BMW F 750 GS California Tour Through Irish Eyes

When I look in my side mirror, all I see is sand and the trail I’ve left behind. Up ahead, undisturbed sand awaits my arrival. The desert heat has dried my eyes so much I couldn’t cry if I wanted to. No time for tears anyway. I have to get out of here before dark. With no water, I wonder how on Earth I ended up in a place like this so ill-prepared. Then again, what else did I expect? This was the exact thing I’d been looking for—a sense of freedom and adventure.

I suppose what had me most surprised in my current situation was that I’d forgotten the cost of achieving exactly this. Clearly unfit for the adventure motorcycling game, I was in the process of training some weakened muscles and re-learning some hard lessons—for starters, the importance of hydration.

I’ve found that the challenges motorcycle travel presents can be hard to put down on paper, partly because it’s a very personal journey and the challenges differ for every rider, and partly because these very struggles are what make the journey worth the risk. But it would take a lot of convincing for somebody who has never experienced this for themselves, so bear with me.

It’s been nearly two years since I’ve confronted myself and my fears in challenging situations like this one in the desert. Before a global pandemic put all travel on hold, I had just finished a cross-country solo motorcycle trip. Beaming in confidence and walking two inches taller, my eyes glistened with untold stories and a burning desire to keep going. But in the space of two years, I’d shared most of my stories and was lacking the motivation and enthusiasm to go out and do it again. Until recently, I woke up and realized the fire in my spirit had been extinguished, and to calm my restlessness, I must venture back out alone on the road.

Skipping the long, empty highways of Texas, I went straight to the source of adventure and landed in Los Angeles. Adventure sport travel was what I was looking for, so I decided to go with a motorcycle that was reliable and commonly used by other adventure riders. In the end, my choice was a sparkling white 2022 BMW F 750 GS—a mid-size machine that declares delivery for all-around adventure.

Naive and out of practice, I test rode this adventure bike on diverse, and sometimes wild, terrain for 10 days in California. Starting with lane splitting in Los Angeles, I move upwards to dodge rocks and follow racers on Angeles Crest Highway, overlooking the sprawling metropolis. Surviving dehydration in the desert, I later gaze upon the Milky Way in one of the hottest places on Earth—Death Valley. Unwittingly playing chicken with a semi-truck on a two-lane canyon highway, I survive to witness the evolution of renewable energy on the back roads heading West towards the coast. With sand on the bottom of my boots, I wipe ocean mist and bug carcasses from my faceshield while passing by homes of the rich and famous.

Evidence shows that traveling between lanes of stopped and slow-moving cars can reduce your chances of crashing. Illegal in most states, California is one of the exceptions. The last time I filtered through lanes of traffic was two years ago whilst traveling with two Norwegian riders I had befriended at an all-female motorcycle rally in the California desert.

With synced communication devices attached to our helmets, we alerted each other of hazards and inattentive drivers amid playful conversation. Memories of friendly chit-chat and eruptive laughter now echo in my silent helmet. I’m sitting in slow traffic and have nobody but myself to watch my back.

This stiffening thought is interrupted by sounds of traffic. Sitting upright on the GS, my posture instills confidence, and my vision of the road ahead is impeccable. I see cars up ahead halting to a stop—it’s rush hour in Los Angeles. Testing the motorcycle’s maneuverability, I advance forward. With my direction, the BMW moves at ease. My legs are bent at a 90-degree angle and my boots rest comfortably on the footpegs. My body is fully engaged with the motorcycle and adrenaline rushes through my body as I progress forward.

It’s not long before I see the San Gabriel Mountains up ahead and traffic on the highway lightens up. At the next gas station, I fill the BMW’s four-gallon tank, giving me 200 miles for this perfect morning. A dozen motorcyclists wearing tracksuits are parked to the side—some are drinking water, some are stretching. Unlike me, they have no bags or pockets to store anything. Just man and bike, recreational sport riding on a beautiful day in Los Angeles.

As the racers zoom past me like bullets, I’m reminded of the many different styles of motorcycle riding and the skills required to survive each one. I’m concentrating on my gas mileage, while these guys are stretching muscles. Survival and sport. I keep this in mind as I advance up the windy hills of California’s State Route 2.

As the day progresses, I find myself meditating on a desert highway. I see sand on the hard shoulder and clay mountains in the distance. I’m alone on this road, besides the occasional passing semi-truck that disrupts the wind flow and jolts me out of my daydream.

Air movement can be a terrible force on roads like this—a hot desert surface for the air to heat and rise to, then cool and fall, creating strong winds. With no houses, barns, mountains, or even hills to take some of the blow, this force lands on you and your motorcycle. For the most part, your experience on these roads depends on the direction you are headed in and the direction of the wind. A strong north westerly wind approaches me from the right. An hour previous, I was looking out for fallen rocks in the pits of bends on a mountainous road. Now, I navigate wind on a long desert highway. This is California.

Usually, with high gusts of winds pushing and pulling me across the lane, there are moments when I feel out of control of the motorcycle, and it creates an unsettling feeling. However, in this instance, the BMW holds up very well. Even though the 853cc motor is detuned to earn the 750 designation, the GS’s parallel-twin delivers 77 horsepower, which is sufficiently adequate for my needs in fighting this strong cross-wind.

