It’s Thursday morning, and I’m standing outside one of Red Bluff’s finest luxury hotels, marveling at the amount of ash in the air and on my loaner Gold Wing. I’d ridden into town the night before, planning to get an early start on Highway 36—the beginning of a 600-something mile day that would ultimately end with me crashing out in a dirty hotel room in southern Washington. But here in Red Bluff, things are going wrong: last night, my photographer buddy Mark, who was planning to shoot me hustling the Wing through the endless curves and corners somewhere out near Eureka, informed me that Highway 36 was closed for construction on weekdays, except from noon to one. Highway 299 was closed east of Highway 3 because of the Carr Fire, which is just getting started at this point but will ultimately burn over 110,000 acres, destroy 1,100 structures and kill six people. As I write this, the fire is just 27% contained and 25,000 people remain evacuated from their homes, but at the time I had no idea of its magnitude and was just frustrated by the road closures—though the amount of ash in the air 30 miles south should have been a hint of what was to come.
Three days and close to 2,000 miles later, I’m standing outside a particularly classy gas station in Grant’s Pass, Oregon, explaining—again—that yes, it’s pretty hot in this here get-up, thanks for asking. The view to the south is disconcerting, Mordor-esque—I’ve been mostly offline the last few days but am now aware that the Carr Fire has turned into Apocalypse Nor-Cal, and the smoke is near-completely hiding the mountains from view even here, 140 miles or so to the north.
One more reason to not go down The Five, as they solipsistically call it down in SoCal.
It’s ok, I have other plans anyway. I fire up Clutch’s Psychic Warfare on the Wing’s kickass CarPlay integration, figuring it’ll provide a suitably manic-but-groovy soundtrack for the insanity ahead, and head west, then south, making for Grayback Road by way of Cave Junction. But there are ominous signs about more road closures ahead, and I’m beginning to worry: “Locals Only. Have ID ready.”
I keep on truckin’, hoping the closure is after Waldo Road cuts off easterly to Grayback, cooking up stories I might use to convince the seemingly inevitable mirror-shaded trooper that true, I’m not a local, but I have to go this way, and can’t he just look the other way while I sneak by on my giant red motorcycle? None of these stories seem likely to hold up to even the slightest scrutiny from a surly, overheated lawman, so I decide that if there is a roadblock, I’ll just blitz it. After all, The Man certainly has more pressing issues facing him today than chasing what looks like a retiree in a modular helmet gone rogue.
Fortunately, neither plans A nor B need are employed—I never see the roadblock, and once off 199, I don’t see much of humanity for a few hours. I head down Waldo to Grayback, into the darkening haze, the Wing humming and thrumming beneath me.
Grayback is glorious: devoid of cars, decent pavement surfaces—at least compared to the pothole collections we still call roads in the Bay Area. Though I realize the literal and figurative hell this fire is visiting upon the people of Redding, the grayed-out conditions are peaceful and meditative, if also frightening and strange.
I stop to capture some photos near the top of Grayback, and to put a Buff over my mouth, the modern-day, North Face shopper equivalent of a simple bandana. I soak the fabric in water, and as I do, a vaguely uneasy thought crosses my mind: I hope I don’t regret wasting this water to soak this thing, when I’m stuck somewhere and really thirsty later. As I think this, the horsefly that’s been buzzing around my head alights on my shoulder, as if trying to tell me something, probably a warning: “Dude, turn back.”
But I don’t speak his language, and he buzzes away.
A Subaru wagon passes, the driver and passenger conspicuously looking the other way. Maybe they think my fancy motorcycle can’t be broken down, or maybe they’ve having a conversation like, “No, we’re not picking him up. Not even going to ask if he’s ok. He’s obviously deranged, and it’s better that we just let his timeline end here, if the universe wills it so.”
I put my helmet on and fire up the Wing, noticing that the wet Buff makes it a little harder to breath, thinking this will be good practice for later, when the case of black lung I’m surely giving myself really takes hold.
I spin out of the roadside gravel and pass the Subaru, whose occupants now have a clear conscience—at least regarding the random motorcyclist they left to die in this gray wasteland—and wrangle the Wing down to Happy Camp, which is a real (small) town, not just a magical (fictional) place parents tell their kids their stealthily-euthanized pets have gone to.
