, removing the various pieces of plant life lodged in my bike. Had a solid yard-and-a-half to spare!The ride back to Panoche Pass was hot and fast. After a while, I sputtered the motorcycle to a halt. The dusty road baked in the dry, blazing sun, and the still air shimmered around the engine. I dismounted and released the strap on my helmet, peering into the barren scrubland through my dust-streaked glasses. It was silent. I drank half a liter of water, then mounted back up. I guess my bike had a name now: Drifter.
It was late afternoon by the time I reached the twisties north of Pinnacles. I turned off onto Old Gloria, a rough dirt road that wound through the mountains and down to highway 101, south of Salinas. Drifter lived up to its name, and I used my boots to manage even the slightest twists in the road. After a while of meandering through sun-dappled ranchlands, Old Gloria crested a hill and I found myself looking out over a valley. The sun was setting over the high hills to my right, and the dirt road dropped sharply off to my left, winding its way down to the valley floor. Straight ahead, there was a layer of low clouds, blanketing the green valley, and the mountains bordering the valley to the west soared above the cloud layer. It was breathtaking. It was breathtaking enough, in fact, that I'd say it more than made up for the freezing-cold-for-no-good-reason-and-why-the-hell-is-it-raining-this-time-of-year-anyway ride back to San Francisco.