The Road Most Taken – In Praise of the Familiar | Motorcycle Touring
In 1915, Robert Frost penned “The Road Not Taken,” a narrative, autobiographical poem that symbolizes how life gives options, and the traveler chooses. The poem – perhaps Frost’s most famous – ends with a personal send-off: “I took the one less traveled by, and that has made all the difference.”
Ultimately, as motorcyclists, we tend toward the road less traveled — the one that promises adventure by virtue of it being unknown. Although there is unquestionable excitement in the plying of new routes, of discovering new roads, there is something to be said for the tried and true — the routes already taken, the roads already mapped into our consciousness.
Like a favorite restaurant, frequented when you want the assurance of a good meal, a known road can deliver great satisfaction. In other words, the foregoing of the unknown for the certainty of the familiar has its benefits.
For me, there is a ride that seems to have lost nothing of its charm and beauty over the years despite so many traverses I have lost count. It’s California Highway 1 on the Central Coast, specifically the 90 miles of paved bliss that borders the Pacific from San Simeon to the quaint, white sand beach of Carmel.
Living in Los Angeles, there is first the ritual of getting out of the city. There is really no good time to do this, as the freeways that cross the metropolitan area seem to be in a state of constant congestion. I opt for early morning.
There’s a relief that comes with notions of escaping the city (any city really), and being freed into open country and unobstructed roads that makes the morning commute snarl somewhat bearable. It’s the anticipation of the Central Coast that allows me to tackle the traffic with aplomb, eventually being released onto northbound Pacific Coast Highway at Malibu that invites the first calming sensations that we motorcyclists so thoroughly devour.
Within a few hours, Los Angeles has slipped from my concerns and Ventura, Santa Barbara, and then San Luis Obispo have all vanished in the mirror. It is the detour off of U.S. Route 101 at SLO that gets me situated onto HWY 1 and really stirs the senses. The smells, the pavement, and the foliage are all different from the start point of L.A., contributing to a further sense of escape.
The coastal road begins to take on the characteristics of what has made it an old standard for me for years; that two-lane twist- ing route with barely any cross traffic. Time it correctly for mid-week off-season and there is a good chance you will feel like you have the whole road to yourself.
Northwest of San Luis, past the charming enclave of Harmony (population: 12), is Cambria. Tourists see it as a food stop and a chance to shop for knickknacks. I see it as a place to top off the tank in preparation of the ride ahead.
Leaving Cambria, I pass through San Simeon, where the mighty publisher William Randolph Hearst built his Xanadu. This is the official start point of the true ride; the 90-mile ballet of pavement that seems as though it was designed and built specifically for the hearts and minds of motorcyclists.
In between San Simeon and Carmel are the ritual mating grounds of elephant seals, the rugged beauty of Big Sur, breaching humpback whales in winter, and countless turns of sublime riding magic. Even the ubiquitous tourist attraction of Bixby Bridge, which has been used by virtually every automobile manufacturer on Earth to showcase new models in TV ads, holds sentimentality for me. After all, there is a reason it’s an attraction, because it is stunning.
In addition to the pure, unadulterated aspect of the coast route being a truly spectacular motorcycle road, the area and the ride hold a deeply personal theme for me. My best friend — we discovered motorcycles together as kids, and later as fellow racers — never got to experience this with me. We talked about it, discussed how and when we might undertake it together, as he was so entranced by my enthused descriptions.
Sadly, the talk never materialized into action, and cancer took him from us before we could make the dream real. It is perhaps the one regret I have, that I didn’t push a little harder to get us to commit to a coast ride. It all seems so simple now. How easy it would have been to simply pick a day, and go. As a result of that experience, I make it a point to encourage others to never let those kinds of plans get passed over. If there’s a route you want to share with friends, make it happen.
One way to bring new magic to an old road, or as a perfect way to take a first trip, is with a carefully selected new bike. For my latest flog up the coast, I was aboard the Suzuki V-Strom 1000 ABS.
The V-Strom is wonderfully agile, nimble and predictable handling, thanks to a newly reconfigured twin-spar aluminum frame housing a fully reworked, liquid-cooled 1037cc V-twin. The torquey nature of the V-Strom delivers rideability in the real world, with a decent amount of torque hitting early on at around 3000 rpm.
A heavier flywheel grants the V-Strom smooth power that is especially manageable off-road. The only glitch in the V-Strom’s power make-up is a hiccup off idle. This can be somewhat dis- concerting at first, but is adapted to after some seat time.