You’ve seen The Road, right, or maybe read the book? That’s what this world feels like—gray, full of floating ash. As I take a photos of the Wing in front of a hulking, concerned-looking Bigfoot statue in the 50 square feet of “downtown” Happy Camp, a dog slinks across the smoky street in the distance, ghostly, reminding me of a shadowy, four-legged figure that I briefly perceived as a white wolf traversing the hillside above me a few miles back. Beyond unlikely, of course, but then what was it?
I mean, besides Death itself, or at least obvious foreshadowing that I’m going to die today?
I’m tracing the Klamath River on 96 now, and take refuge in the half-baked idea that if Mother Nature suddenly sends her all-purifying firestorm my way I can just Even Knievel the Wing into a deep spot in the river and hope for the best. Musta been the smoke talking—looking back, that plan is obviously a non-starter, or at least a quick-ender, and not in a happy way. And anyway, even if I miraculously survive, the folks at Honda will never believe my story about how I had to submarine the Wing in the Klamath to avoid a tsunami of fire.
The air keeps getting thicker, grayer—but the riding keeps getting better. This must be what it feels like to ride around Chernobyl—but with more smoke and less radiation. It’s not fun, exactly, but I’m 100% on, riding with abandon, feeling safe in another assumption I’ve made, that Johnny Law ain’t writing tickets today. There’s no speed limits when the world’s coming to an end, man.
I stop to take more photos of the smoke, and to wet my Buff again. I have no idea if this is helping, but it seems like a reasonable hypothesis. Two Jeeps trundle by, and I snap a few shots of them in the distance before mounting up and taking off after them.
Down the road, the Jeeps have stopped. I pull off and grab a business card out of the Wing’s topcase, telling the woman driving the two-door JK in the lead that if she emails me, I’ll send her the photos. She tells me her name is Nola, that she and her husband are making their way south to San Diego, before pointing out the osprey nest in a nearby tree.
I encounter one more vehicle in the compacted roller coaster curves somewhere further south, maybe below Orleans, and go full-on Isle of Man on the Wing: as the driver slows so I can pass easily her through the esses, I whack the throttle and the Wing rears up as I crest the top of a sharp, rolling right-hander, shaking its head like an indignant animatronic mastodon, most resentful of being awoken so abruptly.
If you’ve never ridden a Gold Wing well beyond its hypothetical limits—as is tradition here at CityBike, and as I’ve been for the past few days—this may sound like some heat stroke and smoke inhalation-induced crackpipe dream. I wish I had proof, but you’re just gonna have to trust me.
It was radical, and would have made for some seriously killer video if CityBike was a big-budget outfit that could afford a cameraman to follow my crazy ass into this madness.
At the gas station in Willow Creek, where 96 meets 299, I talk with an old man as we gas up our respective RVs, his on six wheels, mine on two. He’s just evacuated, and tells me with a sunken face that he’s a former construction guy, that all the houses he built in the area have already burned. He also tells me he owns a Harley—presumably left behind—so I tell him of my last few days on the road, and this seems to cheer him up a bit. We both head west on 299, and eventually the smoke clears and the blistering heat gives way to misty coastal air, leaving me shivering in my sweat-soaked ‘Stich.
I stop in Eureka to pay my respects to the empty shell of the Black Lightning Motorcycle Cafe, its windows papered up and sad, like so much of Eureka. The BLMC was my go-to break spot when riding these roads, and we stopped here on our epic Wing-a-ling last year, aboard the previous iteration of the Gold Wing. But there’s not even a sign left that’d make a poignantly wisecracking, hashtagged photo work, so I roll out, worried about getting over 36 before dusk brings more deer out.
I do the 140 miles of 36 in two hours and 21 minutes, including two one-way construction light stops and two dirt sections, arriving at The Sign with barely enough daylight for the obligatory photos (and placement of a CityBike sticker or two). Though I’ve never timed a run over 36 before, I feel pretty good about my pace and time, especially considering the massive machine I’m wrestling and the fact that I’m now feeling a little sick to my stomach from all the smoke—it seems my “breathing apparatus” wasn’t up to the task.
The solution for my upset stomach and burning throat is clearly some Red Bluff Mexican food, seafood even, which I’m betting won’t create any additional issues on the remaining ride back to the Bay.
Fortunately, I’m right, and just before midnight I’m crossing the Carquinez Bridge with the Wing’s dash showing 26 miles of range, a perfect match to the GPS’s 26 miles to home.