Amidst one of the worst fire seasons I have ever experienced, Andy and I decided to leave town on the motorcycles and head North. The plan was to escape the horrendous smoke, celebrate Andy's recent graduation from nursing school, and to perhaps climb a few volcanoes. Every plan we had made prior had been canceled due to some unforeseen event. We would soon find out that, ultimately, the best plan was to have no plan at all.
Our previous plans to celebrate Andy's graduation were to go to France and run around Mont Blanc; but with Covid still raging and borders being closed, that plan was no longer an option. Our flights were canceled. We threw around ideas about visiting Colorado, Wyoming, Montana on the motorcycles, then it began snowing in those states. The smoke of the nearby Creek Fire rolled quickly into Mammoth Lakes worse than ever before. Air quality was beyond hazardous, it was off the scale, and the fire was only worsening. We decided to pack up the motorcycles, stay somewhat local, head north and hopefully escape it all.
As we headed North the sky momentarily cleared up. We had a brief sigh of relief as it seemed like we would finally be able to breathe again; then, just beyond a glorious mountain road turn, the biggest mushroom cloud of smoke appeared by yet another brand-new fire. We stopped at a gas in a tiny town to fuel up and found locals both angered and worried about what was about to happen to their homes. A day later, thousands of acres burned and 3 bodies were found in the forest very close to where we had been. Utter devastation.
The National Forests began closing. First in our home county, then all of Southern California. We pushed onwards and upwards into where we thought there was clean air, but we were always just a step ahead or just a step behind the raging fires.
As we pushed into Northern California we stopped in Lassen National Park. We had finally found a pocket of clean air. We camped at a very nice campground just inside the southern park entrance, went to bed early, then woke up early to head up Mt Lassen before we hit the road again. Lassen in the clean, early morning air was an absolute treat. The road through the park was some of the best motorcycle riding we had experienced yet! A quick 5 mile round-trip hike to the summit and back was enough to feel the glorious benefits of movement after days of sitting on the bikes. From the summit were able to enjoy the good views of Shasta (where we were headed next) before the smoke started rolling back in from the growing fire.
We got back to our bikes and geared up to head to Mount Shasta. We planned on camping at the trailhead and summiting Shasta, one of California's 14'ers, via the sloggy Clear Creek Route, but Shasta and the rest of California's wilderness in its entirety closed just as we arrived. At this point, despite the constant heartbreak, there was no use in getting upset. It was time to get fluid, to go with the flow, and to do our very best at enjoying the journey- no matter what was thrown at us.
Being on our bikes with the intent of camping, and having all of the national forests close due to fires, created an interesting dilemma of not knowing where we could camp. We had to search for privately owned campgrounds, and luckily in Shasta, there was one. We went straight over not knowing if there were spots available considering how many people were fleeing their homes; and instead of being turned back, luck turned out to be in our favor as the campground host gave us a free two day pass to camp. "Some people didn't show up, so it's your lucky day" she told us. We were so grateful for that kind of hospitality and then found even more gratitude when the campground's store had an ample amount of groovy hippy snacks suited just for my picky palate.
Instead of staying the two nights we were given in Shasta, we decided to maximize our time and continue northbound into the unknown conditions of Oregon. As we left the campground we returned the two-day pass, gave our thanks, and made sure that we regifted the favor. From there we rode north into Oregon through Ashland and Medford along Hwy 5 where a massive fire had just been put out. This smoke was now undoubtedly the new "worst I had ever seen". Neighborhoods were burnt to the ground, flattened completely. Burn marks crossed the highway where I saw the charred remains of family pets that had tried to run away. On the motorcycles, not only could we see the devastation, we could smell it. Every part of it. We, quite literally, took it all in. I found myself sobbing beneath my helmet on numerous occasions. The heaviness was too much.
Again, we headed northbound. Eventually we made it all the way up to Cannon Beach, Oregon and got a hotel. I had been broken down by the extremely long days of riding, the emotional rollercoaster of what we had been seeing and experiencing, and needed a shower. There at the hotel our phones asked us to mark ourselves as "safe" because of, yet another, nearby growing fire. Not only was the state of California on fire, but it quickly became quite evident that it was now the same for Oregon. There were times we could not see more than a couple hundred feet in front of our bikes the smoke was so bad. We unpacked our bikes, settled into an overpriced, incredibly warm room, and enjoyed our showers.
The next day it was time to hit the road again. We were now headed southbound, back towards home, and could not see a thing. We were on the iconic Oregon Coast, a place I had never been, and could see nothing at all. I imagined what the scenery would look like and the beauty that lied behind the veil of dark smoke. I battled with feelings of defeat wondering what the heck we were doing out there. It was now not only smoky, but foggy too, sometimes even raining, and we had hundreds of miles to ride. We were wet and cold and had to manage that. The mileage we needed to ride each day, unfortunately, was not optional as we were on a time crunch.
To deal with the intermittent raining while wearing a helmet made for a bright, sunny day, I was required to put a shammy cloth between my legs so that I was able to grab it and wipe my lens clear every minute or so, just so i could see! It was the most dangerous riding situation I had been in ever before and I honestly hated almost every moment of it. We were on the twisty, windy, pacific coast highway, and I was, at times, riding completely blind. I couldn't wait to get into a safer environment, so we made plans to try to make it to my brother's house in Northern California as quickly as possible.
As we headed southbound down the coast, the sky began to clear up little by little, and by the time we reached California we could finally see some distance. I was elated to finally see more than a few feet in front of me. To see some clarity. To feel a slight hint of peacefulness. I took Andy to a favorite spot of mine near Klammath and we explored the beach for a while. It was lovely. But yet again, we had no time to waste and it was time to push on- southbound.
With the clearing skies we felt freedom. We rode more than 300 miles from southern Oregon to my brothers house in Mendocino County in a single day, and though it was miserably painful at times, I was so happy to finally be in a place of clarity. To be able to see the ocean, the costal rocks, the seals. To feel a slight relief of the constant heaviness. We rode and rode and rode and finally made it to my brother's in the dark that night. We pitched our tent in my brother's yard, took an outdoor shower, enjoyed a nice dinner with family and went to sleep.
As per usual, when we got up that morning it was time to go. No time to waste. This was our last day and we had to ride more than 300 miles, again, from Northern California over to South Lake Tahoe. As we got closer to Tahoe, the smoke worsened yet again. The fires were still raging and we were back in it. At some point my knees were hurting so badly from the tightly fitted armor that I had to stop, get off the bike, and straighten my legs for over an hour. I was in tears from the pain, something Andy wasn't feeling at all, and realized right then that I, at 6ft tall, am too tall for any "tall women's" riding gear. The shorter length of gear pulls the armor in the pants tightly onto my kneecaps which is incredibly painful. I might not notice it if I'm only riding for only an hour, but if I'm riding all day, that kind of pressure creates nerve pain that rose up my legs and into my lower back. Upon removing the pants, I saw that my kneecaps were lobster red and swollen on the tips like eggs from the intense pressure.
Late that evening we made it back to South Lake Tahoe and back into an actual bed. Relief! I was wiped out from more than 2,000 miles through apocalyptic landscapes across the west and knew I would be needing a break from the motorcycles for a while. Despite the stress, anxiety, and all the unknowns, we learned a heck of a lot along the way. It was the most riding either of us had done. 2,000 miles is a long way to go, but it is especially long on a motorcycle in such a wild variety of conditions. I am so glad we went and experienced what we did. It sure as heck beats staying at home, trapped indoors, unable to explore due to hazardous air quality conditions. Next time I just hope its just a little more pleasant with more frequent breaks to enjoy ourselves :)