The exquisitely succinct transmission is augmented by a slipper clutch, while three-position traction control is a nice touch, especially when the pavement gets wet—not an unusual circumstance next to the water. The excellent braking takes a bit of getting used to, as the front discs’ initial bite is a bit on the aggressive side for such an inviting bike; this is remedied by implementing a little finesse. ABS works great on the pavement but can’t be turned off for the dirt (short of pulling a fuse), though it only intrudes on serious off–road riding. The ABS is unobtrusive on well-groomed dirt roads.
The V-Strom’s strong suit is its ergonomics combined with a plush, well-shaped 33.4-inch high seat that allows all-day com- fort. The manually adjustable windscreen does an impressive job of breaking up the air at freeway speeds; electric adjustment would be nice.
With a delightfully light weight of just a hair over 500 pounds wet, the V-Strom is highly maneuverable. Overall quality is top-flight, and the pointed-beak fairing and front fender give the V-Strom a sleek persona. At the sweet spot of 1000cc, the V-Strom is a serious choice between the 800cc and 1200cc machines currently roosting the Adventure class.
Rounding the myriad bends of the Cabrillo Highway, with their dramatic reveals of coast and ocean, never loses its appeal for me. Each ride is as fresh as the first. After all, this is where artists set up easels and paint the landscapes of craggy cliffs, mighty blue Pacific, and towering pines.
The area has inspired writers as diverse as poet Robinson Jeffers and controversial author Henry Miller, as well as Jack Kerouac and John Steinbeck. All found threads of inspiration here that brought new literary works into existence. I tell you, there’s something in the air here.
Ironically, it was prison labor that laboriously gouged this scenic road out of the rugged cliffs, tying the opposing ends of the Central Coast together by means of this narrow two-lane road. In 1921, funds were appropriated and San Quentin State Prison established a series of work camps and put unskilled convicts to the task. Inmates were paid 35 cents a day, and had their sentences reduced in return. Sixteen years later, on June 17, 1937, the road was completed.
I have often wondered, and actually stumped the Big Sur Historical Society with this very inquiry, about who the first motorcyclist was that made the trip. They had no idea. Just think, some unwitting motorcycle enthusiast of the day, steered his two-wheeled iron beast down (or maybe up) Highway 1 and, in doing so, rode into history without even knowing it.
One of the alluring aspects of Cabrillo Highway is the fact that, given the remoteness and ruggedness of the landscape, not a great deal of development and build-up has taken place here, rendering the entire ride pretty much as nature had originally intended.
Nature has sometimes been mean-spirited in return, unleashing a thrashing of landslides over the decades that have closed sections for extended periods, making it impossible to ride between Hearst Castle and Bixby Bridge. Following years of one-lane stoplight controlled sections and long-term construction, the road is in the best condition of its life.
After a day’s worth of riding offering numerous detour opportunities for stopping to sightsee—sea lions, Hearst Castle, Nepenthe restaurant, The Henry Miller Memorial Library, to name just a few diversion—northbound travelers are rewarded with entry into Carmel-by-the-Sea, an upscale-yet-charming community to spend the night, with a host of inns and eateries. It is a perfect end point to the excursion.
For me, I head slightly inland on Carmel Valley Road to a waiting room at The Quail Lodge. This landmark resort and golf course, nestled into the serenity of Carmel Valley, induces a calm unimaginable in Los Angeles.
Over the previous years, The Quail Lodge has endeared itself to motorcyclists by hosting The Quail Motorcycle Gathering each May. The event takes its cue from the Concours d’Elegance, the legendary automotive event that takes place at nearby Pebble Beach every August, presenting a tasteful blend of beautifully restored motorcycles and contemporary customs in a laid back atmosphere. So keep The Quail (as it is known locally) in mind when touring the Central Coast, as it is a motorcycling-friendly establishment in the truest sense of the word.
Yes, to travel new routes is wonderful, delivering adventure and new experiences, but there is value in treading the familiar. California Route 1 — whether you call it by its formal name, Cabrillo Highway, or simply, The One — remains my old standby.
- Helmet: AGV Skyline Psycho
- Jacket: Dainese Temporale D-Dry
- Gloves: Dainese Travelguard
- Pants: Dainese Montana 4D
- Boots: Dainese Fulcrum C2
Story from Ultimate MotorCycling magazine; for subscription services, click here.