This road is long, and I still have far to go. To reduce fatigue, I turn on the cruise control and get comfortable. My body is positioned downward, and I stick my right knee outward in the direction of the wind. Once I’m settled, my grip loosens, and my muscles begin to relax. I’m heading towards Pioneertown off Highway 62 near the artists’ colony of Yucca Valley.

This desert town had looked promising on the map, with multiple campsites dotted around its main road. To my disappointment, other people with more money had also noticed the allure of this place. Riding miles in soft sand to reach what I’d hoped to be a desolate campsite, a perfect location for star gazing, turned out to be a luxury Airbnb glamping site.

Feeling cheated out of an experience, I try to wrestle the motorcycle back out of the sand. Halfway back towards the paved road, my rear tire gets stuck. After a few minutes of intense pushing and pulling, I stop to take a break, and I realize I have no water. Knowledge of this makes my mouth feel dyer than ever and panic begins to set in.

The sky glows orange as the sun starts to set. Remembering the BMW’s riding modes, I switch the engine to Enduro, producing a softer throttle response, and reduced traction control and ABS. It takes me over an hour to get out of the sand. By the time I reach the road, the sky is dark. I make my way back towards the town in search of water and a place to stay.

Pioneertown is small—population 420—and I stop at the first place I see. It’s my first day on the road, and I’m quickly reminded of how important it is to stay hydrated. Guzzling down pints of water, I look around and notice the many beautiful Californians sauntering about in vintage western wear. They clearly planned their outfits accordingly as the establishment resembled that of an old Western movie set. In fact, the handsome young bartender with long hair informed me that the town was started in the 1940s by actor Dick Curtis as an 1880s-themed live-in Old West motion picture set.

So while in search of the real Wild West, I was served Airbnb luxury tents and stylish fringe. I reminded myself of my close proximity to Los Angeles and, in the end, it worked out great considering my situation. The bar had a site where I could set up my tent. Once I did that, I returned for a nightcap and planned my next day of heading deeper into the desert.

Waking up to shrieks, yells, and police car sirens, I rub my eyes and peak outside a small opening in my tent. It’s still dark outside. A couple is fighting, and it sounds intense—enough for somebody to call the cops, anyway. The word ‘gun’ echoed in the air at one point, which under these circumstances drew some attention.

A drunken domestic quarrel in the early hours of the morning reminds me of Irish weddings and funerals. So, I call home. “Hi, Dad. Yes, I’m alive. Yes, I’ll be careful. No, I haven’t forgotten anything. Yes, my luggage is secured safely to the motorcycle. Okay, love you, bye.”

The BMW’s saddlebag mounts and luggage rack take the chore out of packing the bike. The two waterproof side cases are variable in size and detach from the motorcycle by an easy click and lift motion. By shifting a retaining clip on the inside, the cases can shrink down for urban riding—lane-splitting through LA—and expand for extra storage for rusty travelers like me who tend to overpack.

So what did I pack for ten days of adventure riding through California? Camping gear, camera gear, and motorcycle gear in a list that follows—a two-man tent, sleeping bag, inflatable sleeping mat, a BioLite camp stove (which was never used), a Mac Book Pro (which could have passed for a $10 card reader), a Sony Alpha 7 II camera, a Panasonic Lumix camera (only used once, and poorly), an extra lens (never used), a GoPro 3 with attachments (never used), my Rev’It high-vis rain suit (an absolute godsend), foldable rain boots, Rain-X wipes, and my favorite perfume. It took 24 hours on the road to learn what I did and did not need. Carrying unnecessary gear on a motorcycle is not only a nuisance but counterintuitive for survival.

The sky glows with a pink hue as I leave Pioneertown. I head northeast towards Death Valley National Park. As the sun rises and mountain shadows reappear, the desert unveils itself with majestic hues and shades. My eyes gaze out towards the vast emptiness. Unimaginable distances surround me, and my vision of the road has no end.

By now, the sun’s position in the sky depicts early afternoon. I can tell I’m getting closer to Death Valley by the change in landscape. The road sways between rocky mounds, and I see rugged mountains in the distance. With more hills and mountains up ahead, I adjust my riding position in anticipation of future bends.

The diversity of this land is breathtaking. Erosion, weather, and gravity make these places so beautiful and enchanting that it can be hard to stay focused on the direction of your two wheels.

This epic landscape leads me to the entrance of Death Valley. This is a land of extremes. It’s the driest and lowest point in North America, and one of the hottest places on Earth. It’s also one of America’s most life-affirming road trips.

Despite its name, Death Valley supports a surprising abundance of life. The surrounding land shows signs of vegetation, and the greenery welcomes me into this new territory. As I drive through the park, the image of large distant mountains comes into view. As I get closer, the green fades away, and I’m surrounded by rocky sand. The road is smooth, and the April sun kisses my back as I ride.

After an hour passes, I make it to Panamint Springs on the western edge of the park. Here lies one small, famously expensive gas station and a campground. Eager to see the desert night sky, I camp here for the night. At the gas station, I buy beer and snacks, and pay my campsite fee. Although I’ve not spoken to anybody all day, I don’t wish to engage with the shop clerks. Traveling alone in desolate areas has instilled a deep silence within me. I head to my campsite to set up my tent.

Home to some of the darkest night skies in the United States, Death Valley has been top of my list for sublime star gazing. As the sun sets and the sky turns from blue to red, I wait in anticipation for the spectacle. Lying down on my sleep mat outside my tent, the sky opens up, unfolding thousands of stars. I see the Milky Way and stars shooting across the brightly lit sky. The silence is overwhelming, and I feel a deep spiritual connection with this place. After a long day of riding, I have been gifted this soul-enriching experience.

Feeling fresh after a magnificent night under the stars, I pack up at sunrise and hit the road. Winding hills take me up the Panamint Range, and I stop to take in some final views of this extraordinary magic place.

The next hundred miles seem to be the most difficult of my trip. I’m heading west towards the coast on a traffic-choked highway. The calm and stillness of the morning have left me. The wind is strong, and it’s hard to tell its direction as I navigate through an endless sea of semi-trucks.

Every second counts in situations like this, and I need maximum power and speed. By pressing the mode button on the right handlebar, I change the riding mode of the BMW from road to dynamic. Dynamic mode unleashes the engine’s on-road sporting temperament, and I’m excited to see the results play out in real time. With direct throttle response, I become confident and fearless against this heavy traffic.

The next passage in my journey involves a two-lane road. Deep ravines and sculptured hills determine the width and direction of this road. Plunging down a steep hill at 65 mph, my stomach drops as I come face-to-face with a large semi-truck. Glancing left and right for an escape route, this downhill road contains narrow hard shoulders before an immediate drop into a deep ravine.

As the truck accelerates toward me, I swerve the bike to the right and brake hard. The ABS kicks in, and in a matter of seconds, the motorcycle and I are frozen in time. My hands clench the grips as I look upon this approaching force in horror. My diaphragm is paralyzed with fear, and I forget to breathe. As the truck bellows past, its tires loom above me, creating a black darkness. Seconds feel like minutes until daylight returns. I look behind to see the back of the semi-truck advance up and over the hill.

Parked in a vulnerable position on this narrow shoulder, I take off and continue down the road. Cursing in my Arai XD4 at the negligent truck driver, I begin to notice the physiological effects of this event. Adrenaline leaves my body from the top of my head to my toes. A dizzying shiver down my spine brings attention to the pins and needles in my hands. This enormous output of energy, nervous and muscular, requires me to pull over. Finding the nearest tree, I lay beneath its branches and breathed to the sway of the leaves.

Escaping California’s traffic-heavy roads, I take a longer but more enjoyable route towards the coast. Cruising along, I notice an array of fiery colors glowing beneath the sun. The land is rich with perpetual green grass, and the calm mountains differ greatly from the rugged brown hills I’ve left behind. My afternoon eyes see a different world now. The clean rasp of air indicates a coastal breeze—I’m getting close.

Despite my earlier setback, I feel energized and present in this new land. Here in the quiet, the wind flicks the tree branches and distorts the sun’s light. Dazzled by the clarity of color, this new landscape is like a dream-like utopia.

Horses playfully run in the distance as a farmer drives his tractor through a field. I see cows bolting for food, herded by a cowboy on his horse. A solar panel farm reflects the blue sky, creating a sea of sparkling blues, while wind turbines stand tall and high on the mountains. On display is a system of life, beauty, energy, and technology. I can’t help but feel a connection to this place as I glide down the road on a machine that embodies these same elements.

At a scenic overlook in the Santa Monica Mountains, I wipe ocean mist and bug carcasses from my faceshield. Reflecting on the past 10 days of adventure through California, I think back to my reason for going—to reclaim a sense of freedom and adventure.

I have learned since then that you cannot know freedom until you face yourself and your fears. Sometimes, this takes being alone, and for me, aloneness is where the quality lies. Motorcycle travel is variable and unpredictable. So, you need a motorcycle that is reliable, powerful, and safe. Exposed and vulnerable to everything from a fallen rock to a choice made by a stranger, the machine you choose must embody elements of sport and survival. The BMW F 750 GS has proven to be a perfect mid-range adventure motorcycle and a trustworthy companion on my journey. My expectations of adventure travel were wrong, but I learned a lot about myself and how to appreciate life in new ways.

Being trapped in the desert ill-prepared revealed to me my stubbornness and forceful will in creating an imaginary experience. Once I let go of my preconceptions, the Milky Way opened up and sparkled in a desert basin. Pushing the BMW to its very limits in a fight against weather, terrain, and distracted drivers, I rode through a dream-like utopia where life and technology meet.

Gazing across the Hollywood Hills, I see the Pacific Ocean beyond mansions of the rich and famous. With sand on the bottom of my boots standing two inches taller, my eyes glisten with untold stories and a burning desire to keep going.

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BMW F 750 GS California Tour Photo Gallery